Mark Oliver - Guardian Unlimited (7/14/07)
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British con artist Howard Welsh toured US cities like a modern-day snake oil salesman, targeting Christians with bogus investment plans and scamming his way to some £16m.
But his face ended up on the FBI's Most Wanted website and despite crisscrossing continents while on the run, he was today starting a 20-year stretch in a US jail.
Most of the 900-odd victims of Liverpool-born Welsh, 63, had one thing in common: they fell victim to his callous manipulation of their religious faith.
Welsh and his American girlfriend, Lee Hope Thrasher, 53, were based in the resort city of Virginia Beach, in the east coast state of Virginia, but from 1999 took the con on the road, targeting church networks.
They hosted euphoric, deeply religious three-day seminars in hotels while selling "divinely inspired" investments that promised huge returns while helping poor and disabled children abroad. "Do you have enough faith to see this through for a year?" one of Welsh's fliers asked.
Welsh, who styled himself as an "international businessman" and who had earlier tried less successfully to sell a "magical elixir", took inspiration from the infamous 1920s Chicago conman, Charles Ponzi.
Ponzi's signature scam was devastatingly simple. You attract a few investors and then quickly pay out high returns. This creates a buzz, and attracts more investors. Then you disappear.
Welsh and Thrasher - who was today jailed for 15-years alongside him at the district court in Norfolk, Virginia - disappeared from the Virginia area in the summer of 2002. A year later, prosecutors brought the first charges against them.
At some stage, the pair left the US, having wired millions of dollars to 13 destinations, mainly foreign banks in places including Lebanon, Switzerland, Nigeria, China and France. Investigators believe they spent time in Latin America and Africa, as well as Belgium and other continental European countries.
However, the end of the FBI hunt was not quite the stuff of Hollywood thrillers. Welsh and Thrasher were arrested by the Metropolitan police in November 2004 at a train station in the Shropshire market town of Whitchurch, near his elderly mother Doris's retirement home.
The pair appeared to have hidden or lost the money. US investigators have only recovered around £1.25m. Both were ordered today to pay $33, 543,153 (£16,486,990) in restitution.
It emerged this week that Welsh had told lawyers that he gave $31m to a Nigerian man called Femi Coker, who had claimed to work for the Nigerian Central Bank. Welsh said he met the Nigerian in Accra, Ghana, and that the money is still in a government warehouse and he will be able to get it back if he pays a "release tax", the Virginia Pilot newspaper reported.
Investigators soon established nobody of that name worked at the Nigerian Central Bank. The name Femi Coker features in a number of websites warning about Nigerian advance fee cons, the so-called 419 scams. Letters written by a Mr Coker variously describe him as a "director of the ministry of agriculture" or an official at a Nigerian oil firm.
If Welsh did have the tables turned on him by another con artist his many victims might be forgiven for enjoying the irony.
Less than 5% of investors to Welsh's scams - some of whom were Britons - saw returns and a number were left in financial ruins. One elderly woman from Illinois, who has since died, lost around £4m, thinking she was investing in a new bank called Zialogic, which in reality was no more than a UK post office box.
"This was a massive fraud, stunning in both its length and breadth," said US attorney Chuck Rosenburg. "We are very pleased with their convictions."
After their arrest, the pair spent almost two years in UK prisons while fighting extradition but were finally sent to the US in July last year. The same month, in their first court appearance in the US, they insisted they were innocent and wanted to "get the truth out".
But three months into the trial they changed their pleas. Welsh admitted four counts, including conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud. Thrasher pleaded guilty to three similar counts.
Before they changed their pleas, Paul Chandler, a Met officer, told the trial that the couple had rented a flat in Birmingham, for which Welsh had signed the lease with the name "Holmes Golden". There was evidence of other false identities at the flat, including a "James Bond".
The US Internal Revenue Service told the trial that Welsh had been looking at exploring "something with diamonds" in Ghana.
Thrasher, who previously worked as a victim-witness coordinator, met Welsh in 1997 and her father Harold told the Virginia Pilot that she was under the Briton's control and the family had failed to convince her it was all a scam. But perhaps the best illustration of Welsh's dangerous talent as a conman is the length of time that some of the victims retained faith in him. One investor of £60,000, Greg del Ferro, told the local newspaper, even as the trial was underway last July, that he still did not believe it was a con.
"It was about helping other people. That's what Lee Hope and Howard were stressing. By all means they made mistakes, but they are not the types to deceive or take advantage," he said. Mr Del Ferro wondered whether the pair may have had problems after inviting the "wrong people" to invest.