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ILLUSTRATION BY JUSTINE ALLENETTE ROSS
Friday in federal court, a 63-month prison sentence was handed down to one of the men involved in a romance scam that bilked dozens of senior citizens out of nearly $1 million.
The length of the sentence was the maximum of the 51- to 63-month range Judge Sarah Pitlyk could impose. Pitlyk said that the stiff punishment was due in part to both the "very serious harm to many people" that the defendant, 43-year-old Bonmene Sibe, was responsible for as well as his disruptive and contemptuous conduct during court.
cover story earlier this year, documented the scam Sibe and another man, Ovuoke Frank Ofikoro, orchestrated. Individuals in Nigeria and possibly other countries, too, would contact elderly women in the United States claiming to be high-ranking generals and diplomats stationed overseas.
The scheme varied depending on who was being duped. But the basic idea was that these fraudsters wooed elderly victims until they felt they were in love with the "general" or the "diplomat." At this point, the fraudsters requested that these women, whom they often referred to as "wife" or "wifey," send them money.
Sibe's role in the conspiracy was to open two P.O. boxes in St. Louis, collect the money that was sent to them and forward it to Ofikoro.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tracy Berry, who is the prosecutor in this case, previously told the RFT
that having an individual in the United States as part of the scheme is key. She says that fraudsters "rely upon United States citizens, or individuals who are residing in the United States, to move the money because their victims would be a lot more apprehensive and reluctant to send money to an address in Nigeria than they would an address in Missouri."
Berry said in court Friday that Sibe received 10 percent of the money taken in by the scheme. Ofikoro kept 5 percent.
From the spring of 2019 to July 2020, dozens of senior citizens sent money to the P.O. boxes in St. Louis. A 71-year-old Tennessee woman mailed at least $15,000 to St. Louis, thinking the money was going to a diplomat named William Smith. A 71-year-old woman from New Mexico mailed $160,000.
Sibe pleaded guilty in December to a charge of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud. In exchange for that voluntary guilty plea, numerous other charges were dropped.
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Jefferson County Jail
Bonmeme Sibe was sentenced to 63 months in prison to day for his role in a nearly $1 million romance scam.
The three-hour-long sentencing hearing last week was marked by outbursts from Sibe during the prosecutor's remarks, silences from him when asked questions by the judge, and a seemingly contentious relationship between him and his attorney, Robert Taaffe, who several times had to caution his own client to remain quiet.
Earlier on in the proceeding, Pitlyk asked Sibe if he had pleaded guilty in December because he was in fact "guilty of the charge."
Sibe did not answer for several seconds, after which time the judge repeated her question, to which Sibe did not give a yes or no answer.
The judge then asked a third time if Sibe had pleaded guilty because he was “guilty as charged.”
Again, the question was met with silence.
After a 20-minute recess, the judge put Sibe under oath and asked him if he was satisfied with Taaffe's legal representation.
Sibe replied that this sort of question was one that should be answered "in private."
"You don't have to worry about hurting Mr. Taaffe's feelings," Pitlyk said. She asked again if he was satisfied with the representation he had received or not.
The question was again met by a long silence.
It was only after another recess, during which Sibe spoke with his attorney and family, that he said to the judge he had been satisfied with his counsel.
Later, Berry argued that Sibe's term in prison should be on the higher end of sentencing guidelines. She cited the fact that law enforcement found on Sibe's phone photos of postcards from duped senior citizens that were sent along with money. One postcard that Sibe retrieved from a P.O. box came with $3,000 and said that the money was for customs fees. The fact that a photo of the note was on Sibe's phone implied he should have had a hint as to the wider scheme he was participating in, Berry stated.
"Why would I have that picture on my phone?" Sibe interjected. It was the first of several interruptions by Sibe, which caused his family and attorney to motion for him to remain silent.
Taaffe argued that though Sibe may have taken a photo of the postcard, he could not read and therefore didn't understand what it said.
Berry countered that documents containing Sibe's own writing had been entered as evidence. Furthermore, earlier in that very hearing Sibe had asked Taaffe to be handed some documents and then reviewed them.
Berry later cited Sibe's "aggressive" and "arrogant" behavior in court as reasons he should receive a longer sentence. She said there were many photos on Sibe's phone that indicated he "reveled" in the romance scam he was a part of. One photo showed Sibe talking into a stack of bills as if it were a phone. He took photos of large amounts of money that he then sent others with the text, "This is a little money."
That was how he regarded his victims' lost life savings, Berry told the judge.
When given a chance to speak, Sibe said, "I was doing what he told me to do. Everything Frank [Ofikoro] told me to do is what I did."
It was left up to Pitlyk to impose on Sibe a sentence between 51 and 63 months. She chose the highest sentence in that range. She cited as part of that decision Sibe's "conduct toward the government, the court, your own attorney."
Pitlyk also cited Sibe's not offering an apology to his victims when given a chance.
In addition to prison time, Sibe will have to pay restitution to victims of the romance scam. Sibe is not a United States citizen. "After his prison stay, it is very likely that he will be deported back to Nigeria," a court document states.
Seventy-year-old Julia Dunaway of Mississippi was one of the romance scam's victims. She sent several thousand dollars to P.O. boxes in St. Louis, believing the money was going to U.S. Army General Stephen Townsend.
She tells the RFT
that Sibe being sentenced to a little over five years was, "No justice for the victims."
She adds,"Maybe the other one will get at least 10 years."
Ofikoro is scheduled to be sentenced later this month.