BISMARCK, N.D. — A Jamaican man accused of masterminding a lottery scam that defrauded dozens of mostly elderly Americans out of millions of dollars has pleaded guilty to conspiracy, and a federal prosecutor says more defendants in the case might do the same.
Lavrick Willocks, 28, reached an agreement with federal prosecutors in North Dakota earlier this month and appeared in court Thursday to enter his plea. Prosecutors dropped 65 other counts of wire fraud, mail fraud and money laundering.
Willocks faces up to 40 years in prison, though prosecutors have agreed to recommend a much lighter punishment of about 10 years because he cooperated with authorities. The government also will recommend that he pay restitution. U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland didn't immediately schedule sentencing.
Willocks, who has a bachelor's degree in hospitality administration from Southern New Hampshire University, told Hovland that he got involved in lottery scams in October 2009 when he returned to Jamaica and wanted to help his mother through financial problems.
"If you don't know somebody, it's hard to get a job," Willocks said.
Authorities say the scam operated out of a Kingston, Jamaica, mansion where Willocks lived with his mother, Dahlia Hunter, who also is charged. At least 90 mostly elderly Americans lost a total of more than $5.7 million.
The case has a total of 15 defendants, including Willocks and his mother.
One of them, Alrick McLeod, signed a plea deal Wednesday similar to the one Willocks signed. Eight others who also have been extradited to North Dakota and have pleaded not guilty are still scheduled for trial beginning Jan. 22, 2018, though Assistant U.S. Attorney Clare Hochhalter said in court that plea deal talks are in the works with many of them.
"I'm hopeful we can really move forward with this case and have some closure," he said.
Another defendant, Gregory Gooden, who was arrested in Jamaica last month, has an initial appearance scheduled Friday in federal court in Bismarck. Another is still in Jamaica awaiting extradition, and three others remain fugitives.
The scam began to unravel when a woman in the North Dakota town of Harvey lost her life savings of more than $300,000 in 2011. Federal authorities began investigating in 2012. Authorities have dubbed the case "Operation Hard Copy," a reference to lists of prospective victims' contact information used by scammers.
Variations of the scam continue to victimize people in the U.S. and other countries, according to federal prosecutors. The Federal Trade Commission estimates lottery scams could be a billion-dollar-a-year industry in Jamaica.
Sanjay Williams, of Montego Bay, Jamaica, who authorities say was a cohort of Willock's and ran a separate scam, was convicted by a U.S. jury in 2015 and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Willocks said in court Thursday that he had never met Williams.
(Click to display full-size in gallery)