Out of Africa: Stung by a Ghanaian smoothy

Stung by a Ghanaian smoothy

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Meet John Ackah Blay-Miezah, native of Ghana, man of the world, a portly, elegant, globe-trotting charmer who seems to awe those who encounter him. "A very intelligent, cultured man," gushed one American admirer. "He knows every opera and can recognize a symphony from just a couple of notes. He is a nationally ranked chess player. He speaks nine languages." He is also, say authorities, a world-class swindler.

Philadelphia's newly elected district attorney, Ronald Castille, asserts that since 1972, Blay-Miezah and his American "agent," Robert Ellis, have swindled at least $18 million from about 300 investors in the Philadelphia area for a nonexistent Ghanaian trust fund. Says Castille: "It's the biggest scam in the history of Philadelphia." Adds Assistant D.A. William Wolf: "What you had were some of the most successful and intelligent men and women in Philadelphia who bought a treasure map from con men." Some sources say that Philadelphians were not the only suckers: the bogus trust may have taken in as much as $100 million from a nationwide network of investors.

As the D.A. tells it, Blay-Miezah passed himself off as the sole beneficiary of a trust set up by deposed Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah, who died in Rumania in 1972. Gullible investors were told that the Oman Ghana Trust Fund, to be used for economic development in Ghana, had shadowy origins and was funded with billions of dollars in banks in Switzerland and Liechtenstein; the story was backed up with an account number and a vaguely worded letter from the Union Bank of Switzerland.

There was one, er, problem, Blay-Miezah told his investors. To gain access to the money, he had to fulfill a number of complicated conditions that included presenting a specially numbered diplomatic passport to the banks and cutting deals with certain tribal chiefs. Outside funds were necessary to pay expenses incurred as Blay-Miezah wheeled and dealed to get to the mother lode.

, Most of the Philadelphia-area investors were allegedly lured into the scheme by Blay-Miezah's partner Ellis, whom Castille describes as "a good talker, a hustler." They were assured of a return of as much as 50 to 1 on their investments. Attorney Barry Ginsberg and a group of friends ended up dumping a total of $1.5 million into the trust, and according to investigators, an elderly widow invested $70,000, which amounted to her life savings. Most investors did, however, realize that they were getting into a rather risky venture. "Don't feel sorry for these people," says Richard Butera, a businessman who first dropped money in the Oman Ghana Trust Fund in 1972. "They knew what they were doing."

While Ellis was seeking out investors, Blay-Miezah was living overseas, having fled the U.S. in 1974 after he was charged with trying to cash $250,000 worth of stolen cashier's checks. But the Ghanaian was always willing to greet his American benefactors at the posh offices or hotel suites he had set up with their money in London, Amsterdam and Accra. "I can't live like a pauper," he told one investor. "I have to impress my people."

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