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Justice News

Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
District of South Dakota

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Alabama Man Convicted Of Felon In Possession Of A Firearm, Impersonating A Federal Officer, Interstate Stalking, And Tampering With Witnesses

United States Attorney Brendan V. Johnson announced that Michael Heath Thetford, a/k/a Russ LNU, age 38, of Alabaster, Alabama, was found guilty of Felon in Possession of a Firearm, Impersonating a Federal Officer, Interstate Stalking, and Tampering with Witnesses as a result of a five day federal jury trial in Pierre, South Dakota. 

The charges carry a maximum penalty of up to 38 years in custody and/or a $1,000,000 fine, 3 years of supervised release, and a $400 special assessment to the Federal Crime Victims Fund.  Restitution may also be ordered.

Thetford was indicted by a federal grand jury on December 14, 2011, for Felon in Possession of a Firearm, Impersonating a Federal Officer, and Interstate Stalking. 

On May 28, 2010, the victims, William Jack Winslett and Shirley Winslett, a married couple, were living at their home in rural Hughes County.  The victims also own property and other assets in Alabama.  That afternoon, Thetford came to their door posing as a Special Agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).  Thetford was wearing a dark suit, displayed FBI and military credentials, had a pistol on his hip, and identified himself as “Agent Russ.” Thetford accused the victims of being involved in drug trafficking and other criminal matters. The victims believed he was an actual FBI Agent.  Thetford informed the victims they needed to accompany him to a polygraph examination in Sioux City, indicating they could be arrested at the end of the interview.  Thetford told them they would need to bring their computers, so they produced their computers for the trip to Sioux City.  Thetford directed the victims into the back seat of his vehicle, which had locked back-seat doors. 

Thetford drove the victims toward Sioux Falls, but stopped at Humboldt, where he informed the victims that he had received a cell phone call which cleared them of the drug investigation, and that a different arrest was in the process of being made, and he would return them home.  Along the drive home, there was friendlier talk with the victims.  Thetford learned both victims were shooting sport enthusiasts, and learned Mr. Winslett had a knack for gunsmithing.  Ultimately, Thetford left his pistol with the victims, asking that Mr. Winslett do some repair work on the trigger.  On June 4, 2010, Thetford, posing as “Agent Russ” sent the Winsletts an email indicating an arrest had been made and he would enter them into a victim compensation program.

Over the course of several following months, the Winsletts had trouble maintaining contact with Agent Russ, and began to doubt he was an actual FBI Agent. The FBI began to track Thetford’s travel to and from South Dakota between May 25 and May 29, 2010. Around November 16, 2011, federal search warrants were obtained for Thetford’s home in Alabaster, Alabama.  Numerous items of evidence were found, including fake FBI badges, fake military credentials, fake credentials for surgeons, fake Immigration and Customs Enforcement uniforms and credentials, pepper spray, handcuffs, computers, and molds and materials to make other law enforcement badges and credentials. 

Thetford was tracked over three days and arrested on November 19, 2011, after he fled on foot from pursuing FBI agents through a rural wooded area known as Confederate Memorial Park in Alabama.  After his arrest, Thetford sent a letter to a family member asking the family member to track down a laptop computer that he did not want law enforcement authorities to find.  The laptop computer and other computer media seized from his home connected Thetford to a plot to defraud the Winsletts by illegally transferring their Alabama real estate and other property and assets to himself and his land surveying business.  Thetford unlawfully used fake notary credentials to make transfer paperwork look legitimate.  Thetford’s associate testified at trial that Thetford wanted to take and sell the victim’s Alabama property, so Thetford traveled to South Dakota in May of 2010 to investigate the victims and determine if they had plans to come back to Alabama.
 
Though incarcerated on other Alabama charges, around February 13, 2013, Thetford sent a letter to the Winsletts that served to threaten and intimidate the victims.  The letter sought to have the Winsletts stop cooperating with law enforcement authorities and withhold testimony.  A superseding Indictment alleging Witness Tampering was obtained in March 2014.  
         
This case was investigated by the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation, the Pierre FBI office, the Birmingham, Alabama FBI office, the U.S. Marshal’s Service, the FBI’s Science and Technology Branch Investigative Analysis Unit, and other local law enforcement agencies in Alabama.  Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Maher prosecuted the case.
         
A presentence investigation was ordered and a sentencing date was set for January 5, 2015.  Thetford was remanded to the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service pending sentencing.


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Updated June 22, 2015