By Abdulmin Murtala
Olufolajimi Abegunde has spent three years of his six and half years conviction for money laundering in the United States of America prisons, but the bright and enterprising young man insists that his imprisonment was purely because he is black and a Nigerian and not based on real evidence. Abegunde popularly called LJ by his friends, told Encounter in a telephone conversion from his prison cell that a review of his case by the US Justice Department, would reveal a clear case of bias and racism against him by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI and the trial judge. According to him, several efforts to list his case for review have been futile as no one appears to be interested in listening to his appeal.
Recalling his excitement upon being granted visa to study in the US, Abegunde told Encounter that he never imagined that four years after, he would be languishing in prison for an offence he did not commit.
Journey to US
Narrating his journey from Nigeria to the US and his struggle to earn a living in the country, Abegunde said: “I came to the United States in 2014. I studied in a top rated university in Texas. I eventually earned a Masters degree in Business Administration in 2016.
“I worked with a firm called Cock Automotive in Atlanta, Georgia. The company is a leading marketing and automotive corporation. I worked there as an interim marketing manager. After graduation, I founded an international money remittances, currencies exchange and remittances broking firm called LJ Williams. Our business was registered with the Central Bank of Nigeria which was a tedious process. We were also licensed and registered by the Chartered Department of Banking and Finance and also the Central Bank of Canada. Getting these licences also required a rigorous process. Fulfilling the requirement was tedious, rigorous and requires FBI background check. I was running this legitimate company until problem started.
Court account of Abegunde’s alleged crime
According to court records sighted by Encounter, Abegunde’s travails began in August 2016 when his longtime friend, Ayodeji Ojo visited the US from Nigeria along with his pregnant wife and infant daughter. Ojo and his family were accommodated by Abegunde at his home in Atlanta, Georgia. In an interview by security agents,Ojo claimed that at the time of the visit, he had a wholly legitimate check of $26,900 that was issued to him by Bank of America. Ojo claimed that he intended to cash the check and utilise the funds for expenses associated with his family’s trip, including medical expenses related to his pregnant wife.
According to Ojo, after being unsuccessful in his attempts to cash the check at multiple Bank of America branches, due to the relatively large size of the check, he was advised by a Bank of America banker to open a new bank account at another bank, let the check go through the clearing process before the funds would become available to him.
Ojo said he chose Wells Fargo Bank, and at Wells Fargo, he was told that he was required to provide a valid identification document, and contact information for correspondence in the form of a US mailing address and a US mobile phone number. The court record quoted Ojo as saying: “I informed the Wells Fargo banker that I was a visitor in the US and did not have a US mailing address and a US mobile phone number. After asking, the banker accepted that I could use Abegunde’s address and mobile phone number to open the account.”
The court records further stated that the bank account was opened on August 29, 2016, and Ojo was able to access the funds two days after without any challenges. ‘The investigation found that after an approximately three- week stay in the US which involved staying in Abegunde’s home, and travelling to other states, Ojo and his family returned to Lagos, Nigeria via Amsterdam, Netherlands on September 16, 2016 flying with Air France flight No KL0587 Resa, operated by KLM Royal Duch Airlines.
According to Ojo, about the first week of October 2016, he needed to exchange some Nigerian Naira currency for the United States Dollar currency. As such, he contacted an informal vendor, Leke Adenuga, who after agreeing on the exchange rate, requested that Ojo provide his US bank account for the deposit of the agreed US Dollar amount of $9,000. The transaction was consummated, and Ojo eventually received the $9,000 in his Wells Fargo Bank account that he had provided Leke Adenuga.
On October 11, 2016 around one month after Ojo had departed the US; around two months after Ojo had opened the account at Wells Fargo Bank, and two months after Ojo accessed the proceeds of the wholly legitimate $26,900 check; according to court records, Brian Ancona, an investigator with Wells Fargo Bank called Abegunde on his mobile phone, the same mobile phone number Ojo had utilised to open Ojo’s Wells Fargo Bank account, stating that a certain Luis Ramos Alonso had inadvertently deposited $9,000 into Ojo’s bank account, and was seeking a reversal of the $9,000 deposit. According to court records, Abegunde told Ancona that the account owner was in Nigeria, and attempted a three-way call to connect Ancona with Ojo. The effort was, however, unsuccessful. Ojo eventually called Abegunde back, and after Abegunde conveyed Ancona’s urgent message regarding the reversal, Ojo immediately agreed and authorised the reversal of the $9,000 deposit. When Ancona called Abegunde back, Abegunde conveyed Ojo’s agreement authorising the reversal, and Ancona expressed his profound gratitude for Abegunde’s cooperation in achieving the reversal.’
Speaking with Encounter, Abegunde described his indictment for allowing a friend to use his address and telephone number, as the strangest thing that has ever happened to him. He said: “The transcripts of the proceedings in my case are all available on the court website. There is no answer to the question of why I was prosecuted in all the documents. They have not been able to tell me why I am being prosecuted.
“I am saying without a shadow of doubt that I am being prosecuted because I am a black man in America and a Nigerian. There is clearly no evidence that I committed any crime. What I was indicted of, the initial indictment is that I granted a friend permission to use my residential address and my phone number because he did not reside in the United States and did not have a US address and US phone number. That is what the indictment has to do with.
“At the trial, the question was asked whether it was illegal to grant a friend permission to use your address and phone number to open a bank account and they said it was not a crime. So since that is not a crime, I can’t say why I am in prison.
I was arrested, humiliated
“I was arrested on February 7, 2018. Because of my noble act of granting a long-time old friend permission to use my address and phone number to open a bank account, I was unfairly and unjustly sentenced to 78 months in jail.
“There is still nothing to show any crime I have committed in all the documents of my case. There is nothing to show what I did that is wrong.
“On February 7, 2018, another friend of mine came to visit me from Nigeria in Atlanta, Georgia. So we had planned a trip to the Dominican Republic but due to unforseen circumstances, we had to change the plan. On that morning, we went to the airport to change the flight as the flight was to leave that morning. As soon as we were done changing the flight and walking out of the airport, some guys came to me and arrested me. They embarrassed me in front of everybody at the airport. I kept telling them: “You have the wrong person, it can never be me, I have no association with crime.’ And all of a sudden, they pulled out an arrest warrant and I saw my name on the arrest warrant. And I saw that I have been charged with offence in Tennessee.
“I was charged with money laundering conspiracy. How they came about this, I don’t know. It still remains a mystery to me. I chose to fight for my right, I chose to take my case to trial, I was offered a preview that would have set me free a long time ago but I chose to fight for my right because I know I am innocent.”
Alleges bias against FBI, Judge
Abegunde accused the US justice system of compromising toward racist sentiments. He said: “This is what I will like the public to know. There is what is called an elephant in the room and the elephant in the room is big. People believe that for the United States Government or the FBI to put you in jail or to prosecute you, you must have committed a crime. All the evidence in my case shows the contrary. There is a criminal injustice system in the US for racial minorities, especially for black people. If you are black in the US, you are a target for the American injustice system.
“The system is unjust, corrupt, stupefied and rotten but people don’t know. People just say for this guy to be in jail, he must have done something wrong. But what I am telling everyone is to please look at the facts in my case. Look at the transcripts of my case and the indictment. I can assure you that there is no crime that I have committed, yet I am spending 78 months in prison for absolutely nothing.
Appeal for help
Appealing for a review of his case, Abegunde said: “I need the public to turn the spotlight on my case. If the authorities, President Joe Biden and the Federal Attorney-General of the United States are aware of my case and it is reviewed, I will be removed immediately. I can assure you that the criminal prosecutors, FBI agents, that put me in this mess will be held accountable. That’s all I want, if there is attention drawn to my case, I will get justice and the people that perpetrated this injustice will be held accountable. That is my appeal to anyone hearing me out there.”