A woman who federal authorities said was a key player in a Jamaican lottery scam that victimized people across the country was sentenced in Bismarck on Wednesday to four years in federal prison — 10 years less than prosecutors had requested.
Melinda Bulgin, 29, of Providence, Rhode Island, was contrite and apologetic during her court appearance, a marked difference from previous hearings in which she had verbally sparred with prosecutors and U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland.
Hovland on Wednesday used various terms including belligerent, obnoxious, deceitful, argumentative and abrasive to describe Bulgin’s past behavior, but he also said her role in the scam was not to the level of others who had received lesser sentences than the 14 years requested by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan O’Konek.
“I’m giving you a break. I’m giving you a second chance,” Hovland told Bulgin, adding at one point, “I don’t consider you to be a monster.”
A jury in September convicted Bulgin of conspiracy, fraud and money laundering in a scam that authorities say bilked more than 100 mostly elderly Americans out of more than $6 million. It’s believed to be the first large-scale Jamaican lottery scam tried in the U.S. It involved 31 defendants, including 14 Jamaican nationals, most of whom accepted plea deals with the government. Authorities identified victims in 31 states, some of whom they said committed suicide.
The suspects were accused of calling victims about bogus lottery winnings, persuading them to pay advance fees to receive the purported winnings, then keeping the money without paying out anything to the victims. Authorities said Bulgin transported scam proceeds from the U.S. to Jamaica via cheap flights she got through her job with Delta Air Lines.
“She was not just a participant but arguably a major player in this,” O’Konek said Wednesday, adding later that “she ruined people’s lives.”
O’Konek objected in court to Hovland’s sentence, calling it “unreasonable” and “not a just punishment.” The government has two weeks to appeal.
Defense attorney Chad McCabe requested a sentence of time served, about 10 months, but said outside the courtroom that he was “satisfied” with the four-year term. He, Bulgin, and Bulgin’s parents, who testified during the hearing, painted her as a good person who got involved with a boyfriend in Jamaica who led her astray.
“I was twisted. I thought I was in love,” Bulgin told Hovland, adding that she did not personally profit from the scam. She at one point turned to the crowd in the courtroom and apologized directly to Edna Schmeets, a Harvey resident in her 80s who was scammed out of about $400,000. Schmeets’ case launched the investigation and led to the case being prosecuted in North Dakota.
Schmeets said outside the courtroom that the length of Bulgin’s prison term doesn't matter to her − she just wants her money back. So far she has received only $287 in restitution.
“It’s just like a slap in the face,” she said.
Victims in the case lost varying amounts of money, from $200 to more than $100,000. The government so far has collected a total of about $32,000 in restitution from all of the defendants. However, prosecutors have seized money and jewelry from kingpin Lavrick Willocks, along with his mansion in Jamaica, from which he ran the scam.
“The United States is pursuing every opportunity within its authority to recover funds for restitution,” O’Konek said in a statement.
Hovland ordered Bulgin to pay about $333,000 in restitution.
The Federal Trade Commission estimates lottery scams could be a billion-dollar-a year industry in Jamaica. The scheme is considered a “Top International Criminal Organization Target,” according to the Justice Department. The investigation into the scam prosecuted in North Dakota began in 2012 and involved the FBI, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and the Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs and Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force.
“Jamaican lottery scams will go on forever,” Hovland said.
Reach Blake Nicholson at 701-250-8266 or Blake.Nicholson@bismarcktribune.com