Two Sentenced in Relation to “Butch” Ballow Fraud Scheme
HOUSTON—A U.S. citizen from Georgetown and a citizen of Nigeria who was residing in Houston have been ordered to federal prison following their convictions related to a fraud scheme directed by Harris Dempsey “Butch” Ballow, announced U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson.
Christopher Harless, 62, of Georgetown, pleaded guilty Jan. 13, 2014, admitting he conspired to defraud victims Ballow’s scheme, while Sikiru Olubunmi, 46, entered his plea Nov. 5, 2014, to laundering the proceeds of the fraud scheme.
Today, U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal handed Harless a 240-month sentence. Bonojo received 63 month in federal prison. Both have been in federal custody since their arrests in 2010.
Ballow, 72, formerly of Galveston County, pleaded guilty to one count of money laundering in September 2003 and was permitted release pending sentencing. However, he fled to Mexico and remained a fugitive for more than five years. In 2005, while living in Mexico under the alias of “John Gel,” Ballow gained control of E-SOL International Corp. (E-SOL), a Nevada company with shares traded on the over-the-counter securities market under the symbol ESIT. Ballow then carried out a fraudulent scheme to sell stock in E-SOL and interests in a non-existent Mexican vacation resort supposedly developed by E-SOL to unsuspecting investors. The victims included citizens of the United States and Canada who wire transferred money to a bank account in the name of E-SOL at Wells Fargo Bank in Reno, Nevada.
Harless is Ballow’s brother-in-law. As part of his guilty plea, Harless admitted he was aware that Ballow pleaded guilty to the money laundering charges but fled to Mexico instead of appearing at his sentencing. In 2008, Harless began helping Ballow to sell stock and investments in E-SOL. Harless led investors to believe Ballow’s name was John Gel or Tom Brown so they would not learn about his past criminal convictions or the fact that he was a fugitive. In 2009, Harless moved to Puerto Aventuras, Mexico, under the name “Chris Harris” and continued working with Ballow. In July of that year, Ballow fled from Puerto Aventuras and surfaced a few months later in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, under the name Martin Twinley. However, Harless stayed in Puerto Aventuras and continued to meet with and mislead investors. On April 27, 2010, Harless spoke to an investor over the telephone. Without revealing that Tom Brown was not a real name, that “Tom Brown” had criminal convictions and was permanently barred from promoting securities, Harless attempted to convince the investor to purchase ESIT stock for $5 million.
Bonojo and Ballow met in prison in the fall of 2003 when they were both in custody on unrelated criminal charges. In 2004, after Bonojo’s release from prison, Bonojo helped Ballow obtain fraudulent British passports so Ballow could flee to Mexico. Bonojo also obtained a cell phone under a fake name in order to communicate with Ballow in Mexico. In 2006, Ballow began causing large sums of money to be wire transferred from E-SOL’s bank account at Wells Fargo to accounts controlled by Bonojo at banks in the Houston area, including an account in the name of Guiding Angels EMS Inc. at Trustmark National Bank. Bonojo admitted as part of his guilty plea that he knew the money sent from Wells Fargo was proceeds of some kind of felony, further acknowledging that he withdrew much of the money in cash in order to conceal and disguise its source. Bonojo used a lot of the cash to make payments Ballow directed, including to his grandson who was living in or near Houston.
Three others were also charged in this case—James David Wright, 60, of Corinth; Patrick Lanier, 67, of Austin; and Clarence LaFey Hudgens Jr., 59, of Lebanon, Oregon. Hudgens and Wright each pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud arising from the E-SOL stock sale scheme. Lanier was convicted Feb. 27, 2014, after a lengthy trial on 16 counts to include conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud, harboring and concealing Ballow from arrest and assisting a federal offender. They are set for sentencing Jan. 26, 2016.
A second, but related, case against Ballow and five others, including Ruben Garza Perez, is pending before Judge Ewing Werlein, Jr. Garza, 55, formerly of Houston, pleaded guilty in that case on July 17, 2015, to conspiracy to commit wire fraud arising from the sale of E-SOL stock. His sentencing is set for Feb. 5, 2016.
Ballow is in custody, while the other four are located in foreign countries. All five are considered innocent unless and until convicted through due process of law.
The cases were investigated by the FBI and Internal Revenue Service – Criminal Investigation with the assistance of the U.S. Marshals Service and U.S. Postal Inspection Service. The governments of Mexico and Canada also provided extensive and valuable assistance.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys John R. Lewis and Belinda Beek are prosecuting the case.