By Erin Mulvaney and James Pinkerton
Updated 08:36 p.m., Wednesday, April 25, 2012
An elaborate check fraud scheme headed by a Nigerian criminal operation in the Houston area employed street gang members to steal rent checks from apartment buildings, counterfeit them, and then paid scores of homeless people to cash the checks, according to court documents.
Houston police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents announced Wednesday the arrest of dozens of suspects of the gang-related ring that investigators say targeted hundreds of apartments, stealing as much as $5 million from rent check drop boxes. The checks and money orders were chemically washed, then counterfeited and either cashed locally or deposited into bank accounts set up by the criminal organization.
Nigerian immigrant Emmanuel E. Akioyamen, who has been in federal custody since he was charged Feb. 7, is the alleged leader of the organization whose operation spanned from Williamson County in Central Texas to as far south as Brazoria County, concentrated in the Houston area.
Started in Conroe
Akioyamen is charged with 21 counts of cashing counterfeit securities, after an investigation beginning in Conroe last year when local police asked for help in a large-scale check theft and counterfeit ring, according to court documents.
This month in Harris County, there have been 18 arrests for engaging in organized criminal activity related to the ring. More than 40 have been arrested in an investigation coordinated by agents of Homeland Security Investigations, the Houston Police Department, the Harris County District Attorney's Office and several other state and local agencies.
More arrests are possible. "We aren't finished, but this was the brunt of it," said Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Gregory Palmore.
Investigators are seeking five suspects believed to be involved in the operation: Arturo Villarreal, 29; LaKesha Jackson, 29; Melissa Anders, 25; Lillie Wright, 22; and Ellyn Ustica, 38. Capt. Dale Brown, with HPD's gang division, said he believes the suspects remain in the Houston area.
Leaders of the check fraud ring allegedly recruited members of several Houston street gangs who would steal checks and money orders from apartment complex drop boxes. The gangs included the 59 Bounty Hunter Bloods, the Houstone/Tango Blast, 5th Ward Circle, and the Insane Crip.
The gang members recruited homeless people from one downtown Houston homeless center and paid them $50 to cash checks up to $500, and $100 for cashing checks up to $1,000, records show.
Akioyamen and another leader of the organization rented vehicles, including Cadillacs and Mustangs, to pick up homeless people and ferry them to check-cashing locations as far away as Bryan.
The suspects in the case have been charged with engaging in organized criminal activity, forgery and other charges.
Investigators are seeking information about the five suspects who have not yet been arrested. Villarreal and Jackson were last seen driving a 2002 green, four-door Buick LeSabre or a 1997 beige, four-door Toyota sedan.
Anyone with information can contact any of the participating law enforcement agencies or Crime Stoppers at 713-222-TIPS.