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Financial Crimes

Conspirators plead guilty in scheme to steal $2.6 million in metal imported into the Port of Baltimore

BALTIMORE – Two Baltimore men pleaded guilty Monday to conspiring to possess stolen goods from a foreign shipment, in connection with the theft of aluminum, nickel and other metal that had been imported through the Port of Baltimore following an investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations and the Baltimore Police Department.

Thomas Jefferson, 50, and James Robinson, 41, pleaded guilty on Jan. 3 before U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles, Jr. Jefferson also pleaded guilty to possessing the stolen goods. Alan Verschleisser, 66, of Baltimore, pleaded guilty in a sealed proceeding on Dec. 20, 2011, to the same charge. His guilty plea was unsealed on Dec. 29, 2011. Each individual faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison for the conspiracy and a $250,000 fine. Jefferson also faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison for possessing stolen goods.

According to their plea agreements and other court documents, Jefferson was employed at a binding company called Bindagraphics, located on Wilmarco Avenue in Baltimore. Verschleisser owned and operated Industrial Metals/Early Corp (Industrial Metals), a salvage yard located at the intersection of Baker Street and Warwick Avenue in Baltimore. In early 2010, Jefferson began to steal aluminum T-bars from S.H. Bell, a warehousing company located on East Biddle Street in Baltimore that stored and transported metals, minerals and semi-finished industrial materials shipped to the Port of Baltimore. Jefferson stole the T-bars at night through a hole that had been cut in the fence at the rear of the company's storage lot. Jefferson temporarily stored the stolen aluminum at Bindagraphic's warehouse. Jefferson approached Verschleisser about selling the stolen aluminum T-Bars. Verschleisser contacted another Baltimore scrap metal dealer who agreed to buy the aluminum T-Bars at a scrap metal price.

Verschleisser allowed truck drivers to drop off loads of T-bars at his salvage yard throughout the summer of 2010. Verschleisser then loaded the aluminum T-Bars onto a truck and delivered them to the other dealer's scrap yard. Verschleisser sold 268,044 pounds of aluminum T-Bars for $205,274, which he deposited into a bank account. In order to avoid the bank's currency transaction report requirements for cash withdrawals more than $10,000, Verschleisser made 31 withdrawals of less than $10,000 totaling $191,762. Verschleisser also failed to file an individual or corporate tax return reporting that income. Once Verschleisser withdrew the cash, he paid Jefferson approximately $500 for each aluminum T-bar that Jefferson stole. Jefferson received approximately $70,000 from the sale of the stolen aluminum T-bars.

In early 2010, Jefferson approached Verschleisser with samples of high grade nickel and ferrochrome, and asked if Verschleisser would be willing to also sell this type of metal. Verschleisser told Jefferson that nickel in that form was rare and would be difficult to sell in any large quantities without attracting attention.

During the summer of 2010, Robinson drove a tractor trailer for a company that delivered aluminum T-Bars to S.H. Bell Company. S.H. Bell stored and transported metals, minerals, and semi-finished industrial materials shipped to the Port of Baltimore including nickel briquettes and ferrochrome. S.H. Bell had a warehouse located on East Biddle Street in Baltimore. Robinson delivered aluminum T-Bars to S.H. Bell on at least 47 days during 2010, many times making multiple deliveries on the same day. An audit by S.H. Bell revealed approximately 318,300 pounds of aluminum T-Bars were missing from its warehouse yard.

On July 23, 2010, an international business known as BHP Billiton Marketing AG sent a cargo ship carrying 264 metric tons of nickel briquettes from the Port of Freemantle in Australia to the Port of Baltimore. The nickel briquettes had been mined in Australia, and their ultimate destination was to a BHP Billiton company in Pittsburgh, Pa. That particular shipment contained four sea containers with 12 "super sacks" containing two metric tons of nickel in each container. Once this shipment cleared customs at the Port of Baltimore, it was trucked to S.H. Bell for storage. The four containers arrived at S.H. Bell's warehouse on approximately Sept. 3, 2010, and they contained a total of 96 metric tons of nickel briquettes worth approximately $2.5 million. Because of the Labor Day weekend, the containers were left on S.H. Bell's outside lot to be unloaded after the holiday weekend.

S.H. Bell also received two sea containers of ferrochrome, which is an alloy of chromium and iron containing between 50 percent and 70 percent chromium. Nickel and ferrochrome are used in steel production. One container had been shipped from Turkey and the other from India. The two containers of ferrochrome were worth a total of approximately $103,000.

Between Sept. 1 and Sept. 2, 2010, Jefferson stole the two containers of ferrochrome from S.H. Bell using a stolen truck. Jefferson parked the stolen containers near Verschleisser's yard and asked for Verschleisser's assistance in selling the stolen ferrochrome.

On Sept. 6, 2010, Jefferson stole aluminum T-bars from S.H. Bell, and stored them at Bindagraphics. Verschleisser, Jefferson, Robinson and an individual known as "Peanut" then stole the four sea containers full of nickel from S.H. Bell. Later that same day, Verschleisser, Jefferson, Peanut and another man unloaded three sea containers full of stolen nickel into Verschkeusser's scrap yard. The last container was moved to an unknown location. Verschleisser and Jefferson used a forklift to remove the white super sacks of nickel from the sea containers. Peanut and the other man used black paint to cover identifiers printed on the white super sacks.

Verschleisser attempted to sell the stolen nickel, contacting prospective buyers in Australia and New York. On Sept. 13, 2010, a prospective buyer spoke with Verschleisser by phone and became suspicious when Verschleisser could not answer several basic questions about the nature of the nickel, such as its origin and price. The prospective buyer recalled an industry-wide bulletin sent by the company that owned the nickel, asking other metal traders to be on the lookout for someone trying to sell the stolen nickel. The prospective buyer contacted the company, which notified the Baltimore Police Department.

On Sept. 14, 2010, a Baltimore Police detective questioned Verschleisser about his efforts to sell the stolen nickel, which he denied. Verschleisser told Jefferson about the call from the police and they agreed to move the nickel from Verschleisser's scrap yard. Later that day, Verschleisser operated a forklift to load 12 super sacks of nickel onto the tractor trailer that Robinson had driven to his yard. At 10:45 p.m. that day, Robinson, accompanied by Jefferson, drove the truck out of the yard. Shortly thereafter, Peanut called Verschleisser to tell him that the truck had been stopped by the Baltimore Police. Jefferson and Robinson were arrested. Approximately 24 tons of nickel was recovered from the truck and another 44 tons of nickel were recovered from Verschleisser's scrap yard.

The defendants' illegal scheme caused $2,611,314 in losses.

The case was prosecuted by Assistant US Attorneys Gregory R. Bockin and Martin J. Clarke.