Fraudsters tricked love-sick seniors – turning them into FBI targets | Function | St. Louis | St. Louis news and events

For Julia Dunaway, it started with a message on Facebook from a man in uniform.

“Hi thanks for adding me as a friend, tell me how are you?”

The 70-year-old, who lives outside of Tupelo, Mississippi, saw no reason not to respond to the kind message. They exchanged some nice things. He quickly proved to be one of the most exciting men she had ever met. He said he was General Stephen Townsend of the U.S. Army, who is currently stationed in Syria. Life in his desert post was difficult. He and his troops faced the bombing of the enemy. A fire broke out at his base. Men under his command died. Despite the coercion he was under, the general was unfailingly polite in his messages. He began each post addressing her as “Mrs.” and ended each conversation with a Christian greeting – “I hope God allows you to have a wonderful day,” or something like that.

After Dunaway and the general got to know each other, he revealed his secret to her.

The general had helped a Syrian family get out of their war-torn homeland and into Canada. As a sign of their gratitude, the family had told the general the location of a secret portfolio of diamonds and other riches worth $ 3 million, still in Syria, which he could keep for himself if he could get the valuables out of the country. . The general was just missing someone in the United States who could safely receive the diamonds as well as pay some of the customs and import duties. He said that if Dunaway helped pay those fees, she could keep half of the portfolio to herself. This was a unique opportunity, the general said. How often are you able to help a senior, highly decorated member of your country’s military and get rich by doing so?

Dunaway, who had initially been skeptical, asked the general how she could know for sure that he was genuine. The general instructed Dunaway to write his name on Google.

The first result was a website for the United States Africa Command with an official .mil address. The general was a man with salt and pepper hair standing in front of an American flag wearing a no-nonsense expression. If he was not in uniform, he would look like someone who would do a really good job of reporting your taxes.

“I’ve always been sympathetic to the military,” Dunaway says RFT. These sympathies, combined with the man’s apparent Christian values ​​and his offer of a great payday, proved too much for Dunaway to resist.

The general put Dunaway in contact with a man he called the “diplomat.” The diplomat told Dunaway that his secretary was working from an office in St. Louis. Louis and sent the money there.

Dunaway is not a rich woman. She has been a cleaning assistant for the past 30 years. Before that, she worked in a jewelry store and in the retail trade. After meeting the general and the diplomat, she was determined to do what she had to do to get the $ 1.5 million they promised.

“I wanted to give the money to my kids,” Dunaway says. “My daughter and son-in-law had been helping me through the last twenty years and I wanted to give back to them. One begins to think about how one would love to do it for one’s children, it just makes one foolish.”

Her judgment obscured by the promise of wealth, Dunaway mistaken a story too good to be true for an opportunity too good to pass up, sending $ 5,000 to St. Louis. Louis.

The mailbox in North St. Louis County

The money that Dunaway sent to St. Louis, arrived at a post office just across Interstate 170 from Lambert Airport in Berkeley. Needless to say, the address had nothing to do with a diplomatic secretary.

There is a real General Stephen Townsend, but his identity had been stolen by scammers in Nigeria.

The mailbox in Berkeley had been opened by a woman identified in court documents as BM, who acted in the direction of Trenice Hassel, who lives in North St. Louis. Louis County. According to a federal indictment, the 43-year-old Bonmene Sibe from St. Louis Hassel $ 100 to find someone who would open mailboxes in their own name and not ask questions. Authorities say Hassel chose BM because she was “vulnerable.”

Sibe himself worked with 43-year-old Ovuoke Frank Ofikoro, a newly naturalized U.S. citizen who later in court said he was two semesters away from getting a bachelor’s degree in information systems. Ofikoro instructed Sibe “to find people who would open [P.O.] boxes to be used to receive the benefits of their scheme, “according to court documents. At a July hearing in which Ofikoro pleaded guilty to postal and electronic fraud, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tracy Berry described Ofikoro as a” manager or supervisor “in this scheme.

Ofikoro’s lawyer, Scott Rosenblum, declined to comment. Sibe’s lawyer did not call back from RFT, and address searches for the two scammers revealed little. The owner of the property in the southern town, which is associated with Sibe in public records, said she had never heard of him. And a Jennings address, most recently listed for Sibe in the court records, showed an abandoned house with a car bumper leaning against the door on the porch. “No one has lived there for years,” said one neighbor.

Ofikoro and Sibe’s involvement in the scheme began in the spring of 2019, when the two men used proxies to set up the mailbox in Berkeley and another in the Near North Riverfront neighborhood of St. Louis. Louis. Dunaway was first contacted by the fake general at about the same time.

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