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Nigerian gets 14yrs in US for ID theft

- Matthew Dolan

(Saturday, October 1, 2005)

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"Judge acknowledges former BWI baggage handler was 'not the mastermind' of more than $7 million scheme, but 'essential' role cited."

Kehinde Akintola Oladapo used to lug bags for Southwest Airlines in Maryland. For years, he also stole the mail. And that was only the beginning. The former baggage handler from Nigeria forwarded the stolen mail taken from airplanes to thieves in New York, who then robbed 1,500 people of an estimated $21 million in what prosecutors called one of the largest identity theft cases busted in Maryland.

Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis sentenced Oladapo, 48, of Lanham to 14 years in prison for purloining letters shipped through Baltimore-Washington International Airport and allowing others to use the personal financial information inside to tap bank accounts and set up false credit. Garbis ordered Oladapo pay $7 million -- the loss amount agreed to by Oladapo in his plea agreement -- in restitution.

In court, Oladapo's attorney said his client owned a home worth at least $400,000 and a Mercedes-Benz, assets prosecutors plan to seize and sell to compensate victims. Oladapo, who moved to the United States more than 25 years ago, sobbed during much of the hour-long hearing, apologizing for his crimes and asking Garbis for mercy. "My children have been in disgrace," he said, removing his glasses and wiping his eyes. "I have brought shame to my family and disappointment to my siblings because they look up to me."

Prosecutors in Baltimore had asked Garbis to follow recommended guidelines and sentence Oladapo to at least 20 years in prison. Assistant U.S. Attorney Tamera L. Fine argued that the naturalized citizen deserved harsh punishment because he was the "essential piece" of the criminal enterprise. "If there is ever a financial crime that calls out for this sentence, it is this defendant," Fine said. But defense lawyer John H. Rhines asked for a lighter sentence, saying his client was only a "cog in the wheel." "This is not the case to mop up all of the credit card fraud in this country in the last 10 years," Rhines said. The judge agreed. "He's the guy who stole the coal and put it into the furnace," Garbis said, adding Oladapo was "not the mastermind."

Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein issued a statement, saying "the sentence imposed today holds the defendant accountable for the far-reaching impact of this identity-theft scheme." About 9.3 million people were the victims of identity theft in the United States last year, costing more than $52 billion, according to a study released in January by the Better Business Bureau. But stealing mail from a plane is rare, authorities said. Southwest routinely carries mail in its Boeing 737s, said spokeswoman Whit ney Eichinger. "The mail is secure," Eichinger said.

Federal postal agents first received complaints from banks and other financial institutions of large-scale thefts. An investigation led inspectors to BWI. They started surveillance at the airport and targeted Oladapo, who began working as a ramp agent for Southwest in December 1993, first in California and then in Maryland.

On July 6, 2000, Oladapo had rented a post office box at the BWI airmail center. He continued to rent and use that post office box until his arrest Sept. 4, 2004. Postal inspectors believe Oladapo began to steal financial documents, including checks and credit cards, for his co-defendants in New York in 2001. In return, he received more than $2,000 a month in proceeds from the scheme.

On May 25, a federal jury convicted Oladapo's 46-year-old wife, Olushola, of possession of stolen mail and aiding and abetting because she helped send the mail from BWI to Brooklyn. She is scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 5. Two other defendants originally from Nigeria and living in Brooklyn, Oladapo Udukale, 34, and Morsuru Sogbesan, 38, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail theft and conspiracy to commit bank fraud. They are scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 17.

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