A 40-year-old Minneapolis man developed a unique method for burglarizing cellphone stores by breaking into empty storefronts in strip malls, then burrowing through the plasterboard to the adjacent phone stores, according to federal authorities.

If he accidentally tripped a burglar alarm, sending police out to the cellphone store, they’d arrive to find the doors locked and assume no crime was taking place, authorities said.

But the burglar blew his cover when he accidentally left his own cellphone behind at a Maplewood store, and authorities found a “selfie” on it, a picture of himself, a special agent with the Secret Service testified at a hearing in U.S. District Court in St. Paul on Tuesday.

Abbas Ateia Al Hussainawee was charged Tuesday with providing stolen cellphones to an international criminal cellphone ring. He also was charged in a separate complaint with possession with intent to sell methamphetamine.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Tony Leung ordered him detained after a hearing, saying he was both a flight risk and a danger to the public.

Using DNA and footprints, Al Hussainawee has been linked to nine cellphone burglaries, all conducted by cutting through plasterboard in empty stores to break into cellphone stores. Besides the Twin Cities, prosecutors say he was involved in similar burglaries in Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois and Missouri and was responsible for burglaries or attempted burglaries of 22 cellphone stores.

During a search of his apartment Thursday in the 3000 block of 20th Avenue S. in Minneapolis, law enforcement agents found more than a half-pound of methamphetamine, which they believe he was planning to sell.

They also found a bag filled with crowbars and other tools that authorities say were burglary tools, and a cellphone that contained a photo of a travel document indicating he planned a trip to Basra, Iraq, in January.

Also on the cellphone was a photo of two phony FBI identification cards, one with a picture of himself on it, the other with a picture of a friend.

Al Hussainawee was born in Iraq, came to the United States at age 19, and has lived in the Twin Cities since 2001.

He is a legal resident of the United States but the rest of his family lives in Iraq, according to prosecutors.

Aside from driving violations, he has a clean record and the tools found were part of his trade, his attorney Murad Mohammad told the judge, adding that his client was an unemployed construction worker.

While Secret Service agent Jennifer Nissen testified that Al Hussainawee was tied to the crimes by DNA, officials offered no proof of it during the hearing, Mohammad said.

“The government has a lot of proof problems,” Mohammad said afterward.

Charged with conspiracy

Al Hussainawee allegedly sold the cellphones to the Mustafa Organization.

In August, 20 defendants were charged with conspiracy to steal and sell mobile devices to the underground market.

The suspect is described by prosecutors as one of many runners for Mustafa. “Our investigation continues to uncover others who fueled the theft of cellphones in Minnesota and elsewhere,” U.S. Attorney Andy Luger said in a statement Tuesday.

Three of the 20 defendants have told authorities that he sold them cellphones as far back as 2006 and one said he remembers paying him $85,000 cash for 385 cellphones.

Al Hussainawee is alleged to have broken into the Best Buy mobile store at 2950 White Bear Av. in Maplewood on Nov. 27, 2012, stealing 48 cellphones, 20 iPads and five tablet computers.

He got into Best Buy by breaking into an empty nail salon store next door, then cutting a hole in that store’s bathroom wall, according to a Maplewood police report.

This year, he is alleged to have broken into a Verizon store in Buffalo, Minn., on Dec. 12, stealing $33,015 worth of cellphones; a Verizon store in Waconia, Minn., on July 14, stealing 44 cellphones and iPads totaling $22,279; and a Verizon store in Menomonie, Wis., on March 9, stealing $32,000 worth of cellphones and iPads.

In Maplewood, a surveillance video showed a lone suspect wearing a black facemask and gloves and carrying a camera.

He dropped his personal cellphone on the ground outside the back door, according to a court document unsealed Tuesday.

However in the Waconia burglary, a surveillance video from the store next door captured a shot of the unmasked suspect that “matches” Al Hussainawee’s driver’s license picture, the document said.

Besides the Secret Service and state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, the case was investigated by the St. Paul Police Department under the Minnesota Financial Crimes Task Force. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Steven Schleicher and John Marti are prosecuting the case.


Twitter: @randyfurst