A third former soldier from a New Orleans, Louisiana-based Army Reserve unit has pleaded guilty to a federal crime connected to fraudulent funeral honors pay.

Earlier this month, former Sgt. Derrick Branch pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit theft of government funds, according to a Justice Department press release and court records. Stars & Stripes first reported Branch’s plea. Two other former soldiers, Staff Sgt. Lynea Sanders and Spc. Chantelle Davis, already pleaded guilty and were sentenced in June.

According to federal prosecutors, former Staff Sgt. Christopher O’Connor, while serving as an Army Reserve pay technician, submitted “fraudulent” funeral honors pay requests to the Army between 2013 and 2016 for himself and six other soldiers from the 377th Theater Sustainment Command’s 441st Transportation Company. The total theft exceeded $100,000, an indictment said.

Typically, part-time troops can receive pay for performing military honors at funerals for fellow service members and veterans. A soldier’s supervisor must approve their participation on such a detail.

But prosecutors said the funerals for which O’Connor submitted pay requests were not authorized and did not occur. They and the three troops who have pleaded guilty alleged that the pay technician received a portion of their pay each time he submitted a false request.

Although the Justice Department press release announcing Branch’s guilty plea noted that his conspiracy charge could carry a five-year prison term, conspiracy defendants who take plea agreements and offer testimony against co-conspirators can often secure a light sentence.

Neither of the two soldiers already convicted and sentenced, Sanders and Davis, were sentenced to prison. They received probation and were ordered to repay the money they stole, according to court records.

O’Connor and three more defendants still await trial. Branch’s sentencing is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 30.

Davis Winkie covers the Army for Military Times. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill, and served five years in the Army Guard. His investigations earned the Society of Professional Journalists' 2023 Sunshine Award and consecutive Military Reporters and Editors honors, among others. Davis was also a 2022 Livingston Awards finalist.

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