Murder suspect caught on NC jumbo screen faces new charges

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NEW YORK (AP) — A New York murder suspect arrested after turning up on a North Carolina sports arena’s jumbo screen is now facing new financial crime charges: He was a leader of a 37-person check fraud ring accused of stealing more than $150,000, prosecutors say.

Earl Barranco was awaiting arraignment Thursday in the latest of a series of check fraud and identity theft cases brought by the Manhattan district attorney’s office. Fourteen others were arraigned Wednesday in the new case.

Barranco, meanwhile, was already behind bars without bail on the previous murder charge, accused of repeatedly shooting another man in the head at a Manhattan diner in an October 2010 dispute over money. Barranco was arrested the next month in Charlotte, N.C., after someone spotted him on a big screen at a Charlotte Bobcats game and phoned police.

Barranco, 25, whose first name sometimes appears as “Earle” in court records, has pleaded not guilty in the murder case. His lawyer, Howard Greenberg, has said Barranco feared for his life when the other man confronted him, and that Barranco shot because a botched hip surgery had left him unable to run.

Greenberg said Wednesday night that he hadn’t heard about the new charges, but that any allegation of financial crimes “had nothing to do with him defending himself” in the diner confrontation.

In the check fraud case, prosecutors said Barranco and other ringleaders offered to pay people to let their bank accounts be used in the scheme. Then members of the group deposited counterfeit checks drawn on at least 30 unwitting victims’ bank accounts into other accounts held by accomplices, prosecutors said during Wednesday’s arraignments.

Finally, Barranco and others – including two of his relatives – used the accomplices’ ATM cards to withdraw money or their debit cards to buy money orders before the victims realized what was going on, according to prosecutors.

“Over 250 United States Postal money orders were purchased by members of this criminal organization,” Assistant District Attorney Joanne Li told a judge. The banks were out the money.

One of the key players, Maurice Hilton, was already on probation from a prior case involving possession of someone else’s identity information, Li said. Hilton, 24, helped supervise and organize the check fraud group and cashed a number of money orders, she said.

Hilton’s lawyer, Norman Williams Jr., said Williams wasn’t home when police arrived to arrest him early Wednesday but readily surrendered after authorities called him.

“I’m quite sure that he knew that with this arrest, bail might be set, and he still walked into custody,” Williams told a judge. Hilton takes care of his 15-month-old daughter during the days while her mother is at work, and Williams and an older sister are raising their younger brother after losing both their parents, the attorney added. Hunter was being held on $75,000 bail.

Several others arraigned Wednesday were accused of making their accounts available for the scam. A lawyer for one of them, Robert Hunter, said the 19-year-old Hunter is a college student who doesn’t know the other people charged in the case.

“He is perplexed at these charges,” said the attorney, Howard D. Simmons.

District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. has unveiled several cases in the last three months targeting groups accused of constructing elaborate scams out of a complex of cybercrime, identity theft and fraud.

In one case, 94 people are accused of forming a ring that systematically exploited a banking loophole to steal more than $450,000 by depositing bogus checks and withdrawing the money before they bounced.

Another case involves an identity theft ring charged with recruiting waiters at steakhouses and other high-end New York restaurants to steal diners’ credit card information. Still another accuses three men of planting hidden video cameras and other technology to steal passwords, and nearly $300,000, from ATM users.

And another case centers on allegations that a 55-person fraud ring that used members’ jobs at a prominent charity and other places to steal financial information from hundreds of donors and customers, then used the data to reap more than $2 million through phony checks and transactions.

NOTE: This article was written by Associated Press writer Jennifer Peltz.

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