A respected nursing school teacher who secretly was a key money launderer in a scheme in which criminals posed as U.S. Navy procurement officers to rip off military contractors has been sentenced to two years in prison.
Eunice Bisong Nkongho, 40, of Los Angeles, was convicted in October of moving hundreds of thousands of dollars in proceeds from the theft of thousands of TVs, computers and communications devices and sending it to her husband in Nigeria.
Prosecutors said the scheme involved the use of phony Navy email addresses in the name of a purported procurement officer named Daniel Drunz to order expensive electronics and communications equipment from military contractors and then selling the goods and wiring the money overseas.
As the contractors had long standing relationships with the Navy, they didn’t require up-front payments for the goods, according to court documents.
Seven other defendants in the case, several of whom had long rap sheets, have pleaded guilty or have been convicted at trial. Nkongho had no criminal history. Her husband, Peter Unakalu, has also been charged, but remains at large, prosecutors said.
Nkongho had been a registered nurse and nurse practitioner in California since 2013. According to court documents, she had served as the director of the psychiatric nursing program at Charles Drew University in Los Angeles and had worked at the LAC-USC Medical Center. In letters submitted to the court, co-workers described her as well-respected, dedicated and highly ethical.
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Nkongho was initially charged with involvement in the theft and sale of the goods, but those charges were later dropped and her only role in the scheme was laundering money, which she did at the behest of her husband, said her attorney Gregory Smith.
“She would never have gotten into this if it wasn’t for her husband,” he said.
Unakalu’s lawyer declined to comment.
In the scheme, the defendants were accused of having thousands of big-screen televisions, iPhones, iPads, computers and other specialized communications equipment sent to warehouses they rented on the East Coast. They would then send them to the West Coast where the items would be sold, prosecutors said.
The firms that were defrauded weren’t identified in court documents but were described as a Washington-based business that provides wireless voice and data services, a Virginia wholesale distributor of audio and video products, and a defense contractor in Maryland.
The proceeds would then be sent to Nkongho who would begin wiring the money in amounts small enough not to trigger bank reporting requirements to her husband in Nigeria, prosecutors said. She also would allegedly deliver bags containing hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash to her co-defendants to pay them for their role in the scheme.
The scam came unwound when a Federal Express deliverer flagged a shipment of more than 100 televisions to the West Coast address as suspicious. That triggered an investigation that eventually led agents with the Department of Homeland security to contact the Navy to determine whether Daniel Drunz was a real person.
The probe quickly determined Drunz did not exist and that the “navy-mil.us” email address that the defendants used were in fact ghost Yahoo! accounts that had been set up in 2015.