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Sunday, March 17, 2013

LADIES BE CAREFUL WITH CONMEN



Sandra Ryan was emotionally vulnerable after the death of her parents and the break-up of her  16-year marriage when she met an attractive, successful businessman.
She dared to hope she had met someone who could offer romance, and possibly more.
In fact, he was an international criminal wanted by police in  several countries and within months he had defrauded her of almost £600,000. Sandra still lives with the financial and emotional turmoil wreaked by the encounter.
Shopping list: Sandra Ryan was in thrall to a conman who made her go into Watches of Switzerland and Harrods in London to buy watches costing up to £100,000
Shopping list: Sandra Ryan was in thrall to a conman who made her go into Watches of Switzerland and Harrods in London to buy watches costing up to £100,000


The former British Airways air hostess, who worked on Concorde in the Eighties, was financially secure, with a mortgage-free home in Egham, Surrey, when she met  ‘Mike Mbekeu’ in 2007.
Sandra, who was in her late 40s, worked part time in an upmarket men’s outfitter in Windsor, Berkshire. He was a well-off customer from Gambia who  wanted several custom-made  shirts and suits.
Smartly dressed and well-spoken, with an American accent, Mbekeu was well-built, of mixed-race, and also in his late 40s. He was an American-educated international businessman who traded precious stones with global diamond giant  De Beers. Or so he said.
From a business relationship, where Sandra and Mbekeu discussed his suits, matters led to more personal encounters – coffee or drinks in a hotel, and then even the odd night spent by Mbekeu in Sandra’s guest bedroom. He was ‘courteous and attentive’, she says.
Mbekeu told Sandra he had not had an easy life – his wife had run off with his best friend, for instance – making him more human and sympathetic. And then came the inevitable financial requests.
His family had vast diamond wealth, he claimed, but much of it was tied up in politically insecure African nations such as Sierra Leone. For his family and associates to escape, they needed currency, like sterling, dollars or Swiss francs, and gifts – such as jewellery or watches – to bribe officials.
And so began a surreal spending binge. Mbekeu – known to police  in Britain as Joseph Moneke –  was by turns flattering and threatening as he insisted Sandra withdraw £50,000 of savings. Then he pressured her into taking out a £470,000 mortgage. The loan came from Halifax and was arranged  by a broker in nearby Staines.
Sandra says Mbekeu threatened her into signing, and that her pleas not to go through with the loan were ignored. The mortgage application was processed on a fraudulent basis because to borrow such a large sum Sandra had to lie about her income. The broker has since ceased trading. The mortgage money went into her bank account, but not for long. On several trips to London Mbekeu showed Sandra the watches he wanted, and then waited outside luxury stores such as Harrods in Knightsbridge, or Watches of Switzerland in Bond Street while she went in and bought them.  In total, she bought three Rolexes worth £100,000 and jewellery worth £20,000.
Mbekeu also demanded she buy large sums of foreign currency and he knew of one place where this could be done, no questions asked – the large Post Office branch near  Trafalgar Square.
Many months later, as she received treatment for the stress and trauma she suffered, a doctor suggested Sandra may have been drugged by Mbekeu. She doesn’t think so. She believes his forceful, subtle manner – by turns threatening and cajoling – was impossible to resist, even though she had ‘a sickening sense of panic and disaster through that time’. Like many victims of fraud, she told no one at this stage – partly fearing they would confirm her worst suspicions, and partly fearing they would see her as a fool. Instead she continued to do as Mbekeu wished.
‘I think I hoped that if I carried on as if all he said was true, then it would be,’ she says.
On July 12, 2007 Sandra made a final withdrawal of £150,000 from  a NatWest branch in Sunningdale, Berkshire, while Mbekeu stood over her. And then he disappeared. It came as both a relief and shock to Sandra when, two weeks later, Sussex Police turned up at her home. Several banks had identified dubious money transfers linked  to a flat in Hove. When they searched the property, police  found two of the watches, bags  of jewellery and cash – and  Sandra’s name and address.
Mbekeu had fled to his native Gambia, but an accomplice was successfully prosecuted for money-laundering in 2010. The watches, some jewellery and cash were eventually returned by police to Sandra, but she believes more than £500,000 is still owing, and her mortgage to Halifax is outstanding.
Sussex Police said Mbekeu, also known as Joseph Moneke and Christopher Badjie, was circulated as wanted during 2007. Later that year Interpol reported his arrest in Gambia. Sussex Police said it provided ‘substantial evidence’ to use in the Gambian authorities’ attempted prosecution of Mbekeu, which went ahead last year. Sandra gave evidence to a court in the capital Banjul last July when he faced 13 offences, including money-laundering and passport forgery. But he was acquitted.
Detective Sergeant Dennis Phelan, of the South East Regional Organised Crime Unit, said: ‘We understand the frustrations of Mbekeu’s victim and have done all we can to support her. If there are other opportunities to support a prosecution, we will readily assist.’
Sandra says: ‘I was so naive, but  I was also vulnerable. He knew I was still shaken by my divorce.  He preyed on me, and ultimately controlled me.’


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