Prosecutors said investigators uncovered a highly structured ID-theft ring with local roots.
A world map splattered with red dots shows the reach of a massive identity-theft case that went to trial this week in federal court in Minneapolis.
Jurors will hear testimony about what prosecutors describe as a sophisticated international conspiracy that stole and counterfeited thousands of identities, took over accounts at some of the nation's largest financial institutions, defrauded mortgage lenders, credit card companies and consumers and then laundered the proceeds.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ann Anaya said in her opening statement on Wednesday that the victims weren't just banks and credit card companies. She said the alleged conspirators succeeded in stealing more than 8,700 individual identities from around the world. Some of those people will testify, she said. "They'll tell you what it means once your information is in the stream of compromised identities," Anaya said. "There's no way to get it back."
Investigators said the ring based its operations in Minnesota, California and New York and had as many as 200 members from coast to coast, including some Twin Cities bank employees. Many of the participants were originally from West Africa, they said.
To date, 22 of the 29 people who have been publicly charged in the conspiracy have pleaded guilty in Minneapolis. One of them was Charles Tubman Dwamina, who's reportedly a nephew of Liberian presidential candidate Winston Tubman.
Some of the admitted fraud participants are expected to testify against four defendants who are on trial in the courtroom of Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis. Three of their co-defendants remain fugitives.
Layers of protection
It took more than six hours on Tuesday to pick the jury of nine women and seven men who will hear the case. Davis excused a number of potential jurors after they disclosed that they or others close to them have been the victims of identity theft, credit card fraud and account takeovers.
Anaya told jurors that the organization had many layers and diversified activities designed to protect the leadership. Spreading the fraud around makes it harder to detect, she said.
Anaya described defendant Julian Okeayainneh of California as the group's "architect." When authorities raided a storage unit Okeayainneh had rented under a false identity, she said, they didn't expect to find much. They were shocked to discover thousands of stolen identity documents, including Social Security numbers, credit reports and health information, she said. They also found commercial checks with amounts totaling $18 million, blank check stock, 140 passport photos, 90 driver's licenses in different people's names, 30 IDs with Okeayainneh's photo on them, 500 credit cards bearing different names, credit card scanners, iPads, laptops and two power generators.
Anaya described defendant Olugbenga Temidago Adeniran, who split his time between New York and Minnesota, as a mid-level manager who recruited people for such assignments as opening bank accounts and making withdrawals. The remaining two defendants -- Fata Leeta Sarnor David and Nana Osei-Tutu -- were personal bankers in the Twin Cities who helped target high-value customers for fraud, she said.
Each of the defendants face charges of conspiracy, bank fraud and identity theft. Okeayainneh faces additional charges of mail fraud, wire fraud, money laundering and trafficking in stolen identities.
The defense view
Okeayainneh's attorney, Jean Brandl, said the "real kingpin" of the organization was one of the fugitives, Oladipo Sowunmi Coker, who has fled to Nigeria.
"Julian Okeayainneh is not the kingpin here," she said. "Is he an angel? No. You're going to hear that he has two convictions for theft," Brandl said. But that doesn't mean he committed the crimes alleged by the government, she said.
To prove Okeayainneh is guilty of conspiracy, Brandl said, prosecutors must prove an unbroken chain existed between the alleged crimes in Minnesota and her client. She said that if the jurors carefully weigh the facts, they won't convict him.
Daniel Mohs, the attorney representing Adeniran, tried to head off any prejudice the jurors might harbor. Though his name sounds foreign, Mohs said, Adeniran was born in New York and is a U.S. citizen.
Adeniran was arrested in January 2010 at Southdale Mall for credit card fraud. He pleaded guilty and served his time before returning to New York, Mohs said. He said Adeniran is charged now with bank fraud for making four different purchases between Nov. 23, 2009, and Dec. 18, 2009.
If Adeniran is guilty of any of the bank fraud counts, Mohs said, he acted alone and was not part of a conspiracy that the government alleges ran from 2006 through March 2011. "The evidence will show that this is not a single conspiracy, that there are at least two or three conspiracies," Mohs said.
The attorneys representing the bank employees said their clients had no criminal histories and would testify that they had no knowledge of the alleged conspiracy.
David's attorney, Myles Schneider, said she followed Wells Fargo's banking procedures when she opened an account for one of the convicted conspirators who deposited a fraudulent $19,000 check. She's a mother and college graduate, Schneider said. "She's never even had a parking ticket."
Glenn Bruder, the attorney for Osei-Tutu, said that his client is from Ghana, not Nigeria, like a number of the other alleged conspirators, and that he doesn't even know the other defendants on trial. "Mr. Osei-Tutu is an innocent man who was duped by professional criminals," Bruder said.
Louis Beauchane, a Wright County sheriff's deputy who's a member of the Minnesota Financial Crimes Task Force, told jurors that the investigation into the alleged conspiracy began in July 2009 when a man named Tony Woods came forward to report his suspicions of bank fraud involving West Africans. Beauchane and another task force member, U.S. Secret Service special agent Mike Olson, compared notes on similar crimes that they were investigating and found that they had much in common. From there, the investigation grew exponentially and came to be called Operation Starburst.
Dan Browning • 612-673-4493