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Feds accuse two Metro Detroiters of stealing COVID-19 aid during pandemic

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — Federal prosecutors unsealed criminal charges against two Metro Detroiters on Thursday as part of a broader investigation of a nationwide fraud ring accused of stealing more than $450,000 in COVID-19 pandemic aid. 

Shelby Township resident Mitchacole Johnson, 44, and Larry Witherspoon, 45, of Harper Woods received thousands of dollars in unemployment insurance funds from the state through fraudulent claims for benefits intended to help people endure the pandemic, according to the unsealed complaint.

They are the latest people charged in recent months and accused of concocting a scheme to steal emergency aid mean for people unemployed during the global pandemic. Investigators believe the two are part of a broader fraud scheme involving unknown co-conspirators, according to an affidavit filed by Shanika Sanders, special agent of the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Inspector General.

Feds say COVID-19 fraudsters bragged about big-ticket items on Instagram

Johnson and Witherspoon were charged with mail and wire fraud and a conspiracy count and are expected to make an initial appearance Thursday in federal court in Detroit. The charges are punishable by up to 30 years in federal prison.

Lawyers for the duo are not identified in federal court.

The fraud ring targeted several states starting in April and involved dozens of fraudulent claims, according to the agent.

In May, fraud investigators from Michigan alerted federal agents to a potential unemployment insurance fraud scheme involving 66 claims.

Eleven claims listed the same mailing address on the 5700 block of Lakeview Street in Detroit and were filed from a computer with an IP address linked to a home in Shelby Township.

The Detroit home was owned by Johnson, who investigators learned lived at the Shelby Township house during the alleged scheme, the agent wrote.

Investigators also learned that several debit cards issued by the state with unemployment benefits were mailed to the Shelby Township property, according to the government.

In June, the state investigators learned that all 66 claims were filed or accessed via one of two IP addresses — at the Shelby Township home and Johnson's home in Detroit, according to the affidavit.

By then, the state had paid more than $150,000 in unemployment insurance benefits for those 66 claims.

Meanwhile, the Labor Department started fighting larger fraud rings operating across state lines during the pandemic. Investigators created a system that analyzed IP addresses and learned that the alleged fraud involving properties linked to Johnson "was actually much larger and involved far more states than originally thought," the agent wrote.

Agents discovered 47 additional fraudulent claims in California, Arizona and Nevada linked to the IP addresses in Shelby Township and Detroit, according to the government.

"Collectively, these newly identified claims resulted in an additional loss of over $305,000," the agent wrote. "Taking into account these additional claims, the suspected loss due to fraudulent claims tied to Mitchacole Johnson and Larry Witherspoon is over $450,000."

The case was unsealed one week after federal prosecutors brought a separate case against Jordan Armstrong, 28, of Detroit, who was accused of stealing more than $180,000 in unemployment insurance benefits in Michigan, California and Pennsylvania.

rsnell@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @robertsnellnews