A group of phone thieves robbed dozens of bars outside Minneapolis, drained $277,000 apps

A roving ring of sometimes violent thieves stole cellphones from people near bars in downtown Minneapolis and Dinkytown for nearly a year, dumping their money transaction apps totaling more than $275,000 and selling regularly the phones to a man who ships them to overseas buyers, according to charges filed Tuesday.

Racketeering charges were filed against 12 people ‘following a groundbreaking and thorough joint investigation’ by the Minneapolis Police Department and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Arrest, which reviewed 65 cases over the course of the past year, the Hennepin County District Attorney’s Office said in a statement.

Those among the defendants who worked on the streets often targeted intoxicated people as they left bars at closing time as early as June 2021, the charges allege.

One of the defendants interviewed by police said a group of about 15 people from St. Paul had been going to the downtown Minneapolis bar district for three to four years to steal cellphones from people. , according to the charges.

In some cases, the defendants took phones through means such as intimidation, “ruse and violence” that caused serious injuries to people, the charging document says.

At other times, the defendants approached people in a friendly manner and asked for their phone, so they could add themselves to a social media platform. The defendants ensured that the victims unlocked their phones before handing them over to accomplices who would transfer money from the victims’ accounts to the thieves’ accounts using mobile payment services such as Venmo, Zelle and Coinbase.

The amount of money from 40 or more victim apps totaled $277,000, the charges allege, with the value of the stolen phones exceeding $25,000.

Charged with criminal racketeering and warrants issued for their arrest are: St. Paul residents Aaron Johnson, 25; Sharlotte Green, 21; Charlie Pryor Jr., 18; Charlie Pryor Sr., 41; Alfonze Stuckey, 23; Sherrod Lamar, 23; Emarion White, 18; and Antonio Green, 19; Minneapolis residents David Mullins, 26; Zhongshuang Su, aka Brandon Su; and Heiron Birts, 26; and Lawrence Miles, 22, a resident of Bloomington.

Su is accused of being the man others in the scheme have called the “iPhone Man”, who bought the stolen phones and sent them to buyers overseas. In total, according to prosecutors, Su made 40 shipments of 1,135 phones to addresses in Hong Kong. Prosecutors estimated the value of these phones at more than $800,000.

“We are not certain that each of the cellphones in these shipments were stolen,” said county attorney’s office spokesman Maxwell Page, “but [prosecutors] I believe some of the stolen phones are part of those shipments.”

Arrest warrants have been issued for all 12 defendants, and a check of prison and state prison records late Tuesday afternoon in Minnesota found no inmates. Su is described in the complaint as a Chinese national, who “is in the country on a student visa and poses a flight risk.”

Several of the defendants are related or live in the same house, the charges noted. For example: the Pryors are father and son, and Stuckey is their cousin. The Greens are brothers and sisters. Sharlotte Green and Johnson are a couple.

Prosecutors said many members of the phone-stealing group had criminal histories. Among them: Johnson has ongoing cases alleging theft, assault, receiving stolen property; Pryor Jr. has an assault with an ongoing dangerous weapon case; and Birts is charged with third-degree criminal sexual conduct.

When some of the gang of thieves landed in jail, Su was known to bail them out, according to the charges.

In order to cover up their crimes, prosecutors said, defendants sometimes gave friends or family a share of the money in exchange for laundering their ill-gotten gains. Johnson solicited people on Facebook to help him launder money under the name of “gratuitous scams”.

The charges in the 27-page criminal complaint explain how downtown and Dinkytown visitors were targeted, and the price they paid financially and physically:

  • Last October on downtown Hennepin Avenue, Johnson and Stuckey teamed up with an unwitting man outside the Gay 90s nightclub, a place the defendants often visited. The man gave his phone, supposedly so Stuckey could enter his number. Johnson pushed the man and Stuckey punched the victim and walked away with the phone. The man fell, hit his head on the pavement and started vomiting and bleeding.
  • Between 2 and 3 a.m. one night in late November, a man dropped his phone after he tripped while standing outside the downtown Sneaky Pete bar. A man picked up the phone and ran away. Later, he sometimes unsuccessfully attempted to siphon $15,000 from his Coinbase account, but his credit union account was debited for $5,000 through the Venmo app.
  • In January, two men started talking to a man outside the downtown Jackson’s Hole bar and said they were musicians. One said it was his birthday and asked the man to look up something on his phone. One of the men grabbed the phone, ripped the victim’s shirt in a fight. The victim said he lost $24,500 from his Coinbase account through seven successful withdrawals out of 21 attempts.
  • In February, a man said he was outside Philly and Andrea Pizza in Dinkytown, where White grabbed the man’s cell phone and handed it to a woman. Four nefarious app trades cost the man $6,000. About a week later, another man in the same Dinkytown neighborhood also lost $6,000 after he handed his phone to a member of a group who started talking to him on the street.

Heiron Birts, twice questioned by police about his role in the robberies, said the group drove together to downtown Minneapolis and then split up in pursuit of the victims.

Birts said he was paid between $60 and $250 for his role as a “distractor,” and that each participant in the scheme had a role to play in getting the victims an unlocked phone.

“The distractor’s job, in particular, is to confuse the victim after the phone has been taken from them, so that other members of the group can then walk away with the victim’s phone,” the complaint states.

Johnson told police after his arrest in connection with several robberies on Hennepin Avenue one night in June 2021 that he was a “middleman” who purchased phones on that street that he knew were stolen, and tells the sellers that he “don’t want to know nothing about how they got them.”

He said he would go online and order new empty boxes and charging cords, refurbish phones and “sell them to another party for a profit … to strangers”, according to the charges.

About Geraldine Higgins

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