BISMARCK, North Dakota — Frank Gasper had a problem, an Edna Schmeets problem. For more than a decade, the FBI special agent had busted mobsters and white-collar crooks in New York City, including a real-life character who inspired the movie “Goodfellas.” But after several strange twists, he’d ended up in North Dakota, where he was struggling to convince an 82-year-old widow that he really was a federal lawman, not one of the Jamaicans who’d spent months scamming her out of nearly $300,000.
Schmeets was a housewife who tended cows on the family farm while her late husband worked on the railroad. She lived in a tiny town called Harvey about 80 miles south of the Canadian border. One September day in 2011, Schmeets got a phone call from a man who introduced himself as Newton Bennett, from the company American Cash Awards. He delivered good news: Schmeets had won a $19 million lottery jackpot and a new Mercedes.
Schmeets wasn’t buying it — until somebody who claimed to be with the FBI called to assure her the prize was real. The imposter’s call drew Gasper into what initially seemed like the unsexiest of cases. But it quickly became his obsession, taking him into the heart of a massive scam that’s now as lucrative as the drug trade in Jamaica, and just as deadly.
But first he had to convince this little old lady he wasn’t trying to rip her off.
“One of my biggest problems is getting victims to realize I’m an actual FBI agent, because that’s part of the scam,” Gasper recalled during a recent visit to his office in Bismarck. “One of these guys will call up and claim to be an FBI agent. I tell people, ‘Call me back: Here’s my number, look me up.’ A lot of times they don’t have the internet. They’re always afraid.”
By the time the case landed on Gasper’s desk, in mid-2012, Schmeets was dead broke, her savings account drained. Schmeets was still skeptical after she spoke with the fake FBI agent, but she wanted to use the money to help support her children and grandkids. Bennett told her that all she needed to do to claim her winnings was pay the taxes she owed. But after Schmeets wired $3,500 to cover the costs, he called back asking for more money for various fees associated with the prize. It kept going like this for months.
Gasper’s breakthrough was with Schmeets’ daughter, who reported the scam to local authorities. It was just the start of a path on which he’d encounter frightened, paranoid, and destitute victims over and over again for the next five years. His case now sprawls across multiple states and countries and has so far involved 30 defendants — including a popular Jamaican disc jockey — five federal indictments, and nine extraditions from Jamaica. Two extraditions are still pending and three fugitives are still on the loose.
On July 14, Gasper scored his biggest victory yet: Lavrick Willocks, a 28-year-old Jamaican accused of bilking at least 90 victims out of $5.7 million, agreed to plead guilty to a conspiracy charge in federal court in Bismarck. Willocks admits that he was Newton Bennett, the man who scammed Schmeets. Eight others who allegedly worked for him currently sit in a North Dakota jail awaiting trial on conspiracy, money laundering, and wire fraud charges.
“We have no national response to this at all. It’s basically catch ’em if you can.”
But Gasper knows even these convictions won’t be enough to make a dent. The Jamaican lottery scam, and others like it around the world, show no signs of stopping. Gasper, 56, is one year away from mandatory retirement at the FBI, and the way he sees it, vulnerable senior citizens are being robbed with virtual impunity. State and local cops aren’t equipped to handle these complex, multinational investigations. He scrounges resources and works with other federal agencies, but he’s the only FBI agent assigned to the case. He feels like he’s waging his own one-man war from his windowless office in Bismarck.
“We have no national response to this at all,” he says. “It’s basically catch ’em if you can.”
Globalization has connected economies across the world, but it has also benefitted criminals that borrow and adapt the techniques used by outsourced industries like telemarketing. The Jamaican lottery scam that ensnared Schmeets is just one example. Indian call center operators posing as IRS agents were recently busted for fleecing 15,000 Americans out of more than $300 million. Altogether, the Federal Trade Commission received more than 1 million complaints about fake debt collectors and imposters last year.
Jamaicans specialize in the lottery scam. Here’s how it works: Fraudsters trick victims into paying taxes and fees they say are needed to claim a nonexistent jackpot. The scammers work in teams, using internet calling services to mimic familiar U.S. area codes, and they may pose as the IRS, the Nevada Gaming Commission, or the Federal Reserve, in addition to the FBI. The targets tend to be retirees over 80 who live alone.
It’s impossible to say exactly how much money is lost to the lottery scam. Official guesses have ranged from $120 million a year to as much as $1 billion, according to one estimate cited by the Justice Department. That means it could be nearly half as much Jamaica’s tourism industry, which is worth about $2 billion annually.
More than 141,000 people contacted the FTC last year to lodge formal complaints about lottery scams. But as an estimate for the number of victims, these figures are on the low end; scamming often goes unreported because people are too ashamed or afraid to come forward.
“I’ve talked to at least 200 victims around the country, probably more,” Gasper says. “I’ve talked to their families. A lot of people went to law enforcement — couldn’t get any help. Some of them were laughed at. Some of them just had people tell them there’s nothing we can do.”
“You just need to have a cell phone and the list of names and you can start defrauding people, just like that.”
Kevin Watson, an investigator with Jamaica’s anti-organized crime agency, said gangs that once fought for control of the drug trade now kill each other for access to lead lists, which include names and phone numbers for would-be victims. People who handle scam money are shot for taking more than their allotted cut. Friends and family members seek revenge. Money from the scam pays for more guns and perpetuates the cycle.
“Scamming is the biggest thing in Jamaica right now,” Watson said. “With drugs, you used to have a selective few who used to control it… It doesn’t take any overhead cost to start a lottery scam. You just need to have a cell phone and the list of names and you can start defrauding people, just like that.”
Gasper’s case shows the scam isn’t quite that simple. Targets are carefully chosen based on their susceptibility to the scam, and due to their age some have mild cognitive impairment, a brain condition that can lead to Alzheimer’s or dementia. There’s an entire scamming ecosystem populated by lead list brokers, runners, middlemen, and kingpins — in both Jamaica and the United States.
It’s unclear exactly how or when the lottery scam emerged in Jamaica. The earliest reports in local media date back to the late ’90s, but it didn’t start booming until the mid-2000s. The timing roughly coincides with the arrival of telemarketing and offshore customer service centers in Montego Bay, where companies trained a portion of the populace in how to skillfully interact on the phone with Americans.
“Someone in Jamaica realized, ‘Hey, we’re working during the day — we can call people and do our own thing at night,’” Gasper says. “That’s one theory of how it started.”
Another theory — one propagated by CNN — credits Kenrick “Bebe” Stephenson, a prominent gay activist from Montego Bay, as the original “godfather” of Jamaican lottery scammers. Stephenson was associated with the People’s National Party, one of two dominant political groups in a country where politics and gang violence have long been intertwined. Unfortunately, Stephenson isn’t around to discuss whether he is indeed the godfather: He was gunned down in 2014 and reportedly buried in a gold casket.
In October 2015, I traveled to Montego Bay on a mission to learn the history of lottery scamming and find out how it became so pervasive. I was fascinated by the connection between the scam and Jamaica’s dancehall music scene. Several prominent artists have been linked to scamming, and there are entire songs dedicated to it.
The dancehall superstar Vybz Kartel, who is currently serving a life sentence for murder, had a song called “Reparation” that includes lines about how the proceeds of scamming are reparations for slavery. He later released another song, called “Western Union,” with a video that shows how “hustle money” makes its way from the wire transfer office and trickles down through the entire community. (Full disclosure: Vybz Kartel released an album on VICE Records in 2012.)
With the help of a Montego Bay native, I spoke with multiple people who claimed involvement with the lottery scam. There was no consensus on how it began. One musician spoke cryptically about the involvement of a gay mafia. Others placed partial blame on the call centers, though some said those only later added fuel to the fire. Several claimed it was introduced by Nigerian scammers. Nobody could offer anything concrete to support their preferred origin story.
Most everyone agrees, however, that the scam is driving a surge in killings. St. James Parish, which is home to Montego Bay, recorded 268 homicides last year, more than anywhere else on the island. Murders are up 19 percent nationwide so far in 2017, with an average of four slayings per day reported through June. Jamaica has roughly the same population as Chicago — but more than double the homicide rate.
“Many people see this as a legit source of income, in their minds.”
While tourism underpins the Jamaican economy, poverty is extreme. Some desperate people see nothing wrong with taking money from Americans who can seemingly afford to give it away. There wasn’t even a law that could be used to prosecute lottery scammers in Jamaican courts until 2013, and even now offenders only receive a fine of a few thousand dollars and a short stint in jail, at most.
“Many Jamaicans didn’t see it as a problem when it first started,” said Watson, the Jamaican investigator. “It became a cultural thing in pockets of communities in Montego Bay and St. James. Many people see this as a legit source of income, in their minds.”
Outside a pirate-themed casino in Montego Bay, I met a guy who introduced himself as “Wayne” — a fake name — and said he was once an “offshore banker” whose job was funneling scam proceeds back to the island by any means necessary. He looked to be in his early 30s and wore a red Manchester United hat. Asked why he got involved, he answered: “Survival.”
“You have to do it to survive,” he said. “What you gonna eat? How you gonna send your kid to school tomorrow? How your mother gonna eat? And you have so many people looking for something and you have to provide it. You have to find means and ways.”
Wayne and others pointed out that the proceeds from scamming have helped impoverished communities, funding new housing construction and propping up businesses. But the money also pays for lavish parties, flashy cars, and guns.
“You have the good and the bad,” Wayne explained. “The good part is where you can buy a house, take care of your family, have a nice car, go party. That’s a good thing. But the bad part is when they start to use the money for killing.”
Gasper often refers to scammers as “scumbags,” but Wayne was gregarious with a disarmingly friendly smile. We ate lunch together and he showed me around his old neighborhood, even bringing me to a church he hadn’t visited in years because I asked to get a sense of the community.
As we talked, he showed off scars on his arm and abdomen from a near-fatal shooting several years prior. He was adamant that — because it was too dangerous — he’d left banking for scammers behind.
A few months after our meeting, I received word from a contact in Montego Bay that Wayne had been killed in a shooting. It’s unclear whether his death was linked to scamming. The murder remains unsolved.
Jamaican lottery scammers have consumed Gasper’s professional life. His office in Bismarck is littered with evidence from scam cases — boxes and boxes of documents, piled on the floor and spilling out of cabinets. There’s more down the hall in a locked evidence room, and still more stored on discs and hard drives. When I visited in April, he sat at his desk in his shirtsleeves, a pistol and spare clip dangling from a leather shoulder holster.
“I got so much crap in here I can’t even think about it anymore,” he said with a dismissive wave. “I testified that I looked at over a million emails, but it’s probably closer to 2 million. Literally, no lie, over a million emails.”
Gasper was raised in Flushing, Queens, and joined the Marines after college. He saw combat in Operation Desert Storm, and pictures of artillery guns blazing in Iraq peek out from behind the unruly stacks of lottery scam evidence. He holds a law degree and worked as a prosecutor with the Queens DA’s office before joining the FBI, where he spent four years on the organized crime squad in New York.
His minor claim to fame was arresting the mobster Vinny Asaro, the suspected mastermind of the 1978 Lufthansa heist depicted in “Goodfellas,” for using a forged driver’s license. (Asaro was convicted of a felony forgery charge in 1998 for the driver’s license, but he was acquitted in 2015 of all charges related to the Lufthansa caper.) Gasper eventually grew bored with the mafia cases and switched to a financial crimes unit. “With organized crime, you’re just dealing with lowlifes,” he said. “With white-collar crime, you use your brain a lot more.”
By 2009, he and his wife were raising a family and wanted to get out of New York City. Gasper had enough seniority at the FBI that he could transfer basically wherever he pleased. His wife’s suggestion took him by surprise: “I remember her saying, ‘You know, I kind of like the movie ‘Fargo.’ Let’s check out North Dakota.’”
When a spot opened up in Bismarck, Gasper decided to go for it, drawn by the cheap real estate and the chance to offer his kids a different experience from life in the big city. His FBI colleagues in New York were incredulous.
“The guys all made fun of me,” he said. “They couldn’t believe I was going. They put a sign up in New York with the temperature [in North Dakota]. It was minus 25, minus 30. They’d say, ‘Oh, don’t worry Frank, it’s a dry cold.’”
Much of the FBI’s work in North Dakota involves cases on tribal land, and on Gasper’s first frigid day on the job he was summoned to the Standing Rock reservation to help find a man who had frozen to death in a blizzard. He has since investigated public corruption, sex crimes, and other cases on what he calls “Indian country,” in addition to his dogged pursuit of lottery scammers, which he says now takes up about 80 percent of his time.
Since at least the early 2000s, Gasper had encountered cases where scam victims were duped into sending money by wire transfer. Normally, the losses were too small for a federal investigation or there weren’t enough clues to track down the perpetrators. But when he looked into the case of Edna Schmeets, he saw an opening: She’d sent checks to Florida.
“I thought, ‘Checks — I can do something with that. That’s got to go into a bank. That’s something I can chase down,’” he recalled. “It’s like a puzzle. If people are stealing money, for the most part it’s there on paper. It’s just a matter of putting it together.”
The recipient of the funds was Shannon O’Connor, a woman in her late 20s who lived near Fort Lauderdale and was married to a suspected Jamaican scammer. Gasper turned up wire transfers from O’Connor to Jamaica, which he saw as proof that she was an accomplice. O’Connor told VICE News she’d need to consult with her attorney before commenting on the case, then did not respond to subsequent inquiries.
“I knew within an hour that I could get Shannon,” Gasper says. “She said that her source of funds to the bank was an inheritance and her source of funds to the wiring service was some other place. A completely 100 percent different story, so one of them had to be a lie.”
Gasper had a solid lead, but he soon faced another hurdle: He had to convince a federal prosecutor to press charges. Clare Hochhalter, chief of the criminal division at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of North Dakota, expected the case to go nowhere. Gasper was still relatively new in town, and Hochhalter, a lifelong North Dakota resident, was skeptical of the G-man with his New York Yankees lanyard and thick Queens accent.
“He seemed very concerned,” Hochhalter told me. “He said, ‘I don’t know if we’re going to be able to do anything about this, you know how these things are…’ He leaves and I’m thinking, ‘I’ll never see him again on this case.’ Within two weeks he’s back and he’s asking for a criminal complaint.”
Hochhalter agreed to prosecute because he empathized with elderly victims like Schmeets. Eventually, he came to see the scam as a “global, serious cyberfraud issue.” He marvels at how victims get sucked deeper into the scam with promises to recoup their losses. The scammers use them to launder money by having them deposit checks, wire cash, or forward packages to other addresses. On three occasions, Hochhalter decided to press wire and mail fraud charges against scam victims who refused to stop acting as accomplices even after being repeatedly told to stop.
“You have human drones and some of them are controlled for a period of years,” Hochhalter said. “We often wonder what someone a little more organized, like a state-sponsored group, could do — or is doing, for all we know — along the same lines.”
Gasper soon discovered he wasn’t the only one investigating O’Connor and her connections to Jamaican scammers. She was also on the radar of Scott Horne, a Miami-based investigator with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the federal law enforcement agency that handles wire fraud and other crimes associated with the mail system. Gasper flew to Florida and arrested O’Connor with Horne in September 2012. She maintained her innocence until the investigators told her they knew the initials of her suspected boss: LW, Lavrick Willocks.
Then, during their interrogation of O’Connor, Horne and Gasper caught a lucky break.
“While we’re there, she gets a phone call from Willocks,” Gasper recalled. “She gets a phone call and then she gets text messages telling her a package is coming in.”
The investigators were intrigued to learn that Willocks was giving O’Connor, who pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge in July 2014, orders to send a portion of the scam proceeds to North Carolina. The money was payment for lead lists.
Scammers rarely cold-call people out of the blue; they purchase “leads” from a broker. Some of these come from legal databases used for telemarketing, but others are from fake Publishers Clearing House–style entry forms. Some of the forms ask for fees of $20 or more just to enter. By the time the scammer calls, the mark has already paid something up front and is hoping for a prize in return. This makes it easier to convince people to wire funds as “taxes” or “fees” for their winnings.
The lead-list broker who set Willocks up with Schmeets was Sanjay Williams, a 28-year-old Jamaican with a bushy beard and long dreadlocks. He was arrested in July 2013 when he flew to Charlotte to collect cash. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison after a two-week trial in Bismarck in 2015.
Another prominent figure in the case is the Jamaican disc jockey ZJ Wah Wah — real name: Deon-ville Antonio O’Hara — who was caught in 2013 bringing $105,000 in cash into the Montego Bay airport, allegedly on behalf of Willocks. O’Hara pleaded guilty to telemarketing fraud in federal court in Bismarck in October 2014.
Willocks managed to evade capture until Nov. 7, 2016, when police acted on a tip and found him in a Kingston hotel, along with $10,000 cash, electronics, and jewelry. He was extradited to Bismarck on Jan. 19 and is currently detained in the Stutsman County Correction Center, a jail 100 miles east of Bismarck.
I spoke to Willocks several times — both remotely and at the jail — on a video chat service for inmates. He had a goatee and wore a plain white T-shirt, with tattoos visible on his hands and forearms. He complained about the climate in North Dakota, grousing, “I was on the beach, then they brought me here in the cold,” but he mostly seemed upbeat during our interviews. He often paused the conversation to greet the jail’s Native American inmates, saying they were his Ojibwe and Chippewa “family.”
At first, he maintained his innocence, insisting he was merely an event promoter and farmer caught in a big misunderstanding. “They make it seem like I’m John Gotti or El Chapo or something,” he said. “It’s crazy.”
Willocks is from Trelawney, just east of Montego Bay. He studied hospitality administration at Southern New Hampshire University and worked briefly at a hotel in Memphis before returning to the island. He says his family had about 16 acres of land where they raised livestock, but he was also a “promoter and host” for raucous parties.
“In Jamaica, they party every night,” he said. “It’s a good business. With my education, I knew how to get people’s attention.”
He boasted about bringing a snow machine to one event, and he said the festivities were always covered by professional photographers. In one picture posted on Willocks’ Facebook page, he’s at a “G-String vs. Bikini” party riding a hoverboard and draped in gold jewelry.
In our initial conversations, Willocks vehemently proclaimed his innocence. But a few months later, he agreed to plead guilty to one conspiracy charge in exchange for prosecutors dismissing 65 other counts of wire fraud, mail fraud, and money laundering. He’s scheduled to formally enter a guilty plea on July 27, but he still insists he’s not a scamming kingpin. He wouldn’t use Gasper’s name, but he said somebody has a “personal vendetta” against him.
“There’s this FBI agent who’s trying to make a name for himself,” he said. “I wish him luck.”
Willocks isn’t the only Jamaican currently residing in a North Dakota jail. In late April, eight more accused scammers were extradited to Bismarck, including an allegedly corrupt cop from the Jamaica Constabulary Force, Willocks’ mother, and also his girlfriend, who was pregnant when she was arrested and gave birth in custody in Jamaica.
“You hear people threatening suicide and so forth. In one case, I actually had someone who did commit suicide.”
Each has pleaded not guilty to 66 separate charges, including 48 counts of wire fraud. If convicted, they could each face up to 40 years in prison. They could also be fined up to $250,000 and be forced to pay restitution.
The penalty is stiff, but after listening to hours of recordings and desperate voicemails from victims, Gasper has no sympathy.
“You hear the desperation of the people,” he said. “You hear people threatening suicide and so forth. In one case, I actually had someone who did commit suicide.”
Even when family members and police intervene, the scammers find ways to keep in contact with victims. Gasper has stories of fraudsters going to extreme lengths to track people down even after they have changed or disconnected their phone numbers. In some cases the victims become romantically involved with the callers, which heightens resentment when relatives attempt to intervene.
Gasper says he’s pushed his bosses at FBI headquarters to do more to address the problem, but his entreaties have mostly fallen on deaf ears. (An FBI spokesperson declined to comment, saying the bureau does not discuss “internal deliberations.”) He wants to create a special squad with six or eight agents devoted to the cause. Hochhalter can barely handle the current caseload, so they would need at least three or four federal prosecutors, too. But resources are tight and phone scamming isn’t as sexy as cybercrime or other cases that federal law enforcement must handle.
The feds aren’t ignoring the problem entirely. A task force called JOLT — Jamaican Operations Linked to Telemarketing — was formed in 2009 by the Department of Homeland Security, the Jamaica Constabulary Force, the FBI, the Postal Inspection Service, and others. The postal inspectors have been especially dedicated to the cause, devoting manpower and resources and securing several convictions.
Another fugitive in Gasper’s case was arrested June 7, and “Operation Hard Copy,” a joint anti-lottery scam campaign by U.S. and Jamaican authorities, remains ongoing. Partly through Gasper’s persistence, wire transfer services have become more vigilant about flagging fraud and more cooperative with investigations, though the system is still fallible.
For now, the hope is that the recent wave of extraditions to North Dakota will strike fear into the hearts of other scammers. U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica Luis Moreno recently said to expect “hundreds” more in the coming months.
From his North Dakota jail cell, Willocks told me he doesn’t buy the argument that extraditions will put a damper on scamming.
“Being hungry is worse than jail or even death,” he wrote in a text message. “A lot of people who get involved are usually unemployed young adults. They have to target the source… the people who supply lead lists.”
Gasper put Willocks behind bars, but he actually agrees with that assessment. He called lead-list brokers “the linchpins,” saying, “Without them, the scammers don’t make money.” He points out that many of the lead-list brokers are Americans, and that phone scamming has spread to Costa Rica, Israel, Mexico, Canada, and elsewhere.
“The Jamaicans, they’ve made it an art, but there are other people doing this,” Gasper said. “It’s definitely a growth industry. It’s not stopping anytime soon.”
Dina Elshinnawi and Andy Capper contributed reporting.
Illustration by Abbey Lossing