Stolen identities bought cycling gear
By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — When investigators entered Walter Darnell Austin’s office to see what the former Windstream employee had been buying with financial information allegedly stolen from customers, Det. Carl Dangerfield said he expected the worst.
But he never expected this.
Austin’s office was filled with cycling gear, Dangerfield said. The Mount Pleasant man had spent thousands of dollars on a race bike, stationary trainer, clothing, shoes, endurance drinks, cases of nutrition bars and more, said Dangerfield, a detective with the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office.
Investigators also found BB guns, ammunition pellets and two wrist GPS units.
“I was surprised,” Dangerfield said. “I was expecting something much different than sporting goods. And I expected a much different offender.”
Authorities charged Austin Sunday afternoon with four additional counts of identity theft and increased his bond from $10,000 to $50,000. In all, he is accused of using financial information stolen from 19 customers, plus another woman, during the past 14 months to buy an estimated $6,000 in merchandise.
He also is charged with trafficking stolen identities, a charge that can be brought if someone possesses three or more stolen identities, Dangerfield said.
Austin kept his sporting life a secret from his wife, Dangerfield said. The sheriff’s office seized his home computer and found no evidence of his purchases, he said. They also seized his work computers.
Investigators say Austin used Windstream customers’ financial information from their accounts to buy goods he had delivered to vacant homes in Rowan and Cabarrus counties.
The stolen information came from a Windstream retail store in Kannapolis, Windstream spokesman Scott Morris said. The records were paper documents believed to be from the mid- to late 1990s, before Windstream acquired CT Communications in 2007.
Austin used the customers’ personal information to open fraudulent accounts with online retail companies, investigators said.
Sheriff’s investigators and China Grove Police detectives staked out a home in southern Rowan County last week after a concerned neighbor notified authorities that packages were being delivered to a vacant house on Millbridge Road.
As they watched, a report said, Austin came to the house and picked up two packages that had been dropped off there by a commercial delivery service.
Deputies stopped Austin as he ran to a nearby Windstream service van and tried to leave, the report said. Austin quit his job with Windstream later that day.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.