Even prosecutors concede that Ray Ekobena is a man of considerable talents. The son of a computer technician and a nurse, Ekobena did well in school, earned his way into Howard University, and, at least for a time, aspired to be a dental surgeon.
But Ekobena, prosecutors say, wanted a life that included “luxury cars and quadruple-digit bar tabs,” and he didn’t want to come by them honestly. The 27-year-old chose instead to steal others’ identities and bank account information, leading a criminal enterprise that victimized more than 200 people and netted over $712,000.
On Friday, Ekobena was sentenced to eight years and eight months in prison for his misdeeds. He pleaded guilty earlier this year to bank fraud and six other related felonies.
“I can’t believe I allowed myself to go down this dark path,” Ekobena said in court. “This isn’t how I wanted my life to be at all.”
The case is notable both for the breadth of the fraud and for Ekobena’s personal fall from grace. Once a soccer player and honors student at Howard, Ekobena got himself expelled from the university — and six others suspended indefinitely — for running what prosecutors, without offering details, termed a “student loan fraud scheme.” He soon took up identity theft as a profession, prosecutors wrote.
“He was smart, athletic, charismatic, and seemingly destined for success in any profession he chose,” prosecutors wrote in a court filing. “But he chose crime.”
In court Friday, Ekobena, wearing a green jail jumpsuit, told U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton he was sorry for what he had done and that his family had not raised him to be a criminal. He said that once he was released from prison, he intended to finish his chemistry degree and perhaps enroll in dental school. Even if he could not get licensed in the United States, Ekobena said, he might be able to work abroad.
“I just want my old life back,” he said.
Ekobena’s family members declined to comment after the hearing, with one telling a reporter that the reporter had “no sympathy for the family.” In letters to the judge, family members and friends wrote that Ekobena was a hardworking and considerate man who made those around him happy. Yilmah Gultneh, a Howard chemistry professor, wrote that he called Ekobena his “young scientist” because he excelled in class and talked of working in the dental field. Evelyn Mambo Ekobena, Ekobena’s mother, wrote: “I really don’t know what went wrong.”
By prosecutors’ account, Ekobena was the mastermind of a ring of people that perpetrated a wide array of frauds over a six-year period. Sometimes using insiders at banks, those involved got access to customers’ account information and used it to print fraudulent checks. The group would also recruit people to provide personal identifying information in exchange for cash, then use the information to buy or lease expensive vehicles on credit.
In one particularly egregious instance, the group used an inside source at Children’s National Medical Center to steal two checks worth $223,570. Ekobena, meanwhile, lived large — renting a luxury apartment and buying or leasing a BMW, a Mercedes, a Porsche and an Audi with money orders or credit from the various scams, prosecutors wrote.
Crystal A. Meleen, Ekobena’s defense attorney, said in court the checks from the hospital were never processed.
Prosecutors wrote that six others involved, including Ekobena’s younger brother, had also pleaded guilty in the case. Another person, they said, was charged and awaiting trial, and another died. In total, prosecutors alleged, the ring caused more than $712,000 in losses and intended to cause more than $1.25 million. They asked Hilton to sentence Ekobena, who they alleged was the group’s leader, to 12 years and a month in prison.
Meleen, Ekobena’s defense attorney, argued in court that many of the purported victims in the case had turned over their personal identifying information willingly. Assistant U.S. Attorney Kellen Dwyer said while that was true, others were startled to find Ekobena or others had taken out massive lines of credit using their names.
Meleen also disputed that Ekobena was the leader of the group, which she said was essentially several friends who hung out and drank together. She urged Hilton to impose a sentence below the 97- to 121-month range recommended by federal sentencing guidelines, though she conceded he would have to add two years onto the penalty because Ekobena was convicted of an identity theft charge.
“He’s certainly done right somewhere in his life,” Meleen argued. “Everyone is surprised.”
In court papers, Meleen wrote that Ekobena — who had sporadic and low-paying jobs except for a year when he worked as a professional gambler — grew up in a supportive, middle-class family in Minnesota and is the father of a 2-year-old girl. She wrote his criminal record was minor (he was charged for stealing property from a high school and for swiping a couch from the student lounge with his college roommates) and he was “very sorry for his conduct.”