HARVEY -- With piles of documents scattered across her dining room table detailing her struggles after she was scammed out of her life savings by Jamaican criminals, 90-year-old Edna Schmeets looks at her lap, twists her fingers in anguish and begins to cry.
She struggles to talk through the tears, to tell what it’s been like since it began with a phone call from a smooth-talking stranger eight years ago telling her she’d won $19 million in a lottery.
“That was a long gall dang time ago,” she whispers. And later: “It just keeps dragging on and dragging on.”
The courtroom part of the case is over, after seven years. All 31 defendants, including 14 Jamaican nationals extradited from that country, have been prosecuted. A few remain in federal prison, but most have finished paying their debt to society.
Though not in the eyes of Schmeets and her four children. Schmeets wants her money back. All $400,000 of it.
Now that the headlines have faded, Schmeets is hoping the U.S. government doesn’t forget about her, or any of the other victims of the scam that authorities identified in 31 states. Her plight launched what became the first large-scale Jamaican lottery scam case prosecuted in the U.S., she and her family point out, and they went to great lengths to work with authorities and help put the suspects behind bars.
Schmeets, who lives in a modest home in the small North Dakota city of Harvey, became the face of the case. But what she’s received so far in restitution, compared to what was taken from her, amounts to pennies on the dollar, and she’s having a hard time getting any answers.
Federal attorneys, who recently won an award for their work cracking the case, say they’re just as dedicated now as they were before, and they’ll do everything in their power to get at least some of the victims’ money back. But they acknowledge it won’t be easy or quick, and experts in the field of criminal restitution agree.
To Schmeets, it’s overwhelming, unfair and frustrating.
“I’m so disappointed,” she says, almost to herself, staring at her dining room floor.
The scam was run out of a Jamaican mansion where mastermind Lavrick Willocks -- who personally scammed Schmeets -- lived with his mother, Dahlia Hunter. The operation bilked more than 100 mostly elderly Americans out of more than $6 million, according to authorities.
It worked this way: Scammers called victims about bogus lottery winnings, persuading them to send advance fees or so-called taxes to receive the purported winnings, then keeping the money without paying anything to the victims. Authorities dubbed the case “Operation Hard Copy,” a reference to lists of prospective victims’ contact information used by scammers.
Looking back, Schmeets wonders what she was thinking in 2011 when she began sending large checks, provided her credit card number, borrowed money from her sister and cashed out life insurance policies. She even allowed the scammers to try to launder $25,000 from another victim through her bank account.
“I think about it every day; I always keep beating myself up,” she says softly. “How could you be so dang stupid?”
But Schmeets, then 82, had lost her husband not long before and also wanted to help her children and grandchildren out financially. She was vulnerable to being preyed upon, said Jeff Schmeets, one of her three sons.
“I’d come in here sometimes and I’ll tell you what, she would be looking at them papers and crying,” he said.
Edna’s children with the help of a bank worker eventually learned what was happening and alerted authorities, who launched an investigation in 2012. Suspects were caught and prosecuted over the next seven years.
Sanjay Williams, accused of being a major player in finding potential victims for the scam, took his case to trial and lost. He got a 20-year-sentence and was ordered to pay more than $5.7 million in restitution. Melinda Bulgin, a Rhode Island woman who worked for an airline and was able to use cheap flights to transfer money from victims in the U.S. to Jamaica, also lost at trial. She got four years in prison and was ordered to pay $333,000 in restitution.
The bulk of the suspects accepted plea deals with the government under which they got much shorter prison sentences and were ordered to pay restitution. Willocks was the exception at sentencing because authorities said he was the ringleader -- he got six years in prison and a restitution order for $1.5 million.
“What I was hoping from when they caught these people and brought them over here is that they were going to throw the book at them -- they were going to give them long federal prison sentences if they did not pay these people their money back,” Edna’s daughter, Lisa Appelt, said. “But they got nothing.”
Schmeets testified for the government, including helping convict Williams. She did numerous interviews with the media through the years, bringing attention to the case.
“Every time you opened up a paper it was ‘elderly Harvey woman lost all this money,’” Jeff Schmeets said.
After Willocks pleaded guilty in July 2017, Schmeets sent a victim impact statement to the court saying “I am physically and emotionally stripped out." Her situation hasn’t improved much the past few years. She contemplates just about every potential purchase, immediately ruling out any major expense.
“It’s impacted my life because I don’t have any savings whatsoever,” she said.
She has written pleas to the court and to a former U.S. senator but gotten little in the way of responses, and even less money. She has received three checks totaling $287 and is told that another check for $138 is pending.
“It sucks, really,” the petite grandmother says.
The government's side
The federal government spared few resources in its quest for convictions. The investigation grew to involve the FBI, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, Homeland Security Investigations, Customs and Border Protection, state and local U.S. authorities, and several Jamaican agencies and task forces.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr last month presented the Justice Department’s North Dakota District with his office’s prestigious Award for Fraud Prevention. The U.S. attorney’s office takes pride in the award but doesn’t consider it the end of the case, said Drew Wrigley, U.S. attorney for North Dakota.
“We’re making every effort to secure every dollar of restitution that we can possibly unearth and collect,” he said.
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But there are numerous challenges, including that many of the defendants living in a foreign country “adds another layer of bureaucracy,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan O’Konek said.
Scammers also have already spent a lot of the victims’ money, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Nick Chase.
"The fraudsters in Jamaica are living lavish lifestyles. They're having parties where they burn money, where they're washing their nice cars with champagne," he said.
The government remains “highly motivated” to “get every dollar that we possibly can,” Wrigley said, but he added, “I don’t know what that figure is going to look like."
The harsh reality
Collection of restitution often is limited by an offender's inability to pay. Many victims wait years before they receive any money, and they might never receive the full amount they’re owed, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime.
A federal government report last year found that most restitution ordered in federal court cases is never collected.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office studied Justice Department data and found that at the end of fiscal 2016, $110 billion in previously ordered restitution was outstanding, and federal prosecutors had identified $100 billion of that -- or 91% of it -- as being uncollectable due to the offenders’ inability to pay.
“Sadly, what you’re seeing here (in the scam case) is all too typical, where victims are promised substantial restitution but the reality is much less,” said Paul Cassell, a University of Utah law professor.
Part of the reason is practical -- an offender might not have restitution money, or there might be competing claims on it, such as child support or a tax lien. But another part might be competing interests for federal prosecutors, according to Cassell, a former federal prosecutor and a former federal judge.
“In general, we’ve observed -- we being the victims movement -- oftentimes when prosecutors get that conviction, they close that chapter and move on to the next case,” Cassell said. “And they don’t give as much attention to collecting restitution as the victims movement would deem appropriate.”
Staff in the U.S. attorney's office are spending "literally hundreds of hours" on the restitution issue, according to Chase.
“We share Edna’s frustration, and her family’s,” Wrigley said. “Nobody is moving on from this as though it was no longer an important matter.”
Lack of information
One of the things the U.S. attorney’s office is working to do is seize assets belonging to the offenders -- an estimated $1.5 million in property.
U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland in July 2018 ordered that the cash and jewelry seized from Willocks when he was arrested in Jamaica in November 2016 be liquidated and the proceeds doled out to victims. The property includes the equivalent of nearly $12,000 in U.S. currency along with jewelry that Chase estimated is worth a couple of thousand dollars.
This past May, Hovland issued another order under which the Jamaican mansion that served as scam headquarters is declared forfeited to the U.S. government. However, the Jamaican government must sign off on the order, which is not a certainty.
“To essentially get the money out of that property, it will take some time,” O’Konek said.
The fact that a foreign country is involved means “you’re dealing with international complexities on top of all the other complexities,” Cassell said.
The more immediate frustration for the Schmeets family is their own government, which they feel has been less than forthcoming with information about restitution, and the whereabouts of large amounts of cash seized from some suspects when they were arrested. They've been told some of it was inexplicably taken by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration -- something Chase said might have resulted from confusion and that prosecutors are "unraveling."
The Schmeets' efforts to find out from the U.S. attorney’s office how much has been collected and when more money might be coming their mother’s way have largely failed.
O’Konek told the Tribune before Bulgin’s sentencing in July that the restitution fund contained about $32,000. He and Wrigley declined to provide an update, citing federal privacy law. They said the amount might eventually be released but that collection efforts are in their infancy.
"There does come a point where you have to explain, 'here's where we're at, and even though the restitution order was for this many millions, this is where we are,'' Wrigley said.
Cassell, the victim's advocate, acknowledged that some information “perhaps” should be confidential, but he also said “there should be a strong argument that victims are entitled to see” how much restitution has been collected.
“They need to be making financial plans, knowing whether the money is coming in or not,” he said.
Edna Schmeets "was about ready to maybe start traveling just a little bit, enjoying life -- them golden years,” son Ron Schmeets said.
Wrigley said he empathizes with Edna Schmeets, and “If we could monetize our gratitude, she’d be paid back in full immediately."
An endless wait
The detailed and voluminous documents piled on Edna Schmeets' dining room table detail a great legal victory, one in which she played a big role. But at this point, the convictions mean little to her.
She recalls when Bulgin, given a chance to speak during her sentencing, turned to face her in the courtroom audience and told her she was sorry.
“She’s standing there apologizing to me, and all this and that, and I thought, ‘Oh my god. Well, the judge did order … restitution, and then she said, ‘Well, I have no money,’” Schmeets says.
After years of waiting, Schmeets' carefully kept documents are starting to become a symbol not of what she has gained but of everything she has lost -- and might never get back.
“Sometimes I think I’d like to take it all and burn it all up,” she says quietly. “I don’t know if it’s ever going to do any good or not.”
Reach Blake Nicholson at 701-250-8266 or Blake.Nicholson@bismarcktribune.com