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Woman Masterminds $2 Million Unemployment Fraud from California Prison Cell

by Jo Ellen Nott

A woman serving a life sentence in a California prison and a dozen accomplices she allegedly led were charged on May 18, 2022, in a scheme to defraud the state of at least $2 million in unemployment benefits between June 2020 and April 2021. An unnamed state prison worker helped the group obtain identities used in the scam, according charging documents filed by the federal Department of Justice (DOJ).

The woman, Natalie Le DeMola, 37, has been incarcerated at the California Institution for Women since 2005, when she and boyfriend Terry Bell were convicted of first-degree murder for the fatal beating of DeMola’s mother at the home she shared with DeMola in 2001.  DeMola, who was 16 at the time, and Bell, who was then 17, plotted the killing because the older woman did not approve of her daughter’s relationship with Bell.

Most of the stolen  money came from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020 and was intended to provide relief to workers laid off during the COVID-19 pandemic. California estimated in January 2021 that unemployment fraud during the pandemic had topped $11 billion.

DeMola allegedly conspired with former fellow prisoner Carleisha Neosha Plummer, 32, to create fraudulent accounts with the state Economic Development Department (EDD) using personal information provided by a prison worker. That information had been stolen from people who were not eligible for benefits because they were incarcerated, retired, or working.

Plummer was paroled in July 2020, according to federal prosecutors. Two of the other defendants were arrested in September 2020 after a traffic stop turned up ATM receipts linked to unemployment benefit accounts and a ledger listing 98 victims whose information was used to make bogus unemployment applications.

Federal authorities arrested Plummer and four other defendants on May 17, 2022: Loresha Shamone Davis, 31, of Moreno Valley; Porsha Latrice Johnson, 32, of Lynwood; Donisha Lashawn Pace, 38, of South Los Angeles; and Amber Jane Wade, 34, of Palmdale.

Another defendant, James Antonio Johnson, who has several aliases including “Big Dawg Niddy,” 31, of Los Angeles, was in custody in the Los Angeles County jail, prosecutors said.

Six more suspects were still at large: Dominique Charmone Martin, 37, of Yucaipa, as well as Khanshanda King, 31, Cleshay Johnson II, 28, Felicite Aleisha King, 41, Shafequah Lynete Mitchell, 33, and Mykara Destiny Robertson, 23, all of Los Angeles.

The 13 defendants are charged with a total of 31 counts of bank fraud and seven counts of aggravated identify theft. Each bank fraud charge carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.

The scheme was uncovered when investigators received a tip and found a prison worker had accessed information belonging to hundreds of prisoners and their approved visitors. DeMola’s ring then allegedly used 250 of those names to apply for EDD unemployment benefits.

During a congressional hearing in March 2022 the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Labor, Larry Turner, estimated that $163 billion in pandemic unemployment benefit payouts were lost as a result of similar fraud.

Sources:  New York Times, Market Watch

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