Archive for April, 2010

Two Inmates Charged in Defrauding IRS to the Tune of Millions

Friday, April 30th, 2010

A routine check for contraband at a Monroe County, Florida jail has uncovered a nationwide scam in which prison inmates have been filing fraudulent tax returns, receiving a total of over $1 million in refunds.

According to investigators, the inmates used fake business names, other inmates’ social security numbers—which they sometimes obtained in trade for a pastry—and a master cheat sheet with salary and other figures, in order to fill out 4852 forms. These tax forms are used by employees who do not receive a W-2 form from their employer. The inmates kept their refund totals under $5,000 in an attempt to avoid scrutiny by the IRS.

Two men, accused of spearheading the scam at the Monroe County jail, as well as some of their family members who aided them in carrying it out, were charged last month. Shawn Clark and Danilo Suarez filled out the forms not only for themselves, but also for fellow inmates and relatives. They are charged with filing false income tax returns and conspiracy to defraud the IRS.

In many cases, family members of the inmates would help them to print out the forms and to cash the refund checks. Other times, however, the IRS sent the refund checks directly to the county jail.

The IRS has said that it’s difficult to crack down on the fraudulent filings, due to the fact that some inmates are legitimately entitled to refunds and the fact that the prison population fluctuates so widely.

Yet Monroe County isn’t alone; the same scheme has been perpetrated for decades, at jails and prisons across the country. Investigators say that complicated cheat sheets, with line-by-line instructions on how to fill out the income tax forms, were passed from inmate to inmate.

Some prison authorities are criticizing the IRS, saying that they knew of the scam for years but have not investigated. Even after the officials at the Monroe County jail in Key West handed their records and evidence to the IRS, that agency said it had to conduct its own investigation, rather than hand down indictments based on the information provided by the jail.

The charges filed against Clarke and Suarez come four years after the first evidence of fraud was uncovered in the cell of a Monroe County inmate, and despite the fact that inmates at that facility have been filing false returns, claiming to have held jobs that never existed, since 2004.

The IRS has declined to comment on why it has taken so long to follow up on this matter.

New Jersey Teen Charged with Killing Five in Two-Month Spree

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

A New Jersey teenager who is accused of having murdered five people over the course of two months has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him.

Shiquan Bellamy, 19, appeared in a courtroom to answer charges of felony murder, armed robbery and various weapons offenses—charges for which he could receive life in prison if he is convicted. Also charged are the teen’s cousin, Latonia Bellamy, 19, and Darmelia Lawrence, also 19. Each of the young women have pleaded not guilty to the charges against them.

Police initially charged Shiquan Bellamy with the shooting deaths of an engaged couple, Michael Muchiaki, 27, and Nia Haqq, 25, on Easter Sunday. The pair was returning home after attending a party to celebrate their engagement, and were killed during a carjacking gone awry. Both were shot in the back of the head, Muchiaki from a shotgun blast and Haqq with a pistol.

Forensic evidence recovered from Haqq’s car led to Lawrence and Latonia Bellamy, who tipped off police to Shiquan Bellamy’s involvement during an interview. It was “great detective work,” according to Hudson County prosecutor Edward DeFazio, that led to the discovery that Shiquan Bellamy had committed three additional murders in the previous weeks.

Mileak Richardson and Lester “Bleek” Thompson, who were cousins, were killed around 4 a.m. on Feburary 2, after being robbed of cash, a cell phone and drugs. Shiquan Bellamy is also accused of having shot Lamonte Wright, 20, as he walked his girlfriend to her car, in what police described as a “premeditated attack.”

“This is beyond humanity that one young man can be charged with causing this much destruction of human life,” said DeFazio.

Bellamy was picked up for questioning on April 6, and arrested for carrying suspected narcotics. He remains in jail on a $6 million cash bond.

Two other men are additionally charged in the killings of Richardson and Thompson—Hakeem Lester and Ronald Lawrence, both 21. Lawrence is the brother of Darmelia Lawrence, who is charged with Bellamy in the carjacking shootings.

Shiquan Bellamy was incarcerated between March and October 2009 for drug possession with intent to distribute within 1,000 feet of a school, and was on parole when the killings took place.

At a recent press conference, Jersey City Police Director Sam Jefferson called Shiquan Bellamy’s actions a “crime spree of the devil.”

Female Truck Driver Can Bring Discrimination Suit Against Trucking Company

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

A female truck driver will be allowed to bring suit against the trucking company that she says wrongfully fired her, according to a federal appeals court’s decision.

Deborah Merritt had worked for the Thomasville, North Carolina-based Old Dominion Freight trucking company for six years, as a “line haul” driver. As such, she often made lengthy cross-country trips, and so she decided to ask for a transfer to a job as a pickup-and-delivery truck driver, a position which would have given her more regular hours. Merritt did not receive the job, although two less-experienced men did get the pickup-and-delivery driver spots.

Merritt did eventually get the desired job, but injured her ankle in September 2004. Before she could go back to working on a full-time basis, Old Dominion Freight required Merritt to take a physical ability test, and then fired her when she failed it.

The test, which was used primarily by the trucking company to evaluate new hires, not to gauge the ability of existing employees who had been injured, was designed on a pass/fail basis, and Merritt received an “overall failing grade.” Yet she said that the problems she encountered while taking the test were unrelated to her ankle injury; a company doctor had physically evaluated Merritt, said that her ankle had healed, and declared her fit to return to work.

Additionally, injured male employees at Old Dominion were not compelled to the physical ability test. Merritt also showed the court that the employee who ordered her to take the test, and who fired her afterwards, had previously made discriminatory remarks about women as truck drivers.

After being terminated from her position, Merritt sued the company for sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A lower court had dismissed the case, but recently the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling and remanded the case for trial. It did so unanimously.

In the ruling, the court said that the “alleged facts are too problematic to overlook,” and that “Old Dominion fired an employee who was, according to the district court, ‘able to do her job without assistance and in a satisfactory manner,’ due to a treatable ankle injury, while hiding behind the results of a selectively administered physical fitness test that did not even purport to test the injury, and while dubiously claiming that its decision was compelled by late-blooming policy, all in the context of, to put it mildly, a sexually stereotyped work environment.”

Marlborough Diamond Thieves Arrested Outside Mob Boss’s Home

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

Two aging jewelry thieves who were once convicted of a multi-million dollar heist, and who have connections to the Chicago mob, have again been arrested on charges related to a bank robbery plot.

Joseph “Jerry” Scalise, 73 and Arthur Rachel, 71, were convicted of a 1980 robbery of the elite Graff Jewelers in London, in which they made off with over $3 million worth of jewelry—including the Marlborough diamond, a 45-carat gem that has never been recovered—after threatening employees with a hand grenade. Each served nine years of a 15-year prison term at the U.K.’s Isle of White prison and were released in 1993..

Now the pair, along with Robert Pullia, 69, have been arrested again after months of FBI surveillance that showed the men staking out several Chicago-area banks, including the First National Bank of LaGrange. According to a federal complaint, they were plotting to hold up an armored car delivering cash to that institution by spraying mace at the guards. Although this robbery never panned out, the trio is suspected to have been involved in several other unsolved bank heists since 2007, including one holdup of the Harris bank in LaGrange in which three men fled with over $100,000. No charges have been filed in that case.

The men were arrested outside the former home of reputed mob boss Angelo “the Hook” LaPietra—so called because of his penchant for hanging enemies on meat hooks—but their intention there is unclear, especially since LaPietra died in 1999. The three men carried with them numerous burglary tools, and the FBI conducted wiretaps of cell phone conversations between the men, some of which indicated that they might attempt to abduct and take hostage other LaPietra relatives who still live in the Bridgeport neighborhood home.

In another conversation, according to the affadavit, Pullia states, “while we are there we will grab it,” leading to speculation that he was referencing the Marlborough diamond, which was once one of the Crown jewels and which has never been located since being stolen by Rachel and Scalise.

The three men, dressed in black, were drilling holes in the wall of LaPietra’s house and removing windows when they were arrested. A criminal complaint, filed on Friday, charges Scalise, Rachel and Pullia with conspiring to obstruct, delay and affect commerce through robbery of the First National Bank of LaGrange.

The FBI began following and wiretapping the men in December 2009, after obtaining approval from a federal judge. All three are being held without bond pending a detention hearing next week, and are expected to enter pleas of not guilty.

One Convicted Exec is Sentenced, Other Recovers from Suicide Attempt

Monday, April 26th, 2010

Two executives of concrete testing company Testwell Laboratories had been scheduled for sentencing on Wednesday, but the second suicide attempt of one defendant meant that only one received a sentence.

Vincent Barone and V. Reddy Kancharla had been found guilty on several counts of falsifying reports. Their company, Testwell Laboratories, had once been the leading concrete testing company in New York, and had been awarded contracts to work at major construction sites and projects throughout the city, including the new Yankee Stadium, the Second Avenue subway line and the Freedom Tower. Yet Testwell employees completed false safety test reports, including inspection and concrete mix reports, at these and over 100 other construction sites.

Barone, the vice president of Testwell, and Kancharla, its president, were found guilty in February on numerous charges, the most serious of which was enterprise corruption. Just two days after the being convicted on some of the indictment’s lesser charges, Kancharla slit his wrists and took sleeping pills in his Ossining, NY office. He survived that suicide attempt, but made another on the day he was to be sentenced, so that instead of appearing in the courtroom, he was in the hospital.

His lawyer, Paul Shectman, did not disclose the nature of Kancharla’s second try at suicide, but did say that it did not appear to be life-threatening, although Kancharla was unconscious.

Barone was sentenced by a Manhattan judge, State Supreme Court Justice Edward J. McLaughlin, to between five years and 16 years in prison for his role in the fraudulent reporting. He was also fined $15,000, but allowed to remain free pending his appeal.

Kancharla’s sentencing was rescheduled for April 20. If convicted on the most serious of the charges, enterprise corruption, he could receive a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison.

An investigation into the fraud perpetrated at Testwell cost the city more than $1 million, said the commissioner of the city’s Department of Investigation. The president of the New York Yankees, Randy L. Levine, also wrote to the sentencing judge, saying that the ball club has spent $1.4 million in attempting to expose the corrupt concrete testing company.

Assistant District Attorney Diana Florence had requested that Justice McLaughlin send a strong message to the construction industry that falsifying reports has serious consequences, by giving Barone and Kancharla lengthy sentences. She said that neither defendant was remorseful, but instead continuted to try to justify their crimes.

Had Testwell’s actions not been discovered and stopped, wrote the Yankees’ Levine in his letter, “…the consequences to us and to the public could have been catastrophic.”

String of Pipe Bombs Planted By Suspect Who Was Angry At Government

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

A Texas man has been indicted on charges relating to a series of pipe bombs and other incendiary devices, which he allegedly placed in mailboxes and other locations around east Texas.

Larry Eugene North, 52, is said to have planted 36 separate explosive devices since early February. According to an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, North had a gripe with the federal government, stemming from a court case, and was acting alone.

Authorities were investigating a string of church fires, which were later linked to two arsonists, when they first discovered an incendiary device on February 5. They have since ruled out any connection between the arson spree and North’s activities.

North was under surveillance for about a week before his arrest on Wednesday, which occurred while he was attempting to place a bomb in a mailbox in Tyler, Texas. His van contained another pipe bomb, and the materials used to construct bombs were found in his home. At least half of the bombs which North planted were in mailboxes, with others in various locations such as a cemetery and the front lawn of a business.

The indictment charges North with possession of an illegal firearm or destructive device, a charge which carries a potential 10-year prison sentence. Authorities are evaluating whether other charges will be brought against North as well.

Of the 36 explosive devices, many were simple bombs—bottles containing flammable liquids and wicks. Later, the nature of the devices became more sophisticated, escalating to pipe bombs, which accounted for the final 10 explosives. The pipe bombs which were found on Wednesday had a fuse, but no timer. Although none of the devices actually detonated, their discoveries have kept local residents skittish for several weeks.

North, who is from Henderson, Texas, remains in custody after appearing at a federal court hearing on Thursday. At that hearing, U.S. Magistrate Judge John Love granted defense attorney Ken Hawk’s request for a mental competency exam for the accused.

“These devices, over 30 in number, have caused fear in this community nothing short of domestic terrorism,” prosecutor Brit Featherston said. “Today, that fear stops.”

District Attorney’s Office Files Charges Against Deputies

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

In a rare criminal filing against law enforcement officials who work in a jail, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office has charged three sheriff deputies of beating an inmate.

The charges stem from an incident in January 2006, when the three deputies punched and kicked inmate Gabriel Vasquez after he was disrespectful to a guard. Vasquez sustained a fractured cheekbone, as well as injuries to his face, ear and rib cage. Although he claimed that deputies had caused the injuries, investigators for the sheriff’s department came to the conclusion that they were either caused by another inmate or even self-inflicted.

The case was reopened when a fourth deputy, who had initially denied seeing anything of the beating, did admit that he had witnessed, and lied about, an improper use of force. Ryan Lopez was taking a polygraph exam during an interview with the Chino Police Department, in August 2006, when he said that he had covered for his fellow deputies by lying about the excessive force. Authorities in Chino then contacted the sheriff’s department, who confronted Lopez and ordered him to reveal the identities of the deputies.

Last year, Lopez testified before a grand jury, receiving immunity from prosecution for his coverup of the incident in exchange for his testimony, according to court records.

The three deputies facing the charges are Lee Simoes, 34; Kenny Ramirez, 30; and Humberto Magallanes, 29. Prosecutors filed the charges in September, after which the deputies were placed on administrative leave without pay. Lopez is still with the department, but has been reassigned to desk duty.

An attorney for one of the defendants said that Vasquez has told jail staff that he hallucinated and hears voices, in addition to having a history of mental illness, and that the deputies are innocent of using force against him.

Prosecution of jail guards and deputies is rare, for several reasons. Most sheriff’s departments have implemented stronger rules, requiring deputies to write reports detailing any force used against inmates. It’s difficult to build a case not only against a law enforcement officer, but also with only the testimony of an inmate, who are typically seen by juries as less credible. In fact, the current charges mark only the third time in a decade that jail deputies have been prosecuted for using excessive force against an inmate.

Vasquez has also claimed that Lopez ignored his request for medical help, telling him to “suck it up.”

All three of the men who have been charged have pleaded not guilty.

So-Called Wiccan Stabs Man Listed in Phone As “Sacrifice”

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

A woman who describes herself as a Wiccan is being held on charges of fatally stabbing a man, whose phone number she had listed in her cell phone alongside the word “sacrifice.”

Angela Sanford, 30, claimed that the stabbing was in self-defense, and that the man had tied her up with her own rope belt and attempted to rape her. Sanford told police that she stabbed Joel Lebya three times in the stomach, but the 52-year-old was found to have been stabbed at least 11 times.

The two met at a casino, about a week before the incident. Sanford had invited Lebya to a hiking trail near Albuquerque, New Mexico, in order to celebrate spring in a Wiccan ritual. While walking and drinking alcohol together, the pair stopped so that Sanford could urinate. At that time, she told police, Lebya attacked her, tied her hands up with a rope belt she was wearing, and took a Wiccan dagger from her pocket. She also said that he made sexual gestures toward her.

In order to keep Lebya from raping her, Sanford claimed, she pretended to seduce him by stripping to her underwear and encouraging the man to lie down. At that point she knelt above him, grabbed the dagger, and stabbed him three times before running away.

Sanford was crouched behind some boulders a short distance down the trail, still wearing only her underwear, when a witness came upon her and made eye contact. Sanford then said that she had been raped, the witness told police, and several others came over to offer assistance. Before then, however, none of them had heard calls for help or saw Sanford fleeing from Lebya.

A detective later discovered Lebya’s telephone number stored in Sanford’s phone under the nickname “sacrifice.”

Wicca, a neo-pagan religion and a form of modern witchcraft, is not generally associated with sacrifice or violence; in fact, one of its main tenets is the so-called Law of Threefold Return. This concept is similar to karma, and states that the actions a person commits, whether benevolent or malevolent, will come back to them with three times the force.

Members of Wiccan groups in the Albuquerque region have said that they are not acquainted with Sanford.

Sanford was indicted by a Bernalillo County grand jury, and bond set at $500,000. She is being represented by a public defender.

Supreme Court to Hear Case of Soldier’s Father, Homophobic Church

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

The case of a grieving father from York, Pennsylvania, who has been locked in a lengthy legal battle with a Baptist church, will be heard by the Supreme Court next fall.

Albert Snyder is suing the Westboro Baptist Church after members of its congregation picketed the funeral of Snyder’s son, Lance Corporal Matthew A. Snyder, who died in Iraq. The church believes that military deaths are punishment for the United States’ tolerance of homosexuality, and they have picketed outside of hundreds of funerals. The founder, Fred Phelps, presides over a congregation that includes mainly his children and grandchildren, and claims that the demonstrations outside of funerals are protected by his free-speech rights.

Snyder and his attorneys, however, say that the church members are disrupting private assemblies. They typically carry signs that say things like “God Hates You,” “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “Semper Fi Fag,” despite the fact that the fallen soldiers were not gay.

Snyder says that he felt the church targeted his family specifically, since one of Phelps’s daughters wrote a scathing blog post in which she said that Snyder and his ex-wife taught Matthew “to defy his creator.”

A Baltimore federal court jury initially ruled in Snyder’s favor, awarding him $10.9 million in damages in 2007. The judge later reduced that amount to $5 million, and the verdict was reversed by the 4th United States Circuit Court of Appeals.

The appeals court also ordered Snyder to pay the court costs—totaling $16,510—for the Westboro Baptist Church. The losing side in a civil court case is often ordered to cover these costs, but not usually when an individual sues a private entity or when the case is still active.

Last month, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and decide whether or not the Westboro Baptist Church is protected under the First Amendment.

The Westboro Baptist Church entered the national spotlight when they appeared outside the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was beaten to death in Wyoming, in 1998. They have also protested at the funeral of evangelist Jerry Falwell, which took place in 2007, and at the West Virginia coal mine where 29 workers earlier this month.

Snyder, 54, is supported by his ex-wife and two daughters, although he is the only plaintiff in the case. His lawyers, who are both military veterans themselves, have offered their services to Snyder on a pro-bono basis.

Gender Discrimination Alleged Against Wall Street Firms

Monday, April 19th, 2010

Two female executives at high-profile Wall Street banks have accused their respective employers of discrimination. One claims that she was first “mommy-tracked,” and then fired, when she began having children.

Charlotte Hanna was a former vice president in the human resources division at Goldman Sachs when she took maternity leave after having her first child. She was demoted from her position as department head, after taking advantage of a program at the investment giant that allowed her to work three days a week. She also lost her private office and was given a cubicle in which to work.

Then, while on leave for her second child, Hanna was essentially fired—although her superiors told her that the position was being eliminated, she later learned that someone else had been hired to take over her responsibilities.

Ironically, Goldman Sachs has long been touted for its female- and family-friendly environment, and was even named by Working Mother magazine as one of the 100 best companies to work for.

Another woman, Dorly Hazan-Amir, had been an associate with Citigroup’s asset finance division. When she became pregnant, she alleges, her coworkers and bosses treated her disrespectfully, telling her she had to choose between her career and family. One manager asked Hazan-Amir whether she was going to be a “career mom” or a “mom mom,” while another told her outright that she would have to put career first if she wanted to stay in her position at Citigroup. Not only that, says Hazan-Amir, but her male coworkers joked about setting up an office pool to bet on the amount of pregnancy weight she would gain.

Hazan-Amir was not fired from her position, and continues to work at Citigroup. Hanna wants to return to her old job at Goldman Sachs. Both women are seeking financial compensation, and are represented in their complaints by attorney Douglas Wigdor.

Wall Street culture has notoriously been unfriendly to female executives, who have struggled to be taken seriously and treated equally in an atmosphere which has long been male-dominated. The investment firm Morgan Stanley was a recent target of discrimination lawsuits brought by women claiming gender discrimination, and settled two suits, in 2004 and 2007, for over $100 million. Similarly, Smith Barney settled a suit for $33 million in 2008.

Goldman Sachs has said that Hanna’s case is without merit, while Citigroup has not commented on the allegations brought by Hazan-Amir.