A Nigerian man from Texas was sentenced Tuesday to three years and four months in prison, likely to be followed by deportation, for taking part in years-long schemes that defrauded unwitting people from the U.S. and other countries of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“Your conduct here caused untold damage to others and there has to be a consequence for that,” U.S. District Judge William Conley told Clement Onuama, 53, a Nigerian national who owned a legitimate auto sales and repair business near Arlington, Texas, which prosecutors said became a front for an operation that laundered money gained through “a systemic and long-term fleecing of gullible people.”
Onuama received a sentence that was five months shorter than one Conley gave recently to Orefo Okeke, 41, who was a partner of Onuama. Conley said their conduct was almost indistinguishable, but he gave Onuama some credit for having endured repeated civil wars and other hardships in Nigeria as a child and young man before he legally emigrated to the U.S. in 2001.
Despite having had a difficult life, Conley said Onuama learned a trade and used it to better his circumstances, until prosecutors said he took part in 19 frauds with Okeke, and made money from 14 of them.
“Onuama’s participation was required to make the schemes work because he was the end result,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Graber wrote in a sentencing memorandum. “He needed to give his bank account information to the fraudster who provided it to the victim. Without Onuama’s participation as the money launderer, the fraud scheme did not work.”
Among the schemes was the intrusion into a real estate deal in 2014 between a Madison real estate agent, a Stevens Point title company and a Chicago lender, all pertaining to the sale of a house in Deerfield. By sending a fake email to the agent, pretending it was from the title company, the destination of the lender’s money went from its legitimate destination to a Wells Fargo bank in Bettendorf, Iowa.
The woman whose account received the money had been involved in an online romantic relationship with a man who had told her that he was in Spain and needed to transfer money, and asked to use her bank account to hold it. He sent her two money transfers, then instructed her to send $80,000 of the money to Onuama and $50,000 to another man.
She did, despite not knowing Onuama or the other man.
Conley said that victims of Onuama and Okeke lost “sizable amounts of money,” and some wrote to Conley to tell them of the emotional difficulties they’ve had since learning that they had been duped. Onuama was ordered to repay $409,638, though Conley said it’s unlikely any victims will ever be repaid.
“He knew the money was coming from others who had been duped,” Conley said of Onuama, and those people suffered by having their email, personal information, bank accounts and credit cards compromised.
When it came time to quickly transfer that money out of Onuama’s bank accounts in Texas, Conley said, he lied to bank officials, claiming that the money was from vehicle sales.
Onuama’s lawyer, Christopher Cherella, asked for a two-year prison sentence, arguing that Onuama had not used sophisticated means as defined by federal law to carry out the fraud, and that Onuama was just a low-level player in these schemes whose only role was to launder money.
Onuama begged Conley for mercy in his sentence, telling him that he was “sorry for my mistake.”
“These were not mistakes,” Conley responded. “We’re not here because of mistakes. We’re here because of intentional decisions you made over and over again.”