Online romance leads to wire fraud, jail time for divorcee
05/31/2016 5:13 pm PDT
Audrey Elrod could never have guessed that when she started a long-distance relationship over the computer, she would end up in the position that she is in now.
Audrey, a lonely divorcee, thinks she's found love again -- only to discover that she's become entangled in a nightmarish web of deceit from which there will be no escape.
Audrey Elrod, just recently divorced from her husband of 14 years, thought her dream of a second chance at lasting marriage had magically come true.
A romantic Facebook message was sent from a rugged, dashing admirer from Scotland who called himself Duke MacGregor.
Audrey, 45, immediately thought she had finally found someone to ease her loneliness.
And over hours of talking, Audrey got to know Duke very well, or so she thought -- believing him to be a kind and affectionate widower who was lonely himself, spending months on an oil rig in the North Atlantic.
Audrey spent hours on the phone from her home in Bluefield, Virginia, intoxicated by Duke's Scottish accent and bold declarations of passion.
Duke enchanted the childless Audrey with the prospect of becoming something she had always longed to be: A mother to his teenage son Kevin, left motherless by a tragic car accident. And soon, Audrey was talking to Kevin at least once a week.
But months into Audrey and Duke's relationship, their conversation changed from romance to finance.
"Duke had told me that on the oil rig, that they freeze their accounts when they go out for security reasons," said Audrey.
Her new love would ask for a few hundred dollars here, a few hundred there, just to cover some expenses.
"I was in love with this guy. So it was like, OK. You're my family so I'm gonna do whatever I can to help you," said Audrey. "I questioned him quite a bit. He can make you feel like you was the most dumbest person on this Earth if you questioned him."
Then, as well as giving him money from her modest weekly paychecks, Duke asked her to do something else for him.
"We had been talking for quite a few months. And he told me, he said he had a friend that needed some help. And I'm like, what kind of help? He's like, he needs you to receive some money and to forward it straight to him. And he was a banker in Nigeria," said Audrey. "I questioned him about it. I'm like, I don't think so. I said let's not do it. 'Well if you love me enough, and you trust me enough. You know I'm never gonna put you in any situation that is wrong.'"
But the situation he was putting Audrey in was not only wrong, it was a federal crime. And over the next two years, Audrey would unwittingly launder hundreds of thousands of dollars for Duke and his Nigerian friend in what would turn out to be an international fraud scheme preying on other lonely women across the globe.
"The scam artists would contact people throughout the world and they would send money to Ms. Elrod's bank accounts," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Randy Ramseyer.
Just the same way they were putting the money she was giving to Duke into the accounts of other victims to launder.
"And then she'd take that money and would withdraw it out of the bank accounts and wire the money to Nigeria," said Ramseyer.
How much money actually passed through Audrey's hands?
"In excess of $400,000," said IRS Agent Trevor McMurray.
Because Audrey didn't own a car, she would walk to a Walmart parking lot, head right inside and buy all of her Moneygrams.
But Audrey says she never knew she was committing a crime, just helping out Duke, and Duke's banker friend.
"I didn't make money off transactions," said Audrey. "I did it because I trusted Duke and I loved Duke. That's why I did it. Plain and simple."
Is Duke MacGregor a real person?
"Not to our knowledge," said IRS Agent McMurray.
When local banks got wind of the scheme, they closed her accounts. But blinded by love and at the urging of Duke, she would simply open new ones somewhere else -- until she was arrested.
Audrey was released on bail 24 hours later and went right back to what got her busted in the first place.
"The government was telling her it was illegal, but the scammers were telling her that it was legal, and she chose to believe them," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Randy Ramseyer.
Soon the feds would break up Audrey and Duke's romance for good.
Audrey Elrod is currently serving 52 months in Alderson Federal Prison Camp in Virginia after pleading guilty to one count of structuring and one count of wire fraud.
Would her lover Duke swoop in to the rescue?
"No," said Audrey. "The day I went to jail is the day he died, you know. Basically our relationship died that day."
"She knew what she was doing was wrong, she did it even after she was arrested," said McMurray. "At some point in time the compassion stops and you just want to stop the crime."
"Why me?" said Audrey. "There's times you still sit back and you think, the conversations you had with them, and to know all of it was a lie hurts. That is a fault of mine is to be trusting, and I'm gonna have a hard time when I leave here trusting people, because I'm not gonna trust anyone ever again."