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Grand Forks bank robberies case moves to federal court

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Federal prosecutors have taken over the criminal case of a woman accused of robbing two Grand Forks banks of nearly $22,000 this fall -- and charges may also be filed against a relative and a boyfriend of the accused.

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GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Federal prosecutors have taken over the criminal case of a woman accused of robbing two Grand Forks banks of nearly $22,000 this fall -- and charges may also be filed against a relative and a boyfriend of the accused.

Charges filed in state district court against 39-year-old Charlene Mae Corona, who also goes by Charlene Mae Espinoza, were dismissed after the U.S. Attorney's Office in North Dakota decided to pursue charges against Corona, according to court records.

A search of PACER, an online service which provides access to federal court records, did not turn up pending federal charges against Corona, but the case may have been filed under seal.

It is unclear whether federal prosecutors are pursuing charges against anyone besides Corona in connection with the armed bank robberies.

Under U.S. Code, it is a crime to knowingly possess money stolen from a bank and is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Court records claim a relative of Corona's bought the gun Corona used in one of the robberies and suggest the relative may have been in possession of some of the stolen cash.

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Corona was initially charged in state court with two counts of robbery, both Class B felonies, and two counts of terrorizing, both Class C felonies, after investigators said she held up two Grand Forks banks, one at knife-point and the other at gunpoint, though records say the gun was phony, according to court records.

Those state-level charges were dropped last week after a county prosecutor asked a Grand Forks judge to dismiss the charges, saying federal charges were expected. Corona could be charged with bank robbery in federal court, for which she could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted--10 years more than what she would have faced at the state level.

Prosecutors claimed Corona robbed the Bremer Bank on North Washington Street and the Citizens Community Credit Union on North 42nd Street on Sept. 30 and Oct. 12, respectively, pointing a utility knife at tellers in the first robbery and brandishing a gun in the second, according to court papers.

After both robberies, Grand Forks Police released still photographs taken from security cameras inside the banks, which led to two tipsters identifying Corona as the robber in the photographs and a third tipster telling police to talk to Corona's cousin, court records say.

Also, court papers state:

The cousin, Rita Corona, told police Charlene had admitted to robbing Bremer Bank. She knew details, like the fact the robber had disposed of the clothing she had worn during the Bremer Bank robbery, then unknown to the general public. The cousin also told police about Corona's longtime boyfriend, Juan Gatica, with whom Corona stayed in Crookston.

Police used a warrant to search Gatica's Crookston apartment, though nobody was home at the time. A neighbor across the hall reportedly told officers Corona had used her Internet connection the night prior to see if she had any warrants out for her arrest. The neighbor also told officers Corona had left town.

According to court documents, police used a court order to get Gatica's cellphone carrier to trace where his phone was and found his phone was at a motel in Moorhead, where police then found both Corona and Gatica. Police found about $4,600 in their pickup, while Gatica had slightly more than $1,000 on his person.

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Court papers show Gatica identified Corona as the robber in the Bremer Bank photographs and told officers Corona had given him the cash to "make things right" in their relationship. Two others, the cousin and a daughter, also identified Corona as the robber in photographs from the banks. Corona initially told officers she won the cash by gambling, but later confessed to robbing both banks.

During police questioning, Corona told officers that Abilene Corona bought the phony gun used in the second robbery, a claim backed up by Kmart security camera footage, according to court records.

Detectives applied for a warrant to search Abilene's apartment in October. In his application to search the apartment, Grand Forks Police Detective David Buzzo noted police did not find the phony gun or the knife that Corona allegedly used in the robberies, nor were officers able to account for $10,000 taken from the banks.

Police would be looking for those items when they searched Abilene Corona's apartment, Buzzo wrote.

Corona is being held at the Douglas County Jail in Alexandria, Minn., on pending charges out of Clay County--officers allegedly said they found drugs on Corona while arresting her in Moorhead. A plea hearing is scheduled in that case for Dec. 10.

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