A Central Kentucky woman who thought she was helping her boyfriend slip $10 million worth of gold and jewels out of Africa was conned out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in a “romance fraud” scheme, according to a federal court document.
And in an unusual twist, the FBI arrested a man who came to Nicholasville to pick up more money from the woman, but he was released after authorities decided that he too was a victim of the fraud.
“It turns out both of these people were being scammed,” said Lexington attorney Edward M. Thompson, who represented the man who was briefly jailed in the case. “It was kind of heartbreaking.”
The scam began early this year after a woman started communicating on Facebook with a man who identified himself as U.S. Army Sgt. James Nehmer, according to a sworn statement by FBI special agent James Huggins.
The two developed a romantic relationship. Court records don’t disclose the woman’s name.
The man told the woman he had discovered $10 million worth of gold and jewels in the African nation of Ghana, and that he could buy the treasure if she put up $500,000 to go with $750,000 from him, Huggins said in the affidavit.
In April and May, the woman sent nearly $620,000 in cashier’s checks and cash to friends of the man she knew as Nehmer, according to the affidavit.
He sent the woman documents that purported to show that the gold was in England and said he needed an additional $285,000 to pay taxes to have it shipped to the United States.
The FBI conducted a search in July and found that the photo of the person using the name Nehmer was that of an Army sergeant whose name and photo has been used dozens of times in “military romance scams” originating in Nigeria and Ghana, according to Huggins’ affidavit.
An FBI operations specialist found more than 50 Facebook accounts using the sergeant’s photo, Huggins said.
Joseph Moutz, another FBI special agent, showed the woman the photo, and she confirmed that it was the man she’d been communicating with under the name Nehmer.
In early August, the woman told the FBI she was in contact with Nehmer and that he was asking for money.
Moutz advised her not to send any more money. Bank officials also had tried to dissuade the woman from sending checks to the man, according to the affidavit.
Still, she sent more money in August and September, including two checks for $15,000 each.
Bank records showed that the woman’s checks had been cashed in Washington, New York and New Jersey.
An FBI accountant determined that two people listed as payees on the checks lived in Washington and the New York-New Jersey area, but that both were from Ghana originally, according to the affidavit.
On Oct. 12, the man texted the woman asking for $125,000. She said she had the cash but didn’t want to send it electronically or through the mail, Huggins said in his statement.
The man told her he would send someone to pick up the money and provided a cellphone number for the person she would meet.
The number was for a man named Gregory Dodge. The woman called him, and they made arrangements to meet Oct. 13 at the Bob Evans restaurant at Brannon Crossing in Nicholasville so he could pick up the money.
Huggins met with the woman beforehand, and the FBI had the restaurant under surveillance.
Dodge told the woman he was picking up the money for his boss and that he drove all over the country picking up money.
After the woman gave Dodge a bag that supposedly contained the cash, Huggins arrested him, according to the affidavit.
Dodge, of New York, was charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
After his initial court appearance, however, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kate K. Smith filed a motion seeking to dismiss the charge.
Smith said the government wouldn’t be able to successfully prosecute Dodge because of evidence that he came to Kentucky “under duress or coercion.”
U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert E. Wier dismissed the case against Dodge on Wednesday and ordered him released.
Thompson said he didn’t want to disclose some details, but that Dodge also was being targeted in a romance scam, and that he needed to pick up the money from the woman in Kentucky as part of the scheme.
“It’s kind of a tragic story,” he said.
Romance scams are on the rise, mostly targeting older widowed or divorced women who are usually computer literate but also emotionally vulnerable, according to the FBI.
The FBI has one case study on its website of a Texas woman who lost $2 million in a romance scam.
How to spot a romance scam
Misty Racimo, a U.S. postal inspector in Lexington, said these are some of the warning signs of a scam:
▪ Someone you have met only online professes to love you.
▪ The online romantic partner has a sudden emergency or medical problem and seeks financial help.
▪ The person asks you to deposit a check and then send money back to him or her by wire transfer.
▪ There are spelling and grammatical mistakes in the messages.
The FBI and U.S. Postal Inspection Service offer information on common types of schemes and tips on how to avoid being conned or prevent a relative from being victimized. People can report suspected fraud to either agency.