Arrested in theft of checks and keys to USPS mailboxes

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Four men accused of stealing postal service master keys and sifting through stolen mail for checks to handle and cash are behind a series of scams and violent attacks in the Washington area, according to an indictment released Friday.

“At least thirteen such robberies took place in the Washington DC area between May 23 and July 7, 2022,” federal prosecutors said in a court filing on Friday, trying to keep the arrested men in custody pending trial. “Not only does the evidence tie the defendants to this series of armed, and in some cases violent, robberies, but during the alleged offense the defendants also used force to attempt an escape after law enforcement observed them … mail from USPS collection boxes.” stealing and trying to stop her vehicle.”

Ali Dickerson, 20, from Hyattsville; Eyalan Owona, 21, of Upper Marlboro; and Benjamin Washington, 22, of Owings Mills, were arrested and making their first appearance in Greenbelt federal court Friday. No attorneys were listed for any of them as of Saturday.

A fourth defendant, Ibrahim Kourouma, 22, of Glenarden, was a fugitive as of Friday, according to the Maryland US Attorney’s Office. Authorities said they have identified three other co-conspirators in the alleged robbery and check fraud scheme, but they have not been charged or named in court filings.

Prosecutors said U.S. Parks Police in June recovered about 65 apparently stolen and “laundered” checks for tens of thousands of dollars from an apartment the four men and their co-conspirators appeared to be using or occupying. They also found handgun ammunition , computers, printers and blank check supplies, authorities said.

The four accused men were in a dark gray Hyundai on May 25 when Montgomery County police observed Washington exit the vehicle and return, apparently with contents from a mailbox, prosecutors said. When police initiated a traffic stop, the car began speeding, they said.

Owona, who was allegedly driving, rammed police vehicles trying to corner him from the front and back, “in the process of hitting a police officer with his car and throwing him to the ground,” prosecutors said for Sticky Notes filed Friday. Police had to smash the front windows, unlock the car from the inside and pull Owona out of the vehicle, prosecutors said. Owona and Washington were on pre-trial release or probation for prior offenses, they said.

“The robberies all involved firearms that were displayed and sometimes aimed directly at USPS employees,” the US Attorney for Maryland said, requesting that the three arrested suspects remain in custody pending trial. “Physical violence was used to steal arrow keys from postmen, resulting in bodily injuries and constant threats to their lives while they carried the arrow keys sought by the defendants and their co-conspirators. Furthermore, the defendants have already ruthlessly and dangerously resisted arrest and should not be given another chance to do so.”

Prosecutors said Dickerson, Kourouma and Owona were released after their May 25 arrest while Washington remained in custody because he was on probation. Later that same day, “two mailmen were robbed at gunpoint in the Chevy Chase and Crofton, MD areas by people with matching physical descriptions,” prosecutors said.

Postal service porters had their arrow keys stolen — a master key to mailboxes in a specific geographic area carried by postal workers — at least one of which was identical to the key confiscated from the four that morning, officials said.

All four men face a maximum of 10 years in prison for possession of postal service keys and a maximum of five years for stealing mail if convicted.

The US Postal Inspection Service reported earlier this year that it had seen a “significant rise” in armed raids on mail carriers nationwide to steal arrow keys in a trend related to stolen checks.

Frustrated residents in Maryland suburbs, including Bethesda, Chevy Chase and Silver Spring, had reported strange, inflated charges on their accounts, which they blamed on checks left in the mail, according to a Washington Post report earlier this year.

According to experts, stolen checks and keys are often put up for sale online. On Telegram channels dedicated to check fraud, payment amounts ranged from $8 to a written business check for more than $36,000, according to a Post review. The checks themselves were offered for $100 or more. A Telegram seller offered USPS arrow keys for $5,000 and $7,000 to access mailboxes in Maryland and North Carolina. Another offered a Florida key for $3,000. Several channel admins stated that they only accept payments in Bitcoin or Cash App.

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