A man has been sentenced to more than a year in prison and handed a hefty restitution bill for cheating women in Minnesota and elsewhere out of hundreds of thousands of dollars through online romance schemes and then sending much of the money to accomplices in his native Nigeria.
Charles Emeka Obije, 40, a longtime U.S. citizen who was living in Duluth at the time of his crimes, was sentenced in U.S. District Court in St. Paul last week to a 14-month prison term. He pled guilty to conspiring with others to commit international money laundering in connection with the scam that ran from 2016 through 2019.
Judge Donovan Frank also ordered Obije to pay back more than $355,000 to his victims. After he leaves prison, Obije will be on three years of supervised release.
The government sought in writing ahead of sentencing that Obije be imprisoned for two years, while the defense asked for probation and no prison time.
Prosecutors contended that Obije and his cohorts "persuaded their victims to send funds for a variety of purposes, including to pay for purported legal fees and costs related to travel, business and claims of inheritance or other legal entitlements. But all these were lies designed to defraud and steal money from their victims."
Obije's attorneys, John Hughes and Steven Wright, pointed out in a court filing ahead of sentencing that their client has been active in his community through social work at such organizations as the Woodland Hills juvenile treatment facility and the Twin Ports Ministry to Seafarers.
Obije was teaching social work at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth "but lost that opportunity because of this offense," the attorneys wrote.
Obije's sister-in-law and co-conspirator, Ijeoma Miriam Chanthavong, 36, helped launder the scheme proceeds and conspired with him to transfer the money to bank accounts under control in Nigeria. She pleaded guilty to the same count and was sentenced in April to three years of probation and ordered to pay nearly $150,000 in restitution.
In total, the scheme's victims were defrauded of roughly $800,000, the U.S. Attorney's Office said.
The FBI said about 24,000 victims in the United States reported losing about $1 billion to romance scams in 2021, adding that many more losses likely went unreported. The Federal Trade Commission reported that the amount of losses attributable to romance scams climbed from $720 million in 2020 to $1.3 billion last year.
According to court documents:
Obije's victims included a 71-year-old California woman who started dating online months after her husband of 43 years died. She sent Obije, who presented himself as "Morris Walter," $1,800 in iTunes gift cards and wired another $20,000 before pleas for more money turned into threats.
Another victim — a 68-year-old Oregon woman — lost $250,000 in the scam to a man she believed was her fiancé. She told federal agents she had to take out a second mortgage.
The woman sent $66,000 of that total to an account held by Twin Ports Safety Consulting, a company with a Duluth address that Obije formed in June 2017. Bank records show that $53,000 of that sum was transferred to Nigeria.
When the woman tried to halt the transfers, "individuals involved in the scam threatened her and said they were watching her house and monitoring her phone calls," the criminal complaint read. "[She] told agents she feared for her life." She also said her financial losses left her unable to afford surgeries and medical treatment for her worsening health.
On Dec. 1, Obije and his attorney met with federal authorities about the allegations and his potential indictment.
On Dec. 26, federal agents learned that Obije had booked a flight from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to Amsterdam. They arrested him two days later, when he checked in for his flight.
Star Tribune staff writer Stephen Montemayor contributed to this story.