A roving network of sometimes violent robbers has stolen cellphones from people near bars in downtown Minneapolis and Dinkytown over the past 15 months, drained their transaction apps with funds totaling more than $275,000, and then the phones sold to a man who ships them to buyers overseas, according to charges filed on Tuesday.
Racketeering charges were brought against 12 people “following a landmark and comprehensive joint investigation” by the Minneapolis Police Department and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which investigated 65 cases in the past year or more, the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office said in a statement.
Those among the defendants who worked on the streets often targeted intoxicated people as they exited bars for closure from June 2021 until two weeks ago, the indictment says.
One of the defendants questioned by police said a group of about 15 people from St. Paul had come to the downtown Minneapolis bar district for the past three to four years, allegedly stealing people’s cell phones.
In some incidents, defendants took phones through intimidation or the use of force, resulting in serious injury to people.
At other times, the defendants would politely approach people and ask for their phones so they could post on a social media platform. Defendants ensured victims unlocked their phones before handing them over to accomplices who transferred funds from victims’ accounts to thieves’ accounts using mobile payment services such as Venmo,zelle and Coinbase.
The money from the apps of 40 or more victims totaled $277,000, according to the indictment, with the value of the stolen phones exceeding $25,000.
Charged with criminal racketeering and with warrants out for their arrest are: St. Paul resident Aaron Johnson, 25; Sharlotte Green, 21; Charlie Pryor Jr., 18; Charlie Pryor Sr., 41; Alfonze Stuckey, 23; Sherrod Lamar, 23; Emarion White, 18; and Antonio Green, 19; Minneapolis resident David Mullins, 26; Zhongshuang Su, also known as Brandon Su; and Heiron Birts, 26; and Lawrence Miles of Bloomington, 22.
Su is accused of being the man others in the system dubbed the “iPhone man” who bought the stolen phones and sent them to buyers abroad. In all, prosecutors believe Su sent 40 shipments containing 1,135 phones to Hong Kong addresses. Prosecutors value the phones at more than $800,000.
“We’re not sure if every single cell phone in these shows was stolen,” said Maxwell Page, spokesman for the prosecutor’s office, “but [prosecutors] believe some of the stolen phones are in those shipments.”
Arrest warrants were issued for all 12 accused, and a review of prison records late Tuesday afternoon in Minnesota showed no one was in custody. Su, described in the complaint as a Chinese citizen, “is in the country on a student visa and poses a flight risk.”
According to the indictment, several of the accused belong to the same family or live in the same house. As examples: The Pryors are father and son, and Stuckey is their cousin. The Greens are siblings. Sharlotte Green and Johnson are in a relationship.
Many in the phone theft group have a history of committing various crimes
To cover up their crimes, prosecutors said, the defendants sometimes gave friends or family members some of the money in return for laundering their ill-gotten gains.
The charges in the 27-page criminal complaint detail how some of the downtown and Dinkytown visitors were targeted and the financial and physical cost they paid:
- Last October, Johnson and Stuckey teamed up on downtown Hennepin Avenue to find an unwitting man outside Gay 90’s nightclub, a place the defendants frequented. The man wrapped his cell phone around so Stuckey could dial his number. Johnson pushed the man and Stuckey punched the victim and walked away with the phone, the charges continued. The man fell, hit his head on the sidewalk and started vomiting and bleeding.
- One night in late November, between 2 and 3 a.m., a man dropped his phone after tripping outside Sneaky Pete’s downtown bar. A man picked up the phone and ran away. He was seen at one point unsuccessfully attempting to siphon $15,000 from his Coinbase account, but his credit union account was breached for $5,000 via the Venmo app.
- In January, two men spoke to a man outside the Jackson’s Hole bar in Minneapolis and said they were musicians. One of them said it was his birthday and asked the man to look something up on his phone. One of the men grabbed the phone and tore the victim’s shirt during a fight. The victim said he lost $24,500 from his Coinbase account through seven successful withdrawals out of 21 attempts.
- In February, a man said he was in front of Philly and Andrea Pizza in Dinkytown when White snatched the man’s cellphone and handed it to a woman. Four nefarious app transactions cost the man $6,000. About a week later, another man in the same part of Dinkytown also lost $6,000 after handing his phone to someone from a group who started talking to him on the street.
Heiron Birts, who was twice questioned by police about his role in the robberies, said the group came to downtown Minneapolis together and then split up in search of victims.
Birts said he was paid between $60 and $250 for his role as a “distractor,” and that each participant in the program played a role in obtaining an unlocked phone from the victims.
“The distractor’s job is specifically to confuse the victim after the phone has been picked up so that the other group members can then walk away with the victim’s phone,” the complaint reads.
Birts added that not all of his stolen phones went to the “iPhone Man”. The charges said Birts told police he resold phones to Cup Foods, the corner store at 38th and Chicago, where George Floyd was murdered while in custody by police in May 2020.