The breakup of an identity-theft ring that authorities believe was based inside the home of a soft-spoken man in a wheelchair has led to dozens of criminal charges against suspected thieves, two of whom had been sought by police for months.
“It was a good hit,” said Spokane County sheriff’s detective Dean Meyer.
The case began with an improbable clue: surveillance video in January of 33-year-old Robert J. Childress pocketing a pricy iPhone as he rolled through a Spokane-area Wal-Mart department store in his wheelchair, according to court documents.
When detectives later identified him and searched his Airway Heights home they found an apparent ID theft operation that included stacks of blank checks, driver’s licenses, credit cards and a computer printer. They also found two more suspected thieves, both of whom had recently been featured in Crime Stoppers notices offering rewards for their capture.
On Wednesday, more than five moths after the Jan. 29 search, Childress pleaded innocent to 13 counts of second-degree possession of stolen property, possession of another’s identification and second-degree theft.
“The charges are completely false,” Childress said after appearing before Spokane County Superior Court Judge Ellen Kalama Clark. “I woke up in the morning and those things were in my house with a bunch of people I didn’t know.”
The other suspects in the alleged identity-theft ring, Eli P. VanSickle, 31, and Brittaini C. Dorman, 22, are in custody on other charges but now face additional counts, including malicious mischief and vehicle prowling, according to a report prepared by Meyer.
Dorman pleaded innocent Wednesday to six counts of second-degree possession of stolen property.
The case, authorities say, helps illustrate how crimes like car break-ins and identity theft often connect in larger criminal rings operated out of a central location. Detectives linked VanSickle, Dorman and Childress to crimes against 14 people.
Most victims had their driver’s license and credit cards stolen from their cars. Others lived near Childress and their missing mail was found in his home, Meyer said.
Each suspect has experience with some of the charges - Childress was sentenced to 28 months in prison in 2004 on charges of theft, identity theft, stolen property and possession of methamphetamine.
VanSickle is in the Washington Corrections Center in Walla Walla after being sentenced in March to 29 months on more than 20 counts of theft, malicious mischief and vehicle prowling.
Dorman is in Geiger Corrections Center, charged with second-degree theft and second-degree organized retail theft for stealing clothes from Plato’s Closet in Spokane Valley with her older sister, according to court documents.
One of the thefts came just days before she was arrested at Childress’ home.