Methamphetamine, ghost guns and luxury cars bought through stolen identities — including that of a Berkeley woman — are at the center of a series of cases against a North Bay woman and a South Bay man who are scheduled for sentencing later this month in Alameda County.
Jhona Marie Mathews, 42, of San Rafael, and Robert Joaquin Luz Preciado, 26, who has lived in Montara and San Francisco, have each pleaded no contest to one count each of drug possession with a firearm and fraudulent possession of personal identifying information and are scheduled for sentencing June 23.
The pair was arrested May 11 on suspicion of having illegally purchased a Mercedes with an unwitting victim’s information. Each is also accused of running scams in Marin County — Mathews to purchase of an Infiniti QX80, and Preciado to obtain an Audi A4, both in San Rafael.
Preciado is also accused of repeatedly stealing from a mail room at an Emeryville apartment building. Berkeley police have said that a spike in mail theft is tied to a corresponding spike in identity theft, with thieves finding personal information in the mail they steal.
The Berkeley victim first contacted Berkeley police Sept. 26, telling them that her credit report had tipped her off that someone had fraudulently purchased a $77,000 Mercedes from a Pleasant Hill Carmax and that she had begun receiving notices of FasTrak violations for the car, according to a declaration of probable cause from Berkeley police Detective Sgt. Jeremy Lathrop, who runs the department’s Property Crimes Unit.
Carmax turned over the purchase agreement for the Mercedes, along with a video of Mathews buying it on Sept. 17, Lathrop wrote.
The Mercedes was recovered in San Francisco, and investigators found Preciado’s DNA within, Lathrop wrote. Meanwhile, a phone number on the victim’s credit report matched Mathews’ San Rafael address, and a records check showed she had been arrested in San Rafael for allegedly driving the fraudulently purchased Infiniti while intoxicated.
The San Rafael arrest came just two days after Mathews was accused of buying the Mercedes. Marin County court records show she is accused of fraudulently buying the Inifiniti on Aug. 31.
Police in San Rafael, who had seized Mathews’ cellphone as evidence, turned it over to Berkeley police, who found photos on it of the Berkeley victim’s personal information, and Mathews posing with the Mercedes at Carmax and texts between her and Preciado that contained the victim’s information and discussion on buying the car, Lathrop wrote.
Berkeley police arrested Preciado at the Wiley W. Manuel Courthouse in Oakland on May 11. He had preliminary and pretrial hearings scheduled that day in three other pending Alameda County criminal cases. He told Berkeley police “that he did not know anything about the car, that he had never been inside of it, and he could not explain why his DNA was recovered from it,” Lathrop wrote.
Berkeley police arrested Mathews later the same day at the same court building, Lathrop wrote. She had keys to a Toyota Avalon parked outside and told police “that Preciado may have left a firearm in the vehicle,” Lathrop wrote. Police searched the car, finding “personal identifying information of 297 victims in the forms of handwritten profiles,” as well as stolen credit and debit cards, checks, mail, tax forms and bank statements, Lathrop wrote.
Police also found a non-serialized firearm — commonly known as a “ghost gun” — as well as ammunition, two ounces of meth packaged for sale, scales, packaging material, a 3D printer, a card reader, blank ID cards, a card printer and fake IDs for both Mathews and Preciado, he wrote.
Mathews told police that Preciado had given her the victim’s information and commercial driver’s license and that after Preciado filled out an application to buy the Mercedes, she went to Carmax, but immediately afterward gave Preciado the car, Lathrop wrote. She also said the gun and drugs were Preciado’s.
Histories of identity theft
Mathews has prior convictions for burglary in Marin County, conspiracy and identity theft in Sonoma County and grand theft and identity theft in Tulare County, according to court records.
Preciado was previously convicted of burglary in San Francisco, fraudulent possession of personal information in San Mateo and a previous instance of identity theft in Alameda County from a 2016 incident in which he was accused of checking into an Emeryville hotel through a fraudulent credit card transaction with a fake license, according to court records.
He also has several active cases in Alameda County stemming from arrests in Emeryville.
In 2020, while on probation, Preciado was allegedly caught with a stash of fake licenses and “various credit cards that also appeared to be fake or incomplete,” according to a declaration of probable cause from Emeryville police.
On Jan. 13, 2022, Emeryville police arrested Preciado again after allegedly being caught red-handed going through the mailroom at the Avalon Apartments on Shellmound Street in Emeryville. He is accused of having a ghost gun, too, and documents related to identity theft, according to court records.
Just over a week later, on Jan. 21, 2022, Emeryville police re-arrested Preciado on suspicion of two other thefts at the same mailroom on Aug. 18, 2021, and Oct. 8, 2021. Police said surveillance footage captured Preciado in both instances.
The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office initially charged both Mathews and Preciado with identity theft, possession of a firearm by a felon, drug possession with a firearm and fraudulent possession of personal information, according to criminal complaints against them. Both pleaded no contest May 24 to one count each of drug possession with a firearm and fraudulent possession of personal identifying information.
Preciado is facing a dozen assorted theft, burglary and other charges from his three Emeryville arrests, to which he has pleaded not guilty. There have been motions to dismiss all the charges in those three cases. Alameda County Superior Court Judge Kimberly E. Colwell is scheduled to consider them the same day she sentences Mathews and Preciado in the Berkeley case.
Mathews is due in court in Marin County July 12 on charges of grand theft by false pretenses, unauthorized use of personal identifying information, false personation, burglary, driving a vehicle without the owner’s consent, possession of false vehicle documents, giving false information to a peace officer, driving under the influence, obtaining personal identifying information with a prior conviction and two counts of forgery, according to court records.
Preciado is also facing charges in Marin County — grand theft, unauthorized use of personal identifying information, false personation, forgery, burglary and driving a vehicle without the owner’s consent, according to court records. A court date for him was not immediately available.
Preciado has been in custody at the Santa Rita Jail since his arrest in May. Mathews was released on bail.
An attorney for Mathews responded to initial inquiries but has not yet responded to questions about the case, including how Mathews and Preciado know each other and what was to become of the cars.
The Alameda County Public Defender’s office, representing Preciado, declined to comment.
The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office did not respond to inquiries.
Protecting against mail and identity theft
As a precaution against missing and stolen mail, people can sign up for Informed Delivery, a free postal service feature that previews mail and when it should arrive.
Post office boxes provide an alternative for delivery for those who can make it to a post office during the day. But they can be costly, from $4.50 a month for the smallest to $22.50 for the largest, according to the postal service.
City police also recommend that residents using conventional mailboxes invest in locking ones, which have a slot for mail carriers to deliver mail but are accessible only by key to anyone looking to retrieve it.
Anyone who believes they are experiencing mail or identity theft is encouraged to contact city police at 510-981-5900 and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service at 877-876-2455 or online.
The Federal Trade Commission keeps a list of warning signs of possible identity theft, including unrecognized bank withdrawals, unfamiliar charges on credit reports, debt collectors calling for unfamiliar debts and more. The commission also lists steps victims can take in different instances of identity theft.