LAFAYETTE — Three people charged in a Romanian-based Internet scam that netted at least $1.4 million were back in custody Thursday after being released on their own recognizance last week.
Ten people arrested in the case since October each had faced an initial bail of $1 million, but 15th Judicial District Judge Edward Rubin last week allowed three of the defendants to be released on their own recognizance with electronic monitoring when their attorneys challenged the high bail amount, said Assistant Attorney General David Caldwell.
The state 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal overturned Rubin’s decision, and the state Attorney General’s Office was back in court Thursday fighting for steep bail to ensure the defendants don’t skip town.
“They have considerable resources to generate fraudulent identification — and money — so we are very concerned they will run,” said Ernest Green, an investigator with the Attorney General’s Office.
Green said the scam was orchestrated by an “international organized crime syndicate based out of Romania.”
The case has since been reassigned to 15th Judicial District Judge Marilyn Castle, who after a more than two-hour hearing Thursday set bail ranging from $150,000 to $1 million.
“I consider this to be an extremely serious offense,” Castle said. “This is an international fraud scheme that has hurt many American citizens.”
Ovidiu Micu, 34, a Romanian who was living in Breaux Bridge, now faces a $1 million bail.
Bail was set at $750,000 for Nielsen Racu, 26, of Lafayette, who is married to Dorin Munteanu Racu, 31, a Romanian also charged in the scheme and still on the run.
“Mr. Racu is still at large, and at this point, nobody knows where he is,” Green said.
April Derouselle, 34, and Ashley Journet, 27, two sisters from Breaux Bridge who were charged in the scheme, face bails of $300,000 and $150,000, respectively.
Derouselle had been released on her own recognizance, but Journet had remained in jail.
Other defendants in the case have not challenged their initial bail and have remained incarcerated.
All face up to 50 years in prison on charges of racketeering and conspiracy, Caldwell said.
“I don’t know if it’s dawned on everybody yet how serious this charge is and how serious we are,” Caldwell said.
Green testified at Thursday’s hearing that scammers lured unsuspecting online shoppers with offers of various items on eBay and Craigslist, then shifted the victims to phony “look-alike” websites, where they would be prompted to wire money for the items.
“Once the money is sent, communication is ended with the victims,” Green said.
He said the total take is believed to be at least $1.4 million, but the investigation is ongoing.
“Right now, we have over 700 victims and counting,” Green said.
The AG’s Office has said many of the victims were in Louisiana and Mississippi, and many of the defendants facing charges here were allegedly doing the legwork of accepting wire transfers of money from victims, then, in turn, wiring the money on to accomplices in Romania in return for a cut.
“The individuals in Romania are basically the folks calling the shots,” Green said.
Caldwell said trying to push for the prosecution of anyone in that country is difficult, but he hopes cases like the one in Lafayette could send a message to stateside participants.