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Criminals apprehended due to spelling error

By Damon Marturion
New Business News Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES - How do you spell sergeant? A group of bumbling, would-be gold thieves didn't know, and that led to their downfall.

The simple spelling error -- the alleged villains spelt it "sargent" -- led federal agents this week to arrest four men who allegedly posed as U.S. military personnel and tried to get a precious metals firm to ship gold products to a phony NASA address, officials said Thursday.

Anthony Macaluso, Alexander Drabkin, Daniel Patterson and Michael Itaev, were charged Wednesday in a Los Angeles federal court with mail fraud, officials said. They were also accused of posing as employees of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., to obtain industrial gold products from Boston-based Stern-Leach Co.

The men were in custody in Los Angeles while prosecutors sought to move them to Boston for a trial. If convicted, each could face up to five years in prison plus three years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine, officials said. A Department of Defense spokesman confirmed the arrests on Thursday.

Agents from the Department of Defense arrested the suspects Tuesday after an elaborate sting operation sparked by a spelling error and a hunch. According to court documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times and published in Thursday's editions, Patterson posed as a military officer named "Sargent" Michael Jeffries working in San Diego who sought to have gold parts delivered to a "neutron accelerator project" located at a non-existent JPL office.

Officials at the real JPL, which is at a different address in Pasadena, said they had no knowledge of the scheme.

After Patterson called a Stern-Leach representative several weeks ago, order forms were sent by fax and express mail to the phony JPL office in east Pasadena for 120 sheets of gold, large amounts of 12- and 14-gauge gold wire and 80 ounces of gold "shot," according to the Times. However the contact on the order form was listed as "Sargent" Michael Jeffries, a spelling error which caused company employees to pause.

Patterson also asked that the gold be shipped via the courier company UPS, rather than by armored car, which seemed highly unusual.

Company officials reported the incident to the FBI which referred the case to the Department of Defense.

After federal agents determined that there was no Sgt. Jeffries listed in San Diego and that faxes sent from Patterson to Stern-Leach originated from a Pasadena Mail Boxes Etc. store, they wiretapped the phone lines of the phony JPL office and eventually made the arrests.

. . . watch for more stories coming soon  

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