3 women accused of stealing $1 million in financial aid from California college

Mercury News

Three San Bernardino County women were arrested Thursday, June 27, and accused of stealing more than $1 million in federal student financial aid through Fullerton College in a scheme in which authorities say they enrolled hundreds of mostly non-existent students, successfully applied for grants and loans and then pocketed the money.

Sparkle Shorale Nelson, 32, of Highland; Shykeena Monique “Shy” Johnson, 31, of Apple Valley; and Jerrika Eldrena Lashay “Muffin” Johnson, 37, of Apple Valley, were each charged with one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud, four counts of mail fraud and 11 counts of wire fraud, the U.S. Department of Justice said. They also face charges of aggravated identity theft and financial aid fraud.

The women, who were indicted by a federal grand jury, pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court in Riverside on Thursday, Department of Justice spokesman Ciaran McEvoy said. They posted bond and were released. A tentative trial date was set for Aug. 20. Federal court records did not list the attorneys representing them.

The defendants filed online requests for financial aid using used the names, among others, of people whose identities were stolen and at least two inmates in California state prisons, the indictment said. The document also said inmates are ineligible for student financial aid. The “vast majority” of the people enrolled at the college never attended classes, a Department of Justice news release said.

Fullerton College spokeswoman Lisa McPheron said she was unaware of this case but that the college had dealt with similar scams before.

“Fullerton College does not want to impede the judicial process, so we defer all comments of the case to the Department of Justice,” McPheron added in an emailed statement Friday. “Generally speaking, when apparent or suspected fraud is identified, our financial aid staff report that information to the Long Beach location of the Office of Inspector General and we fully comply with the investigation.”

The fraud worked like this, according to the indictment:

The defendants would obtain names and Social Security numbers of “straw students” and use that information to enroll them at Fullerton and other colleges. The defendants then would apply online to the federal government for financial aid. The government would calculate the amount of assistance the fake students were eligible for and send that money to the college.

The college would then deduct tuition and fees from that amount and send the balance to the fake students in the form of a debit card or a paper check. Only in this case, the indictment said, the debit cards were sent to the defendants, along with a personal identification number that could be used to activate the debit cards online…

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