On a summer day in 2010, Wilkinson County deputies were called because four children were spotted wandering around in Toomsboro during the wee hours of the morning.
When deputies arrived, they found the children at a neighbors house, and their mother was at the familys double-wide trailer. She was high on methamphetamine.
We looked around in the house, and there was no food, Chief Deputy Heath Bache said.
The mother told deputies she had left her electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card at a local store where she used it to borrow money.
The deputies discovery sparked a more than six-month long investigation that uncovered one of the largest food stamp fraud cases in Georgia history.
Like the more than 1,900 other people who officials say frequented two small Wilkinson County grocery stores, the mother borrowed money from her EBT card. Swiping the cards for cash instead of the food for which theyre intended, the stores pocketed a profit between 30 and 45 percent.
A multi-agency investigation found that store owners Eugene Shinholster and Alfred Boyd raked in a combined $6 million in fraudulent business. Both have pleaded guilty to federal charges.
Shinholster, 77, is scheduled to be sentenced Wednesday on charges of food stamp program fraud and money laundering. He could face as many as 20 years in prison for each charge in addition to fines and possible restitution, according to federal court records.
Boyds sentencing is scheduled for next month.
Sixteen EBT cardholders also have pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit food stamp fraud and are scheduled for sentencing this fall. Each could face as many as five years in prison and a $250,0000 fine, according to plea agreements signed by the cardholders.
Restitution will be required of each cardholder. Estimates listed in the plea agreements range from $6,212 to $15,735.
U.S. Attorney Michael Moore said his office selected the most serious and provable cases for criminal prosecution.
Hundreds of other cardholders in the case have been sanctioned through administrative hearings, Bache said.
Bache said people were traveling from as far as a hundred miles away to do business with Shinholster and Boyd because they offered lower rates on the illegal cash advances. Some other stores fraudulently swiping EBT cards for cash charged as much as 50 percent for the service.
Although Shinholster became authorized to accept EBT cards in 1990, Shinholsters Grocery and Meat Market had been in business at 71 Martin Luther King Jr. Road in Irwinton since the 1970s. Decades ago, the store was legitimate and even had hog pens in the back, Bache said.
But when deputies visited the store as part of their investigation, they found the shelves stocked with items that had been expired for six months. Investigators compared sales for Shinholsters store and found that it had done $270,000 more business in one year than the Piggly Wiggly in Gordon, 15 miles away, Bache said.
At times, cardholders were making appointments to come into the store and collect their cash because otherwise there would be lines stretching into the street, he said.
Prosecutors allege Shinholsters fraud began in 2006 and continued until March 2011, totalling $4.6 million. He received an estimated $1.4 million profit, according to court documents.
As part of the investigation and court proceedings, Shinholster has forfeited nearly $210,000 and 28 guns. The forfeiture wont count toward any restitution he may be ordered to pay, according to the documents.
Shinholster lawyer Curtis Hubbard declined to comment last week, citing his firms policy not to comment on pending cases.
Boyd, who ran The Northwind Mini Mart at 318 Northwind Circle in McIntyre, used to work in a kaolin mine, but he claimed disability and retired in 2006, his lawyer, Page Pate, said.
Prosecutors allege the fraud at the now 59-year-olds store began in December 2009 and lasted until March 2011, according to court documents.
Pate said Boyd started swiping customers cards for cash after people familiar with the service at Shinholsters store approached him with the idea.
Times, especially back at that time in that community, were especially tough, he said.
Although Bache described the store as being a 12-foot by 16-foot metal building akin to one used to store a lawn mower and yard tools, Pate said it was a country store that could accommodate about 10 people at a time with aisles, shelves and a convenience-store cooler.
Boyd, who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit food stamp fraud, faces a maximum of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine plus possible restitution, according to his plea agreement.
He has forfeited more than $93,000.
Although authorities allege Boyds store did about $2 million in business, Pate said prosecutors recognize some of the purchases were legitimate.
Both sides have agreed Boyd is responsible for the food stamp program losing $800,000, and Boyd recognizes he shouldnt have done what he did and he has cooperated with authorities, Pate said.
His niece, 37-year-old Chiquita Boyd, also has pleaded guilty to food stamp fraud and faces up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Chiquita Boyds lawyer, Reza Sedghi, said Boyd was her uncles employee and he basically used her to swipe the EBT cards.
Bache said investigators found that many of the people swiping their cards for cash were using the money to buy drugs.
The Toomsboro mother who was using the money from her card to buy drugs was charged with possession of methamphetamine. Her children have been adopted by another family, he said.
The investigation also revealed a lack of oversight in how the cards are being used and the ease of stores obtaining machines to process the government aid payments, Bache said.
He said he cant help but think the fraud uncovered in Wilkinson County likely is a state and national epidemic.
We can only document $6 million, and thats just in Wilkinson County with under a 10,000 person population, Bache said. If were doing $6 million here with just two businesses in four years, whats Atlanta doing? Whats Macon doing?
Moore said one of the tragedies of cases involving EBT fraud is how criminal conduct perpetuates the stereotypes and prejudices people have about government assistance.
Public assistance should be about offering a helping hand, not about having to keep folks hands out of the cash register, Moore said.
Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.