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8 Arrested in Probe of $400-Million Check Fraud Syndicate

U.S. agents are seeking three others in the alleged forgery ring, including a former letter carrier.

Los Angeles Times - June 13, 2000

By BOB POOL, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Eight Los Angeles-area residents were arrested Monday on suspicion of running what federal agents call "the most significant check fraud ring in the United States," one that may have netted $100 million a year for the last four years.
FBI and U.S. Postal Service agents said they are searching for three other members of the counterfeiting and forgery syndicate--which officials said primarily involved Nigerian nationals living in the Los Angeles area.
One of those being sought is a former Woodland Hills letter carrier who allegedly stole checks and credit cards from high-tech customers on his mail route in the Warner Center area.
The theft ring was "very professional, very close-knit," said Rick Wade, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles office. "They had a very sophisticated division of labor."
Stolen checks were handed off to forgers who changed the names of payees and often altered the check amounts, officials said. From there they went to a group of cashiers who deposited them to the accounts of dummy firms. After that, a group of money launderers took over to convert the illegally deposited money into cashiers' checks.
Wade said the investigation is continuing. But so may be the check fraud.
"It's accurate to say we've put a dent in this gang's operation," Wade said at the FBI's Westwood headquarters. "We do not know the extent of their criminal activity."
In announcing the eight arrests made Monday in early-morning raids in Los Angeles, Inglewood and Ladera Heights, Wade explained how the proceeds from one stolen check were broken up into 33 smaller cashier's checks before anyone even knew it was missing.
A $160,577 check written by Fox Television Stations Inc. to King World Inc. to pay for televising such shows as "Wheel of Fortune," "Oprah Winfrey" and "Jeopardy" was stolen in August 1997. It was deposited 15 days later in a bank account controlled by suspect James Regan Fell, 29, of Corona, after the name King World was removed from it, officials contend.
After that, the money was laundered into the smaller cashier's checks and distributed to members of the gang, Wade said.
Some of the checks were apparently stolen from company mailrooms of those either sending or receiving them, he added.
"Dozens of companies were victimized. They are companies that tend to write large numbers of checks, like MGM, Toyota, Honda, Disney, Warner Bros., Capitol Records," he said.
Still listed Monday as a fugitive was former Warner Center-area mail carrier Harvey Marshall, 41, of Los Angeles. Those who formerly worked with him at the Woodland Hills post office were shocked to learn of his purported involvement in the ring.
"They kept it all shush-shush when they were investigating," said one clerk, who asked not to be identified.
Those on his mail route who were allegedly victimized said they were angry with him--and with banks that cashed the forged checks. Despite what investigators indicate, some of the forgeries were not all that sophisticated.
"One of them, for $7,490, they didn't modify the check, they just typed their name right above ours--in a different type face," complained Chuck Wehrheim, whose Wehrheim Systems Inc. legal software company was allegedly targeted repeatedly.
"On one, a check for $3,191, they whited out the payee and the amount and wrote in 'Immaculate Group' and $43,500. A local bank cashed it, no sweat. I asked them how the heck they cashed it and they said this Immaculate Group was a good customer of theirs."
Others named in the federal grand jury indictment issued last week were Fidelia Ejimole Onwuekwe, 49, of Inglewood; Emannuel Agwe, 42, of Ladera Heights; Edwin Ikechuckwu Okoye, 44, of Los Angeles; Kalu Ochuru, 42, of Inglewood; Ifeanye Christian Onye, 36, of Inglewood; Victor Jango, 43, of Inglewood; Lakeysia Denise Lester, 26, of Los Angeles; Sheryl Abbey, 43, of Los Angeles; and Donald Stewart, 32, of Los Angeles.