BISMARCK, N.D. — A federal judge in North Dakota on Monday ordered a Rhode Island woman convicted of funneling lottery scam money between the U.S. and Jamaica to remain jailed pending a February sentencing hearing where she could face a stiffer sentence than the alleged mastermind.
"Her hands were all over the conspiracy" that authorities said bilked at least 90 mostly elderly Americans out of more than $5.7 million, U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland said at the end of a contentious detention hearing in which Melinda Bulgin, 28, of Providence, Rhode Island, verbally sparred with him and Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan O'Konek.
Hovland at one point admonished Bulgin for interrupting, and he also said Bulgin "has displayed a bit of an attitude throughout this entire process." Bulgin said she was nervous, and defense attorney Chad McCabe called her "very emotional."
A jury in September convicted Bulgin, 28, of conspiracy, fraud and money laundering in what is believed to be the first large-scale Jamaican lottery scam tried in U.S. courts. Authorities identified victims in numerous states, including at least one person who committed suicide. It's being prosecuted in North Dakota because that's where the initial identified victim lives.
A government filing in October suggests the appropriate sentence for Bulgin under federal guidelines is life in prison. O'Konek said in an interview that the document is meant only to give the judge an idea of what sentencing guidelines might apply. The actual recommendation he will make, likely in January, "will be lower than life," he said.
His filing indicates her sentence might still be higher than for Lavrick Willocks, who authorities say was the kingpin of the operation. He pleaded guilty in July 2017 to conspiracy in a deal with prosecutors. The government's initial suggested sentencing range included a maximum of just under 20 years, and O'Konek ultimately recommended six years and three months. Hovland in October sentenced Willocks to six years.
Most of the 27 defendants took plea deals, but Bulgin fought the charges, so she isn't getting credit from the government for accepting responsibility.
"I don't think she should be punished for exercising her right to trial," McCabe said in an interview. "I think it's unfortunate the federal sentencing guidelines encourage people not to go trial."
Bulgin was accused of collecting money and funneling it between the U.S. and Jamaica via cheap flights she got through her airline job. She eventually was caught at a Jamaican airport in 2015.
Hovland said Monday that Bulgin had failed to prove she wasn't a flight risk.
"She's looking at significant time, no doubt about it," he said.