Court Digest

Woman pleads guilty in $1.2 million COVID-19 fraud scheme

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A woman pleaded guilty Tuesday in federal court in Virginia to a $1.2 million scheme that defrauded COVID-19 pandemic relief programs using victims’ personal information that she obtained through her state government employment, a prosecutor said.

U.S. Attorney Jessica Aber said court documents show that in one scheme, from May 2020 to August 2021, Sadie Mitchell, 30, of Midlothian, with help from a co-conspirator, defrauded the Virginia Employment Commission by filing at least 20 fraudulent unemployment applications using inmates’ personal information.

As an employee of the Virginia Motor Vehicle Dealer Board, Mitchell had access to a government database, officials said. The conspirators filed at least 30 fake applications in the names of other people whose personal information was obtained, in part, through Mitchell’s database queries, officials said. Through this scheme, the conspirators collected approximately $1 million in Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and unemployment insurance benefits.

From June 2020 to June 2021, Mitchell submitted five fake Paycheck Protection Program applications containing false information, officials said. She also submitted fraudulent Economic Injury Disaster Loan applications to the Small Business Administration for businesses that didn’t exist.

Mitchell pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud. She faces up to 30 years in prison when she is sentenced on Aug. 23.

Man gets 3 years for threat at Biden inaugural

CHICAGO (AP) — A suburban Chicago man was sentenced to more than three years in prison Tuesday for threatening members of Congress and to commit violence at the 2021 presidential inauguration.

U.S. District Judge Ronald A. Guzman sentenced Louis Capriotti, 47, of Chicago Heights to 37 months in prison. Capriotti pleaded guilty last fall to transmitting a threat in interstate commerce. He has been in federal custody since his Jan. 12, 2021, arrest, prosecutors said.

Capriotti in November and December 2020 left threatening messages on the voicemail systems of members of Congress during which he falsely stated that he was an active U.S. Marine and referred to certain members of Congress as “terrorists.”

Man awaiting trial held on $200K after conviction overturned

ALFRED, Maine (AP) — A Maine man whose murder conviction was overturned by the state’s highest court will have to pay $200,000 in bail to leave jail while he awaits a new trial.

Bruce Akers has been held without bail since his 2016 arrest stemming from the death of his neighbor, Douglas Flint. He was initially found guilty and sentenced to 38 years in prison, but the court overturned the conviction last year.

Akers’ case was in court for a hearing on Tuesday. His attorney, Kristine Hanly, asked that he be released, the Portland Press Herald reported. The judge instead set the bail at $200,000.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled last year that police violated Akers’ rights, and evidence and statements from officers should have been suppressed.

Flint was reported missing before police searched Akers’ property. Investigators found Flint’s body under a pile of deer carcasses and debris.

Killer clown trial delayed again — for a sixth time

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — A Florida judge has reluctantly delayed the trial of a woman accused of dressing like a clown and fatally shooting her lover’s wife more than 30 years ago after defense attorneys said they’re having a hard time contacting witnesses.

The trial for Sheila Keen-Warren was supposed to begin June 3. But on Tuesday Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Scott Suskauer agreed to what could be a four-month delay, the Palm Beach Post reported.

Suskauer said he had already cleared his schedule, delaying other trials and hearings to be able to preside over a three-week trial.

“Think about the impact it has on me. I have a duty to the public,” Suskauer told the lawyers. “You also have a victim’s family that has waited a long time for justice.”

This is the sixth time the trial has been delayed.

It was May 1990 when Marlene Warren opened her door and was shot in the face by a clown delivering carnations and balloons to her home in Wellington, a suburb of West Palm Beach, court records show.

The former Sheila Keen, rumored to be having an affair with Marlene Warren’s husband, Michael Warren, was considered a suspect, but the case against her seemed thin. Two nights before the killing, a woman showed up at a costume store telling clerks she urgently needed a clown suit, an orange wig, white gloves, a red nose and enough white makeup to cover her face completely. One of the clerks identified her in a photo lineup, but the other clerk wasn’t sure.

She later married Michael Warren and they were living in Virginia when investigators said DNA provided the evidence they needed to arrest her in 2017.

Assistant State Attorney Reid Scott agreed the latest delay was unavoidable.

“I want this defendant to be fully prepared for trial,” Scott said. “I don’t want to deal with appellate issues.”

The defense team — Richard Lubin, Greg Rosenfeld and Amy Morse — blamed Scott, writing that he didn’t provide them with names and addresses of key witnesses who are now scattered across the country.

The defense team also said they need to view evidence, including hair fibers, two balloons, a Publix bag and car rental papers, that was not in an evidence locker at the sheriff’s office. Those items had been sent to forensics for further review, they said.

“Customarily, a criminal prosecution is straightforward: The police investigate a crime, the police arrest a suspect, and the state prosecutes the suspect,” but this case hasn’t been handled that way, they wrote.

“Following the arrest, the police and state continued their investigation,” they wrote. “This backwards prosecution has hampered Ms. Keen-Warren’s ability to prepare for trial.”

Because so much time has passed since the killing, sworn depositions have been taken from some witnesses who either can’t or won’t appear.

“This is a very difficult situation,” Lubin told the newspaper. “This is a long-ago event. Witnesses are in their 60s, 70s and 80s. Some of them are dead. Others are debilitated.”

Man charged with beating his roommate to death

KENT, Wash. (AP) — A Kent man who is an experienced boxer was charged Tuesday with beating his roommate to death 13 days after he was last released from prison, according to King County prosecutors.

Kent police arrested Phillip Frazier, 59, early Friday at a “transitional home” and booked him into the King County Jail, where he is being held in lieu of $4 million bail, records show.

Charged with second-degree murder domestic violence, Frazier is scheduled to be arraigned May 26. Court records do not yet indicate which attorney is representing him, the Seattle Times reported.

Danny Jones, 60, was half Frazier’s size and died early Friday from blunt force trauma to his head and neck, charging papers say.

The confrontation between the men, who shared a bedroom, arose from Jones’ annoyance that Frazier had again awakened him with noise from a candy wrapper, according to the charges.

“As his roommate voiced his frustration and anger, the defendant reacted by slamming his roommate back onto his bed and hitting him with his fist multiple times to the side of his head,” Senior Deputy Prosecutor Jason Brookhyser wrote in charging papers.


Convicted killer charged with heading COVID-19 fraud scam

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A woman who is serving a life sentence for murder in California is charged with masterminding a $2 million fraud scheme involving COVID-19 unemployment money from behind bars, federal prosecutors said Tuesday.

Natalie Le Demola, 37, is among 13 people charged with using stolen identities to apply online for — and receive — benefits from the California Employment Development Department, the U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement.

Most of the money had been earmarked for relief for people suffering from business lockdowns and restrictions aimed at reducing the deadly spread of COVID-19 and most of the fraud occurred in the second half of 2020, when infections were rising rapidly.

Some of the identities were those of people who weren’t eligible for state unemployment insurance benefits because they were working, retired or in prison, prosecutors said.

Some of the personal identifying information used — such as names, birth dates and Social Security numbers — was provided by a state prison official who wasn’t named, the indictment alleged.

Unemployment fraud has been a nationwide problem during the pandemic, as benefit applications overwhelmed state unemployment agencies. Criminals were able to buy stolen identity data on the dark web and use it to file a heap of phony claims.

The U.S. Department of Labor has said that about $87 billion in pandemic unemployment benefits could have been paid improperly nationwide, with a significant portion attributable to fraud. An Associated Press review in March 2021 found that estimates ranged from $11 billion in fraudulent payments in California to several hundred thousand dollars in states such as Alaska and Wyoming.

Prosecutors said Demola, from Corona, is currently serving a life sentence after she was convicted in 2005 of first-degree murder. They didn’t provide other details.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether Demola had a lawyer who could speak for her regarding the new case.

If convicted, the defendants could face up to 30 years in federal prison for each conspiracy and bank fraud charge.


3 former day care workers indicted on abuse charges

PRATTVILLE, Ala. (AP) — Three former workers at a church day care center in central Alabama have been indicted on more than three dozen charges of abusing children ages 2 and younger, some of whom were harmed on video, authorities said Tuesday.

A special grand jury returned charges after watching security videos that showed children being hit, kicked and punched, according to court records and prosecutor C.J. Robinson, who spoke at a news conference.

“When you have videos in crimes of this nature, it leaves very little doubt,” he said.

The 44 total charges against Susan Baker of Prattville, Leah Livingston of Wetumpka and Alicia Sorrells of Deatsville stem from their work at a day care operated by Journey Church of the River Region, Robinson said. All three women were arrested earlier this month.

Each person was indicted on charges of child abuse and failure to report child abuse, officials said.

An attorney for Sorrells said she will be acquitted once jurors consider the evidence, the Montgomery Advertiser reported. Livingston doesn’t have an attorney to speak on her behalf, and a lawyer for Baker wasn’t immediately available.

Church leaders have cooperated in the investigation, Robinson said.