University police help bust crime ring

Four officers worked undercover part time to help with an investigation that led to 20 indictments in August.

Nick Wicker

A team of University of Minnesota police spent the past 10 months working undercover part time to help bust a national ring of cellphone thefts.

Working with local and national law enforcement, the officers helped with an investigation that led to the indictment of 20 members of a Twin Cities-based crime syndicate. Authorities said one low-level associate may have stolen more than $2.7 million in phones over six years.

“The UMPD did a lot of surveillance and gathering of evidence, sometimes in the middle of the night,” said police Chief Greg Hestness. “It’s not glamorous, but they supported when needed.”

St. Paul police noticed a trend of missing, stolen and fraudulently obtained phones last summer, Hestness said. When those phones seemed to be part of a larger operation, the department turned to UMPD, Minneapolis police, the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, the FBI and the Secret Service.

Members of the crime ring signed up for family plans with stolen identities to get smartphones and tablets at discounted prices before selling them back to outlets run by the Mustafa family, according to the FBI.

The ongoing investigation began more than a year ago and has so far led to the August indictments of the Mustafa family and their associates. A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger said in an email that UMPD was a “key partner.”

The University department’s four-member Coordinated Response Team helped with surveillance and other tasks related to the investigation, starting about four months after it began, Hestness said.

The department hasn’t tracked exactly how many hours the officers worked, Deputy Chief Chuck Miner said.

“Sometimes it could be several days in a row; sometimes it could be one day a week,” he said.

Miner said there’s not yet any way of knowing whether the rash of violent robberies on and around campus last fall was connected to the Mustafas.

But teams of plainclothes officers will observe behaviors on campus and focus on crime trends this fall, Hestness said.

Police aren’t the only ones concerned about cellphone theft. A state “kill switch” bill requires smartphone manufacturers to include a remote shut-down function on their products after July 1, 2015.

Minnesota was the first state to enact such a law, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., has proposed a similar bill at the federal level.

“Our hope is that cutting off the pipeline and ready disposability of the stolen property will mean there is less incentive to steal, rob and commit fraud to obtain phones,” Hestness said.