CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - A major new development surfaced Wednesday in a lucrative Facebook scam first exposed by a Cleveland 19 undercover investigation in June 2017.
A Cuyahoga County grand jury has indicted Zienup Sbeih-Maddox, 24, of Cleveland; Kirsten Laurie, 26, of Cleveland; and Kimberly St. John-Stevenson, 54, of Cleveland Heights, in connection with the social media scam, which investigators say defrauded hundreds of victims across the United States and Canada out of more than $300,000.
Sbeih-Maddox and St. John-Stevenson have been hit with multiple felony charges, including conspiracy, aggravated theft, money laundering, telecommunications fraud, engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity and possessing criminal tools.
In addition, Sbeih-Maddox faces one count of tampering with evidence. St. John-Stevenson also faces one count of obstructing justice.
Laurie, who is Sbeih-Maddox’s sister, has been charged with money laundering, receiving stolen property and obstructing justice.
A warrant for the arrest of St. John-Stevenson, a mother of two, was issued Wednesday.
St. John-Stevenson was arrested at Cleveland State University Wednesday afternoon, according to the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority Police Department, which took the lead on the criminal investigation.
Cleveland 19 has previously confirmed that St. John-Stevenson was an independent contractor hired by CSU and provided services for the College of Urban Affairs.
Sbeih-Maddox is currently locked-up in Cuyahoga County Jail awaiting trial on charges related to public housing fraud.
Sources say instead of a warrant, a court summons will be issued for Laurie, who has custody of Sbeih-Maddox’s daughter in addition to two young children of her own.
The women had all been members of a private mom’s group on Facebook, called “Zee’s Place,” which offered deep discounts on toys and baby products -- like car seats and diapers -- and even trips to Disney World.
According to the indictment, “Zee’s Place” was created by Sbeih-Maddox and St. John-Stevenson in August 2016, and was “targeted toward suburban moms in search of bargains.”
“Because of the bargain prices on the offered items, the community grew by word of mouth; ultimately, at least 200 people made purchases from Zee’s Place," the indictment states. “Any new Zee’s Place customer received at least their first “bargain” without any issue; however, upon ordering (and paying for) additional “bargains,” Sbeih-Maddox and St. John-Stevenson failed to remit the purchased items, instead offering delays and excuses and never returning the funds paid.”
Investigators say Sbeih-Maddox and St. John-Stevenson transferred money from the orders back and forth between multiple bank accounts to disguise the nature and origin of the money. Their banks flagged this as suspicious activity and shut down the accounts.
It was then that Sbeih-Maddox and St. John-Stevenson allegedly recruited three other women to accept Zee’s Place payments and then have the women pass the money along to Sbeih-Maddox and St. John-Stevenson.
Cleveland 19 is not naming the three women because they have not been charged in connection with this case.
In early 2017, Zee’s Place members started speaking out after their orders went unfulfilled and they weren’t receiving refunds.
Several women began reaching out to Cleveland 19′s Investigative Unit in March 2017, saying they had been victimized by Zee’s Place.
In May 2017, a Cleveland 19 producer went undercover and met up with Sbeih-Maddox at Midway Mall in Elyria. The producer wore hidden cameras while arranging to buy discounted car seats from Sbeih.
When Chief Investigator Carl Monday approached Sbeih-Maddox to question her about the Zee’s Place scam, Sbeih-Maddox took off, ran and jumped into her sister Kirsten’s van.
Around the same time, the Cleveland Division of Police had also launched an investigation into the Facebook scam and charged Sbeih-Maddox with telecommunications fraud and theft.
CMHA Police Lt. Gregory Drew says Sbeih-Maddox “actually fled the country on three separate occasions” in the spring of 2017, traveling to China, Dubai and Cancun while she knew she was under police investigation for theft and fraud.
A warrant was issued for Sbeih-Maddox’s arrest in July 2017, but she fled Ohio and was able to evade capture by law enforcement for more than a year.
It was during that time police say St. John-Stevenson provided financial support to Sbeih-Maddox. According to the indictment, she put money into her personal bank account, which Sbeih-Maddox had access to and was able to withdraw $62,368.29 “while she was traveling out west avoiding her arrest warrants.”
We communicated with St. John-Stevenson via email while Sbeih-Maddox was on the run.
St. John-Stevenson denied having any involvement in the scam and claimed that she was also a victim.
In an email to Cleveland 19 on Aug. 15, 2017, St. John-Stevenson said:
Sbeih-Maddox was eventually arrested on a fugitive warrant in Las Vegas, Nevada in August 2018. She had been living under an alias at a Las Vegas youth homeless shelter since May.
Sbeih-Maddox was extradited to Ohio in November, where she was then arraigned on charges of grand theft, theft and tampering with records related to public housing fraud. Investigators say she was living in CMHA housing in Cleveland and paying less than $80 per month in rent while at the same time collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Zee’s Place scam.
Sbeih-Maddox pleaded not guilty to the charges in that case and is currently in jail. She will be arraigned on the new charges on Dec. 24.
St. John-Stevenson is also scheduled to be arraigned on Dec. 24. Arraignment for Laurie is set for Jan. 4, 2019.
Speaking by phone Wednesday, CMHA Police Chief Andrés González thanked Cleveland 19 for bringing Sbeih-Maddox to their attention and said, “The path to justice has begun."
González says the case “sends a clear message that you can’t engage in this type of fraud and get away with it.”
The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office, who will be prosecuting this case, provided Cleveland 19 with the following statement:
Stay with Cleveland 19 News for updates as this story continues to develop.