Marine veteran Matthew Baugh was only 18-years-old when he walked into the Romano’s Jewelers store in Carlsbad five years ago.
He was right out of infantry school and admits he had limited financial knowledge.
“They said ‘We’ll give you a credit check;’ I didn’t even know what credit was back then, so I did a credit check and they basically took my information and swiped up some jewelry for my grandmother,” Baugh said. “I didn’t have the money."
Baugh is one of at least 70 Camp Pendleton Marines targeted in a predatory identity theft case involving Romano’s Jewelers. Prosecutors say the number of victims is likely much higher, most of them young military service members.
This is a case NBC 7 Investigates broke and has been following closely since 2014.
According to court and investigatory documents, Romano's owner Randy Abalkhad, manager Carlos Torres and employee Nellie Noland worked with Marine insider Kymani Tate to illegally access the financial accounts of military customers and add unauthorized charges.
On Tuesday, Abalkhad pleaded guilty to felony charges including conspiracy to commit identity theft, identity theft with the intent to defraud and theft by false pretenses. Abalkhad agreed to pay $55,000 in restitution to his victims. If he pays before his February sentencing, he will be granted probation with terms to be determined by the judge. If he fails to pay before his sentencing date, he faces three years in local prison.
“I don’t think he’s truly sorry for what he did,” said Baugh. “I think this is just part of a plea deal. Fifty-five thousand dollars in restitution money? That I don’t care about. What I care about it that I missed numerous opportunities to go home for funerals because of a bad credit score," Baugh added.
In addition to restitution money, Abalkhad is being order to write a letter to all the victims and credit reporting companies stating the wrongdoings were his, the Marines were victims and the debt should not be collected.
A few years after his experience with Romano’s Jewelers, Baugh’s grandmother died. This is the same grandmother for which, he said a Romano’s employee tricked him into buying jewelry for. Due to the financial troubles the business caused him, Baugh couldn’t fly home to attend her funeral.
“I didn’t have the ability to pull a loan to go home, and nothing can ever replace that,” he said.
The experience with the store continues to impact him financially today.
Baugh said if it were up to him, Abalkhad would serve more than prison time.
“He should have to do three years of community service at veterans program," Baugh said. "I don’t think he will truly know what he took until he goes and services us."
Abalkhad’s sentencing date is scheduled for February 27, 2017 in the Vista courthouse.
The Romano’s Jewelers stores in San Diego have closed. However, prosecutors said, there are still stores operating in the Los Angeles area.