- The Washington Times - Friday, May 28, 2004

Two naturalized U.S. citizens who pleaded guilty this month in a scheme that cost an elderly California woman more than $1 million returned to their native country of Jordan after renouncing their citizenship at the U.S. consulate in Tijuana, Mexico.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokeswoman Virginia Kice said Ismat Sabha, 49, and his brother, Nashat, 47, renounced their citizenship this week after a plea agreement with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. They also admitted swindling two other elderly women out of more than $2 million.

ICE agents in Los Angeles said the case was one of the most complex financial-abuse investigations ever prosecuted, noting that the brothers played a central role in a scheme costing the unidentified 85-year-old woman, who suffers from dementia, $1.3 million before the thefts were discovered.

They said while prosecutors focused on the 85-year-old victim, the men admitted to swindling the two other elderly women.

“This is one of the most compelling financial cases we’ve ever worked,” said Loraine Brown, who heads ICE investigations in Los Angeles.

Mrs. Kice said ICE agents discovered the brothers, owners of a Los Angeles-area liquor store, used the business as a means to befriend their victims. She said they targeted wealthy elderly women who had no local relatives or were estranged from their families.

The brothers, she said, lavished attention on the victims, even proposing marriage.

Mrs. Kice said the brothers used several tactics to steal from their victims, including obtaining credit- and debit-card information when purchases were made at their store. She said the pair then used that information to make cash withdrawals and purchases.

Once the brothers gained the victims’ trust, she said, they became more brazen, persuading them to sell real estate holdings and surrender the proceeds.

In one instance, she said, they tried to convince one victim that her duplex was haunted.

After pleading guilty to theft charges May 5, the men were sentenced to seven years in prison, which was suspended when they returned more than $1.1 million. Mrs. Kice said the men were allowed to return to Jordan if they renounced their U.S. citizenship.

Because renunciation of citizenship can only occur at an American embassy or consulate outside the United States, she said the brothers were allowed to go to Mexico.

In addition to the $1.1 million repaid under the plea agreement, Mrs. Kice said the victims will receive an additional $172,500 in funds recovered by ICE.

Collectively, she said, the 85-year-old woman stands to recoup all but $128,000 of the money she lost.

The thefts surfaced in January 2003 when U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents in Memphis, Tenn., intercepted an undeclared $100,000 draft from a brokerage account in a package bound for Jordan. Initially, ICE agents feared the funds were being funneled to the Middle East to support terrorism, but eventually they uncovered the scheme.

In addition to the brothers, four others, including Nashat Sabha’s wife, also were charged. Four of the six have already pleaded guilty. A fifth suspect is scheduled to appear in court in the next few weeks, and a sixth man remains at large and is believed to be in Jordan.

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