March 10, 2015

Joplin Woman Sentenced for Disaster Fraud Related to Tornado Benefits

SPRINGFIELD, MO—Tammy Dickinson, United States Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, announced that a Joplin, Mo., woman was sentenced in federal court today for aggravated identity theft and to fraudulently receiving federal disaster benefits following the tornado that struck the city of Joplin on May 22, 2011, killing 158 people and causing more than $2.9 billion in damage.

Brittany Aulden Barnes, 24, of Joplin, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge M. Douglas Harpool to two years and four months in federal prison without parole. The court also ordered Barnes to pay $18,774 in restitution to FEMA and $2,094 in restitution to her identity theft victims.

On Aug. 14, 2014, Barnes pleaded guilty to one count of disaster fraud and one count of identity theft.

Disaster Fraud

Barnes admitted that she fraudulently received disaster benefits by claiming that her residence in Joplin had been damaged by the tornado. When Barnes met with a FEMA-contracted inspector to discuss her claim on June 6, 2011, she also claimed the loss of a number of furniture items and appliances. Barnes was awarded $6,708 in disaster relief. In addition, Barnes resided at a FEMA-provided mobile home for more than a year, from September 2011 to December 2012, at a total cost to FEMA of $12,066.

However, Barnes admitted that the Joplin apartment was not her residence at the time of the tornado—on that date the apartment stood vacant. Barnes had rented the apartment prior to the Joplin tornado, and had occupied it along with her boyfriend, Russell Lamar Green. However, Barnes and Green had moved out before the tornado struck. In a separate but related case, Green pleaded guilty and has been sentenced for making false statements to FEMA in a failed effort to also receive disaster benefits.

Aggravated Identity Theft

Barnes also admitted that, while working at an Applebee’s restaurant in Joplin in May 2013, she stole a co-worker’s wallet, which contained the victim’s Missouri driver’s license, Social Security card, debit card and three credit cards.

Barnes used the stolen identity documents to impersonate the victim on several occasions. For example, she used a counterfeit personal check (drawn on the bank account of another victim) to purchase a $269 Sony Playstation game console at Best Buy. She cashed three counterfeit $598 payroll checks (drawn on the bank accounts of two additional victims) at two Wal-Mart stores.

This case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven M. Mohlhenrich. It was investigated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security—Office of Inspector General, the FBI and the Joplin, Mo., Police Department.

Disaster Fraud Hotline

Anyone with information about disaster fraud related to the Joplin tornado should call the National Center for Disaster Fraud hotline at 866-720-5721, the Joplin Police Department at 417-623-3131, or the FBI’s Joplin office at 417-206-5700.