Until Tuesday, the federal government has taken a hard line on the people behind a massive Twin Cities-based identity theft and bank fraud ring.

But two members of the conspiracy who helped bring it down found mercy when they appeared for sentencing.

Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis gladly complied with prosecutors and defendants' requests to go easy, ruling that the two co-defendants wouldn't have to go to prison if they break no more laws.

"You've risen from the ashes and you've taken responsibility for what you've done and you've turned your life around," Davis told Jamie Jean Brynteson, 36, of Anoka. "It's as close to a miracle as I am going to see in my lifetime."

His comments stood in stark contrast to the outrage he showed two former bankers sentenced in July in what the government described as a scheme involving mostly Nigerian immigrants. The ring purloined the identities of some 8,700 people worldwide with the intent to steal some $50 million from banks and other financial institutions.

The case grew out of an investigation dubbed "Operation Starburst" by the Minnesota Financial Crimes Task Force. The scheme, which ran from 2006 to 2011, had operations in Minnesota, California, Massachusetts, Arizona, New York and Texas. More than 30 people have either pleaded guilty or been convicted in the case, including six bankers.

A minor player in scheme

Brynteson played a minor role. Homeless and addicted to methamphetamine, she agreed to act as a "runner" for the ring by assuming stolen identities and attempting to cash bogus checks.

Like many meth heads, she told prosecutors that she could turn her life around and offered to help in exchange for leniency, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ann Anaya said. But unlike most others, she said, Brynteson has kept her promises.

"Her cooperation with the United States was characterized as critical," Anaya said.

Brynteson has been sober for 18 months and is rebuilding her relationship with her children, said Phyllis Tousey, her attorney. Brynteson apologized for her role in the scheme, saying she had no idea how many people she was hurting.

"I thank God for the intervention of the court," Brynteson said.

Davis returned the sentiment.

"You certainly are a bright spot in this whole ugly conspiracy," he said. He sentenced her to three years of probation for aggravated identity theft and to time served for bank fraud. She also must repay TCF Bank $60,934.39 for a bogus check she cashed at the bank.

'Extraordinary' assistance

A short time later, Okwuchukwu Emmanuel Jidoefor arrived for his sentencing and was met warmly by investigators who broke the case. Davis said prosecutors described what the 28-year-old Minneapolis resident did to help. Without providing details, Davis said he agreed that Jidoefor's assistance was "extraordinary."

"I can't tell the court how difficult it must've been for Mr. Jidoefor to take the stand and testify in this case ... knowing the danger he faced," Anaya said.

Jidoefor's attorney, Caroline Durham, said he's opened a store in a rundown neighborhood and is helping turn it around.

"I was wrong," Jidoefor said. "But I've been doing right for a long time, almost two years since I've been [helping] the government."

Davis said Jidoefor should be rewarded "for his truthfulness and his willingness to put his life on the line for the government." He sentenced him to time served on one count of bank fraud and five years of supervised release.

Jidoefor is applying for a special visa for immigrants who help law enforcement. If granted, it would allow him to apply for permanent residency after three years.

Dan Browning • 612-673-4493