Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Judge reserves decision on extradition of man to U.S.

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An American accused of being a con artist will get to extend his Canadian stay as he waits for a decision on extradition.

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

Justice officials want to send Mensah back to the U.S. to face prosecution. 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 reserved her decision.

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 charged with mail and wire fraud 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. His lawyer argued Tuesday he was an unwitting dupe who was used by many of his co-accused.

But Crown attorney Scott Farlinger said Mensah played an integral role in the criminal operation. "There is no innocent explanation," he argued.

Mensah spent a stint behind bars at the remand centre but was released on bail with stringent conditions, including turning over his passport and being prohibited from 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 with justice officials. In exchange, Bellini is giving evidence against others, including Mensah.

The 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. They were prodded to send payments to cover taxes, insurance or other fees through MoneyGram and Western Union.

One 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.

A police affidavit obtained by the Free Press says 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."

Police built their case against Mensah and his co-accused through wiretaps of dozens of phone conversations between 2004 and 2006.

There was also surveillance of several properties, including Mensah's home in LaSalle, Que. Investigators made their first major series of arrests in 2007, but Mensah eluded capture.

Mensah's undoing was a February 2012 domestic-assault charge.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 2, 2014 A3

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