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Financial Crimes

ICE-led investigation leads to 50 being charged with check fraud

HOUSTON – Fifty people were charged last week for their roles in a criminal enterprise that stole checks and money orders from apartment complex lock boxes throughout the city. The charges were announced by the following agencies: Houston Police Department (HPD), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), and the Harris County District Attorney's Office.

Information was developed that identified a group of individuals targeting Houston-area apartment complex rent drop boxes in 21 jurisdictions from Harris, Montgomery, Brazoria and Galveston counties. They burglarized numerous drop boxes where monthly rent is deposited, frequently in the form of money orders. The money orders were then "washed" and counterfeited.

Concurrent investigations into these organized criminal acts were linked through investigative and criminal analysis, and coordinated into a multi-agency investigation led by HSI.

The leader of the criminal enterprise was arrested Feb. 8 and remains in federal custody. He is charged with 21 counts of cashing counterfeit securities. Twenty-three low-level players in this organization had been previously arrested and charged with State of Texas felony forgery charges.

Within Harris County, a joint investigation by HPD, HSI and the Harris County District Attorney's Office led to the following additional 21 arrests April 18: Eddie Lewis, 29; Rita Vela, 28; Dawonna Banks, 23; Richard Carter, 24; William Gaynor, 22; Shamon Watts, 29; Lois Tezeno, 30; Treai Rhone, 30; Domique Powers, 25; Howard Turk, 23; Marisela Estrada, 32; Tameka Norton, 40; Errol Goff, 32; Robert Salinas, 30; Deon Garcia, 35; Cedric Whitehurst, 28; Antonio Whitehurst, 25; Anthony Anderson, 36; Brandon Daniels, 26; Melvina Wright, 20; and Shaterrika West, 22. At this time, all suspects are charged with engaging in organized criminal activity.

Due to the on-going nature of this investigation, mug shots of the suspects are not being released at this time.

Investigators are also asking for the public's help in locating the following five additional suspects wanted for their involvement in this scheme: Arturo "Cherio" Villarreal, 28; LaKesha Johnson, 29; Melissa Anders, 25; Lillie Wright, 22; and Ellyn Ustica, 38. Villareal and Johnson were last seen driving either a 2002 green four-door Buick LeSabre with Texas license plates BX2D465 or a 1997 beige/tan four-door Toyota sedan with Texas license plates DK3M752.

The following other Texas law enforcement agencies are also participating in this investigation: Conroe Police Department, Montgomery County Sheriff's Office, Harris County Sheriff's Office, Baytown Police Department, Texas City Police Department, League City Police Department, Webster Police Department, Friendswood Police Department, Clute Police Department, Pasadena Police Department, Pearland Police Department, Katy Police Department, Missouri City Police Department, Rosenberg Police Department, Lake Jackson Police Department, Freeport Police Department, Round Rock Police Department, Austin Police Department and Williamson County Sheriff's Office.

At this time, several other state and local law enforcement agencies are conducting concurrent investigations and additional arrests are pending.

Anyone with information on the whereabouts of the remaining wanted suspects is urged to contact authorities or Crime Stoppers at 713-222-TIPS (8477).