PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Four individuals, including two mail sorters employed at the Providence Processing and Distribution Center, have been charged in U.S. District Court in Providence by way of federal criminal complaints for their alleged roles in a conspiracy to steal U.S. Treasury checks from the mail and either sell them on the street or deposit them in bank accounts opened with stolen or fraudulent personal information. The funds were withdrawn from ATM machines or used to make retail purchases with the use of debit cards.
The investigation by the Providence Police Intelligence and Organized Crime Unit and United States Postal Service (USPS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) included the execution of court authorized search warrants resulting in the seizure of approximately $1.6 million dollars worth of allegedly stolen U.S. Treasury checks and the seizure of more than $165,000 in proceeds allegedly gained as a result of the sale of stolen U.S. Treasury checks and other items allegedly stolen from the U.S. mail.
United States Attorney Peter F. Neronha, Providence Police Chief Colonel Hugh T. Clements, Jr. and Rafael Medina, Special Agent in Charge of the United States Postal Service, Office of Inspector General, Northeast Area Field Office today announced the arrest and initial appearance in U.S. District Court in Providence of:
Joan Manuel Mustafa, 36, of Providence, on charges of conspiracy, embezzlement, theft of public money (U.S. Treasury checks) and theft of mail;
Erick Vera Garzon, 35, of Providence, on charges of conspiracy, embezzlement, theft of public money (U.S. Treasury checks) and theft of mail;
Brenda Canuelas, 39, of Providence, on charges of conspiracy, theft of mail, theft of government money in excess of $1,000, forging endorsements on Treasury checks in excess of $1,000, bank fraud and aggravated identity theft; and
Secundino Velazquez Tirado, a/k/a Jesus Rivera, 45, of Providence, on charges of conspiracy, theft of mail, theft of government money in excess of $1,000, forging endorsements on Treasury checks in excess of $1,000, bank fraud and aggravated identity theft.
Major David A. Lapatin, Commanding Officer Investigative Division Providence Police Department said, “I commend the Intelligence and Organized Crime Unit of the Providence Police Department. The investigation led by Sgt. Nicholas Ludovici along with Detectives Andres Perez and Andrew Lawton, who did a fine job developing information and worked that information along with federal agencies, brought down the alleged major organized crime pattern that inconvenienced and hurt so many people of the State of Rhode Island.”
“Mail theft is always a crime, but when it is perpetrated by Postal Service employees and it impacts our veterans and our most vulnerable customers who depend on these checks, it is beyond disgraceful,” stated USPS-OIG Special Agent-in-Charge Rafael Medina. “The Special Agents of the USPS-OIG will continue to work closely with our local law enforcement partners to vigorously investigate those Postal Service employees who compromise their integrity for personal gain.”
According to court documents and information presented to the court, in September 2014, USPS-OIG agents began investigating the circumstances surrounding a significant number of missing Treasury checks addressed to individuals in Rhode Island and nearby Massachusetts. The checks were handled by employees at the U.S. Mail Providence Processing and Distribution Center. The investigation determined that many individual bank accounts were being opened in the name on missing checks, usually in a slightly altered form, by individuals other than the true owner of the check. The stolen checks were deposited in the accounts in amounts ranging from a few thousand dollars to more than $10,000. The accounts were then drawn down by cash withdrawals from ATMs, the purchase of goods and services, or by the purchase of money orders. Most of the bank accounts were opened in Rhode Island. Some were opened in Massachusetts, New York, and in the southeast United States.
According to court documents, independent of the ongoing investigation by USPS-OIG, a Providence Police Intelligence and Organized Crime Unit detective developed information that two postal employees at the Processing and Distribution Center, Joan Manuel Mustafa and Erick Vera Garzon, co-workers on the night shift, were allegedly stealing U.S. Treasury checks from the mail while the mail was being sorted. The detective developed information that Garzon was allegedly selling many of the stolen checks on the street at 20% of face value to local buyers and buyers in New York.
Based on the information developed by the detective, court authorized search warrants were obtained for both Mustafa and Garzon’s residences and were executed on April 16, 2015, with the assistance of agents from USPS-OIG. A search of Garzon’s residence and his vehicle resulted in the seizure of more than 900 U.S. Treasury checks valued at approximately $1.6 million dollars, dozens of gift cards and $33,250 in cash. From Mustafa’s residence detectives and other officers and agents seized $19,650 in cash and assorted Visa gift cards. The next day detectives and agents seized $113,100 from a safe deposit box opened by Garzon.
According to court documents, while detectives from the Providence Police Intelligence and Organized Crime Unit were gathering information on Mustafa and Garzon, USPS-OIG agents were reviewing surveillance photographs and videos from area banks and retail stores in an effort to determine who was responsible for depositing the stolen Treasury checks and withdrawing and spending the pilfered funds. Two individuals were identified as allegedly repeatedly making deposits of stolen Treasury checks, making cash withdrawals and making purchases using funds from the stolen checks. Agents and detectives worked together to identify the individuals as being Brenda Canuelas and Secundino Velazquez Tirado.
Canuelas and Tirado were arrested earlier today on federal criminal complaints and released on unsecured bond following initial appearances before U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Patricia A. Sullivan.
Joan Manuel Mustafa and Erick Vera Garzon were arrested on April 16, 2015, on federal criminal complaints and released on unsecured bond following initial appearances before U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Patricia A. Sullivan. Court documents pertaining to their arrest remained sealed per an order of the court until the arrest today of Canuelas and Tirado.
A criminal complaint is merely an allegation and is not evidence of guilt. A defendant is entitled to a fair trial in which it will be the government’s burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Gerard B. Sullivan.
Federal agents from the Veterans Administration Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Treasury Office of Inspector General assisted agents from the United States Postal Service (USPS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) and detectives from the Providence Police Intelligence and Organized Crime Unit in the investigation of this matter.