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Diamonds replaced with crystals in theft case, Hermantown police say

Jason B. Johnson | Duluth News Tribune

HERMANTOWN, Minn. - A former member of the Hermantown School Board allegedly stole more than $20,000 in jewelry and cash from a friend, going so far as to replace the diamonds in two rings with a set of crystals before returning them to the unsuspecting victim, police said Monday.

Stephanie Hamell, who resigned her position on the board last month, is accused of taking $16,500 in jewelry and $5,000 in cash and has admitted to the theft. Investigators interviewed her in December and formally charged her on Feb. 14, police said.

Hamell, 42, could not be reached for comment by phone, and she did not immediately respond to an email from the News Tribune. She is out on bail.

The incident began in January 2013, when a friend of Hamell asked her to hang onto some cash and jewelry for her. The jewelry was a wedding set consisting of five diamonds in two rings. Sometime last April and May, the victim, whose name was not released, began asking for the items back, said Hermantown Police Deputy Chief Shawn Padden.

“When the friend asked to get the diamonds and cash back from her, Hamell concocts a story that she can’t get into her safe. (That) she’s got to get the safe back to the manufacturer in California,” Padden said.

Sometime later, Hamell told her friend that when she got the safe back, the cash was gone, Padden said.

Hamell eventually returned the rings, but the friend discovered the apparent deception after taking them to a jeweler in the Twin Cities after one of the stones became loose and fell from a ring, Padden said.

“At some point over the summer, the diamonds started loosening up,” Padden said. “Then, in June, the victim took diamonds to a jeweler ... and found out they’d been replaced by fake ones.”

The jeweler determined that the diamonds had been switched with Swarovski crystals, which refract light in a rainbow spectrum giving them the appearance of genuine diamonds. Police were then notified.

In December, police interviewed Hamell, and on Feb. 14 she was charged with felony theft, which carries a maximum penalty of a $20,000 fine and/or a 10-year prison term.

“Hammel does admit to this elaborate scheme,” Padden said. “We’re trying to track it down. She said she sold the diamonds to a jewelers down in the Cities area, but she can’t remember who. We’re trying to track that person down now.”

Hamell has no apparent criminal history, police said.

Hamell, whose name still is listed online on the Hermantown School Board roster, has resigned her position on the board. But it was not immediately clear if that decision was directly related to her arrest or if district officials were aware of the case. Hermantown Superintendent Brad Johnson did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

Hamell’s next court appearance is scheduled for March 11.

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