A Nigerian who exploited hundreds of U.S. women online by promising romance while looting their finances ended up face to face with one of them in federal court here Friday.
“Did you think it was fun doing this to us? Do you have a heart?” asked a woman identified in court only as Jane Doe No. 6. Olayinka Ilumsa Sunmola, 33, shackled and wearing a jail jumpsuit, did not answer.
The initial part of his sentencing hearing, which will resume in several weeks, provided the first chance for a victim to impress U.S. District Judge David Herndon firsthand with the scam’s impact. Officials said dozens of the victims live in Missouri and Illinois.
Prosecutors, who said Sunmola bankrupted some and drove at least one to the brink of suicide, are asking a prison term of 27 years to more than 33 years. They argued for extra time because of his “unusually heinous, cruel, brutal, and degrading behavior.”
Sometimes, officials said, Sunmola persuaded victims to send sexually explicit photos, then blackmailed them for money on a threat to share the images with their relatives. In one case, he shared the pictures even after being paid.
Jane Doe 6 was a recently divorced single mother when she met Sunmola over the internet. She is partially disabled and a survivor of an abusive relationship.
She said she was drawn in by his claim of being a U.S. Army major stationed in South Africa, whose wife died in an auto accident and whose daughter was left with neighbors while he was overseas. She said he told her they were soul mates and would soon be together.
This was his typical approach, prosecutors said. He and his ilk would join online dating sites, pretend to be in the military or businessmen, and tailor their profiles to their victims’ desires.
Such criminals often pretend to be widowed, to show that they can love again, according to testimony by Monica T. Whitty, a professor at the University of Leicester, in the United Kingdom, who has studied “romance scams.”
The scammers used pictures of men in uniform they found online, sometimes on memorial sites for those who died. The crooks used emails, instant messages, flowers, candy and other gifts to woo their targets.
Some victims bought or picked out wedding gowns, or began using the fake last name Sunmola had adopted.
“Once he had gained their confidence and love, he began systematically destroying them,” prosecutors said in a court document.
Sunmola soon began concocting small emergencies that required cash: his credit card wasn’t accepted overseas or he needed money to pay for food or lodging. The requests grew until the victims’ financial assets were drained — or they finally caught on, prosecutors said.
In Illinois, a woman from Bond County bought electronics and shipped them to Sunmola, reshipped items he had bought using stolen credit card information and took out cash advances on a credit card, Sunmola’s indictment claims. She later filed for bankruptcy, with debts of at least $98,000.
The women who were not too ashamed to talk to investigators said that they collectively lost between $730,000 and $1 million, prosecutors wrote. He used the money for lavish parties, two Range Rover vehicles, four properties in South Africa and a $363,000 home in Nigeria.
Sunmola also ran a scam involving stolen credit card numbers, an investigation by the South African Police Service, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the U.S. Secret Service showed.
His victims were unaware that credit cards and checks he sent to them were bogus, and that gifts of electronics were fraudulently purchased. Sometimes victims would be tricked a second time, when contacted by fake foreign “investigators” who claimed to have seized gifts the women sent to Sunmola and demanding thousands of dollars in “customs payments” to send them back.
Sunmola, of Lagos, Nigeria, was indicted in 2013 and arrested in August 2014 by Scotland Yard as he was about to fly from London to South Africa, where he was living at the time. He was found with four cellphones, two laptop computers, two iPads, an iPod and 5,255 British pounds, court records show.
Two days into his trial in March, Sunmola pleaded guilty to eight felonies, including mail fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy, and interstate extortion.
Several of Sunmola’s victims, including Jane Doe 6, also fell victim to what Whitty and prosecutors call sexual abuse. He convinced them to send nude pictures or perform sexual acts by webcam and used them for blackmail.
A Georgia woman was so “devastated” that her family put her on suicide watch, officials said. She lost her managerial job, was nearly prosecuted for cashing Sunmola’s bogus checks and now cleans toilets for a living.
In reference to Jane Doe 6 in a sentencing memo, prosecutors wrote, “Sunmola told her that by the time he was done with her, she would want to kill herself.” They said she told them, “And he was basically right.”
Whitty testified that there had to be a motivation other than money, suggesting that only a “psychopath” would enjoy exploiting and mocking the women even after taking all their money. The professor also said that more than one victim suffered “severe psychological harm.”
One victim said on a video played in court that, “Every payday I get mad, because I know I don’t have enough to go around.”
Said another: “I just wanted somebody to love.”