Eight alleged lotto scammers appear in US court

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The eight lottery scam suspects, extradited from Jamaica this week to face charges in the US, made their first court appearance in that North American country on Thursday.

O’Neil Brown, Kazrae Gray, Kimberly Hudson, Dahlia Hunter, Jason Jahalal, Alrick McLeod, Xanu Morgan and Dario Palmer made their initial appearance at a federal court in Bismarck, North Dakota. All were ordered held without bond until detention hearings. Hudson, Brown, Palmer and McLeod pleaded not guilty. The other four didn’t enter pleas because their attorneys weren’t there.

Authorities say they were involved in a multimillion-dollar lottery scam that victimized dozens of Americans. Here are some questions and answers about the case that began nearly six years ago with a phone call to an elderly widow in a small North Dakota town:

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HOW DID THE CASE START?

In September 2011, Edna Schmeets, 86, of Harvey, North Dakota, received a call from a man who told her she had won US$19 million and a new car, and needed only to pay taxes and fees. She lost her life savings of more than US$300,000 to the scam. Word eventually reached the FBI, and authorities opened a case in 2012.

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WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?

Authorities allege the sophisticated scam bilked at least 90 mostly elderly Americans out of more than US$5.7 million. Fifteen people each are charged with 66 total counts of conspiracy, wire fraud, mail fraud and money laundering. They are accused of calling victims, persuading them to send money, and wiring the money to bank accounts in Jamaica. Authorities have dubbed the case “Operation Hard Copy,” a reference to lists of prospective victims’ contact information used by scammers.

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WHO ARE THE SUSPECTS?

Prosecutors say Lavrick Willocks masterminded the scam and operated it out of a mansion where he lived with his mother, Dahlia Hunter. They say others handled such duties as making scam phone calls and handling money. Some allegedly allowed their bank accounts to be used for the scheme.

Willocks pleaded not guilty in January. Hunter; Willocks’ girlfriend, Kimberly Hudson; Dario Palmer; O’Neil Brown; Alrick McLeod; Xanu Morgan; Jason Jahalal; and Kazrae Gray were extradited from Jamaica this week and made their initial court appearances Thursday in Bismarck. All were ordered held without bond until detention hearings. Hudson, Brown, Palmer and McLeod pleaded not guilty. The other four didn’t enter pleas because their attorneys weren’t there.

Among the remaining defendants, one is awaiting trial in Rhode Island, one is in custody in Jamaica awaiting extradition to the US, and four are still fugitives.

Sanjay Williams, of Montego Bay, Jamaica, who authorities say was a cohort of Willock’s and ran a separate scam, was convicted by a US jury in 2015 and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

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WHY HAS THE CASE DRAGGED OUT SO LONG?

The case is complex, involves international treaties and justice systems, and is the first of its kind in the US, according to Assistant US Attorney Clare Hochhalter, who is leading the prosecution.

“Even with cooperation among agencies and governments, it has been a learning process for many,” he said, adding that the case will create a “template” for such investigations.

Authorities last year asked for help from the Justice Department’s Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, and the case was accepted based on the organization involved and the money laundering aspect, Hochhalter said.

“To my knowledge, it is the only non-drug related (task force) case in the country,” he said.

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HAS THE CASE EFFECTIVELY ENDED THE SCAM?

No. Variations of the scam continue to victimize people in the US and other countries, according to Hochhalter, who said it will take “training, resources and a global commitment of governments, citizens and law enforcement to continue the fight.”

The Federal Trade Commission estimates lottery scams could be a billion-dollar-a-year industry in Jamaica. US Attorney Chris Myers said both Americans and Jamaicans suffer the consequences.

Hochhalter said Operation Hard Copy is continuing, has resulted in numerous “spin-off” cases throughout the US, and could prompt many more investigations in both the U.S. and Jamaica.

FEATURED IMAGE: This combination of photos provided by the Burleigh County Sheriff’s Department in Bismarck, North Dakota, shows eight people who were extradited from Jamaica to face charges in the US in what authorities say is a multimillion-dollar lottery scam that victimized dozens of Americans. From top row left are: O’Neil Brown, Kazrae Gray, Kimberly Hudson and Dahlia Hunter and from bottom row left are: Jason Jahalal, Alrick McLeod, Xanu Morgan and Dario Palmer. The eight suspects made their initial appearance Thursday, April 27, 2017, at federal court in Bismarck, North Dakota. (Burleigh County Sheriff’s Department via AP)

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