Women stole $1 million in California college aid using fake identities, feds say

Three Southern California women are accused of raking in more than $1 million in federal student aid that was intended for “students” whose identities they stole, prosecutors said.

Authorities arrested the trio of women — 32-year-old Sparkle Nelson of Highland, 31-year-old Shykeena Johnson of Apple Valley and 37-year-old Jerrika Johnson of Apple Valley — on Thursday morning after a federal grand jury indicted them June 5, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California.

The women collected aid meant for 235 “straw students” at Fullerton College and other schools, according to prosecutors. But most of those “students” didn’t take any college classes at all, and prosecutors said at least two of the identities used to apply for student aid “were filed on behalf of inmates in California state prisons.”

The San Bernardino County residents are accused of defrauding the U.S. Department of Education in the 21-count indictment, prosecutors said.

Department of Justice spokesperson Ciaran McEvoy said the women appeared in a Riverside federal court on Thursday and pleaded not guilty, the San Bernardino Sun reports. McEvoy said an identity theft victim and a school tipped off federal investigators, per the newspaper.

Working with unindicted co-conspirators, the women used other people’s names and Social Security numbers to file Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms in 2013 and 2014 — and then the Education Department approved aid for those students, the indictment said.

The colleges targeted in the scheme mailed the conspirators debit cards that were loaded with the straw students’ aid money, according to the indictment.

Nelson is accused in the indictment of filling out an online FAFSA form with a state prisoner’s personal information in August 2014, then activating the resulting debit card the next month and using it to pay a $370 utility bill from Southern California Edison.

Prosecutors said the Education Department released at least $1,089,856 in student aid to Fullerton College for the 235 straw students — and of that money, $977,792 ended up on debit cards in the hands of the conspirators.

Each of the three women faces a count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and a count of wire fraud, prosecutors said. They also face four counts of mail fraud, 11 counts of wire fraud and one count each of financial aid fraud and aggravated identity theft. Conviction on all of those charges could lead to a federal prison sentence of more than 300 years, prosecutors said.

The indictment included texts that prosecutors said the women sent back and forth to each other while executing the scheme, including one message that read: “The people I sign up I pick some classes so they got like 6/9.”

Other texts between the women included the straw students’ Social Security numbers and other information, according to the indictment.

In another text exchange included in the indictment, one of the women asked another: “Omg what’s (the straw student’s) info so I can transfer & what’s there pins?”

The women have been released on bond and their trial is scheduled for August, the Sun reports.

McEvoy said Jerrika Johnson is Nelson’s sister and Shykeena Johnson’s sister-in-law, according to the Daily Press in Victorville.

A spokeswoman for Fullerton College, Lisa McPheron, said she didn’t know of the scam but added that the two-year public community college has handled issues like it in the past, the Sun reported.

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Jared Gilmour is a McClatchy national reporter based in San Francisco. He covers everything from health and science to politics and crime. He studied journalism at Northwestern University and grew up in North Dakota.