For more than 26 years, Donald Allen Ellis bounced from the streets to county jail to prison cell, convicted of at least a half-dozen felonies, only to be freed and then continue a cycle of burglary and identity theft.
But it was the career criminal's astoundingly prolific habit of breaking into cars, stealing purses and using stolen credit cards that on Monday landed him a prison sentence as long as the criminal streak that left countless victims in his wake.
District Judge Kerry Meyer sentenced Ellis, 56, of West St. Paul, to 28 years in prison after a jury convicted him last month of two counts of identity theft, a trial in which the jury also branded him a career criminal, making him eligible for a longer sentence.
Prosecutors say it's one of the longest -- if not the longest -- sentences handed down in the state for property crimes. Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said it was well-deserved for Ellis, whom he called "a thorn in the side of residents and police departments throughout the Twin Cities."
"He will be an old man if he gets out," Freeman said in a statement.
Ellis' attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
Ellis was charged in February with conducting a large-scale crime operation that involved credit card fraud, theft and counterfeit checks. He was out on bail on similar ID theft charges when he was arrested last winter.
Prosecutors said he broke into cars across the metro and stole credit cards, then bought gift cards at department stores such as Target. He also recruited accomplices, they said, including drug abusers and homeless people, to buy the gift cards, so that if he was caught, he could claim he wasn't involved.
He was caught last October when he was in the back seat during a routine traffic stop by Minneapolis-St. Paul airport police. The driver did not have a valid license and the car was impounded. Police found a stolen purse during a search of the vehicle. The driver confessed her role in the scheme to Hennepin County sheriff's detectives.
A probe turned up dozens of victims, and a search of a Minneapolis house turned up a stash of credit cards, checks, driver's licenses and other evidence. All told, the most recent charges addressed 25 victims. Ellis was ordered to pay $25,000 restitution to them at sentencing.
He will be eligible for parole in 17 years, after he serves two-thirds of his sentence.
He has a criminal history dating to the 1980s, and was sentenced to prison at least twice. In 2004, he was arrested for stealing cars, purses and forged checks totaling more than $5 million over 10 years, and for operating a crime ring in which he was the alleged kingpin. He pleaded guilty to check forgery and theft by swindle and spent two years in prison.
Abby Simons • 612-673-4921