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Cascade woman charged in student loan fraud scheme

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Posted at 2:31 PM, Apr 13, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-13 18:05:14-04

GREAT FALLS — Ricci Lea Castellanos of Cascade, suspected of fraudulently obtaining federal student financial aid by using the names of other people to enroll at Great Falls College-MSU and then using those identities to receive financial aid, is facing several federal charges.

Castellanos, 34 years old, appeared in federal court in Great Falls on Tuesday, April 12, 2022, on conspiracy, fraud and identity theft crimes, U.S. Attorney Leif Johnson said in a news release.

Prosecutors allege that between January 2016 and December 2019, Castellanos enrolled unwitting family members and others in online classes at Great Falls College. When doing so, Castellanos and others applied for and received Federal Student Aid totaling about $126,219, none of which was allowed.

The indictment also alleges that Castellanos and others fraudulently used and submitted multiple American Indian Tuition Waivers. To support such applications, Castellanos and others created and used false tribal enrollment forms from Native American Tribes, all of which were designed to result in larger student living expense refunds, and which were then diverted by Castellanos and others.

Castellanos pleaded not guilty to a 14-count indictment charging her with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, and student financial aid fraud.

U.S. Magistrate Judge John Johnston presided; Castellanos was released pending further proceedings.

The news release notes that an indictment is merely an accusation, and the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ryan Weldon is prosecuting the case, which was investigated by the Department of Education Office of Inspector General.