BEND, Oe. - (Updating: Ga. prison inmate pleads guilty to federal charge)
A Georgia state prison inmate has pleaded guilty to a federal charge for his role in a cross-country scam that called Deschutes County residents, falsely claiming to be sheriff's deputies and demanding payment for failure to report to jury duty,
U.S. Attorney Beth Drake said Jay Byron Wright, 42, of the Calhoun State Prison in Morgan, Georgia, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, accepted the plea and will sentence Wright at a later date.
Evidence presented at the hearing established that Wright and other prisoners called citizens of Oregon using a cellphone smuggled into their prison, told the Oregonians they were in contempt of court for not showing up for jury duty and said they owed the court money.
They told the Oregonians they could pay the money by obtaining Money Pak Green Dot cards for the specified value and providing the numbers on the cards to the callers. The numbers gave the callers access to the value on the card, which could then be transferred onto other Green Dot cards.
At least three people in Oregon fell for this scam, and they transferred values slightly less than $1,000 to cards used by various co-conspirators in South Carolina.
The maximum penalty faced by Wright is imprisonment for twenty years, with a potential fine up to $250,000.
Yhe Deschutes County Sheriff's Office and SLED (South Carolina) investigated the case. Assistant U.S. Attorney Winston David Holliday, Jr., of the Columbia office is prosecuting the case.
Wright and two other Southeast U.S. residents - including Wright's daughter were indicted on federal fraud charges in the scheme last November.
Here are the details of the allegations, including a money-laundering scheme, as outlined in a November news release from Deschutes County sheriff’s Sgt. William Bailey:
From late 2015 through early 2017, the Deschutes County Sheriff's Office was investigating reports of various telephone scams targeting county citizens.
Since then, sheriff's detectives have followed many investigative leads around the country and presented their findings to the United States Attorney's Office in Columbia, South Carolina. On Wednesday, the U.S. Attorney's Office and a sheriff's detective obtained a federal indictment charging:
Jay Baron Wright, Sr., 42, an inmate at the Calhoun State Prison (in Georgia)
His daughter, Christine Wright, 24, of Windsor, South Carolina
Barbara Lynn Clayton, 43 of Windsor, South Carolina
with Conspiracy to Commit Wire Fraud (18 U.S.C. Â§ 1349).
Bailey said it's believed that Jay Baron Wright, Sr., and possibly another Georgia prison inmates allegedly used contraband cellular telephones from inside Jimmy Autry State Prison in Pelham, Georgia, to access Internet websites to identify the names, addresses and phone numbers of potential fraud victims.
Using the cellular telephones, Bailey said, the inmates called the victims. During these calls, the they made certain false representations to the victims, including: (a) that he was a Deschutes County law enforcement official; (b) that the potential victims had unlawfully failed to appear for jury duty; (c) that because the potential victims had failed to appear for jury duty, warrants had been issued for the victims' arrest; and (d) that the potential victims had a choice of being arrested on the warrants or pay fines to have the arrest warrants dismissed.
To make the calls seem real, the inmates created fictitious voicemail greetings on their contraband cellular telephones, identifying themselves as members of the Deschutes County Sheriff's Office.
Unfortunately, several Deschutes County citizens made payment, believing it would be used to pay the fine for failing to appear for jury duty and would result in the dismissal of the arrest warrant, Bailey said.
For those victims who chose the "fine," the inmates allegedly instructed them to purchase pre-paid cash cards and provide the account number of the cash card.
After a victim provided an inmate with the account number of the pre-paid cash card, the inmates then used their contraband cellular telephones to contact the co-conspirators, Christine Wright and Barbara Clayton, who were not incarcerated, to have them transfer the money from the cash card purchased by the victims to a pre-paid debit card possessed by the co-conspirators.
Next, Bailey said, the co-conspirators withdrew the victim's money, which had been transferred to the pre-paid debit card they controlled, via an ATM or at a retail store. Typically, the co-conspirators then laundered the stolen money by purchasing a new cash card so that the victims' funds could be transferred back to the inmates.
During the investigation, Deschutes County Sheriff's Office detectives located additional victims in Colorado, Kentucky and Virginia.
Bailey wrote, "The Sheriff's Office wants the public to know they should never send someone money without verifying the information they are being provided first. It is not common practice for the Deschutes County Sheriff's Office to advise a citizen they have a warrant over the phone. In most cases a citizen with a warrant will be contacted in person, and the Deputy will have proper credentials when serving the warrant."
Bailey told NewsChannel 21 the scheme is fairly uncommon, “as inmates shouldn’t have these cellphones in prison.”
He did not have details on the number of calls or dollar amounts, citing the active, ongoing investigation and potential for more arrests and charges.
Sheriff Nelson said, "I am so proud of Sgt. (Kent) Vander Kamp and everyone else who worked on this case. These types of cases can be time-intensive and extremely difficult to investigate. Scams come in many different forms and being able to follow the leads and get this indictment is outstanding. Because of hard work and partnerships with other law enforcement agencies, these scammers will be held accountable."
An investigation of the complexity required partnerships with other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies from around the United States. The Deschutes County Sheriff's Office and the U.S. Attorney's Office -- South Carolina received investigative assistance from:
Oregon State Police -- Bend
Oregon Department of Justice -- Criminal Division
South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED)
United States Marshal Service (Atlanta, GA)
Pueblo County (CO) Sheriff's Office
Albemarle County (VA) Sheriff's Office
Douglas County (GA) Sheriff's Office
Kentucky State Police
This investigation is on-going and more indictments and arrests are anticipated. Please contact Sgt. Kent Vander Kamp (541-693-6911) if you were a victim of this particular "warrant" scam and have not yet reported your loss.