Black paper cut into the size of dollar bills, $183,000 in cash, iodine and other items in the trunk of a car stopped on the Pennsylvania Turnpike looked like the makings of the Nigerian Black Money Scam, a state trooper testified Friday.
The testimony came during the preliminary hearings for 27-year-old Lamine Camara and 35-year-old George Leussi, who are originally from Africa, who were charged with producing/trafficking and possession of unlawful device-making equipment, conspiracy, and possession of an instrument of crime.
Camara of Greenbelt, MD, was ordered to stand trial on a misdemeanor charge of possessing instruments of crime. Magisterial District Judge Regis Welsh Jr. dismissed the other charges.
The case against Leussi of New Carrollton, MD, was dismissed entirely.
The charges stemmed from a July 26 traffic stop, during which the Toyota Camry in which the men were traveling was searched.
Pennsylvania State Trooper Eric Petrosky explained that the Nigerian Black Money Scam starts with Internet correspondence that promises a large amount of money that is coated with a black material so it can be smuggled into the country.
Victims are told the money can be theirs if they pay $10,000 for a cleaning material, the trooper said.
The con artists meet the victims and demonstrate how to clean the bills by mixing water with a special powder in a jar, he said. A $100 bill is dipped into the solution – which is actually vitamin C mixed with water, he continued.
The bills are coated with glue and “dyed” with iodine, he said. The Vitamin C breaks down the glue coating on the bills and then the iodine “black dye” comes off, Petrosky said.
The con artist pulls out randomly placed $100 bills from a pile of “money” to demonstrate the "cleaning" and hook the victim, he said.
The “money” actually is black construction paper cut into the size of U.S. currency, he said.
Defense attorneys Mike Worgul and Casey White, representing Camara and Leussi respectively, objected to the trooper’s testimony, saying he was not trained specifically on the Nigerian Black Money Scam.
The trooper said he contacted the Secret Service, whose in Welsh’s courtroom. That hearing was postponed and the Secret Service agents were not present at Friday’s hearing.
Secret Service agent Mark Kernan told the judge on Aug. 5 that he was not willing to prosecute unless a victim is found.
Petrosky said he contacted police in Maryland, Illinois and Indiana, but no victim was found.
Camara’s attorney said his client received the money from a $350,000 settlement for injuries received in a fire. He presented a confirmation letter that he said came from Camara’s attorney in Maryland.
Camara told police that Leussi helped him get the Toyota Camry to pick up the money and travel from Indiana to Maryland, the criminal complaint stated. Neither man owned the car.
Leussi’s attorney said nothing connected his client to a crime.
“The money in the car without question is the co-defendant’s,” attorney Casey White said. “Presence alone does not rise to the level of conspiracy.”
As for the possessing-instruments-of-crime charge, White said it was not clear what the instruments were. The items found in the trunk of the car could easily be used for cleaning, he said.
Just because both men are from Africa does not mean they are involved in a Nigerian scam, White said.
Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Evashavik said the same types of arguments are seen in drug cases in which common household items indicate drug dealing when they are put together in one situation.
Petrosky testified that he found a suitcase with two gas cans containing something that smelled like a cleaning solvent; four bundles of U.S. currency wrapped in duct tape and aluminum foil. The currency was damp, he said.
Boxes of black construction paper cut to the size of U.S. currency, white construction paper, iodine bottles, a respirator mask, aluminum foil, latex gloves, Elmer’s glue, large-mouth glass containers, clothes and a brown bottle of an unknown powder also were in the trunk, Petrosky testified.
The powder was submitted to tests, but the results are not available yet, he said.
The cash was originally estimated to total $197,000, but the amount was later determined to be $183,000, said Petrosky.
Petrosky testified that he was backing up another trooper who had stopped the car for speeding July 26 on the Turnpike in Pine Township and was running a check on immigration records. [The speeding charge was withdrawn, according to court records.]
Petrosky testified that the men “appeared extremely nervous.” When the trooper started asking questions, the men alternated between saying they could and could not understand what he was saying, Petrosky testified.
The trooper asked the men if he could check the vehicle with a canine unit and they agreed, the trooper testified. After waiting for a while, the men said they did not want to continue waiting for the unit to arrive, Petrosky testified.
Petrosky said he then asked if he could search the car.
“Mr. Camara [the driver] looked at Mr. Leussi and said it was up to him,” Petrosky said. Leussi agreed to the search, he added.