Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Scam participant nabbed in city

Huge operation took in at least $280M

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He is accused of being a key player in one of the largest international scams ever uncovered, which saw hundreds of vulnerable, mostly elderly victims bilked of at least $280 million.

The five-year manhunt for an elusive fugitive facing stiff punishment in an American prison ended quietly this week in Winnipeg, the Free Press has learned.

Lord Kofi Agyapong Mensah was arrested Monday after RCMP officers, working in conjunction with the FBI, tracked him to a home on Anderson Avenue near Salter Street. Mensah is now being held at the Winnipeg Remand Centre while extradition proceedings to the United States are underway. He faces mail-fraud and wire-fraud charges.

Court documents show police arrested 15 other suspects this week in Ontario and Quebec as part of their ongoing work in Project Colt. Nearly 200 suspects in Canada and the U.S. have been arrested since the investigation began in 2004.

Mensah, 32, made a brief court appearance Thursday and has adjourned his matter until Nov. 1. He remains in custody without bail.

"It is in the public interest to issue a warrant for the arrest of Mensah based upon the seriousness of the alleged offence in the U.S., which could result in a significant custodial sentence and provide him incentive to flee," Manitoba RCMP Cpl. Ben Doiron wrote in an affidavit to obtain an arrest warrant.

Doiron outlined the allegations against Mensah and his many co-accused, who worked for what police have dubbed the "Bellini organization." The head of the group, John Bellini, has already pleaded guilty in U.S. federal court to wire fraud and received 87 months in prison as part of a plea deal struck with justice officials. In exchange, Bellini is providing state evidence against others, including Mensah.

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

Some of the victims' stories are heartbreaking. One elderly man lost more than $400,000. A California woman, now deceased, was conned out of her entire 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 Doiron's affidavit, Mensah worked out of an office in Montreal as one of the "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 done 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. He has been wanted ever since, and the RCMP recently learned he 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. It's not clear through court documents if Mensah, who is known to use other aliases, duped police at the time. 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.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 26, 2012 B2

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