Three Nigerian immigrants were sentenced Tuesday for their parts in a sophisticated Twin Cities-based identity theft ring with connections to their homeland and Ukraine.

"But the problem here is the really bad guys are gone," U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle said.

Kyle noted that the alleged ringleader -- Bashiru Adelumola Fowoshere, 39, of Anoka -- fled the country, along with some other alleged top-level operatives.

His 35-year-old wife, Titilayo Abidewi Fowoshere, was one of the three sentenced Tuesday in St. Paul in the scam that netted more than $650,000 in 15 months. Unlike the other two, she received probation instead of prison time.

Kyle said he agreed with federal prosecutors that the sentences ideally should send a message that such behavior won't be tolerated. But he said he also had to consider the two years that had elapsed between the defendants' guilty pleas and their sentencing.

Attorney Deborah Ellis argued that her client played only a minor role in the bank fraud conspiracy and deserved probation. Fowoshere withdrew a total of $4,000 with bogus bank cards provided by her husband, Ellis said. When her husband fled to Nigeria, she said, "he left her here with three children."

Since pleading guilty, Fowoshere attended the Aveda Institute and now provides for them, Ellis said. She said her client is deeply involved in her church and volunteers cooking meals there three weekends a month.

"I'm really sorry for what I did. This whole situation has turned my life around," Fowoshere said.

Argument against probation

Assistant U.S. Attorney Clifford Wardlaw argued for prison, saying she was "an average participant" in the conspiracy. "You cannot come to Minnesota, get involved in a bank fraud ring and say, 'It's not my fault, my husband did it,'" Wardlaw argued. "She knew what she was doing."

Wardlaw pointed out that Fowoshere had reported in a welfare application that her husband was unemployed, yet they drove around in a Cadillac Escalade and a Mercedes, so she had to have known about the frauds.

Prosecutors said the ring bought identity and account information from sources in Ukraine, tricked banks into changing the passwords, encoded that information on bogus access cards and sent runners to tap accounts. Wardlaw said "thousands of transactions" took place, though it's not known who did them all.

The ring's activities led investigators to suspect they had infiltrated banks. That suspicion led them to uncover another major bank fraud ring involving West Africans who did just that, Wardlaw said.

The Fowoshere case got delayed because the government thought the defendants might be helpful in the spinoff investigation, dubbed Operation Starburst. That didn't happen, Wardlaw told Kyle.

Credit cards to luxury cars

In the Fowoshere case, Wardlaw said, the ring bought expensive cars and shipped them to Nigeria to be sold as a cover for the bank fraud. He urged Kyle to send a message with his sentences.

Kyle said he was convinced that Fowoshere was involved only because of her husband. Since pleading guilty, he said, she has acted "as a model citizen." Although sentencing guidelines recommend a prison term of between three and four years, he said he was sentencing her to just 110 days of time she has already served in jail plus three years of supervised release.

"I hope I'm making the right decision," Kyle said. "I don't want to see you back."

Kyle found that her brother, Adekunle Kayode Ayeni, 29, of Blaine, played a significant role in the conspiracy and sentenced him to 4¼ years in prison followed by three years of supervised release. Ayeni helped manufacture bogus access cards, recruited people into the ring and "lived the high life," driving fancy cars, partying and flashing cash, Wardlaw said.

Kyle found that defendant Oyetoyin Oseni Atobatele, 29, of Brooklyn Park, was an average participant in the conspiracy and sentenced him to two years in prison, followed by three years of supervised release.

He found each of the defendants jointly and severally liable for $408,549 in restitution to Capitol One Bank, which reimbursed its account holders for the money the ring stole.

Dan Browning • 612-673-4493