A roving network of sometimes violent robbers stole cellphones from people near bars in downtown Minneapolis and Dinkytown for nearly a year, draining their transaction apps of money totaling more than $275,000 and routinely selling the phones to a man who ships them to buyers overseas, according to charges filed Tuesday.

Charges of racketeering were filed against 12 people "following a groundbreaking and extensive joint investigation" by the Minneapolis Police Department and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which looked into 65 cases during the past year, the Hennepin County Attorney's Office said in a statement.

The defendants who worked the streets often targeted intoxicated people as they left bars at closing time as far back as June 2021, the charges read.

One of the defendants questioned by police said a group of roughly 15 people from St. Paul has been coming to the downtown Minneapolis bar district for the past three to four years to steal cellphones from people, according to the charges.

In some instances, the defendants took phones by means including intimidation, "trickery and violence" that left people with serious injuries, the charging document read. At other times, the defendants approached people in a friendly manner and asked them for their phone on the pretext of adding themselves to a social media platform. The defendants made sure the victims unlocked their phone before handing it to accomplices who would transfer money from the victims' accounts to the thieves' accounts using mobile payment services such as Venmo, Zelle and Coinbase.

The amount of money taken from 40 or more victims' apps totaled $277,000, according to the charges, with the value of the stolen phones topping $25,000.

Charged with felony racketeering and with warrants issued for their arrest are: St. Paul residents Aaron Johnson, 25; Sharlotte Green, 21; Charlie Pryor Jr., 18; Charlie Pryor Sr., 41; Alfonze Stuckey, 23; Sherrod Lamar, 23; Emarion White, 18; and Antonio Green, 19; Minneapolis residents David Mullins, 26; Zhongshuang Su, aka Brandon Su; and Heiron Birts, 26; and Bloomington resident Lawrence Miles, 22.

Su is accused of being the man who others in the scheme called the "iPhone Man," who bought the stolen phones and sent them to buyers overseas. In total, prosecutors believe Su has made 40 shipments of 1,135 phones to addresses in Hong Kong. Prosecutors put the value of those phones at more than $800,000.

"We are not certain that every single one of the cellphones in those shipments were stolen," County Attorney's Office spokesman Maxwell Page said, "but [prosecutors] believe some of the stolen phones to be in those shipments."

Arrest warrants were issued for all 12 defendants. Su was booked into jail about 12:40 a.m. Wednesday. He is described in the complaint as a Chinese national who "is in the country on a student visa and presents a flight risk."

Several of the defendants are in the same family or live in the same home, the charges noted. As examples: The Pryors are father and son, and Stuckey is their cousin. The Greens are siblings. Sharlotte Green and Johnson are in a relationship.

Prosecutors said many of the accused have criminal histories. Among them: Johnson has pending cases alleging robbery, assault and receiving stolen property; Pryor Jr. has an assault with a dangerous weapon case pending; and Birts stands charged with third-degree criminal sexual conduct.

When some among the band of thieves landed in jail, Su was known to bail them out, according to the charges.

As a way of concealing their crimes, prosecutors said, defendants sometimes gave friends or family a slice of the money in exchange for laundering their stolen cash. Johnson would solicit people on Facebook to help him launder money under the name "freeband scams."

The charges in the 27-page criminal complaint spell out how downtown and Dinkytown visitors were targeted, and the price they paid financially and physically:

  • Last October on Hennepin Avenue downtown, Johnson and Stuckey teamed up on an unwitting man outside the Gay 90s nightclub, a location the defendants visited often. The man gave turned over his phone, supposedly so Stuckey could enter his number. Johnson shoved the man, and Stuckey punched the victim and walked away with the phone. The man fell, hit his head on the sidewalk and started vomiting and bleeding.
  • Between 2 and 3 a.m. one night in late November, a man dropped his phone after tripping while outside Sneaky Pete's bar downtown. A male picked up the phone and ran off. He later saw sometime tried in vain to siphon $15,000 from his Coinbase account, but his credit union account was drained of $5,000 through the Venmo app.
  • In January, two men started talking to a man outside the Jackson's Hole bar downtown and said they were musicians. One of them said it was his birthday and asked the man to look up something on his phone. One of the men grabbed the phone, ripping the victim's shirt during a struggle. The victim said he lost $24,500 from his Coinbase account through seven successful withdrawals out of 21 attempted.
  • In February, a man said he was outside Frank & Andrea Pizza in Dinkytown when White grabbed the man's cellphone and handed it to a woman. Four subsequent app transactions cost the man $6,000. About a week later, another man in the same part of Dinkytown also lost $6,000 after handing over his phone to someone in a group who started talking to him on the street.

Heiron Birts, interviewed twice by police about his role in the robberies, said the group comes to downtown Minneapolis together, then splits up in pursuit of victims. Birts said he was paid anywhere from $60 to $250 for his role as a "distractor," and every participant in the scheme had a role in obtaining an unlocked phone from victims.

"The distractor's job, specifically, is to create confusion with the victim after the phone is taken from the victim, so the other group members can" flee, the complaint said.

Johnson told police after his arrest in connection with several robberies on Hennepin Avenue one night in June 2021 that he is a "middleman" who buys phones on that street that he knows are stolen and tells the sellers he "doesn't want to know anything about how they obtained them."

He said he goes online and orders new empty boxes and charging cords, refurbishes the phones and "sells them to another party for a profit … to foreigners," the charges said.