A former employee of a San Diego jewelry company was taken into custody at a Vista courtroom Tuesday, accused of bribing a local Marine to get the personal banking information of other military members.
Nellie Noland started to tear up as a deputy placed her in handcuffs after she pleaded not guilty to 15 conspiracy and identity theft charges. Prosecutors say while she worked for Romano’s Jewelers in 2011, Noland, owner Randy Abalkhad and district manager Carlos Torres recruited and bribed Camp Pendleton Marine Corporal Kymani Tate.
They gave Tate cash and jewelry and zeroed out his balance with the store, and in return, he gave them the confidential banking pin numbers of other Marine customers, according to a court complaint.
The complaint details a system where Romano's employees are accused of taking that information and fraudulently setting up unauthorized allotments on those Marines’ accounts -- essentially illegally transferring money from the military members' paychecks to the store’s own account. Romano’s Jewelers has locations across Southern California, including four in San Diego.
“This was a jewelry store participating in predatory practices against military members and taking advantage of their lack of sophistication about financial instruments,” said Deputy District Attorney Gina Darvas.
Noland’s defense attorney William Halsey said his client didn’t understand what she was doing was wrong.
“I don’t think she had the level of sophistication that the owner and manager had and knew the business, had the practice,” said Halsey. “I don’t think she realized what it was was essentially identity theft.”
Abalkhad and Torres were charged last week with 15 felony counts each, which included identity theft and conspiracy. They both pleaded not guilty.
Noland is being held on a $75,000 bond, and all three defendants will be back in court on April 2.
For the first time, the Marine involved in the scheme, Tate, has responded to NBC 7’s request for comment.
In a different investigation and case, he was convicted in military court and discharged on bad conduct.
“I would only like to say I am deeply apologetic to the Marines and sailors who have been hurt by this. I never meant for anything so wrong to happen,” he said in a statement. “Tell Marines to be careful who they give info to. Stores like Romano's target Marines."
"I just want to apologize to everyone involved and my chain of command,” he continued. “I paid my debt to the Corps and lost my dream career. I do however have remorse for Marines and sailors that got unknowingly involved."
The charges against the three defendants are connected to a 2012 U.S. Marine Corps criminal investigation obtained by NBC 7 Investigates under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
In November, NBC 7 Investigates first reported concerns of military members and their families that Romano’s was taking advantage of them. As the result of that report, the U.S. Navy warned all its sailors in the San Diego area about the company. Romano’s Jewelers is currently off-limits to Marines, according to U.S. Marine Corps Camp Pendleton spokesman Jason Johnston.