Bismarck, North Dakota (AP) — An elderly widow who authorities say was among dozens of victims of a Jamaican lottery scam told jurors in federal court she lost about $300,000 and borrowed against her insurance policy with the hopes of collecting $19 million to help her family.
Edna Schmeets, 86, testified Monday in the trial of Sanjay Williams, one of 32 defendants charged in a global case that authorities say involves at least 72 victims, most of them elderly. Several people have pleaded guilty and 14 defendants are awaiting extradition from Jamaica. Williams, who has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy, wire fraud and money laundering, is the first person to go to trial.
Williams, who is from Jamaica but was arrested when he flew into North Carolina, came into court wearing orange prison clothes and carrying two garbage bags that appeared to contain documents and books. After trial recessed for the day, he asked US District Judge Daniel Hovland if he could have a laptop at his desk Tuesday to review DVDs. Hovland agreed.
Schmeets calmly recounted a series of phone calls from scammers who wanted “another check and another check and another check” from her in order to cover taxes and fees for the purported prize. She said she eventually became suspicious of the lottery, but by that time had emptied her savings account.
“I was feeling pretty bad because they said, ‘Absolutely don’t tell anybody about this,’ until I got the $19 million,” she said.
One of the banks contacted Schmeets’ children about big checks she was writing to Shannon O’Connor in Florida, and eventually the case reached the FBI after the family filed a complaint. FBI Agent Frank Gasper testified Monday he travelled to Florida to interview and arrest O’Connor, and that opened the door to the wide-ranging case.
Prosecutor Nick Chase said in his opening statement that Williams sold lists of potential victims to scammers, known as “lead lists” or “sucker lists.” Some of them were on Williams’ website gamblersleads.com, Chase said.
Schmeets, whose husband died in 2010, said she was first contacted in the fall of 2011 by someone who identified himself as Newton Bennett. Authorities say she was the first victim in the scam.
“Edna Schmeets was very excited. She thought it was a great opportunity to help her children and grandchildren,” Chase said. “But there was no prize.”
Defense attorney Charlie Stock told jurors that a lot of people accused in the scam used fake names and IDs and said they are not credible witnesses in the case.
“How do you believe any of them?” he asked.
O’Connor has pleaded guilty.
One of the defendants charged in the case is a prominent Jamaican disc jockey. Deon-ville O’Hara, also known as ZJ Wah Wa, has pleaded guilty.
Jamaican lottery schemes have been happening for many years and prior to 2013 there was little fear of investigation and enforcement, Chase said. There have been new anti-scamming laws and increased enforcement in the last few years, he said.
“Before that the scammers considered themselves to be untouchable,” he said.