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Police: Stolen checks used for car purchases


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 17, 2000

LARGO -- They walked into car dealership after car dealership, police said, quizzing salesmen about the latest, most-expensive models with all the nifty extras.

They eventually settled on three vehicles, police said, and plopped down three checks totaling nearly $130,000. Those checks bore the name of Career Options, the organization that runs the administration for Pinellas County's welfare agency.

But police said this shopping expedition was about greed, not charity.

St. Petersburg police said a thief stole 160 checks from Career Options on May 19 with the aid of a receptionist at the agency. Then the thief, receptionist and a friend went on an auto spending spree, police said.

Career Options discovered the missing checks on May 23 but never called police, unconvinced a theft had occurred.

Agency leaders said they thought the checks might have been misplaced at their Largo offices. They also wondered whether a printing error in a checkbook made it incorrectly appear that sequential, numbered checks were missing.

Three days later, St. Petersburg police stopped a vehicle for speeding. Inside, they found many of the missing Career Options checks. In fact, the vehicle they stopped, a 1999 Chevy Suburban, had been purchased with a $35,126 check.

Police last month arrested Clifton J. Cornelius, 22, and charged him with grand theft auto, credit card fraud and being a principal to grand theft auto. Police also arrested Lateka M. Walden, 23, a temporary receptionist at Career Options, and Jason E. Matthews, 21, and charged both with grand theft auto.

Cornelius is being held on $40,000 bail at the Pinellas County Jail. Walden is held on $20,000 bail. The jail could not say whether Matthews is in custody.

Visiting three dealerships in the two days after stealing the checks, police said, Cornelius and his friends bought the Suburban, a 2001 Infinity QX4 worth $43,265 and a 2000 Cadillac Escalade worth $50,000.

In each case, they wrote checks for the entire cost of the vehicles using the checks, police said.

Geni Trauscht, executive director of Career Options, said it appears the theft occurred on May 19, the day a company picnic left her offices empty.

Trauscht said Walden, who was hired in February, let her friend, Cornelius, into Career Options offices just before everyone left, saying he needed to use the bathroom.

"We had no reason to search every nook and cranny before we left," Trauscht said. "I was the last one out of the office, and I didn't see him."

The checks were kept in a cabinet, though Kelly Brady, the organization's finance director, said she could not be sure the cabinet was locked.

The cabinet showed no signs of forced entry. And up to $200 in petty cash also kept in it was not missing, leading officials to think a theft may not have occurred.

Brady called Huntington National Bank, saying the checks had been "lost or stolen." That same day, the checks for the cars, and other checks for $750, $900 and $1,200 cleared the bank.

Police said Cornelius also stole a credit card number and made up to $300 in purchases with it.

But Brady said the bank, not Career Options, will cover the loss. The cars were recovered undamaged.

Career Options is the administrative arm for WAGES, which stands for Work and Gain Economic Self-Sufficiency, a welfare agency that works to get people off welfare and into training for new jobs.

Career Options officials say nobody from the three car dealerships -- Lokey Infinity in Clearwater, Dimmitt Cadillac and Crown Pontiac/GMC in St. Petersburg -- ever called them to verify that the car purchases were legitimate.

Police said Matthews, with Cornelius' help, took possession of the Cadillac after signing the appropriate paperwork at the dealership.

Bill Martin, a sales manager at Lokey Infinity, said Cornelius and Walden came to his dealership posing as brother and sister on May 20, saying their father was selling their businesses and buying them new vehicles as "belated" Christmas presents.

The dealership did not suspect the two of trying to defraud them.

"Our job is to get cars off the curb," he said. "With everybody who comes in here, I've got to believe they have the money to buy a car until they prove otherwise."

The Suburban was stopped at 2 a.m. on May 26. Cornelius was a passenger. Police said he gave them a false name. Police searched the vehicle and found the checks.

Police said Cornelius, who has no known address, told them the checks were from his father's business. He said his father had given permission to cash them.

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