Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Accused U.S. fugitive awaits decision from extradition hearing

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An accused American con artist will get to extend his Canadian stay as he awaits a decision on extradition.

Lord Kofi Agyapong Mensah appeared in a Winnipeg courtroom today for a pivotal hearing that will determine his future.

Justice officials are seeking to send Mensah back to the United States to face prosecution for one of the largest international scams ever uncovered. But Mensah is fighting the bid, claiming the case against him is weak and should be dismissed, allowing him to remain in this country.

Queen’s Bench Justice Lea Duval has reserved her decision until later this spring following a day of legal arguments today.

Mensah was arrested in Winnipeg in October 2012 after RCMP officers, working in conjunction with the FBI, tracked him to a home on Anderson Avenue near Salter Street. Police believe he had been living in the city for about five years while a fugitive.

He is facing mail fraud and wire fraud charges for allegedly being a key player in a criminal enterprise that bilked hundreds of vulnerable, mostly elderly victims, out of at least $280 million. Mensah has pleaded not guilty, and his lawyer argued today he was an unwitting dupe who was used by many of his co-accused.

Mensah spent a stint behind bars at the Remand Centre but was released on bail with stringent conditions, including turning over his passport and not leaving the city. There have been no allegations of breaches, and he remains out of custody pending the extradition decision.

Nearly 200 suspects in Canada and the U.S. have been arrested since the Project Colt investigation began in 2004. Mensah allegedly worked for what police have dubbed the "Bellini organization." The head of the group, John Bellini, has already pleaded guilty in the U.S. to wire fraud and received 87 months in prison as part of a deal struck with justice officials. In exchange, Bellini is providing evidence against others, including Mensah.

The crime group allegedly targeted more than 1,000 senior citizens in North America, calling them out of the blue with the story they'd just won the lottery or a major sweepstakes. In return, the lucky "winners" were prodded to send payments to cover taxes, insurance or other small fees through MoneyGram and Western Union.

One elderly man lost more than $400,000. A California woman, now deceased, was conned out of her life savings of close to $60,000. Several other victims have also died, as many were in their late 80s or early 90s at the time of the scam.

According to a police affidavit obtained by the Free Press, Mensah worked out of an office in Montreal as one of the alleged "pitchers" of the scam. He and others would allegedly gather nightly at a restaurant Bellini owned where they would "brag about their conquests and laugh at the victims." Police built their case against Mensah and his co-accused through dozens of wiretaps in which they secretly recorded thousands of phone conversations between 2004 and 2006.

There was also surveillance of several properties, including Mensah's home in LaSalle, Que., which police say was used as a "boiler room" for the scam. Investigators made their first major series of arrests in 2007, but Mensah eluded capture.

RCMP eventually learned he had surfaced in Winnipeg. Mensah's undoing proved to be an arrest in February 2012 on a domestic assault charge for which city police released him on a promise to appear, apparently unaware of his wanted status.

Police believe Mensah has been living in Winnipeg for several years, as they learned he was briefly employed at a McPhillips Street car dealership in 2009.


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