Federal prosecutors say a lawyer, who moonlights as a pastor, and his associate swindled a retired teacher from Harlem out of a building she had owned for 40 years.
Ina McCarther, 80, said that she had saved to buy a 37-unit building on St. Nicholas Avenue for $198,000 in 1954. Decades later, she was hoping to sell her property for $4 million.
That was in 2006, around the time that Ifeanyichukwu Eric Abakporo, a Nigerian citizen and Brooklyn lawyer, and Latanya Pierce, who worked in his office, cozied up to the elderly woman and persuaded her to let them take care of collecting rent checks from the building, according to investigators.
Abakporo, who owns a home in the wealthy part of Jamaica Estates in Queens, N.Y., is also a pastor at Deeper Life Bible Church, investigators said.
But instead of turning the checks over to McCarther, who prosecutors say was in declining physical and mental health, they deposited the rental checks into their own bank accounts.
Abakporo first came across the radar screen in 2010 in another controversy involving contracts for renovations at the Nigerian Mission and its living quarters. According to a petition authored by anonymous whistleblowers calling themselves “The Patriots,” the renovation contracts, linked to Joy Ogwu, Nigeria’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, were inflated. Although the Nigerian Mission paid several hundred thousand dollars to a company called St. Cyprian Properties for services in connection with these renovations, Abakporo has vehemently denied that he owns or controls St. Cyprian.
Federal prosecutors say Abakporo and Pierce further tangled McCarther in a “web of lies” and ultimately persuaded her to sell them her property for $3.1 million. But instead of giving her real money, they paid her in phony checks, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors say that once the pair secured the building, they made fraudulent statements to take out a $1.8 million loan against the property from Washington Mutual, which, when it collapsed in 2008, was the largest bank failure in American history. They allegedly then used the mortgage to benefit themselves and others.
They later defaulted on the mortgage, according to court records.
Abakporo and Pierce were arrested this week and charged with wire fraud, bank fraud and conspiracy to commit bank fraud. They face a prison sentence of up to 30 years if convicted.
Neither returned calls for comment. A man who answered the door at the church Wednesday night said the accused pastor, Eric Abakporo, wasn’t there. “I have no idea what you’re saying,” said the man, who declined to give his name. “That should be a lie — these lies cannot help you.”
McCarther says she started crying when she learned she’d been scammed. “I said, ‘Who could do this to me?’” she said.
McCarther said she wasn’t selling the building to get rich. After painful foot surgeries, she wanted a comforting clause in the contract. She still lives in the building but said she hasn’t seen the money she was promised. She says the alleged swindlers didn’t think she’d live long enough to follow up on what happened to the money.
“They miscalculated,” she said.