It was in the middle of the chaos surrounding a school shooting last week that three people saw opportunity rather than heartbreak.
While parents sped along traffic-clogged U.S. Highway 27, parked their cars and ran toward Freeman High School – where they had just gotten word a student fired a weapon into a second-story hallway, wounding or killing who knows how many – Renee Mann, Larry Flett and Nicole Jensen lurked behind the scenes and prowled through the long line of unattended vehicles, according to investigators.
The three were returning to Spokane from a trip to the Coeur d’Alene Casino when they saw police activity at the school and stopped to see the commotion. Investigators allege in court documents that the three are thieves who found themselves in the right place at the right time.
Some parents left their cars unlocked as they rushed to check on their children. At least one of the alleged thieves looked into a white 2007 Volkswagen with a purse sitting inside. It belonged to a mother of Freeman student; the car she was driving was a friend’s.
In her purse were multiple debit and credit cards, a gray wallet, keys to a Honda and personal checks written to a landscaper totaling over $36,000. Soon after the items were stolen the credit cards were used to buy more than $800 in goods from local retail stores in Spokane. The checks were ripped up and flushed down the toilet.
The crimes drew the ire of the community and special attention from investigators.
As Deputy Mark Gregory, spokesman for the sheriff’s office, wrote in a news release at the time: “Property crimes themselves are typically hard for victims to deal with, especially when identity theft and fraud are involved, but the fact these criminals took advantage of such a tragic situation is particularly heinous.”
While talking to detectives after their arrest, the women, Mann and Jensen, gave differing accounts of what happened. According to Jensen, Mann gave her the credit cards as a form of payment for a prior drug debt – she said she had no idea the cards were stolen until after she used them to purchase $461 worth of items at Fred Meyer and spent $410 at Walmart.
Mann said she saw Jensen and Flett exit the car and return a short time later with a purse. She told deputies she didn’t know who took the purse.
Jensen said they “needed to go to a store to spend the money.”
Mann said she purchased items from Walmart for her home: diapers, baby wipes, toilet paper, detergent, fabric softener, sheets and hair dye. She said Jensen made two purchases – one at Fred Meyer and another at Walmart.
Flett, meanwhile, appears not to have purchased anything. As the prosecuting attorney stated during Flett’s first court appearance Wednesday, “It looks like he was in the periphery of this nonsense. But he definitely was involved.”
It took five days after the purse was stolen to find and arrest Jensen. The next day, Flett and Mann were arrested as well.
Gregory said the public outpouring of tips played an important role in the investigation. In a search warrant filed by Detective Dean Meyer, he wrote that a “large majority of the tips identified the suspects as Nicole D. Jensen and Renee C. Mann” and also included their address.
When asked if the sheriff’s office or public were more active in this case, as opposed to a purse-snatching incident that could have occurred on any other day or place, Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said it would “still be a big deal normally,” but that this one was obviously different.
“This was a parent who had to go through that,” he said.
When deputies served the warrant at 1512 N. Lincoln Road on Tuesday night, where Mann and Flett were living, they found eight children and about 10 adults. They also found the items Mann purchased, in addition to the purse and wallet which were stashed in a cubbyhole.
In court Wednesday, Flett was straight-faced and solemn as Superior Court Judge Tony Hazel set bond at $75,000, noting 20 prior failures to appear in court.
Mann, who was teary-eyed and had fewer skipped court hearings and a shorter criminal record, had bail set at $50,000. At an earlier court appearance Wednesday morning for separate outstanding charges, she began crying.
Flett’s and Mann’s public defender did not argue the bond amount.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter