County files felony swindle charges against St. Thomas student

Authorities Monday filed felony charges against a University of St. Thomas sophomore who allegedly used fax machines and e-mail in an unsuccessful attempt to swindle thousands of dollars from St. Thomas and several other Minnesota private colleges.

Jason J. Harberts, 22, of Little Canada, was charged with attempted theft by swindle in Ramsey County District Court. He allegedly developed the scam, police said, in an effort to cover Internet gambling losses.

Other swindle targets were Macalester, Augsburg, St. Olaf, Bethel and Carleton colleges, Hamline University, and Plum’s Neighborhood Grill and Bar.

According to the complaint, Harberts told investigators he currently is on federal probation for bank embezzlement, and that he needed the money because he was a compulsive gambler and had started gambling again.

St. Thomas’ involvement began on Nov. 16 when the university received the first in a series of fax and e-mail letters from an individual who said he had information that would “damage the reputation of St. Thomas,” and that he had been offered a total of $20,500 from local news organizations for the story. He said the information involved hazing and gifts to athletes.

“I will give approval to both the (television station and newspaper) to run the stories unless I get an equal sum of money from you,” the fax letter said. “I’m going to get paid either way, whether it’s by you or by the media, so I don’t really care what you do.” The fax went on to give elaborate directions on when and where the money was to be left in a Little Canada park, and included fabricated letters offering money from the news organizations.

The other colleges involved received similar letters, although the amount of money demanded varied from school to school. St. Thomas continued to receive messages demanding payment even after news about the scam appeared in both the Minneapolis and St. Paul daily newspapers. St. Thomas received half a dozen letters between Nov. 16 and Nov. 30.

A Nov. 15 fax that was sent to Plum’s later was traced to the suspect’s Little Canada apartment, the complaint said. Police obtained a search warrant for the apartment and seized the suspect’s computer as evidence. According to the complaint, police found copies of the extortion letters in the computer’s hard drive.

No money was ever paid to the suspect, and St. Thomas officials said there is no truth to any of the allegations made by the individual.

University officials were informed last week that police had a suspect in the case, and that investigators were collecting information from all the colleges and Plums to develop the single felony charge that county officials filed Monday.

Brock Rasmussen, manager of investigations for St. Thomas’ Public Safety Office, and Tim Thompson, director of Public Safety, worked on the case with the St. Paul Police and the Ramsey County Sheriff’s departments, as well as security officers from the other colleges. The FBI also was consulted.

The standard procedure at St. Thomas is to initiate internal disciplinary procedures when charges are filed against a student. Because of federal privacy laws, the university, including Bulletin Today, is prohibited from releasing information about specific disciplinary actions.

Harberts is scheduled to appear in Ramsey County District Court on Jan. 13, 2000. If found guilty, he faces a maximum sentence of 10 years or $50,000 or both.



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