News and Press Releases

News and Press Releases

Cottage Grove man latest to plead guilty to role in multi-state identity theft ring

June 20, 2012

MINNEAPOLIS—Earlier today in federal court in St. Paul, a 59-year-old Cottage Grove man pleaded guilty to stealing personal information from hundreds of people and using it to create counterfeit checks that were then passed at retail stores and banks. Russell Raymond Royals specifically pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud and one count of aggravated identity theft.

Royals, who was indicted on January 19, 2012, entered his plea before United States District Court Judge Paul A. Magnuson. He is the fourteenth person to plead guilty to involvement in this identity theft ring. A fifteenth individual, Robin Dawn Finger, is scheduled to plead guilty to related charges tomorrow. Ten other alleged co-conspirators have pleaded not guilty to charges ranging from bank fraud and aggravated identity theft to conspiracy to commit money laundering. They await trial, which is currently scheduled for August 20, 2012.

From 2006 through December 2011, Royals was admittedly part of a large-scale identity theft ring responsible for the theft of approximately $2 million from financial institutions and retail businesses in no fewer than 14 states. In his plea agreement, Royals admitted that he and other co-conspirators used stolen personal information, including driver’s license and bank account numbers, from hundreds of unsuspecting individuals to create counterfeit checks and fraudulent identification documents.

The counterfeit checks he and his co-conspirators created were then passed at various retail stores to purchase expensive merchandise that was subsequently returned to the stores for cash. The counterfeit checks were also passed at various banks, where Royals and his co-conspirators deposited the checks into unsuspecting victims’ accounts and then made withdrawals from those same accounts. Royals admitted being responsible for approximately $2 million in fraudulent purchases and attempted purchases as well as fraud proceeds being moved from one account to another.

Thirteen of Royals’ co-conspirators have already entered guilty pleas: On June 6, 2012, Brianna Marie Blegen pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud and one count of aggravated identity theft. On May 30, 2012, Kevin Terrell Martin pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud and one count of aggravated identity theft. On September 29, 2011, Lee Vang pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering and one count of aggravated identity theft. On July 20, 2011, Brianna Marie Darwin pleaded guilty to the same two counts. Melissa Jean Beaman, Majorie Marie Neely, Francis Emily Jones, Christeena Janell Barker, Jamie Hubert Branson, Darryl Alan Bryant, Jacqueline Cleveland, and Ginger Loucina Halliburton pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud and one count of aggravated identity theft. Patricia Grace Pnewski pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud.

For his crimes, Royals faces a maximum potential penalty of 30 years in prison for conspiracy to commit bank fraud and a mandatory minimum consecutive penalty of two years in prison for identity theft. Judge Magnuson will determine his sentence at a future hearing, not yet scheduled.

This case is the result of an investigation conducted by the Minnesota Financial Crimes Task Force, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and the Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation Division. It is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen B. Schommer.

The Financial Crimes Task Force was established pursuant to state law and is comprised of local, state, and federal law enforcement investigators, who are dedicated to combating the growing problem of cross-jurisdictional financial crimes. The task force, which is overseen by an advisory board also created under state law, serves the entire District of Minnesota, presenting its cases to county or federal prosecutors, as appropriate.

The task force and the Minnesota U.S. Attorney’s Office want to remind people to protect themselves from identity theft. For more information, visit

The IRS-Criminal Investigation Division also urges citizens to review the Taxpayer Guide to Identity Theft, which can be found at

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