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Press Release

Joplin Man Pleads Guilty to Money Laundering in $5.6 Million Cooking Oil Scheme

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Western District of Missouri

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – Tammy Dickinson, United States Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, announced that a Joplin, Mo., man pleaded guilty in federal court today to money laundering, the third defendant to plead guilty to charges related to a conspiracy to sell more than $5.6 million worth of spent cooking oil – stolen from restaurants across five states – to a recycling facility in Oklahoma.


Neal Sawyer Robbins, 29, of Joplin, Mo., pleaded guilty today before U.S. Magistrate Judge David P. Rush to money laundering.


Co-defendant Virgil Orin Bird, Jr., 52, of Joplin, pleaded guilty to the same charge on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016. Co-defendant Brian Dale Fleming, 49, of Mountain Grove, Mo., pleaded guilty on Nov. 19, 2015, to his role in a conspiracy to transport stolen property across state lines and to money laundering.


Brian Fleming admitted that he utilized his business, Tri-State Grease in Cabool, Mo., to transport spent cooking oil that had been stolen from restaurants from Nov. 1, 2010, to Sept. 30, 2011.


Spent cooking oil is the by-product of cooking oil that restaurants use for frying food. Restaurants have on-site collection tanks in which their spent cooking oil was stored. Many restaurants establish contracts with various companies for the collection and removal of spent cooking oil. Brian Fleming and his co-conspirators trained, encouraged and aided others to steal spent cooking oil in order to sell it to others for recycling.


On July 11, 2011, Brian Fleming assisted undercover law enforcement officers in what he believed was the theft of approximately 32,000 pounds of spent cooking oil with a value of approximately $9,000 from a tanker truck. Fleming paid an undercover officer $4,650 for the purported stolen spent cooking oil. Brian Fleming told undercover agents that he sent his drivers to Memphis, Tenn., and other areas to steal spent cooking oil.


Brian Fleming has agreed to forfeit any interest he may have to $595,429 that was seized by law enforcement officers as proceeds of the illegal scheme.


By pleading guilty today, Robbins admitted that he participated with undercover law enforcement agents to obtain spent cooking oil, which he believed had been stolen. Robbins delivered the spent cooking oil to a recycling facility, for which he was paid $1,400. Robbins paid $7,076 to individuals whom he assisted in stealing the spent cooking oil.


Bird admitted that he conducted a financial transaction on Sept. 20, 2011. Bird paid $6,720 to undercover agents for spent cooking oil he believed had been stolen from a tanker truck in Kansas and transported to Missouri. Under the terms of his plea agreement, Bird must forfeit to the government the $6,720 that was paid to the undercover agents.


Brian Fleming also pleaded guilty, in a separate case, to being a felon in possession of a firearm. Brian Fleming admitted that he was in possession of a Smith and Wesson 9mm pistol and ammunition on Feb. 9, 2015. Under federal law, it is illegal for anyone who has been convicted of a felony to be in possession of any firearm or ammunition. Brian Fleming has a prior felony conviction for distributing a controlled substance.


Under federal statutes, Robbins and Bird are each subject to a sentence of up to 20 years in federal prison without parole, plus a fine up to $500,000 (or twice the value of the funds involved) and an order of restitution. Brian Fleming is subject to a sentence of up to 35 years in federal prison without parole plus a fine up to $1 million (or twice the value of the funds involved) and an order of restitution. Brian Fleming is scheduled to be sentenced on March 3, 2016. Sentencing hearings for Robbins and Bird will be scheduled after the completion of presentence investigations by the United States Probation Office.


This case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Abram McGull and Patrick Carney. It was investigated by IRS-Criminal Investigation, the Missouri State Highway Patrol and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Updated January 19, 2016