February 26, 2024

Feds say romance fraud involving sick celebrities has led to retired teachers’ suicides

A 74-year-old retired teacher in Tennessee committed suicide after losing nearly $100,000 in a romance scam, according to a criminal complaint obtained by The Daily Beast.

Police believe the man’s suicide was a direct result of extortion by a New Jersey couple, the complaint said.

Although the couple’s arrest has been previously reported, the death of their victim has not been revealed until now. The complaint, filed in federal court in Greeneville, Tennessee, provides heartbreaking new details about the alleged fraud, saying Chinagorom Onwumere, 34, and Salma Abdalkareem, 27, convinced the target, a former teacher, that he was a had a relationship with an unnamed celebrity.

The two were arrested on November 20 by officers from the Piscataway Township Police Department.

Onwumere is a recently appointed member of the Army National Guard, Defense Department spokesperson Bryce Dubee told The Daily Beast. Onwumere, a Piscataway resident, joined the Guard last February and has been assigned to a finance unit as a specialist, a rank above a private first class, according to Dubee.

Eva Velasquez, a former investigator with the San Diego District Attorney’s Office and now president and CEO of the nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center, says the organization’s latest research shows a sharp increase in the number of fraud victims who have suicidal thoughts after being scammed.

The case shows “something we’ve really tried to get people to pay attention to, and that is the emotional impact of these crimes,” Velasquez told The Daily Beast. “A lot of people assume it’s just not that big of a deal, you know. You were not physically injuredor It’s not a violent crime. Well, now you have an unfortunate real-world example of someone who wasn’t just thinking [suicide]but actually went through with it.”

On Oct. 23 at approximately 7:45 p.m., a Washington County, Tennessee Sheriff’s Office lieutenant was dispatched to an address in the town of Jonesborough, according to the complaint charging Onwumere and Abdalkareem with three federal crimes.

There, the officer encountered an elderly man with a gunshot wound to the head, and noted that the death was subsequently ruled a suicide. The Daily Beast is withholding the identity of the victim, who is not named in the lawsuits but was described in his obituary last month as a beloved former teacher who enjoyed football, golf and spending time with his grandchildren.

Two days later, the man’s family discovered a trove of disturbing emails on his tablet and took the device to the police. The complaint continues. He had been in contact since mid-August with someone “who the victim believed was Person 1, a well-known female actress,” and a name that investigators “immediately recognized,” according to the complaint.

“While the victim was engaged in email communications with who he believed to be Person 1… [he] began receiving emails purporting to be from the U.S. FBI,” the complaint explains.

The emails were sent from “unitedstates.fbi283738@gmail.com” and alerted the man that Person 1 was suing him for sexually harassing her in their email exchanges, the complaint continues. However, the fake FBI agent claimed the man could settle the cases out of court – for a price.

Over the course of three days in early October, the man “sent several checks to who he believed to be the United States FBI for their so-called punishments,” the complaint said. One, valued at $4,500, was made out to a company registered to Onwumere and sent by certified mail to the Northern New Jersey home he and Abdalkareem share, the complaint said. Another copy was allegedly written out to the FBI, with “Agent Salma Abdalkareem” written on the memo line. The duo “berated the victim for writing the check to the FBI[,] stating that doing so would arouse suspicion,” the complaint states.

“The scammer stated that there would now be a $40,000 fine due to the victim not following directions,” it said.

Investigators say they believe the victim’s suicide was a direct result of his scam.

United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee

On Oct. 5, the man went to his bank in Johnson City, Tennessee, and received a check for $41,000, payable to Onwumere, which he sent to an address in Takoma Park, Maryland, the complaint said. The next day, the man was instructed to send another check, this one for $25,000, to Abdalkareem’s home in New Jersey. He went to the bank again, this time taking out a $25,000 loan for his personal car to free up enough cash, the complaint said.

Investigators in Tennessee subpoenaed bank records, which showed the victim’s checks were deposited into accounts in the names of Onwumere and Abdalkareem, the complaint said. To further tie them into the case, security video from an ATM in Colts Neck, New Jersey, showed the two depositing one of the man’s checks into a joint bank account they shared, the complaint said.

“They both try to get the check deposited, and eventually the checks, and they leave,” the complaint said. ‘Onwumere was wearing an American shirt with a jacket and a military hat.’

A Nov. 9 police search of Onwumere and Adbalkareem’s tidy home turned up an envelope from the victim addressed to the FBI, the complaint said. When confronted with images of the checks the victim had written, the couple told “conflicting stories” to police.

“Adbalkareem claimed that they received checks to help Nigerians buy cars in the US and Onwumere claimed that he received money from Nigeria for a friend of his he met during basic training,” the complaint said.

As a financial management technician in the Army National Guard, Onwumere works in the service branch’s Finance and Comptroller Corps.

“You will use your expertise in mathematics to provide financial advice and recommendations to units seeking to purchase services and supplies for their missions,” the Army website tells potential recruits. “You will also be responsible for military pay, overseeing services at commercial vendors, auditing, accounting, banking operations and more.”

The local investigator who originally found the elderly man dead worked on the case with agents from Homeland Security Investigations. He “believes that the victim’s extortion through Abdalkareem and Onwumere led to his suicide,” the complaint said.

All told, investigators claim that Onwumere and Abdalkareem’s ruse netted the victim “more than $90,000” — a number that local police say could be even higher. Both now face federal charges of mail fraud, aggravated identity theft and impersonating a United States officer.

While members of the military are not necessarily more or less likely to commit crimes than the general population, what is particularly unusual about this case is that the perpetrators were ultimately caught, Velasquez said.

Normally, the people behind online scams, especially romance scams, hide in other countries that don’t necessarily have extradition treaties with the US, she points out. What Onwumere and Abdalkareem did was not a sophisticated ruse, revealing their real names and addresses, and was not thorough enough to cover their tracks, Velasquez said.

Those who are victims of online fraudsters should not be seen as gullible or easy targets, according to Velasquez. The senior citizen who was allegedly targeted by Onwumere and Abdalkareem, she said, “was lied to and they believed that lie.”

“That’s a human experience that anyone who reads this story can relate to,” she argued, noting that the shame and humiliation of being scammed can often be just as bad, if not worse, than the loss of money. ‘We have all been lied to at some point in our lives – if you are over ten years old. And you believed that lie.”

Onwumere and Abdalkareem remain held on $500,000 bail; their next appearance before a judge has not yet been scheduled. Neither Onwumere nor Abdalkareem have attorneys on the federal docket yet and could not be reached.

If you or a loved one are struggling with thoughts of suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling or texting 988.

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