Part Two: Investigation exposes deceptive misinformation by U.S prosecutors and FBI agents in the indictment and prosecution of Nigerians

See the first part of this investigation, if you haven't already.

The investigation revealed a very troubling pattern throughout Abegunde's case. This troubling pattern manifested in the form of the elevation of mere unsubstantiated allegations to the level of sacred truth, and a concomitant continuous rejection of actual evidence. This was the recurring theme from the initial indictment, through the arrest, the bond hearing, the superseding indictment, the trial, the motion for judgement of acquittal due to insufficient evidence, sentencing, and the appeals.

Abegunde’s arrest

According to court records, on February 7, 2018 – six months after the Grand Jury convened by Assistant United States Attorney, Debra Ireland returned an indictment for which Abegunde and Ojo insist they were unaware of – Abegunde was arrested at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL).
Incidentally, the investigation established that at the time of Abegunde’s arrest, he was hosting another longtime friend from Nigeria at his home in Atlanta. They had both planned the trip to the Dominican Republic, but — according to Abegunde — since he had not received a long awaited Immigration travel document from the United States Citizens and Immigration Services (USCIS); for the second time in the space of one week, the trip had to be postponed to a later date.

In an interview, Abegunde explained the rationale for his two trips to the airport to reschedule flights; and why he did not simply alter the flights online. Abegunde said he was merely employing a gimmick that frequent air travellers in the U.S. utilized to save money. ‘‘If you need to reschedule a flight and you don’t want to pay the $200 flight change fee, all you need to do is go to the airport on the travel date before check-in closes. By doing this, instead of paying the combination of the flight change fee and the difference in fares for the new travel date, all you will be required to pay is the cost of the difference in fares, if there is a difference.’’

Abegunde’s companion on the day of his arrest — Mr. A. Hameed — corroborated Abegunde’s account. In an interview, Mr. Hameed said that “I was not so sanguine about getting up early in the morning to go to the airport just to change a flight. But FJ convinced me that saving $400 or more was worth it.’’

Court records reviewed by the author confirm that at the time of Abegunde’s arrest, the said flight to the Dominican Republic had already been rescheduled. The initial ticket was scheduled for a departure from Atlanta on February 7, 2018 and return on February 10, 2018. The rescheduled ticket was booked to depart Atlanta on August 30, 2018, and return on September 2, 2018. This unequivocally indicates that Abegunde did not intend to depart the U.S. on the day of his arrest.

According to Abegunde, it was after they had successfully completed the flight change, and were walking away from the check-in counter that ‘‘all of a sudden, two men in plain clothes accosted me with so much force that I was both confused and terrified. I kept telling them they had the wrong person.’’ Abegunde said the officers that carried out the arrest identified themselves as Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) officers that were acting on behalf of the FBI. “After placing me in handcuffs, they took out my wallet from my pocket, took out my driver license, and then brought out an arrest warrant to confirm my identity. It turned out that they did not have the wrong person.” At this point, according to Abegunde, the officers advised him to handover the property items in his possession to his friend Mr. Hameed.

‘‘I was shocked and devastated by the contents of the arrest warrant. It showed that I had been charged with committing Wire Fraud Conspiracy, Money Laundering Conspiracy, and Aggravated Identity Theft. What I found most baffling was that the charges originated from Memphis Tennessee where I had absolutely no prior connection with. I had never been to Memphis, I had no friends or business associates in Memphis, I never had anything at all to do with Memphis since I came to the U.S. in 2014.” Abegunde bemoaned.

Shortly afterwards, according to Abegunde, the actual arresting officer, FBI special agent Carlos Carrasquillo arrived at the scene when Abegunde was handing over his personal property items to Mr. Hameed. Carrasquillo — according to Abegunde — then overruled the ICE agents and seized the receipt confirming the flight change, Abegunde’s mobile phones, and a backpack containing Abegunde’s laptop as well as other documents. According to Abegunde, Carrasquillo along with two other FBI agents then walked him to the FBI office at the Atlanta airport.

Abegunde further said that after a brief stay at the FBI office, he was driven by the three FBI agents to the federal courthouse in Atlanta where he was placed in the U.S. Marshal holding cell for hours. Subsequently after, according to Abegunde, he was taken to see a public defender — Ms Judy Fleming — who said Abegunde’s indictment was under seal and would likely be unsealed shortly after. She also advised Abegunde that he was entitled to a bond hearing at the federal court house. Abegunde said “Since I relocated to the U.S., besides regular traffic stops, I have never had encounters with law enforcement. As a matter of fact, since I moved to Atlanta, I have never been stopped by police for any reason whatsoever. I now found myself in handcuffs and leg chains like a hardened criminal.” Abegunde continued “I was completely naive as to how these things work, so I indicated that I would proceed with a bond hearing at the courthouse on that day.” The decision to proceed with the bond hearing may not have been the optimal decision because of the lack of choice regarding the best legal representation.

According to Abegunde, the public defender came back with the unsealed indictment, and advised that the bond hearing was scheduled to take place soon after. Abegunde further said that upon viewing what turned out to be the initial indictment, he came to realize the origins of his predicament. “I looked through the indictment and saw the name Luis Ramos Alonso which immediately rang a bell. I also saw my name, Ayodeji Ojo, and a host of other names I had never come across in my life. It was then that I had an idea regarding what was really going on.’’ Regarding the actual contents of the indictment, Abegunde said ‘‘I complained to the public defender that none of the allegations on the indictment rise to the level of crimes. I kept telling her there is no crime here. The indictment simply says I granted a friend permission to utilize my address and phone number to open a bank account.” Abegunde went on “In response, the public defender said the indictment does not tell the whole story. She then said there is something called discovery, and when the government releases the discovery, I would know the full picture. But I kept insisting that there cannot possibly be any evidence of any crimes committed by me since such crimes do not exist. But she remained aloof.”

Abegunde said he was eventually taken to the courthouse for the bond hearing, and according to Abegunde, it was during the bond hearing that for the first time, the theory was postulated that Abegunde intended to flee the United States, Court records reviewed in the course of the investigation dispute this theory, as the travel ticket seized by agent Carrasquillo indicate a travel date other than the date of Abegunde’s arrest. Simply because Abegunde’s arrest was effected at the airport, the groundless conclusion was reached that Abegunde intended to flee the U.S. For this unsubstantiated reason, the government argued that Abegunde should be denied bond.
Said Abegunde “Rather than request that the FBI Agent release the flight change confirmation receipt, and then present the receipt to the court — which would have served as indisputable evidence that I did not intend to flee the U.S. — the public defender did not offer much resistance.” According to court documents, Abegunde’s request for his release on bond was denied and he was remanded in custody of the U.S. Marshals pending his transfer to Memphis, Tennessee where the charges were filed.
“My legal representation at the bond hearing was so abysmal that the Magistrate denied me bond. But this was just the beginning of my long streak of the worst, and the most profoundly ineffective legal representations.”
The author contacted Federal Public Defender, Judy Fleming — the Attorney who represented Abegunde at the Atlanta bond hearing — for comments; she did not respond to the request for comments.

More than four years after his arrest, Abegunde continued to express confusion regarding his arrest. ‘‘I keep asking myself if I had not gone to the airport that fateful morning, would things have turned out differently?’’ Abegunde also raised salient questions “why didn’t they come back to my house to ask further questions so as to clarify any misgivings? Why didn’t they inform me that I was the subject or the target of a federal grand jury investigation?
“Since I had been indicted on August 24, 2017, six months before my arrest; they know my house, why didn’t they come to arrest me at my home? Why did it happen at the airport six months after I had been indicted without me even knowing it?’’

Abegunde continued “I had been to that same airport many times since the date of the indictment, why was I not arrested on any of those occasions? As a matter of fact, around the week before my arrest, I travelled out of, and returned through that same airport from Union, New Jersey where I had gone to file a lawsuit against a certain Mudafiula Otaobayomi Akande who had fraudulently issued me two returned checks for a total of $35,000 or so.”
“Why didn’t they arrest me then? They say I was a flight risk, but I travelled out of the U.S. to Bahamas in July of 2017, four months after the FBI agents knocked on my door in March 2017. If I knew I was under investigation and intended to flee, why didn’t I flee at that time? I was literally living freely for six months with a false sense of security, without knowing that my days as a free man were numbered. I still find it difficult to come to terms with the fact that I left my house for a brief trip to the airport, and I haven’t gone back home to my family for more than four years. I have been told that since the day of my arrest, my daughter keeps asking ‘When is Daddy coming home?’ This whole thing makes no sense.”

The investigation confirmed these claims by Abegunde. A certain Mudafuila Otaobayomi Akande actually issued Abegunde returned checks and Abegunde indeed filed a civil suit against him at the Union City courthouse in Union, New Jersey. The author also viewed Abegunde’s I-94, a document that shows Abegunde’s travel history, and indeed, according to the I-94, Abegunde travelled out of the U.S. in July 2017 and returned days after.

Interestingly, at Abegunde’s trial, the testimony of the officer that arrested Abegunde – Agent Carlos Carrasquillo – established that Abegunde did not intend to flee the U.S. on the day of his arrest. Carrasquillo’s testimony also showed that one week before his arrest, Abegunde had successfully applied what Abegunde described as a cost saving tactic for rescheduling flights at the Atlanta airport.

Under direct examination, Carrasquillo was questioned regarding the circumstances surrounding Carrasquillo’s encounter with Abegunde vis-à-vis Abegunde’s arrest. One of the prosecutors – Timothy Flowers – asked Carrasquillo “Have you encountered …. Mr. Abegunde …. before?” After Carrasquillo identified Abegunde, Flowers then asked “What were the circumstances of that encounter, sir?”. In response, Carasquillo said “So I had received information from the case agent indicating that mister…. Abegunde was scheduled to depart the United States actually from Atlanta, continuing to Fort Lauderdale, with the Dominican Republic as his final destination. He indicated to me that he had a warrant for his arrest. So he requested our assistance to arrest Mr. Abegunde.” Flowers then asked Carrasquillo “Now, what happened with the first time that you attempted to provide assistance?” Carrasquillo responded by saying “So, I identified the departure gate or flight. I went to the gate. Everyone boarded the aircraft, but Mr. Abegunde did not show up for the flight.”

Regarding Carrasquillo’s actual encounter with Abegunde on the day of Abegunde’s arrest, Flowers asked Carrasquillo “What were the circumstances of that, sir?” In response Carrasquillo said “So, again, he was supposed to depart, again, for the Dominican Republic. Again, I went to the gate. The aircraft door was about to close, and Mr. Abegunde had not checked in or showed up for the flight. So I asked one of our officers that I know -- he patrols different concourses of the Atlanta airport. I asked him to go to the main terminal where Spirit Airlines has a counter or presence in an attempt to identify him.” (See Document 353: Agent Carlos Carrasquillo Testimony, March 12, 2019, PageID 3152-3154).

Under cross examination, Abegunde’s attorney asked Carrasquillo two key questions “And so it's not breaking any sort of law to come into an airport and change your future travel plans from a kiosk as opposed to doing it at home, correct?” and “If a person, in their minds, if they wanted to save money on travel plans, future travel plans, they go to the airport and they put their future travel plans into the kiosk or wherever, there's nothing illegal or wrong about that, correct?” Carrasquillo responded to both questions by saying “correct.” Abegunde’s attorney went further “And on that particular day he had not made it actually past what I'm calling the gate -- and you can give me the right terms for it -- the gate to actually do travel, where you have to go through and get, go through the security.” Carrasquillo responded by saying “You're correct, sir.” Pressing further, Abegunde’s attorney asked “He hadn't made it to a security checkpoint, had he?” Carrasquillo answered “To my understanding, that's correct.” Finally, Abegunde’s attorney asked “And you had no reason necessarily to know that Mr. Abegunde would have known that he was being investigated or that there was someone to be on the lookout for him with you, right?” Carrasquillo responded by saying “correct.” (See Document 353: Agent Carlos Carrasquillo Testimony, March 12, 2019, PageID 3164-3166).

Carrasquillo’s testimony at Abegunde’s trial clearly establishes that Abegunde neither knew that he was under investigation; nor did Abegunde intend to flee the U.S. on the day of his arrest. Hence, it can be reasonably inferred that Abegunde did not pose a risk of flight as the Government falsely argued.

According to court records, Abegunde spent 10 days at the Robert Dayton Detention Facility in Clayton County Georgia before being transferred to the West Tennessee Detention Facility (WTDF) in Mason, Tennessee.

As stunning and incredulous as it may seem, the investigation revealed that at the crux of Abegunde’s prosecution was the elevation of mere unsubstantiated allegations to oracular status. The investigation further revealed a reckless disregard for the truth throughout Abegunde’s case.

The consequential and highly damaging misinformation by the prosecutors and FBI agents — that Abegunde intended to flee the U.S. on the date of his arrest — was neither the first, nor would it be the last harmful misrepresentation of material fact by the prosecutors and FBI agents. The investigation revealed this particular misrepresentation as just one act in a continuous and unrelenting series of misrepresentations of vital facts that significantly harmed Abegunde.

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