Editor’s note: This is the second story of a two-part series.
Longtime Idaho prison inmate Mark Anthony Brown had only been at the Idaho Correctional Institution in Orofino for five months when suspicions were aroused.
In March 2012, a mail room officer mentioned to Cpl. Wesley Heckathorn, a guard at the Orofino prison and a former investigator for the U.S. Navy, that Brown seemed to be receiving “a large amount of mail that’s marked ‘legal mail.’ ”
Legal mail is handled differently than other mail in prisons, which is routinely screened by prison authorities. Inmates are allowed to correspond with their attorneys and the courts to conduct appeals or address other legal matters without such screening.
Brown had been incarcerated for decades; he was transferred to Orofino after being housed at privately run prisons contracted by the state to ease crowding.
The volume of legal mail “struck me as odd,” Heckathorn said; he figured such a long-term inmate likely was past the appeals period. He said, “I was just looking at where it came from and where it was going to – it looked to me like maybe it wasn’t legal mail.”
What Heckathorn uncovered was the inner workings of what appeared to be a remarkable scam in which Brown, typing away on an electric typewriter in his Idaho prison cell, filed allegedly false claims in major lawsuit settlements around the nation, collecting tens of thousands of dollars. One check alone, from litigation involving pharmaceutical powerhouse GlaxoSmithKline, was for $29,000 – mailed to Brown in prison.
Heckathorn reported the matter to the warden and other prison authorities, who authorized him to start screening the correspondence. “From March to July, I just kind of covertly monitored all of his phone calls, I was looking at his mail, I was watching his finances, kind of collecting data,” Heckathorn said. “I had a clue that something was wrong. … In July, I had enough data to indicate that a crime was likely being committed.”
In July 2012, Heckathorn and the prison sent a report to the FBI, which began investigating. In August, a publishing company called him to say Brown had filed a fraudulent claim in the company’s bankruptcy litigation.
“This is the first case of this sort that we’ve ever seen,” said Heckathorn, who investigated everything from plane crashes to disciplinary infractions in his 25 years in the Navy. Prison inmates “are creative, but I never expected to see anything like this.”
A federal grand jury indicted Brown on charges of mail fraud, and a trial is tentatively set to begin in September in U.S. District Court. Much of the nearly $64,000 that authorities believe he received through the prison fraud scheme was transferred to an investment account now targeted for potential forfeiture.
Thomas Cooke, a professor of accounting and business law at Georgetown University, said bankruptcy trustees have a “duty of due diligence” to make sure claims are legitimate, and large class-action cases have a court-appointed official tasked with reviewing every claim. But, noting that tax fraud by prison inmates has drawn attention across the country in recent years, Cooke said, “It does not surprise me that the prison population has figured out what financial schemes work and don’t work.” He added, “Our prisons are full of bad people with too much time on their hands,” who “can come up with creative ways to make illegal gains.”
Heckathorn said Brown appeared to be “just kind of rolling the dice,” submitting an array of claims. “Some got turned down, some of them made it through.”
Brown, said Heckathorn, would file claims and instruct recipients to write the words “legal mail” on any correspondence sent to him. Rather than being screened in a prison mail room, legal mail is opened by an officer in the inmate’s presence, simply verifying that no contraband is contained and handing the mail over without reading it.
“A lot of that stuff was actually coming … from bankruptcy courts,” Heckathorn said. “It was very well masked, if you will. It looked legitimate.”
Brown had been a “polite” and “cooperative” prisoner since he’d arrived at Orofino, and he aroused no suspicion. “He really flew under the radar, from my perspective,” Heckathorn said. “He wasn’t somebody that drew our attention.”
None of that surprises Terry Rich, a high-tech businessman in Boise who gave Brown a job in 1994 while Brown was briefly on parole.
“I’d be curious what his IQ is,” Rich said of Brown, “because I think he’s probably borderline brilliant.”
Heckathorn, who’s been a prison guard for five years, said the case opened his eyes.
“Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know,” he said. “We have learned a lot from this case.”
Terema Carlin, the Orofino warden, said she’s proud of her staff. “It did take a team approach. It took somebody going, ‘This just doesn’t sound right’ in the mail processing room, and then Cpl. Heckathorn to pick it up and run with it,” she said.
A California firm administering four of the major court settlements in which Brown filed claims declined to comment on the case.
Steve Tobiason, who prosecuted Brown in 1982 as a deputy Nez Perce County prosecutor, pressed back then for a long prison term for the bright young serial burglar who excelled as a computer science student at the University of Idaho by day, while burglarizing university buildings, homes and businesses at night and hiding his loot. “He has the intellectual ability to be a devastating criminal,” he told the court.
Tobiason stands by that today. “When you’ve got somebody that’s very bright and they decide their life is going to be essentially a life of crime, they can be dangerous,” he said. “They can figure out ways to do things that most people are never even going to think of. And obviously, this guy did.”