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Charges: Cross-state Walmart scam involved employee impersonation

Authorities say the Hudson Walmart and other area stores were targeted last summer by a group of thieves who transacted fraudulent gift-card purchases. File photo

Authorities said it took a costume, a comment and a cast of accomplices to pull off a con that fleeced Walmart out of thousands of dollars at various stores in western Wisconsin and Minnesota.

According to court documents, the main suspect would enter a Walmart clad in a former employee's vest, then approach a cashier, who would be told it was breaktime. From there, the suspect would open up the cash register to allow a string of accomplices to buy thousands of dollars in gift cards.

And then, according to authorities, it was off to the next store.

A criminal complaint filed in St. Croix County states a team of suspects ran the same scheme at Walmart stores last summer in Hudson, New Richmond and Red Wing, where they were arrested.

The alleged scam is outlined in complaints filed Feb. 14 against Minneapolis resident Tempestt J. Robinson, 30, and 32-year-old Brianna E. Sutta of Apple Valley, Minn. Both women are charged with felony theft. St. Croix County Circuit Court Judge Scott Needham issued warrants for the arrests of both women later that day. A third woman identified in the complaints, 21-year-old Shafonuna F. Johnson of St. Louis Park, Minn., was charged Feb. 15 in Washington (Minn.) County District Court with theft by swindle.

According to a complaint:

A Walmart manager reported July 25, 2017, that a swindle scam had been discovered, totaling more than $3,000 in losses to the Hudson store. The manager told Hudson police he'd learned of the same scam happening two weeks earlier at the New Richmond Walmart and that stores in Minnesota had also been hit.

A Hudson detective learned the suspects had been arrested the same day at the Red Wing Walmart. In addition to Robinson, three others were booked into Goodhue County jail — Shafonuna F. Johnson, 21, Noemi D. Torres, 33, and Lacora N. Gooden.

Johnson gave a statement to police, which was largely corroborated by surveillance footage from the Hudson incident. She said she went to the Hudson Walmart with Sutta and Robinson on June 28. The plan, Johnson said, was for her to impersonate an employee — a scheme she said she learned from a relative who used to work for Walmart — while the other women would steal gift cards.

Johnson said she arrived wearing a Walmart vest and approached a manager. She told the manager she was a transfer from another store. The manager, she said, gave her log-in codes to a cash register, which she used to transact legitimate purchases from other customers before leaving for the store's lawn and garden area.

There, Johnson found a cashier, told him she was relieving him for a break and tricked him into using his employee number to log into the register.

She was approached there by a manager who noticed she didn't have a name tag on her vest. Johnson said the manager brought her a name tag before Robinson intervened to intentionally distract that manager with questions.

Sutta then presented Johnson with six gift cards, which she rang up for $500 apiece.

A Hudson store employee interviewed by police recalled being approached that day by a new employee — later identified as Johnson — who wanted to know the maximum amount that could be loaded onto a card in one transaction.

Johnson told police her cut was supposed to be $1,000 but she only received one card that didn't work; she suspected the other two women intentionally gave her a spent card.

Johnson, who told police she was running the scam to buy clothes and diapers for her newborn, admitted to running the same operation in New Richmond with Robinson and Gooden.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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