A stolen mail key unlocked millions in checks — and sent an NC trio to prison

·3 min read

For almost a year, three Charlotte residents used a stolen mail key to open a multi-state, bank-fraud conspiracy that bilked $3 million from at least seven financial institutions.

Now, the next keys Terrell Freeman and his co-conspirators are likely to see are the ones that will be unlocking their prison cells.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Robert Conrad sentenced Freeman, the accused mastermind of the ring, to more than 12 years in prison and three years of supervised release. The judge also ordered the 35-year-old Charlotte man to pay $394,000 in restitution.

Freeman pleaded guilty earlier this year to bank fraud conspiracy, as had fellow Charlotte residents and co-conspirators Joshua Monteith, 32, and Yanalise Hodge, 23.

Terrell Freeman
Terrell Freeman

On Tuesday, Conrad sentenced Monteith to almost four years and Hodge to two years. As with Freeman, both will serve three years of supervised release.

Their criminal enterprise found its footing from the armed robbery of a Charlotte postal worker in November 2020, according to documents in the case. The members of the ring used the stolen key to open mail-collection boxes throughout the Charlotte area.

They specifically targeted business and personal checks, which they leveraged with phony identifications and straw bank accounts to target banks in the Carolinas, Georgia and Virginia. In all, the ring deposited or tried to deposit money from 86 checks totaling more than $3 million.

But what the mail key gave, the key also took away. On Sept. 26, 2021, Monteith was arrested in Charlotte after he used the key to open a collection box in Ballantyne. Police found almost five dozen stolen checks totaling $19,000 in Monteith’s car.

One week later, when Freeman was arrested in Atlanta, the paper trail was even larger. His car was carrying 1,500 stolen checks totaling more than $1.5 million, prosecutors say.

Hodge surrendered on Sept. 29, 2021, a week after she and her co-defendants were indicted by a federal grand jury in Charlotte.

The case marks the second federal mail-theft ring involving a stolen U.S. Postal Service key taken during the robbery of a Charlotte postal employee.

In late June, Kyree Corbett of Charlotte was indicted on robbery of U.S. property and conspiracy to defraud the United States after he was charged with being part of a mail-theft ring that used a stolen mail key to hit collection sites in south Charlotte.

Corbett, according to documents in his case, got the key during the robbery of a Charlotte postal worker last December.

As of June 2, according to documents, Corbett, 20, and his unidentified co-conspirators had amassed more than 1,000 stolen checks totaling $1.9 million.

Mail theft in Charlotte

Mail theft, according to the Postal Service, is a thriving criminal enterprise, having increased 600% between 2017 and 2020. The U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the USPS police force, made 1,622 arrests that led to 1,321 convictions in 2020, according to its annual report.

In Charlotte’s case, the sentencing of Freeman and the others mark at least the fifth major mail-theft case brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the past 18 months.

In January 2020, Eric Magana was sentenced to 42 months in prison in connection with a one-person mail-theft ring that stole at least $550,000 from 1,300 victims across the Charlotte region. His take included everything from credit cards to tickets to the Broadway musical “Hamilton.”

In August, Charles Morgan Harrell was sentenced to five years in prison on a bank fraud charge related to her stealing mail in three states. Locally, Harrell was the “kindly grandma” that pilfered mailboxes in multiple south Charlotte neighborhoods before her arrest last October.

In June, Soheil Akhavan Rezaie, 37, pleaded guilty to targeting mail in several Charlotte neighborhoods that led to $150,000 in damages from stolen credit cards, forged checks and other bank fraud. He started his spree while on supervised release from an earlier mail-theft conviction, the Observer previously reported.