By Katie Fallon
In just her third month of being a detective with the Sandy Springs Police Department, Heather Jones helped crack two major identity theft cases.
Jones, 29, has been with the department since it debuted in July of 2006, but began as a day watch patrol officer. A seven year veteran of law enforcement, Jones did not begin working in the Criminal Investigations Division (CID) until April of this year. It wasn’t long until she started working on two cases, one of which ended with federal arrests.
As a detective with the CID, Jones focuses on white collar offenses that include financial crimes such as theft of financial transaction cards, fraud, forgery and ID fraud. In late April, Jones began investigating the first of two major identity theft cases.
On April 24, a former employee of the Ranstadt located in the Publix shopping center at 6681 Roswell Road filed an incident report after receiving a notice from the IRS that she had unpaid taxes from her income received from the staffing company in 2005 and 2006. The victim, however, had not worked for Ranstadt since 2001.
“That’s what started the whole evolution of that case and it snowballed into something much bigger,” Jones said.
Because the case is still under investigation, Jones said she cannot elaborate too much on the details. Essentially, though, she said the branch manager of the Ranstadt location, 42-year-old Cynthia Whitehead, would allegedly create a false working record for a former employee and draw the salary from that record.
Lt. Steve Rose said Whitehead, who was arrested in June 25, was originally held on a $100,000 bond and charged with falsely creating a Chase Pay Card account in the name of the victim and then falsely producing funds of about $48,000 into that account over a two year period.
The Ranstadt case is still open as detectives try to determine if Whitehead is alleged to have created similar crimes against other former employees.
Jones said that unfortunately, cases like what happened at Ranstadt are all too common.
“It keeps us very busy, she said. “As far as ID fraud in general, it’s just a very, very common crime these days. The ID theft rates are through the roof. There is a decent amount of it here in Sandy Springs and there’s a large amount of it in metro Atlanta.”
Indeed, the second case Jones cracked had links not only to metro Atlanta, but to other states.
In what was dubbed the “Garcia Case,” Jones and company encountered a series of thefts involving credit cards, driver’s licenses and social security cards. The stolen credit cards were then used to make illegal purchases throughout metropolitan Atlanta.
The investigation into this case, which largely involved elderly victims, began after a May 12 theft committed inside the Publix at 6615 Roswell Road. After that incident, Rose said the victim’s credit card was later used at several locations. In addition, the victim’s bank account later had funds withdrawn.
Jones said the crew of four suspects, who were all arrested on June 5, worked together in a coordinated fashion.
“Each person had their own job or their own task,” she said.
In fact, one suspect would distract the victim with a question about a product on a grocery store shelf while another one lifted the victim’s wallet from her purse. Another member of the ring drove the getaway car. The suspects even used a local drug addict to impersonate the victims’ image when they used the ID cards inside banks.
“You don’t even realize it until you get to the checkout to pay for your pot roast and potatoes and by that time, they’ve already charged $500. Three days later, the next thing you know is your bank account is being drained for $14,000.”
Jones said the suspects, who included 31-year-old Carlos Manual Garcia from Marietta, 50-year-old Jo Ann Lee from Wrightsville, 24-year-old Charisma Betty Jean McGee from Jonesboro and 22-year-old Billy Cobbs Jr from Jonesboro, were involved in a much larger theft ring that spanned multiple jurisdictions. She said the break in her case started with the high-quality surveillance video obtained from Publix.
“We had some pretty decent video from Publix,” Jones said. “They have the best system.”
In fact, Jones was in Atlanta to investigate a completely unrelated case when the key break came. She was in a Publix on Ponce De Leon Avenue when she was asked to view surveillance video from similar thefts incidents that store experienced. Sure enough, when Jones viewed the video, it had footage of her main suspects from the thefts in Sandy Springs. She was eventually able to identify three of the four suspects and when she put out a Be On the Look Out, or BOLO, an officer from the Marietta Police Department was able to identify the fourth suspect.
The multi-jurisdictional aspect of the case, Jones said, often complicates matters for both detectives and victims.
“A lot of these crimes do span the entire metro area so you’re spending twice as much time, if not more, talking to every different jurisdiction,” she said.
Jones credits being able to successfully investigate such complicated crime rings with being part of a highly trained police department. She said she didn’t think it was unusual that Sandy Springs was the location for two such highly involved identify theft enterprises.
“Sandy Springs is a decent sized city,” Jones said. “We’re really close to Atlanta. To me, it’s not surprising. But it’s not something that you want. A lot of people, unfortunately, have a naïve perspective about what can happen.”