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A fishy scheme: Woman imprisoned for stealing checks from Postal Service

A woman who fished mail and checks out of post office bins around the state — and then forged them into $19,000 worth of personal checks — has been sentenced to 21 months in federal prison.

Stefani Ruland, 40, was caught and arrested by Cody police in January as a result of cooperation between several agencies, including the Johnson and Sheridan county sheriff’s offices and the United States Postal Inspection Service.

Charging documents in the case say Ruland would “fish” for postal customers’ mail by lowering sticky mouse traps into U.S. Postal Service collection boxes or through mail slots. Ruland would then rifle through the envelopes snagged by the mouse traps, looking for checks she could alter and pass off as her own.

For example, after nabbing a Buffalo’s man’s $70.95 check bound for a rugmaker, she altered and used it to cover a $1,664.57 shopping spree at the Gillette Walmart.

Between Jan. 2 and Jan. 28, Ruland stole 22 checks from Buffalo, Cody, Casper, Mills and Sheridan and re-purposed them for purchases at stores in Cody, Gillette, Sheridan and Casper, said John Powell, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Cheyenne.

Although Ruland used the checks to buy lower-dollar items like sunglasses, DVDs of the television series “Deadwood” and a glow-in-the-dark pillow shaped like a pet, charging documents say that on at least several occasions, she bought pricey electronics and later returned them for cash.

The losses totaled $19,131.33 and affected 38 different victims, Powell said.

Ruland was ordered to pay back those losses and a $100 assessment after pleading guilty to a felony count of possessing stolen mail. The sentence, handed down on July 17 by U.S. District Court Judge Scott Skavdahl, also requires Ruland to serve three years of supervised release after she finishes the 21 months of prison time.

Skavdahl recommended Ruland be placed in a prison in either Alabama or Texas where they offer training in cosmetology, but more importantly, where she can receive dual diagnosis treatment — that is, for both substance abuse and psychiatric problems.

At the time of the mail and check scheme in Wyoming, court records show Ruland was awaiting trial in Yellowstone County, Mont., on a felony count of forgery. The charge alleges she passed seven forged checks in mid-October 2013 to buy more than $2,900 worth of stuff — including $345.49 of Victoria’s Secret lingerie — on another person’s account. Billings police say she was manufacturing checks using a computer program.

Ruland previously served a two-year, eight-month prison sentence in California — imposed in 2007 — for her role in a massive identity theft scheme. According to PC World’s past coverage, she and a co-conspirator had bought the personal and financial information of thousands of people who’d been scammed online, then used the information to create fake credit cards and open lines of credit at Walmart. Through the scheme, Ruland and her partner stole nearly $193,000, PC World reported.

Ruland has been back behind bars since Jan. 30. That’s when she was caught trying to scam the Cody Walmart for a fifth time in a roughly three-and-a-half-week span.

An affidavit from U.S. Postal Inspector Chris Lucas indicates the investigation began with some complaints of stolen mail in Buffalo.

Johnson County Sheriff’s Deputy Paul Kozisek spoke with four people who had put checks in the mail for various bills but later discovered they’d been used at Walmart stores in Gillette, Sheridan and Cody for larger amounts than written.

An affidavit from Cody Police Detective Jason Stafford indicates Ruland was “washing” the stolen checks.

“Check washing is the process of taking a check that is already filled out, masking the signature and bank information with tape, and then washing the remaining ink from the check with acetone, rubbing alcohol or paint thinner,” Stafford explained. “The criminal then writes in a different recipient and dollar amount before passing the check.”

Ruland apparently found a technique that worked, although the Cody Walmart’s surveillance footage indicates there were signs of something amiss.

There were three instances where Ruland passed altered checks at the Cody store, and in all three, the footage showed her vigorously shaking and blowing on the check like it was wet, Stafford wrote.

“On one occasion, the Walmart clerk is seen shaking the check as if it is wet and then the check gets stuck in the check scanner,” he said.

Stafford’s affidavit suggests Ruland used one forged check at the Cody store to buy the supplies needed to steal and alter more of the checks.

In a Jan. 9 purchase, Ruland used a check that had originally been for a man’s cable bill (stolen from the outgoing mail slot inside the Buffalo Post Office) to pay for $874.41 worth of stuff, including a laptop computer, rope, a glue mouse trap, peroxide and rubbing alcohol.

Ruland later returned the laptop to the Cody store — plus a digital camera and lens she’d bought with another stolen check on Jan. 6 — for $1,745.84 in cash, but she did not return the other items.

The relevance of those items grew on Jan. 24, when a postal worker in Casper found three rodent glue traps stuck to the inside of collection boxes located near the city’s main Post Office. On Jan. 25, the Evansville Postmaster reported finding an identical trap stuck in his Post Office’s outgoing mail slot, Lucas wrote.

All the abandoned traps had purple cords attached, Lucas said, apparently used for the “fishing.”

Two days later, Deputy Kozisek contacted the Cody Walmart’s general manager and asked him to look for any recent check fraud that would fit Ruland’s M.O., Stafford wrote.

The affidavit says the manager discovered Ruland’s transactions from Jan. 6 and 9, but he would soon be confronted with a third and fourth: That’s because Ruland returned to the store on the morning of Jan. 28 and ran the scam twice more.

She bought two laptops with another stolen check at around 6 a.m. and returned the computers an hour and a half later for $1,589.84 in cash, Stafford said. Ruland then went back into the store, used another fraudulent check to buy a digital camera and accessories and then left with the $1,329.12 of items.

But Ruland’s luck ran out two days later when she tried to return the camera and some of the equipment in the early morning hours of Jan. 30.

Walmart staff called Cody police, who ultimately took her into custody on suspicion of forgery.

A search of Ruland’s vehicle turned up a bag with 26 letters from the Casper area (Stafford said Ruland had been caught on video stealing mail in Casper on Jan. 27), multiple pieces of mail with checks removed, three checks washed of their original ink and a rodent glue trap attached to a purple cord, Lucas wrote.

Charging documents indicate that Ruland was accompanied by another person during most of the purchases, but Powell, the spokesman for federal prosecutors, said it was determined she acted alone in the criminal activity.

“Case closed!” he said.

In the Yellowstone County case, Ruland has pleaded not guilty to the felony count of common scheme forgery, and a trial is set for Sept. 11, according to records obtained by the Billings Gazette.

The records show Ruland had been released on a $5,000 surety bond on Nov. 19. Under her bond conditions, she was not supposed to leave the state or break any laws while free.

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1 comment

  • posted by Alf

    August 01, 2014 6:07 am

    ...and to read of news in Cody, we have to go to the Powell Tribune...could you guys start publishing the Cody Tribune?

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