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

I. Three Alleged Drug Traffickers Arrested, Charged in Texas

In Pampa, Texas on September 27, 2021, 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 with intent to distribute controlled substances and possession of firearms in furtherance of drug trafficking crimes. 

All three made their initial appearances before U.S. Magistrate Judge Lee Ann Reno in Amarillo on the afternoon of Sept. 27. At that point, the federal government ordered them detained, based primarily on their dangerousness and their risk of flight. According to court documents, all three were arrested Sept. 24, as investigators executed search warrants of their respective residences. Inside Cain’s home, investigators recovered large amounts of cocaine, methamphetamine, LSD, ecstasy, and marijuana, large amounts of U.S. currency, and numerous firearms, including a gold-plated .50 caliber pistol with a handmade suppressor. 

Prior to the search, Cain barricaded himself inside his home and refused to cooperate with officers. Inside Gutierrez’s home, law enforcement recovered a powdery substance believed to be cocaine, a 10mm Glock pistol, and approximately $6,000 in cash. Inside Mulenax’s home, they recovered a green leafy substance believed to be marijuana, seven firearms, drug paraphernalia, and approximately $1,098 in cash. 

During interviews, Gutierrez and Mulenax both admitted to selling drugs and named Cain as their supplier. Mulenax was previously identified as the alleged local president of one of the most dangerous motorcycle gangs in the country, the Banditos.


II. Two Charged with Conspiracy, Obstruction and Assault on Law Enforcement Related to Jan. 6 Capitol Breach

On September 27, 2021, it was announced that a superseding indictment was unsealed adding charges against two men for crimes related to the breach of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, which disrupted a joint session of the U.S. Congress that was in the process of ascertaining and counting the electoral votes related to the presidential election. 

According to the indictment, Ronald Sandlin, 34, of Shelby County, Tennessee, and Nathaniel DeGrave, 32, of Clark County, Nevada, have been charged with federal offenses that include conspiracy, obstruction of an official proceeding, and assaulting, resisting or impeding certain officers, among other charges.

Sandlin was arraigned on the superseding charges Sept. 21 and pleaded 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. According to court documents released when the indictment was unsealed, Sandlin and DeGrave planned to interfere with the peaceful transition of presidential power, beginning in December 2020. 

On Dec. 23, 2020, Sandlin posted to Facebook asking who else was traveling to Washington. DeGrave replied that he was considering joining him and the two exchanged further messages about the activities in D.C., as alleged.


III. Vermont Resident Charged with Illegally Buying Firearm for Felon

On September 27, 2021, the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Vermont announced that a Vermont resident had been indicted by a Burlington grand jury for her role in the straw-purchase of a firearm.  Marissa Byrd, 29, of Burlington, was arraigned that same day before U.S. Magistrate Judge Kevin J. Doyle on an indictment charging her with providing false information to a federally licensed firearm dealer while purchasing a firearm in March of 2021.  

At the conclusion of the arraignment Sept. 27, Byrd was released on conditions of supervision pending further proceedings. According to the indictment, it is alleged that, on March 20, 2021, Byrd falsely informed a firearms dealer, Parro’s Gun Shop in Waterbury, that she was purchasing a 9-millimeter firearm for herself when she was purchasing the firearm for another person.  

This kind of illegal firearm transaction is commonly known as a “straw purchase.”  The firearm Byrd purchased in March 2021 was seized by law enforcement seventeen days later during a search of the home of Thomas Caves in Plattsburgh, New York.  At the time of the search, Caves was on parole and being supervised by the State of New York for a 2020 felony burglary conviction in Connecticut.  

Caves is currently charged by a federal criminal complaint in the Northern District of New York for possessing the firearm after having been convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment for more than one year.


IV. Ten Indicted in Scheme to “Straw Purchase” Firearms

On September 27, 2021, the Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, Saima Mohsin, announced that ten people had been indicted on charges involving the alleged straw purchase of firearms.  The indictment is part of the Project Safe Neighborhoods Initiative undertaken by the Department of Justice. The initiative is intended to reduce gun violence in residential communities throughout the nation. Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) serves as the centerpiece of the DOJ’s violent crime reduction efforts. 

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. 

Among those charged in this indictment included Chauncey Williams, 21, of Detroit; Mike Chahoua, 23, of Sterling Heights; Antonio Jackson, 22, of Detroit; Bishop Allen, 24, of Detroit; Garcia Moses, 24, currently residing in Florida; Donte Turner, 26, Detroit; Reginald Small, 23, Detroit; Eshon Rose, 22, of Detroit; James Jackson, 23, of Detroit; and Emmanuel Stevens, 21, of Detroit. Six of the ten defendants have been arrested and appeared in federal court the same day for their arraignment.

According to the indictment, beginning in November 2020 and continuing through March 2021, defendants Williams, Chahoua and Jackson 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, Williams, Chahoua and Jackson either personally possessed and used the firearms or resold the firearms for profit. In total, at least 40 firearms were illegally obtained through this scheme.  At least three of the firearms were recovered from convicted felons.


V. Chicago Woman Charged with Filing False Income Tax Returns to Fraudulently Obtain Refunds, Stimulus Payments

On September 28, 2021, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, John R. Lausch, Jr., announced that a Chicago woman had been indicted on federal criminal charges for allegedly fraudulently obtaining the personal identifying information of deceased individuals and using it to file for tax refunds and stimulus payments from the U.S. Treasury. 

The indictment, which was 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 Small Business Administration, 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 details of the indictment, Pierce fraudulently requested and obtained death certificates for individuals from Illinois and several other states, which she used to file false income tax returns with the IRS so that she could fraudulently 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.


VI. Four Indicted for Laundering Store Gift Cards Purchased by Fraud Victims

On September 28, 2021, a federal grand jury in Los Angeles returned an indictment against four California-based defendants, including Blade Bai, 33, a U.S. citizen from El Monte; and Chinese citizens Bowen Hu, 26, of Hacienda Heights; Tairan Shi, 27, of Diamond Bar; and Yan Fu, 58, of Chino Hills, for their alleged roles laundering fraud proceeds stored on gift cards from the discount store Target. 

The indictment, which was unsealed today, charges the named defendants with conspiring to launder proceeds of wire fraud that were stored on gift cards issued by retailer Target. According to the indictment, defendants Bai, Hu and Shi obtained over 5,000 Target gift cards from a group known as the “Magic Lamp.” Defendants Bai, Hu and Shi caused the gift cards to be distributed to “runners” like defendant Fu, who used the funds on the cards at Target stores in Los Angeles and Orange County and elsewhere to purchase, among other items, 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. The indictment further alleges that perpetrators of the fraud schemes induced victims to send proceeds to defendants’ associates, and defendants then conspired to launder the proceeds. 

The indictment also alleges that victims of the schemes are spread throughout the United States, including California, Texas, Illinois and Georgia.


VII. Two DC Men Indicted on Federal Charges Involving Illegal Possession and Sale of Firearms

On September 29, 2021, the Acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, Channing D. Phillips, announced that two Washington, D.C. men had been indicted on federal charges alleging that they conspired for nearly two years 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, Wilson, Smith, and others conspired to obtain firearms from outside of the District of Columbia, including in locations in Maryland and Virginia, and transfer and transport these firearms to the District of Columbia 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 firearms, including two unserialized privately manufactured firearms (known as “ghost guns”), to buyers. 

“Ghost guns” are unserialized and untraceable firearms that can 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.


VIII. Massachusetts Man Charged with Threatening, Harassing Interracial Couple and Obstructing Justice

A Massachusetts man was arrested on September 29, 2021, and he was charged with threatening an interracial couple via Facebook Messenger on Jan. 6, 2021. He was also charged with attempting to prevent the couple from reporting these threats and harassment to law enforcement. 

Stephen M. DeBerardinis, 45, of Boston and Dedham, MA was charged with one count of transmitting in interstate commerce threats to injure a person; one count of tampering with a witness by intimidation, threats, and corrupt persuasion; and one count of tampering with a witness through harassment. DeBerardinis was arrested Sept. 28 and made an initial appearance the next day in Boston federal court.

According to the indictment, in late December 2020, the victims, a white woman and a Black man, announced their engagement on Facebook. The post included photographs of the couple. DeBerardinis, who did not know the couple personally, could view the photographs. On or about Jan. 6, 2021, DeBerardinis allegedly 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 said, “SNITCHES GET STITCHES” with a picture of brass knuckles. 

It is further alleged that DeBerardinis 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 rape 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 contacted federal law enforcement.


IX. Two Columbus Police Officers Charged with Crimes Related to Distribution of Fentanyl

On September 29, federal agents arrested two Columbus Police Officers who served with the Department’s drug cartel unit. Marco R. Merino, 44, of Columbus, and John J. Kotchkoski, 33, of Marengo, Ohio, were allegedly involved in the distribution of approximately seven and a half kilograms of fentanyl. Merino also allegedly 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.

Court documents allege that Merino intended to gain citizenship in Mexico as part of a plan to launder their drug proceeds. Merino allegedly planned to buy properties in Mexico to run as Airbnb properties and traveled to Mexico in July. More specifically, the document alleges that, in March, April, May, August and September 2021, Merino 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. During the transports of the purported cocaine, Kotchkoski allegedly made himself available by radio to make any calls that Merino might need, including to other law enforcement officials, to protect the safe transportation of the cocaine. According to an affidavit, cell phone data places Kotchkoski near Merino during the transports.


X. Missouri Federal Grand Jury Indicts Two for Bank Fraud Involving Paycheck Protection Program

On September 30, 2021. a federal grand jury indicted Chris Carroll and George Reed today with three counts of bank fraud and six counts of money laundering. The indictment charges Chris Carroll and George Reed 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, it is alleged that Reed and Carroll submitted PPP loan applications in their spouses’ names, rather than their own names, to misrepresent and conceal 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, but instead, 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.