Couple charged in theft spree

October 8, 2011

By Julie ManganisStaff writer

MIDDLETON — Donald and Jennifer James looked like any other middle-aged married couple picking out flowers for a daughter’s wedding, seeking directions to a hotel or purchasing jewelry together.

But investigators in three states and the Secret Service say they were actually a pair of thieves who preyed on unsuspecting business owners, banks and even a couple expecting a child, in locations from southern Maine to the North Shore.

Now, both are in custody, Donald James, 48, at Middleton Jail and Jennifer James, 44, at MCI Framingham, facing multiple larceny, identity fraud, forgery and conspiracy charges in four courts in Massachusetts. They are awaiting an expected federal indictment on bank fraud charges in New Hampshire, according to court papers, and they’re wanted by authorities in Maine.

The two list various addresses in Portland and Gorham, Maine.

They were found staying at Middleton’s Candlelite Motor Inn on May 25, after a patrolman spotted their Kia with Maine license plates parked in the lot there. Authorities in New Hampshire had put out a “be on the lookout” for the small SUV.

Their victims included the owner and some customers of Jasmine’s Flower Shoppe in Seabrook, where Jennifer James showed up on the afternoon of April 6 saying she wanted to order flowers for a wedding, investigators said.

Donald James also went into the shop and asked several times to use the restroom. Eventually the employee let him go into the one bathroom, located in the back of the shop. After the couple left, the employee realized that the day’s deposits, including $1,800 in cash and numerous checks from customers, and her own credit card and business checks, were all missing.

Some of those checks were later altered and cashed for hundreds of dollars more than they had originally been written for, at locations from Portsmouth to Somerville.

One check made payable for $64.95 was later cashed at a Sovereign Bank branch in Peabody for $1,300, according to an affidavit by a Secret Service agent. Another, originally for $100, was cashed for $900 at a Provident Bank in Amesbury, on April 20.

Expectant mother conned

Two days later, on April 22, the couple were on Route 1 in Newbury when they pulled into the parking lot of an animal hospital and struck up a conversation with a pregnant Newburyport woman walking her dog outside, according to a Newbury police report.

Jennifer James asked the woman for a hotel recommendation and made small talk, while Donald James began playing with the woman’s dog, which had been put back in her car.

Also in the car was the woman’s purse, containing $3,300 that the woman had just withdrawn from her bank after closing her account. She told police that she and her husband were in the process of moving and were intending to use the money to buy baby furniture and other items for their new place that day.

When she returned to her car after recommending a motel in Salisbury to Jennifer James, she discovered the theft. Gone was the cash, a credit card and a checkbook for her just-closed Institution for Savings account.

A week later, Donald and Jennifer James showed up at Desjardins Jewelers in Beverly. Jennifer James used one of the woman’s stolen checks to purchase an $1,800 gold bracelet for her husband, Beverly police said in a report.

The store’s employees recognized the couple from surveillance photos detectives obtained from one of the many stores where the couple had been.

The pair also used stolen checks to purchase items at Crosby’s Market in Hamilton, twice, as well as at a Sleepy’s bedding store in Stoneham, police said. The Newburyport woman’s credit card was used at businesses in Peabody, Lynn and Danvers.

On May 25, police arrested Donald James as he tried to pull out of the Candlelite parking lot. Jennifer James, along with a Lynn man who said he had met them at the Motel 6 in Danvers the day before, were arrested in a room they had paid for with another of the Newburyport woman’s checks, police said.

Jennifer James also had heroin on her, police said.

Police found the identification papers of both the flower shop employee and the Newburyport woman, as well as $1,200 in $50 bills — the same denomination of bills that were in the purse stolen in Newbury a month earlier.

Questioned by police, Jennifer James claimed that she had been pressured by Donald James to cash the checks “under duress,” according to the Secret Service agent’s report, though the two appeared to chat amicably in whispers while awaiting a hearing yesterday in Salem District Court, where they are facing many of the charges against them.

The two are also facing charges in Newburyport and Ipswich District courts and in Malden District Court.

Both will be in Newburyport District Court on Oct. 20, and back in Salem on Nov. 7.