LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Federal authorities are pursuing three fugitives and have arrested four other people in what they describe as a $1.4 million international fraud operation stretching from Kentucky to Europe and involving the sale of non-existent cars.
The criminal case, involving seven people who used at least 20 aliases and five fictitious companies, involved advertising cars on websites such as eBay and Autotrader and arranging for wire transfers to pay for the vehicles. Once the money was received, prosecutors said, it was run through multiple bank accounts in different names, but no car ever produced for the buyer.
Federal prosecutors in Lexington said the group transferred money over a two-year period from banks in Kentucky to accounts in Hungary and Romania.
Jelahni Williams, who goes by the alias "Ruben Thompson," pleaded guilty Monday to conspiracy to commit wire fraud. In his plea agreement, Williams told prosecutors he teamed up with Nicholas Corey Garner, another defendant, and agreed to receive and send wire transfers using his real name and the identity of "Ruben Thompson." Williams said he sent between $10,000 and $30,000 to someone in Bucharest, Romania over a three-day period in May 2012 in exchange for 10 percent of the amount sent and an extra $50.
"Jelahni is relatively low-level in this case," said Williams' attorney, Patrick Nash of Lexington. "He's not like some of the others, who are higher up."
U.S. Marshals caught up with Garner and another defendant, Eli Holley, in Indiana in mid-September. Both have been returned to Kentucky and pleaded not guilty. Holley's attorney, Joyce Merritt, declined to comment on the charges. Garner's attorneys did not return messages seeking comment.
Authorities said they are still searching for Petrica Octavian Stoian, who took part in the scheme from Budapest, Hungary; Sorin Costea, who also goes by the alias "Adrian Flocea," and also took part in the scheme from Budapest, Hungary; and Sabrina Carmichael, who uses four aliases including "Valerie Pisano" and operated in Kentucky opening bank accounts in the names of the businesses.
Authorities said the group would use a residential address in Louisville, set up websites for the fake companies and open bank accounts using the fictitious business names. Among the companies they used were Motors Center LLC, Y Finance LLC, National Autogroup Inc., Marion Motors Inc. and Golden Auto Sales Inc.
Using the fake business name, members of the group would list cars for sale with contact information, including phone numbers, email addresses and, in some cases, a link to a website for the fake business.
Once a prospective buyer expressed an interest, a member of the group would pose as a salesman over the phone or through email to discuss the vehicle. The buyer would be told to wire money for the car to a bank account set up in the name of a fake company. Then, prosecutors said, a member of the group would wire the money to various foreign bank accounts set up by others, including Stoian and Costea, using fraudulent identification documents.
Prosecutors said once the money made it overseas, Stoian, Costea and others would withdraw it.
In other cases, the salesman would tell a customer to wire the money using Western Union and MoneyGram, with a member of the group picking up the funds and use other money transfer services to send the cash overseas.
Federal authorities caught on to the scheme in September 2011, when Customs and Border Protection agents in Cincinnati confiscated a package sent from Budapest, Hungary. Inside the package were four sets of identification documents, each with a driver's license and passport bearing a picture of the same person and name on both documents. In the ensuing months, customs officials intercepted two other packages with fake identification cards and multiple aliases.
The indictment lists Stoian as being arrested in March in Budapest, Hungary while trying to withdraw money from an account created for National Autogroup. Police found three sets of identification on Stoian and was charged with possession of fraudulent identification documents.
It remained unclear if Stoian, who also used the aliases "Petrut Ciobanu," ''Adrian-Ioan Bulzan" and "Nazarie Bodgen," remained in custody or if U.S. officials were attempting to extradite him. The whereabouts and statuses of Costea and Carmichael were unknown on Friday. They did not have attorneys listed in the court record.
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