Last Updated Friday, October 01, 2021, at 10:35 AM

Every Friday, The Criminal Lawyer Group publishes a digest of the latest federal prosecutions nationally.  Our goal is to keep the public informed as to recent events in federal courts around the country. 

Unless otherwise disclosed, none of the defendants mentioned in these summaries are clients of our firm.

If you or someone you love has been charged with a federal crime, we are here to help.  The attorneys at The Criminal Lawyer Group are some of the nation’s top-ranked attorneys in their field and their experience defending criminal defendants in federal courts is exemplary.

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FRIDAY, October 01, 2021

Accountability for Drug Trafficking and Gun Crimes

To start this week’s roundup of recently initiated criminal cases, we have a new case regarding people allegedly trafficking in illegal drugs. Charges were brought in Pampa, Texas on Sept. 27, when the Acting U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas, Prerak Shah, announced that three alleged Pampa drug traffickers, including the alleged local president of the Bandidos motorcycle gang – had been charged with several drug trafficking and gun crimes.

Tracey Dylan Cain, 31, Jason Mulenax, 43, and Erik Gutierrez, 23, were all charged via criminal complaint with possession of controlled substances with intent to distribute, and possession of firearms in furtherance of drug trafficking crimes. All three made their initial appearances before a U.S. Magistrate Judge in Amarillo on Sept. 27, where they were ordered detained.

According to court documents, all three were arrested Sept. 24, as investigators executed search warrants of their respective residences. Inside the various homes of the accused, investigators recovered large amounts of cocaine, meth, LSD, ecstasy, and marijuana, as well as large amounts of U.S. currency, and numerous firearms, including a gold-plated .50 caliber pistol with a handmade suppressor. local president of one of the most dangerous motorcycle gangs in the country, the Banditos.

Enforcing Laws Broken During the Jan. 6 Capitol Breach

This past week also featured a new case related to the illegal actions that occurred during the   Capitol Breach that happened last January 6. The new charges were announced on Sept. 27, when a superseding indictment was unsealed adding charges against two men for crimes. The charges in the indictment stem from the breach of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, which disrupted a joint session of Congress as it was in the process of ascertaining and counting the electoral votes related to the 2020 presidential election.

According to the indictment, Ronald Sandlin, 34, of Shelby County, Tennessee, and Nathaniel DeGrave, 32, of Clark County, Nevada, were charged with conspiracy, obstruction of an official proceeding, and assaulting, resisting or impeding certain officers, among other charges. Sandlin was arraigned on Sept. 21 and chose that occasion to plead not guilty to all counts. DeGrave was arraigned Sept. 27 in the District of Columbia and pleaded not guilty to all counts. Both remain detained pending a status conference set for Oct. 21.

Enforcing Firearms Violations

Among the other newly initiated criminal cases this week include several cases dealing with firearms violations. On Sept. 27, for example, the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Vermont announced the return of indictments by a Burlington grand jury for the charge of a straw-purchase of a firearm. Marissa Byrd, 29, of Burlington, was arraigned that same day  on the indictment charging her with providing false information to a federally licensed firearm dealer while purchasing a firearm in March 2021.

According to the indictment, it is alleged that Byrd falsely informed a firearms dealer, Parro’s Gun Shop in Waterbury, on March 20, 2021. She claimed to be purchasing a 9-millimeter firearm for herself when she was purchasing it for someone else.  This kind of illegal firearm transaction is commonly known as a “straw purchase.”  The firearm Byrd purchased was later seized by law enforcement seventeen days later during a search of the home of Thomas Caves in Plattsburgh, New York.

That same day, Sept. 27, the Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, Saima Mohsin, announced the indictment of ten people on charges involving the alleged straw purchase of firearms.  A “straw purchase” is an illegal firearm purchase where the actual buyer of the gun uses another person who can pass the required background check to purchase the firearm for him/her.  

Those who purchase firearms in this illegal manner face up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Six of the ten defendants have been arrested and appeared in federal court the same day for their arraignment.

According to the indictment, from about Nov. 2020 through about March 2021, several of the defendants used stolen credit card information to purchase firearms from online retailers and enlisted seven straw purchasers to retrieve the firearms in-person from a local federal firearms licensee in exchange for compensation.  

The straw purchasers allegedly made false statements stating that they were the actual purchaser of the firearms.  Once in receipt of the illegally obtained firearms, they either personally possessed and used the firearms or resold them for profit. In all, at least 40 firearms were illegally obtained through this scheme and at least three of the guns were ultimately recovered from convicted felons.

Two days later, the Acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, Channing D. Phillips, announced the indictment of two Washington, D.C. men had been indicted on allegations that they conspired to deal firearms. including “ghost guns,” to people in the District of Columbia who were previously prohibited or otherwise unable to legally obtain them. 

The indictment was returned Sept. 28. Milique Wilson, 37, and Joseph Vincent Smith, 36, were each indicted on charges of conspiracy, dealing in firearms without a license, and unlawful possession of a firearm and ammunition by a felon. Both have been detained pending further proceedings in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

According to the indictment, the named defendants, who are all residents of the District, conspired to obtain firearms from outside DC, including in locations in Maryland and Virginia, and transfer and transport these firearms to DC and elsewhere. 

The indictment alleges that, on multiple occasions, Wilson and Smith contacted individuals prohibited from purchasing and possessing firearms and sold at least five guns, including two unserialized privately manufactured firearms (known as “ghost guns”) — to buyers.  “Ghost guns” can nomally only be bought online and assembled at home with a kit. In addition to firearms trafficking charges, Wilson and Smith are each charged with possessing firearms and ammunition as convicted felons.

Enforcing Income Tax Laws

Also this week, on Sept. 28, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, John R. Lausch, Jr., announced that a Chicago woman had been indicted for allegedly fraudulently obtaining the personal identifying information of deceased individuals and using the information to  to file for tax refunds and stimulus payments from the IRS and the U.S. Treasury. 

The indictment returned Sept. 27 in Chicago federal court, charges Katrina Pierce, 50, with ten counts of wire fraud, six counts of aggravated identity theft, three counts of making false statements to the SBA, and one count of possessing identification documents to defraud the federal government. Her arraignment has been set for Oct. 5, before U.S. District Judge Virginia M. Kendall.

According to the indictment, Pierce fraudulently requested and obtained death certificates for individuals from Illinois and other states, and she used them to file false and fraudulent income tax returns with the IRS, to obtain tax refunds and stimulus payments under the CARES Act.  

Pierce allegedly claimed a deceased boy as a dependent on her own tax return and attached to other false returns bogus birth certificates that falsely claimed deceased children as dependents. In addition to the CARES Act, Pierce also allegedly fraudulently submitted applications to the SBA seeking loans under the COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program.

Enforcing Laws Related to Fraud and Money Laundering

Also on tap this week is a Los Angeles-based indictment in which four Californians, including three Chinese citizens, now face an indictment returned by an LA-based grand jury, charging them for their alleged roles in laundering fraud proceeds by loading the money onto a series of Target gift cards. The indictment charges all of them with conspiracy to launder wire fraud proceeds.

According to the indictment, the three Chinese national defendants Bai, Hu and Shi obtained over 5,000 Target gift cards from a group known as the “Magic Lamp,” which they then distributed to “runners,” who used the funds on the cards at Target stores in Los Angeles and Orange County and elsewhere to purchase consumer electronics and other gift cards. 

Through the purchases, returns and other transactions at multiple Target stores, the defendants and their co-conspirators sought to conceal the fact that the gift cards had been originally funded with fraudulent proceeds.

Holding Accountable Those Who Violate Civil Rights and Obstruct Justice

Earlier this week, on Sept. 29, a man from Massachusetts, Stephen M. DeBerardinis, 45, of Boston and Dedham, was arrested and charged with threatening an interracial couple via Facebook Messenger on Jan. 6, 2021, the same day as the controversial Capitol Breach.  More specifically, DeBerardinis was charged with one count of transmitting threats to injure someone via interstate commerce; one count of tampering with a witness through intimidation, threats, and coercion; and one count of tampering with a witness through harassment. DeBerardinis was arrested Sept. 28 and made an initial appearance Sept. 29 in a Boston federal court.

According to the indictment, the victims, a white woman, and a Black man, announced their engagement on Facebook in Late December 2020, and the post included photographs of the couple. DeBerardinis, who did not know the couple personally, allegedly then used Facebook Messenger to send the couple a series of threatening and harassing messages concerning the couple’s interracial relationship. Allegedly, DeBerardinis said, “EWWWWWWWW YOUR A N***** F***** F****** DIRTY A** WHITE TRASH,” and continued with similar messages. 

When the couple messaged DeBerardinis that they were reporting him to law enforcement, he allegedly sent them a message that read, “SNITCHES GET STITCHES” with a picture of brass knuckles. The indictmen further alleges that DeBerardinis further threatened, “Read up more on me lol… you will see how me and my crew burn n*****s alive,” and “And white whores like you well…. get raped and killed THAN we cut off body parts and mail them to your family lol.” (sic)  The victims reported the incident to local police, who then contacted federal law enforcement.

Police Officers Who Traffic in Drugs

This week’s roundup also includes a case in Ohio involving two Columbus Police Officers, Marco R. Merino, 44, of Columbus, and John J. Kotchkoski, 33, of Marengo, who were alleged to have been involved in the distribution of approximately seven and a half kilograms of cocaine, as well as a quantity Fentanyl. Both Officers served with the Department’s drug cartel unit, and were arrested by federal agents Sept. 29. In addition, Merino  is also alleged to have  accepted bribes to protect the transportation of cocaine. 

According to an affidavit filed in support of a criminal complaint, Merino allegedly tried to recruit a confidential informant to traffic drugs with him. Merino allegedly promised law enforcement protection to the individual and said he could intervene if other law enforcement agencies attempted to investigate the confidential informant. 

Other supporting court documents, it is alleged that Merino intended to gain citizenship in Mexico as part of a plan to launder their drug proceeds. Merino allegedly accepted a total of $44,000 in cash in exchange for protecting the safe transport of at least 27 kilograms of cocaine. Unbeknownst to Merino, there was no actual cocaine and each of the transactions was controlled by federal law enforcement.

Enforcing Bank Fraud Laws, Making COVID Relief Thieves Accountable

The last case we will look at in this week’s Roundup involves a classic case of bank fraud and money laundering, with a more modern case of fraud against taxpayers in the form of theft from a government program intended to provide relief for those taxpayers who have been victimized by the coronavirus pandemic. It all happened on Sept. 30, when a federal grand jury in St. Louis indicted Chris Carroll and George Reed with several charges common to the criminal justice courts. 

In all, Carroll and Reed are charged with 3 counts of bank fraud and 6 counts of money laundering in connection with the receipt of at least two fraudulent Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans by their company, Square One Group. One f the checks came to more than $1.2 million, with the second loan amounting to more than $1.6 million.

According to the indictment, Reed and Carroll allegedly submitted PPP loan applications in their spouses’ names, rather than their own, as a way of misrepresenting and concealing Carroll’s status as a paroled felon, which would have precluded his company from receiving PPP funds.  It is further alleged that Carroll and Reed did not use the funds to compensate their employees. 

Instead,  they used the money to fund themselves $660,000  and to start a trucking company. It has also been alleged that that the company suspended their employees’ pay and health insurance coverage after applying for PPP funds.