The man who popped into the North Carolina widow’s life through Facebook introduced himself as David Watson.
His profile photo, showing a man with dark hair, olive skin and brown eyes, intrigued her enough to accept his friend request. They got to know each other over some weeks via Messenger and phone, eventually sharing romantic correspondence.
Then Watson asked a favor. Some Chinese business people had an oil-rigging job that could net millions for his engineering business, but he needed money for the initial investment. Could she lend him some cash?
Eager to help her new love interest, the widow wrote checks for tens of thousands of dollars.
“She was going to be paid back, she was told,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Windom said. “She was not.”
Watson never repaid her because he never existed. The fraudulent profile was part of an elaborate scheme bilking the elderly, divorcées, widows and other vulnerable people out of millions of dollars by posing as romantic interests, federal prosecutors said.
Victim after victim, many in tears, testified through various trials over recent months at U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Md. They said they lost their life savings, cashed out their retirements, went bankrupt and were scorned by their families after discovering how “foolish” and “gullible” they had been.
Last week, two more people charged in the extravagant hoax were sentenced for their roles in the scam. Olusola Olla, 50, who was found guilty of conspiracy to commit money laundering and structuring financial transactions, must serve four years in prison. Adeyinka Olubunmi Awolaja, 34, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit money laundering, was sentenced to three years probation with two years under home monitoring.
Olla, Awolaja and seven others have been convicted or pleaded guilty in connection with the wide-reaching scam that prosecutors say victimized dozens of people across 20 states between 2011 and 2015.
In one extreme case, an elderly man in the last years of his life ate less, stopped going to medical appointments and took out a line of credit on his house to send his love, “Mary Blake,” nearly $800,000.
“Mary” kept asking for money to support her construction company.
“My dearest Mary, above all else, I want you to succeed,” the man wrote. “When I sent you the $30,000, it cleaned me out.”
Judge Paul Grimm called the case a “terrible conspiracy” involving unscrupulous people plucking at lonely victims’ heartstrings to get them to send “jaw- droppingly large amounts of money.”
“Some of the victims who put money into your account were manipulated by the most cruel means,” Grimm said during Olla’s sentencing.
The pattern to prey on women — and in a few cases men — was typically the same. Someone reached out to divorced, widowed or other single people on social media or dating sites to “catfish” the person on the other end by using a fake name and photo identity.
After a few weeks of chatting, emails professing their love and some telephone calls, the scammer would ask to borrow money under the guise of some type of short-term financial pinch: They were abroad and couldn’t access their American bank accounts; had an emergency befall their business and needed quick cash to finish a contract to be paid; or they needed cash to pay travel expenses for a supposed romantic rendezvous with the person being scammed.
Victims would then deposit cash into various accounts, including one for Olla’s used-car dealership and a DJ business tied to Awolaja. The money would be transferred to other accounts after being laundered, eventually enriching many in the scheme.
Olla’s attorney, Eugene Gorokhov, said his client did not know he was part of a plot cheating vulnerable people. Instead, Olla, who ran an auto sales and shipping business, thought he was receiving cash deposits for work his clients had asked him to do, Gorokhov said.
“Mr. Olla never knew of any fraud scheme,” Gorokhov said. “He received the money and all the time he believed he was part of this business where he shipped cars to Nigeria.”
Awolaja had gotten involved in the case when he wanted to help a childhood friend from Nigeria who had asked to use his bank account. At his sentencing, Awolaja said he was ashamed someone he considered to be a brother took advantage of him.
“It was never my intent to cause any financial hardship or emotional pain,” Awolaja said in court.
But the pain was devastating for those who were desperately lonely and lured by the promise of love and companionship.
“We’re going to be together,” one of the scammers vowed to the widow he met on senior.com.
“Imagine me touching you gently and whispering sweet nothings in your ear,” someone posing as John Lindorf told another divorcée from Georgia he met on Match.com.
Olla and Awolaja received some of the lighter sentences of those convicted. Though cash from victims was laundered through their bank accounts, they weren’t found to have direct knowledge of the larger scam to romantically manipulate people for cash.
Seven others from Laurel, Bowie, Owings Mills or New Carrolltown in Maryland have been convicted or pleaded guilty: Gbenga Benson Ogundele, Victor Oyewumi Oloyede, Olusegun Charles Ogunseye, Babatunde Emmanuel Popoola, Mojisola Tinuola Popoola, Funmilayo Joyce Shodeke and Olufemi Wilfred Williams. Oloyede and Ogundele have received the toughest sentences of nearly 20 years in prison.