The Three-Year Bank Heist

Written by | Features

In March 1995, four Nigerian scammers hit pay dirt all the way in a Brazilian bank. They kept it going for three years and made $242 million. It also made a voodoo priest $20 million.

It started with a specific question, and the dodgy answer to it. But the story itself starts three years before that question was asked. Its answer would crash a bank, ruin careers, and result in a decade-long multinational investigation across the world. A Brazillian was just about to meet some of the most prolific Nigerian advance fee fraudsters, known as Yahoo Yahoo boys, in what became a story too extraordinary to even be fiction.

Nelson Sakaguchi was not an extraordinary banker, but he was a hyper-efficient one. For fourteen years, he had meticulously guarded the overseas funds of his employer, the Brazilian bank Banco Noroeste. A loyal and ambitious man, his illustrious career would collapse right before his eyes as his fellow director demanded details about their Cayman Islands operations. No one had noticed anything off about Sakaguchi’s accounts until a Spanish bank, Santander, tried to buy Noroeste from the Simonsen and Cochrane families in 1998. There was a large amount of money seemingly just sitting in the Cayman’s arm; yet it was two fifths of the entire bank’s value and half of its capital base. That single question begun a bizarre journey into the criminal underworld of Nigerian fraudsters, and just how simply it is to rob a bank.

Nelson Sakaguchi, the man at the center of the storm he walked right into.

It started with a fax in March 1995.

It was from a man called Tafida Williams, who signed off as the Director for Budget and Planning at Nigeria’s Ministry of Aviation. Nigeria, Tafida said, had shifted its administrative capital to Abuja and needed new transport systems. A friend and long-term client of Noroeste had suggested the Brazilian bank would be interested in investing in a new international airport. What Sakaguchi didn’t know was that he was a mark, and although the client was a real person, Tafida was not. Not even that, that there was no such project underway. He didn’t know it then, and wouldn’t for another three years.

Shortly after that fax, Sakaguchi travelled to London. His new friends whisked him from the airport to a hotel in a limousine. At the airport, he met three Nigerian men and one woman. One man gave him a business card introducing himself as the governor of the Nigeria Central Bank, Paul Ogwuma. By the end of the meeting, Sakaguchi was convinced. In fact, he gave them $35, 000 in cash; they would remit $39 million, they promised.

Anyone who has ever been in a 419 scam knows that this is the basic model. An attractive idea, playing on greed or altruism or both, which requires a small facilitation fee to access a larger amount. Some people realize they have been duped and count their losses, but Sakaguchi was not one of them.

The promised money never arrived, of course, but Sakaguchi wired $4.65 million to Nigeria through a circuitous route through Switzerland and other places. It moved in seven instalments in three months between March and June 1995. Like a gambling addict already deep in the hole who refuses to quit, he continued sending money over the next three years. In the end, over $190 million left Noroeste for a non-existent project in Nigeria.

Inside controls allowed Sakaguchi to move upto $6 million without authorisation. He just kept to less than that, many many times.

This money was often in response to requests for licenses, facilitation fees, bribing money and pretty much anything else the swindlers could think of. One wonders what was really going through Sakaguchi’s mind all this time. It is always the big plays that get lifelong cautious bankers like him, and with this one he simply refused to quit. His gullibility throughout this entire thing would astound investigators because it seemed to good to be true, yet there was never proof he was in on it.

His decision to send money in batches of $6 million or less, beyond which he would have to declare to his colleagues, was suspect but could also be seen as clever banking. It seemed as if he had wanted to impress his employers with a big play in Africa’s most populous country. Even after he was recalled from his holiday in the United States and suspended from the bank in February 1998, he wired $250, 000 of his personal money to Nigeria. It might have had something to do with the fact that he had been promised he could make $10 million in commissions once the deal went through.

On the other side of this entire windfall were the three Nigerian men and one woman in the London hotel in March 1995. The first was Nzeribe Okoli, who initially managed to get Sakaguchi to send him $4 million. His partners, Emmanuel Nwude, Christian Anajemba and his wife, Amaka Anajemba then nudged him out of the ruse. In total the last three got $180 million. Of these Emmanuel Nwude is perhaps the most interesting; he was a former director at Union Bank of Nigeria, although records show he was uneducated. He was a streetsmart businessman. Christian was assassinated in 1998, most likely in relation to the scam, and it was Amaka who had to bear the brunt of the legal torrent that followed.

Amaka Anajemba at trial. By this time she had homes in Nigeria, Switzerland, and the US.

Even on this side of the scam, greed seems to have taken over. A con artist is like a casino owner who knows when a gambler has spent too much. With Sakaguchi, it was if the swindlers felt they had become invincible. They had a seemingly stupid source of unlimited money, and their lifestyles quickly changed to match. They bought expensive homes in Europe and the US, and started businesses in Nigeria that would make tracing how they spent the money easy for investigators. It would also make it, at least in Europe and the US, easy to recover the assets. At least in theory.

The owners of Noroeste went ahead with the deal with Santander but had to pay an equivalent amount of the stolen money from their sale value. Their after plan was simple, they would let the bank go and then go after whoever had robbed them. Ambitious as it was, it faced problems from the onsets because of the multiple jurisdictions and information walls in tax havens. Then they hired the services of William Richey, a Miami lawyer, who begun a global crusade to recover the money. By the end, his multinational team’s efforts would trace $184million and recover $138 million, $94.5 million of it in assets.

Since most of the money moved through tax havens and transparency rules were still nascent, investigators needed a lucky break to even identify the Nigerians [PDF]. So they played the legal system in Switzerland; first they filed a criminal complaint in Geneva to get an account that had received $5 million from Noroeste accounts frozen. The amount was too small a win, but the larger win was that once the court demanded the account records, they could see all the other accounts it had interacted with. The account belonged to Nwude, and from his transactions they identified his partners.

Richey’s plan was to file no cases in Nigeria. Instead he would file them in multiple countries with stronger banking laws, and then force Nigerian banks to recover the money. The first disclosure orders came from London, and Nigerian banks, afraid their accounts in corresponding accounts in British banks would be closed, acquiesced.

Then in 2003 the newly-formed Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) started its own investigation into the scam. Nwude and the remaining partners immediately tried to bribe investigators, only for the attempt to be caught on audio and radio and used to prosecute them for bribery. In total they were charged with 86 counts of fraud and 15 counts of bribery. By this time the figure stood at $242 million, $51 million of it in interest.

Nwude, the man who led the greatest 419 scam, and the third largest bank theft, in history.

As the cases dragged on, Amaka, now carrying the weight of both her’s and her husband’s parts, agreed to pay $48 million.  She was jailed for two and a half years. Nwude followed in November, offering to pay $120 million. He was jailed for five years, although he would be quickly released in 2006. During his trial, there was at least one bomb scare in the courtroom. He also immediately went back to court to reclaim his seized assets, using the defense that he was already a rich man before the ruse. (He is currently in jail in Anambra State after a land dispute killed several people in 2016, and Nwude was the ringleader).

If this story sounds too extraordinary to be true so far, there is one additional bizarre thread. After Sakaguchi was extradited to Brazil, Brazil allowed Switzerland to hold its money-laundering case there. One of the witnesses was Maria Rodriguez, a voodoo priest. During her cross examination, she said Sakaguchi had come to her to change his fortunes. She asked him for 120, 000 white doves for the ritual. At this point the judge and the bank’s attorney couldn’t take it anymore, it sounded made up. Where could one even get that many white doves?

Then, she added, he delivered those. She then asked for money to buy 120, 000 more doves, this time black ones. Nelson Sakaguchi was in for all or nothing by now, so he wired her $20 million to pray for him. It clearly didn’t work.

The construction of the actual international airport in Abuja, the Nnamdi Azikiwe Int. Airport, begun in 2000 and was completed in 2002. It now moves over 4million passengers a year.

Owaahh, 2017

A Story is good,

till Another is told.

Last modified: November 7, 2018