COLUMBIA — A Spartanburg man has pleaded guilty in a check fraud conspiracy scheme that operated in Spartanburg and Union counties.
In a statement released Monday, United States Attorney Bill Nettles announced that Stephenia Murray, 49, of Spartanburg, pleaded guilty in federal court in Greenville to conspiracy to commit mail fraud. US District Judge J. Michelle Childs of Greenville accepted the plea and will impose sentence after she has reviewed the presentence report which will be prepared by the U.S. Probation Office.
The press release states that evidence presented at the change of plea hearing established that the United States Postal Inspection Service and local law enforcement have been conducting an investigation into a widespread check fraud conspiracy operated by Hope Mitchell and her associates. Mitchell was sentenced to 57 months imprisonment three months ago. The press release describes the scheme used by the conspiracy as simple and effective. The leaders of the conspiracy, many of whom the release states were from the Mitchell family, recruited indigents in the Union and Spartanburg areas to participate in the scheme. Typically, Mitchell or one of her lieutenants would take the recruit to the SC Department of Motor Vehicles where the recruit’s ID would be changed to list a conspiracy-controlled address as their residence. With the new ID in hand, the recruit was taken to a bank for the opening of an account. The account was opened with a small amount of money such as $25 and the recruit ordered checks which were mailed to the conspiracy-controlled address listed on the recruit’s ID.
Once the conspiracy received the checks in the mail, the press release states the recruit was located and taken “shopping.” Members of the conspiracy would accompany the recruit and direct the purchasing of expensive items such as lawn mowers, power tools, and computers. At the cash register, the press release states a member of the conspiracy filled in the check and signed it for the recruit. The recruit just showed his or her ID to the cashier. Typically, the recruit did not sign the check and was instructed by the conspiracy’s leaders to later report the checkbook stolen. Because the signature on the check did not match the signature card, the leaders of the conspiracy falsely informed the recruit that civil or criminal liability could be avoided. There were insufficient funds to cover the checks written and thus merchants suffered the loss of the merchandise. After the merchandise was obtained, members of the conspiracy would sell the items for far below the retail price. The money from these sales were split among the conspirators. Law enforcement estimated that the conspiracy caused losses in excesses of $1.8 million.
The press releaase states that, to date, more that 40 individuals have been charged with Murray the latest to plead guilty. It states that Murray recruited indigents to participate in the conspiracy and also supervised them on conspiracy-sponsored shopping sprees.
Nettles stated the maximum penalty Murray can receive is a fine of $250,000 and/or imprisonment for 20 years, plus a special assessment of $100.
The case was investigated by agents of the United States Postal Inspection Service and multiple local law enforcement agencies in Greenville, Spartanburg, Union, and York counties. Assistant United States Attorney William J. Watkins, Jr. of the Greenville office handled the case.