Federal prosecutors on Wednesday charged a dozen individuals in Minnesota, California and New York in connection with a highly organized fraud ring that allegedly relied on bank employees, runners and many others to steal more than $10 million from some of the nation's top financial institutions.

A sweeping federal indictment unsealed in St. Paul alleges that the defendants were part of a massive network that stole identities, took over bank and credit card accounts, tapped home equity credit lines and distributed counterfeit business and personal checks. The ring, operating since 2006, carried out its crimes in numerous states, the government says.

The head of the Minnesota Financial Crimes Task Force has said that that the case appears to be among the biggest of its type in the country. Task force commander Patrick Henry said last year that the ring was rooted in West Africa and Eastern Europe, and that it accounted for as much as 40 percent of the fraudulent check activity in the Twin Cities.

The indictment says the ring stole identity information to create phony bank and credit accounts. It recruited people to assume the stolen identities and withdraw funds from financial institutions and businesses. It corrupted employees at financial institutions to obtain account information and defeat antifraud measures. And the ring used fraudulently obtained bank and credit information to obtain cash and merchandise, the indictment says.

Two of the defendants obtained cash and bought merchandise totaling more than $300,000 from the Mall of America and Southdale Mall using fraudulent credit cards, the government said.

Targets included some of the biggest names in finance: Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JP Morgan Chase, American Express and U.S. Bank. Other targets were TCF Bank, Wachovia Bank, Washington Mutual, Associated Bank, Capital One and Guaranty Bank.

Seven of the 12 defendants charged in the indictment were arrested Wednesday in Minnesota as part of what the government dubbed "Operation Starburst." Previous arrests were made in California.

The five men and two women arrested Wednesday were led into a federal court hearing in St. Paul in handcuffs. Dressed in casual clothes, including baggy jeans and sweaters, most of them stared straight ahead or read printouts of the indictment as U.S. Magistrate Judge Janie Mayeron read them their rights and set conditions for their release or ordered them detained.

One, Nana Bempah Osei-Tutu of Minneapolis, appeared shocked. A couple of times before the hearing, he turned to someone in the back of the courtroom and mouthed the words, "I need a lawyer."

At least three of the seven people arrested Wednesday in Minnesota worked at area banks. At the hearing, Osei-Tutu identified himself as a personal banker at U.S. Bank who lives in Champlin. Fawsiyo Hassan Farah of Brooklyn Park said she just lost her job as a branch manager at Wells Fargo. And Charles Dubman Dwamina said he is a personal banker at Associated Bank who lives in Lino Lakes and was recently suspended from his job. Dwamina said he also started a "discount shopping club."

The investigation was spearheaded by the Minnesota Financial Crimes Task Force, a joint state and federal agency that focuses on major crimes. Numerous federal, state and local law enforcement agencies from around the country helped with the investigation.

Henry, the task force commander, could not be reached Wednesday for comment. But in a public presentation last March, he said the ring operated throughout the Twin Cities but mostly in north Hennepin County. It has a hierarchical structure, with upper-executive members, dozens of mid-level managers and more than 150 runners who collect small sums for risky chores like cashing counterfeit checks.

The indictment, originally filed under seal Tuesday, charges Julian Nosa Okeayainneh, 42, of Colton, Calif.; Oladipo Sowunmi Coker, 29, Osei-Tutu, 35, Fata Leeta Sarnor David, 38, and Olugenya Temidayo Adeniran, 35, all of Minneapolis; Farah, 42, and Sundayga Dexter Roberts, 47, both of Brooklyn Park; Charles Amankwah Akuffo, 30, no known address; Adetokunbo Olubunmi Adejumo, 34, of Maple Grove; Jude Obira Okafor, 44, of Fridley; Jonathan Sie Earley, 48, of Brooklyn Center; and Dwamina, 46, of Lino Lakes, with one count of bank fraud conspiracy. They also face additional related charges.

Okeayainneh has the most at stake, with 16 counts of bank fraud, five counts of aggravated identity theft, six counts of mail fraud, two counts of wire fraud, one count of money laundering conspiracy and one count of trafficking in false identification features. Okeayainneh possessed thousands of stolen identifications in a storage locker and assumed over 20 separate identities of other persons, according to court documents.

Coker also was charged with 16 counts of bank fraud, five counts of aggravated identity theft, 11 counts of mail fraud, and one count of money laundering conspiracy.

Several others were charged in connection to the conspiracy earlier. Chidi David Egbujor, 45, of Elk River, was charged in January with six counts of bank fraud and one count of aggravated identity theft. He allegedly obtained more than $766,00 from three banks using stolen identities.

Angela Kay Grigsby, 48, of Minneapolis, pleaded guilty Jan. 24 to one count each of bank fraud and identity theft. She admitted using a stolen identity to create a bank account. She deposited a phony check for $107,018.71 and withdrew $57,000 from the account.

Kabaso Manda, 36, residence unknown, pleaded guilty in October to one count each of aggravated identity theft and access device fraud. He admitted obtaining cash advances in the name of a Minnesota person he didn't know. And Jaime Jean Brynteson, 35, residence unknown, pleaded guilty March 1 to one count each of bank fraud and aggravated identity theft. She admitted to depositing two phone checks for $60,934.39 into an account using a stolen identity, then withdrawing $15,800 from the account.

At Wednesday's hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ann Anaya said the government conducted search warrants of Farah's home and vehicle, where investigators uncovered numerous bank documents, including customer information from both U.S. Bank and Wells Fargo. Police also found a person's safety deposit box in Farah's car, Anaya said.

Police officers also searched the home of Earley, who identified himself as unemployed in the court hearing. There, police recovered "numerous" driver-motor vehicle printouts from 2009, as well as government EBT payment cards with the names of more than six people, Anaya said.

Police also seized $9,700 in cash, in increments of $100, at the home of Roberts, whom Anaya described as a "former banker" who was dismissed from his banking job last March.

At the hearing, Roberts said the cash came from cashing out his IRA. He said he owned three cars, including a Jaguar and PT Cruiser. He said he recently started as an insurance agent but has not actually made any sales yet.Mayeron released four of the defendants but ordered them to relinquish their passports within 24 hours. The other defendants were led away in handcuffs, after the U.S. Attorney's office argued that they posed too great a risk of committing further crimes.

An arraignment hearing for the seven defendants arrested Wednesday is scheduled for Friday in federal court in St. Paul.

Dan Browning • 612-673-4493