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By Archie Ingersoll, Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald , Published November 01 2009

Members of check theft ring arrested

North Dakota authorities say they’ve snared members of a traveling group that stole checks from businesses around the state and cashed them at banks, stealing a total of between $50,000 and $75,000.

“This is a new twist on things – actually burglarizing the business and getting the actual business’s checks,” Grand Forks Detective Mike Flannery said.

The ring – reportedly made up of men from Mexico and Honduras in the U.S. illegally – hit Fargo, West Fargo and Grand Forks in September. Detectives in those cities predicted the group would swing through Bismarck next, so officers and banks there were put on alert.

That prescience paid off when a pair of men looking to cash checks walked up to a drive-up teller in Bismarck on Oct. 2 and the bank called police. When officers arrived, the men ran but were eventually caught, and with information from an earlier traffic stop, four other members of the ring were detained. But authorities believe that between four and six men got away.

It’s not clear how big the operation is. Flannery said the ring may be responsible for similar crimes in South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Police say the ring’s scheme went like this:

They targeted businesses, such as construction firms, that typically employ Hispanic workers. In some cities, scouts cased the firms’ offices during the day under the guise of asking for work or directions. In the early morning, members would break in and steal checks, taking them from the middle or back of a checkbook, so the theft wasn’t quickly detected. Later that day, often a Friday, ring members would go to the bank named on the checks and cash what looked like paychecks. They would approach drive-up tellers on foot so their vehicle wouldn’t be recorded by surveillance cameras. They usually would go in the early evening after the burglarized businesses were closed, so tellers couldn’t call to verify the transactions. When banks asked for identification, they showed fake IDs.

The ring members could face charges of conspiracy, theft, possession of stolen property and forgery in various jurisdictions. So far three men – Dorran DeJesus-Vallejo, 18; Santos Santiago Gonzales-Jimenez, 32; Marcelino DeJesus-Celaya, 38 – have been charged in Grand Forks County. Police expect two or three more to be charged.

In Grand Forks, the ring stole checks from Structures Inc. and cashed them at a Bremer branch on Sept. 25 and the next day broke into C.L. Linfoot’s offices and cashed checks at two Bank Forward locations, stealing a total of about $13,000, police say.

In cases like these, banks are left holding the bag.

“They might get something back,” Flannery said. “Are they going to get anything close to that total amount? Probably not.”

The Grand Forks Herald and The Forum are both owned by Forum Communications Co.