Cascade woman charged with identity theft and student financial aid fraud | Crime and courts

INDEPENDENT REGISTRATION

A Cascade woman suspected of using other people’s names to enroll at Great Falls College and then using those identities to receive financial aid pleaded not guilty on April 12 to conspiracy, fraud and theft identification, federal authorities said.

Ricci Lea Castellanos, 34, also of Redding, Calif., pleaded at arraignment in Great Falls to a 14-count indictment charging him with conspiracy to commit fraud by wire, wire fraud, aggravated identity theft and student financial aid fraud, U.S. Attorney Leif M. Johnson said.

If convicted of the most serious crime, Castellanos faces a maximum of 20 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised release for conspiracy and wire fraud.

U.S. Magistrate Judge John T. Johnston presided, and Castellanos was released pending further proceedings.

The indictment alleges that between January 2016 and December 2019, Castellanos enrolled unwitting family members and others in online courses at Montana State University’s Great Falls College. She and others applied for and received federal student aid totaling approximately $126,219, none of which was approved. The indictment further alleges that Castellanos and others fraudulently used and submitted American Indian tuition waivers.

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She and others allegedly created and used fake tribal registration forms from Native American tribes, all of which were designed to result in larger student living expense reimbursements, and which were later hijacked by Castellanos and others.

She is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in court.