- Associated Press - Sunday, May 3, 2015

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Sanjay Williams often creates a scene during his North Dakota trial on accusations he participated in a wide-ranging Jamaican lottery scam: constantly whispering and passing notes to his lawyer and shaking his head in disgust when his suggestions are ignored.

But his decision to go to trial put the spotlight not on him but rather the dozens of mostly elderly victims from the Dakotas and around the U.S., some of whom are testifying about losing their savings to relentless and aggressive scammers.

Jamaican lottery scams have been happening for years and Congress has held hearings to complain about them, but few cases of this magnitude have been prosecuted. That changed when FBI Special Agent Frank Gasper and Assistant U.S. Attorney Clare Hochhalter, both of North Dakota, begin poking into the case of Edna Schmeets.

Schmeets, now 86, is a widow from Harvey who four years ago received a call from a man who told her she had won $19 million and a new car. She just needed to pay taxes and fees. The process dragged out until her savings were wiped out.

“Oh my goodness,” Schmeets said on the stand last week when asked how much money she lost. “When I figured it out, it was about $297,000.”

Williams is described by investigators primarily as a “lead broker” who bought and sold “sucker lists” of potential victims. He has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy, wire fraud and money laundering. He is the only one of 32 defendants to opt for trial. Eight defendants are awaiting extradition from Jamaica.

Williams, who has fired a couple of lawyers and written more than a dozen letters to the judge complaining about his case, and his current attorney Charlie Stock, of Crookston, Minnesota, sit one seat apart during trial. Williams regularly pores over documents and talks to Stock, who occasionally holds up the palm of his hand as a stop sign.

Stock himself filed a motion earlier to withdraw from the case, which U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland rejected.

“The court well-understands the difficulties faced by defense counsel who is the third attorney appointed by the court to represent Mr. Williams,” Hovland wrote in a December memo. “However, appointing replacement counsel would only lead to further delay.”

Gasper and Hochhalter have identified more than 70 victims, many of whom have been coming to North Dakota from around the country to check their embarrassment and humiliation at the courthouse door and tell their stories. Authorities said they hope those accounts will put others on alert.

Prosecutors on several occasions have displayed a map that shows the range of scams allegedly led by Williams and Lavrick Willocks, a co-defendant whose operation is described as more accomplished and sophisticated than Williams’. It connects the dots between Williams’ and Willocks’ western Jamaican bases and the United States victims, spread out like an airline route map.

All told, about 20 victims are expected to appear before trial winds down at the end of this week.

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