December 12, 2008 in City

Plea deal OK’d in organized crime charge

Woman will spend more than 12 years in prison
Meghann M. Cuniff Staff writer
 

There were no gold chains, fat cigars, bodyguards or sleek cars. Her headquarters was a walk-in closet in Spokane Valley, and she spent the money on methamphetamine – lots of it.

Now Gina M. Johnston, who prosecutors say masterminded a forged check and identity theft ring that victimized dozens of people across the region, will spend more than a decade in prison under the state’s organized crime law.

“It was just a big collage of chaos, and it revolved around drugs,” said Johnston, 39, in an interview at the Spokane County Jail.

She was sentenced to more than 12 years in prison under a plea deal approved this week. Her ex-boyfriend, Loren S. Broyles, 39, was sentenced to 35 months Thursday in a plea deal on lesser charges.

Johnston is among a handful of people who’ve been prosecuted for organized crime in Spokane County in connection with forgery and fraud since a deputy prosecutor first invoked it in a 2002 identity ring bust.

“It’s sort of a whole new realm of organized crime that really hasn’t gelled in the minds of a lot of people,” said Douglas Hughes, the deputy prosecutor who handled the case. “There’s still sort of this Mafioso-type ‘Soprano’ thinking about it.”

Forgery and identity theft convictions generally carry sentences of a few years.

A conviction for leading organized crime can carry more than 15 years.

“It’s a pretty big stick to swing at somebody,” said Sgt. Brett Gores of the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office property crimes unit.

Johnston had been out of prison since March 2007 on a forgery conviction when detectives raided a walk-in closet she rented at a friend’s apartment with Broyles in August. They were arrested in December 2007.

The pair had essentially been using stolen checks to forge new ones, which they gave to friends – including Johnston’s son and daughter – to cash, according to court documents. Car prowlers and burglars brought them checkbooks and credit cards in exchange for meth or cash.

The crime ring victimized more than 60 people in nine states and included blatant fraud attempts, including a failed effort by one man to pay his Lincoln County court fines with a fake credit card number, according to court documents. Some of the credit card numbers came from customers at a Spokane martial arts center Broyles managed.

Though Johnston said in an interview that Broyles forced her into the crimes, sheriff’s Detective Lloyd Hixson said his investigation showed Johnston led the operation, earning half of each forged check that was cashed.

“You put someone like her in prison for 10 years it’s going to have a bigger effect than putting 100 people in prison for one year each,” Hixson said.

The charge of leading organized crime requires prosecutors to show someone led three or more people in criminal conduct. Police connected Johnston to at least five.

Her plea deal this week included guilty pleas to extortion and kidnapping – court papers show she forced a co-conspirator to stay at her apartment for more than a week helping forge checks. She will serve the sentences for those crimes at the same time as her 149 month sentence on the organized crime charge.

The state court of appeals upheld the 2002 conviction of Steven Ray Munson under the law, which earned him 198 months in prison. Another woman convicted on a single count of leading organized crime, Cybil M. Imholt, is serving a 51-month prison sentence.

Convictions require long investigations that look at not just vehicle prowling and credit card thefts but how the crimes are connected, Hughes said.

“That really gets these sentences into the level where we can have a detrimental effect on future conduct,” Hughes said.

“One hundred and forty nine months is an awful long time to go to prison.”

Meghann M. Cuniff can be reached at (509) 459-5534 or at meghannc@spokesman.com.


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