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Winnipeg man tried to swindle two British teachers

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A Winnipeg man tried to swindle thousands of dollars from two British teachers he convinced to send him nude photographs and videos through an online dating website.

Robert Li, 33, used the naughty material as the basis for his threats, claiming he would reveal them to the victim’s schools and colleagues if they didn’t meet his financial demands. It’s one of the first cases of its kind ever exposed in Manitoba.

"It will take some money to make sure these videos never see the light of day," Li told one of his victims in an email exchange later seized by police.

Li — who used a bogus last name on the "Plenty Of Fish" website — also spun an elaborate tale about his father being $150,000 in debt to Asian gangs who were after him if the payment couldn’t be made quickly. He befriended the women quickly by claiming he was planning his own move to London in the near future.

Nothing could be further from the truth. He was living in the basement with his parents, still smarting from being laid off with his job with Investors Group. There was no gang debt, no angry mobs after his family. Just a devious plot to make some cold, hard cash.

"I feel remorse for my actions. I’ve caused both ladies emotional pain and stress," Li told court Friday at his sentencing hearing. He has pleaded guilty to a rare charge of extortion by libel. The Crown is seeking a six-month conditional jail sentence, while Li has asked for a suspended sentence with probation.

Provincial court Judge Carena Roller has reserved her decision until Dec. 13.

The two victims are unknown to each and didn’t realize they were both being manipulated over a week-long period around the same time last September, court was told. Li turned the otherwise tame conversations sexual by sending them faceless photos which purported to show him naked. He then encouraged the two women to do the same.

"I started to trust Rob. He said he was moving to London and I started to see a future for us," one victim told police. She was coming off a nasty divorce and said she turned to Plenty Of Fish to see if "men still found me attractive and as a confidence boost."

Li certainly talked a good game, taking their conversations to other websites such as Skype which allowed for video interaction. Only days after first meeting online, she was suddenly performing a sexual striptease for him. She had no idea Li was recording on the other end of the computer to use it against her.

"I feel like an idiot. I never thought this would happen," she later told police. "I thought this would be a personal video between the two of us."

Li had initially told the woman he would meet her in London in the coming days -- but then claimed gang members had attacked him because of his father’s debt, stolen his passport and claimed more "blood would be shed" if he didn’t come up with the cash quickly.

"Do you value your job?" Li suddenly asked the woman in an online chat. "Pretty sure the school wouldn’t like videos of their teacher floating around on the Internet."

The woman claimed she didn’t have the funds because of the costs of her ongoing divorce. Li told her to go apply for a loan.

"You have an hour to decide before I send these to your school," he threatened.

The second victim had a similar encounter with Li, sending him photos of her in lingerie and fully nude on the belief they were private. Once obtained, Li quickly turned on her and demanded money - even suggesting she sell her horse to get funds for him.

"I know where you work," he said in one chat. "You’re going to regret that I have the pictures and the videos."

Both women went to police, who quickly linked the two incidents and contacted authorities in Winnipeg. Police arrested Li at his parents' house last December, where he admitted to his crimes but denied ever planning to expose the women as he had threatened.

"There’ll be no other incidents like this. I’m not a bad guy," said Li.

Defence lawyer Sarah Inness said her client has no prior criminal record and simply got "caught up" in a scam.

"He very much regrets what he did. It was out of character for him," she said. Inness also expressed surprise the two victims would be so trusting of a total stranger by sending him explicit material within days of meeting online.

"I’m always amazed at the amount of privacy people give away on the Internet," said Inness.

Li has been free on bail since his arrest with conditions to have no contact with the women, avoid any online dating sites and not to use Skype. There have been no breaches, court was told.

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