Federal officials announced Wednesday that 15 people have been indicted for their roles in schemes to extort money from members of the military in a dating scam.
Five people named in the indictments are inmates at prisons throughout South Carolina.
“The prisoners, using fictitious online personas, preyed on service members to engage in online romantic relationships and then extort those service members for money,” NCIS Special Agent-in-Charge Drew Goodridge said in a news conference.
Roughly 442 servicemembers lost more than $560,000 in the extortion, the indictments state. Another 250 people are under investigation in Operation Surprise Party.
“Prisoners used various social media and dating sites posing as a female, exchanging pictures with the service members,” Goodridge said. “After the service member responded, prisoners would then assume the role of the female’s father who claimed the female was a juvenile, demanding money in exchange for not pursuing criminal charges.”
He said the victims were led to believe they possessed child pornography. The victims held all levels of rank across all military branches and were stationed throughout the country.
Investigators say inmates had assistance from people outside the prisons, providing them with cell phones and arranging money drops. Goodridge said the South Carolina investigation started in January 2018 but military investigators had been tracking reports of sextortion for some time.
“The scheme was orchestrated by prison inmates who obtained contraband cell phones and then use this access to the internet and set a trap for these U. S. servicemembers,” said the Charlotte IRS office’s lead investigator Matthew Line.
Military investigators are urging any other service members who may be victims to report the crime.
“This operation will continue until we break the back of these criminal networks,” Goodridge said. “The message should be loud and clear: anyone who targets our military service members will be investigated and pursued for criminal prosecution.”
The investigation calls attention to the problem of contraband cell phones by inmates in prisons, an issue SCDC Director Bryan Stirling has been fighting for years.
“You’re just seeing another example,” he said. “Every week, every month, we’re seeing another example why these cell phones should be blocked in our prison system.”
Officials say the illegal phones can help some inmates continue organizing crimes from behind bars.
“They’re being controlled by prison inmates and they’re able to do this, they’re able to continue these criminal enterprises because they have access to these cell phones,” U.S. Marshal for South Carolina Thomas Griffin said. “Director Stirling needs the relief and assistance from Washington, D.C. to implement this technology to shut these cell phones down and I hope the people in Washington that are standing in Director Stirling’s way will come on board and be a partner in this initiative.”
The U.S. Attorney’s office in South Carolina worked with investigators from NCIS, Army CID, Air Force OSI, Department of Defense Criminal Investigation Services, IRS Criminal Investigations, U.S. Marshals, SLED and the South Carolina Department of Corrections.
“Folks that they read about in the front pages of the paper and they hear about the guilty verdicts are coming to the departments of corrections across the country,” Stirling said. “They’re physically incarcerated but as you see today, virtually they’re out there among us. They’re on the internet. They’re able to continue their schemes behind bars and continue their criminal ways.”
SCDC inmates under indictment:
- David Paul Dempsey: 31, held at Lieber Correctional Institution, projected release date 2027. Serving 15 years for armed robbery out of Aiken County. One incident on SCDC record involving possession or attempt to possess a cell phone.
- Rakeem Spivey: 27, held at Evans Correctional Institution, projected release date 2028. Serving 20 years for burglary conviction in Horry County. Multiple incidents of possession of contraband, possession or attempt to possess a cell phone.
- Jimmy Dunbar, Jr.: 37, held at Lee Correctional Institution, projected release date 2042. Serving 30 years for kidnapping, murder, armed robbery and arson convictions in Richland County.
- Antwine Lamar Matthews: 28, held at Lee Correctional Institution, projected release date 2042. Serving 20 years for convictions on two counts of criminal conspiracy, two counts of attempted armed robbery in Williamsburg County. Multiple incidents of possession of contraband, possession or attempt to possess a cell phone.
- Wendell Wilkins: 30, held at Lieber Correctional Institution, projected release date 2024. Serving 12 years for armed robbery conviction in Spartanburg County. Multiple incidents of smuggling contraband, possession of contraband, and possession or attempt to possess a cell phone on SCDC record.
Other charged in indictments: Edgar Jermaine Hosey, 34, of Aiken; Roselyn Pratt, 28, of Longs; Mitchelene Padgett, 52, of Batesburg; Malcolm Cooper, 27, of Rock Hill; Andreika Mouzon, 28, of Kingstree; Flossie Brockington, 28, Florence; Jalisa Thompson, 30, Spartanburg; Tiffany Reed, 34, Charlotte, NC; Brandon Thompson, 25, Spartanburg; Laben McCoy, 40, Orangeburg.
Charges include multiple counts of conspiracy to commit extortion and money laundering. According to the indictment, Wilkins is accused of fraudulently obtaining at least $80,000 in the scheme.