Seven months after a fake ID sting turned Rugby Road into a paramilitary zone, complete with armored vehicles and SWAT-attired agents, the three defendants who pleaded guilty to charges relating to the creation and distribution of at least 20,000 fake IDs were sentenced in federal court on Monday, December 16.
The admitted “mastermind” of the operation, 32-year-old Alan McNeil Jones, will serve 60 months in federal prison for his role in the operation, while his two co-defendants received lesser sentences. Twenty-seven-year-old Mark G. Bernardo was sentenced to 40 months and Kelly Erin McPhee, 31, with whom Jones was in a romantic relationship, received a 25-month sentence.
“One of the big things is to let people know these crimes are not going to be tolerated,” said Judge Norman K. Moon, before handing down the sentences, which amounted to a fraction of the 17-year maximum sentence he could have issued to each of them.
As previously reported in numerous media accounts, Jones rented the $4,000-per-month house at 920 Rugby Rd. in August, 2011, and ran what U.S. Attorney Tim Heaphy described as a “sophisticated” illegal business out of the home. He accepted cash only and used a variety of P.O. and safety deposit boxes to receive and store payments. According to Heaphy, investigators recovered approximately $2.5 million in cash and other assets, including vehicles, high tech printers, and other equipment used in manufacturing the ID cards.
The multi-agency investigation, which involved collaboration by the U.S. Postal Service, Homeland Security, and Virginia State Police, found no evidence that any of the IDs created by Jones’ company, Novel Designs, were obtained by terrorists or were used for criminal purposes other than the underage purchase of alcohol.
Heaphy, however, argued that the court must consider the possibility that unknown harm may have been caused by the distribution of the fake IDs including alcohol related injury caused or suffered by individuals who used the fake ID to obtain alcohol; fraudulent acquisition of government benefits; and the possibility that the IDs could be used to help someone travel into or out of the country for nefarious purposes.
Since those “losses” could not be calculated, Heaphy argued that the magnitude of the operation’s revenue should be used to determine the severity of the sentences.
Jones’ attorney David Heilberg, however, suggested that his client didn’t intend to cause harm and was, in fact, simply a businessman responding to the market.
“This is 21st century prohibition,” said Heilberg, noting that the drinking age was once 18 in Virginia and other states. “He recognized a huge demand for a product and took advantage of that change in history.”
Jones and his co-defendants, Heilberg pointed out, had taken steps to limit their customer base to college students between the ages of 18 and 20. They did not advertise the products but relied solely on word-of-mouth, Heilberg said, and required that any customers have a valid college-affliated email ending with “.edu.”
While Heaphy stressed the seriousness of the crime, he asked the court for leniency for all three defendants, citing their cooperation that included giving information that led to charges against a fourth person, a New Jersey man named Michael DelRio, who was working on a website that would have helped expand the business further. DelRio is out on bond and faces a hearing next year.
Heaphy said that while a sense of loyalty caused Jones to initially resist handing over his customer lists, he eventually did so. At a press conference after the hearing, Heaphy said no federal prosecutions were planned against those customers.
“There could be action taken locally or by their schools,” he said.
Of the three Charlottesville defendants, Heaphy had highest praise for McPhee.
“From the beginning, she was truthful,” he said, noting the difficulty of offering evidence against her boyfriend.
Dozens of McPhee’s friends and family members showed up in court to show support for the young woman, who will be assigned to a federal penitentiary in the next month and has 18 months left on her sentence after the seven months already served. According to federal public defender Fred Heblich, who represented Bernardo, McPhee and the others will likely serve 85 percent of their sentences and may be released to a halfway house six months before official release. If that’s the case, McPhee could be out of prison in around nine months.
Prior to receiving her sentence, McPhee addressed the court, apologizing to her family and friends and expressing hope for the future.
“I am liberated from my dishonest behavior,” she said, noting she’d grown stronger from the “seven months and eleven days” she has already spent behind bars since the May 6 bust. “It’s helped me realize I want to make a positive difference,” she said.
Bernardo also spoke, as his mother and two sisters looked on. “I made choices based on greed,” he said, apologizing to his family.
Jones did not speak, but through Heilberg, he expressed a desire for McPhee to receive a lighter sentence.
“He feels he got her involved,” said Heilberg.
Friends and family of all three defendants declined comment following the hearing, but McPhee’s attorney Andrew Sneathern said his client is ready to serve her sentence and move forward.
“The difficulty for her is the hurt she’s caused her family,” he said. “She hasn’t hugged her mother since the day of the raid.”