Dozens arrested in check fraud ring


Last year we told you about the frustration facing many apartment renters. When checks and money orders were stolen out of the drop boxes in some apartment complexes, the renters had to pay all over again. But authorities say they may have put a stop to at least some of those thefts.

Houston police say apartment managers and tenants can sleep a bit easier knowing they've already arrested dozens who've allegedly been stealing from local apartment complexes.

Police say five men and women who remain on the loose are just a few of the gang members and players in an organized crime ring that's been stealing rent payment from numerous apartment complex drop boxes in the greater Houston area.

Capt. Dale Brown with the Houston Police Department said, "These individuals would, after painting stolen money orders, would wash the instrument and counterfeit it and change the name on it."

Investigators say they've been looking into these suspected thieves and members of different gangs allegedly involved in the money order scheme since last May. They say the groups targeted more than 100 exterior drop boxes at complexes in Harris, Brazoria, Montgomery and Galveston counties.

"They recruited numerous individuals, some of them were homeless, to help cash these instruments at various check cashing locations across the area," Capt. Brown said.

Houston police, Homeland Security and the District Attorney's Office all worked the investigation. They believe the crime ring has stolen between $1 million and $5 million.

Investigators are also asking for the public's help in locating five additional suspects wanted for their involvement in these incidents. They are identified as: Arturo 'Cherio' Villarreal, 29, LaKesha Jackson, 29, Melissa Anders, 25, Lillie Wright, 22, and Ellyn Ustica, 38.

Polices say Villareal and Jackson were last seen driving either a 2002 green, four-door Buick LeSabre with Texas license plates BX2D465 or a 1997 beige/tan, four-door Toyota sedan with Texas license plates DK3M752.

Anyone with information on the whereabouts of the remaining wanted suspects is urged to contact any other participating law enforcement agencies or Crime Stoppers at 713-222-TIPS.

Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos said, "We are going to disrupt them, and dismantle their organizations, and we just say, don't mess with Harris County, honey."

So far, authorities say they have arrested 40 people.

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