North Dakota

Elderly man sentenced in wide-ranging Jamaican lottery scam

An elderly man from Kentucky who decided to participate in a Jamaican lottery scam after he was victimized was sentenced on Thursday to time served and ordered to help pay back more than $5 million in losses to other victims.

North Dakota authorities say James Simpson, 74, opened individual bank accounts, deposited money and transferred funds on orders from scam leader Lavrick Willocks. Simpson deposited and withdrew more than $200,000 in cash from one bank account in three months, according to court documents.

Simpson's lawyer, Jackie Stebbins, said her client is a "good and honest man" who was persuaded by scammers to engage in criminal activity. Simpson is confined to a hospital bed and wheelchair in Kentucky and did not attend the sentencing hearing in Bismarck.

"My client was not the predator, he was the victim," Stebbins said. "To end up being charged as a federal felon, it just reeks."

Jamaican lottery scams have been happening for years, but few cases of this magnitude have been prosecuted. The case began after a North Dakota woman told authorities she was scammed out of $300,000 after someone called and told her she had won $19 million and a new car, and needed only to pay taxes and fees. The investigation led authorities to others that had been scammed, many of whom lost their retirement savings.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Clare Hochhalter, the lead prosecutor, said Simpson had "relatively low culpability," but helped the scammers become successful.

"Scammers and those who knowingly help them need to know their conduct will not be tolerated, wherever it occurs," Hochhalter said. "We need to raise awareness among family members and friends."

Stebbins said she appreciates that Hochhalter and North Dakota FBI Special Agent Frank Gasper are going after the scammers and called the resolution to Simpson's case a just result.

"We might disagree if my client should have been charged. I think he was a victim first and any role in the criminal conspiracy came second," Stebbins said. "It's a sad case. But these guys at the top, they prey on vulnerable people."

More than two dozen people have been charged in the case. Willocks, the alleged ringleader, is one of six fugitives who has not appeared in court. Eight other defendants are in custody in Jamaica awaiting extradition, Hochhalter said.