Americans have a saying that there is a sucker born every day. The statement speaks to the gullibility of some people to fall for schemes that are patently fraudulent, and should be avoided the same way one would avoid the plague.
Meet John Ackah Blay-Miezah, native of Ghana, man of the world, a portly, elegant, globe-trotting charmer who seems to awe those who encounter him. “A very intelligent, cultured man,” gushed one American admirer. “He knows every opera and can recognize a symphony from just a couple of notes. He is a nationally ranked chess player. He speaks nine languages.” He is also, say authorities, a world-class swindler.
Philadelphia’s newly elected district attorney, Ronald Castille, asserts that since 1972, Blay-Miezah and his American “agent,” Robert Ellis, have swindled at least $18 million from about 300 investors in the Philadelphia area for a non-existent Ghanaian trust fund. Says Castille: “It’s the biggest scam in the history of Philadelphia.” Adds Assistant D.A. William Wolf: “What you had were some of the most successful and intelligent men and women in Philadelphia who bought a treasure map from con men.”
Some sources say that Philadelphians were not the only suckers: the bogus trust may have taken in as much as $100 million from a nationwide network of investors.
According to Blay-Miezah, Ghana’s first president Dr. Kwame Nkrumah named him the sole beneficiary of millions of dollars that Nkrumah had stashed in banks in Switzerland under a scheme described by Blay-Miezah as the Oman Ghana Trust Fund (OGTF). After Nkrumah’s death in 1972, Blay-Miezah managed to sell his OGTF story to investors in the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. Blay-Miezah had lived in the city for some time, and had spent time in a state prison for writing bad cheques, and failing to settle a huge bill at the Bellevue Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia.
After the con game was brought to the attention of authorities, Time magazine (April 21, 1986 edition), did a story on investors who had contributed at least $18 million (and possibly $100 million) to the scheme, and quoted Robert Ellis extensively on the modalities of the criminal enterprise. Robert Ellis had posted bond for Blay-Miezah in a previous criminal case in Philadelphia, and in return Blay-Miezah appointed Ellis, his American ‘agent’.
The main role for Ellis was to solicit American investors whose money would then be used to facilitate retrieval of alleged millions of dollars bequeathed to Blay-Miezah under the OGTF by the late president Nkrumah of Ghana. Blay-Miezah insisted that he needed cash in hand (which he personally didn’t have!), in order to cut deals with some local Chiefs and government officials, all of whom had some stake in OGTF, and whose palms must be greased in order to enable him to secure the funds.
As Time magazine pointed out, those who fell prey to Blay-Miezah were not some wacky illiterate individuals, but highly intelligent and educated professionals. There is a general belief among westerners that Africa’s leaders especially in the immediate post-independence era were corrupt. Therefore no matter how zany Blay-Miezah’s story sounded, people found it hard to discount.
A corrupt African ruler had stolen millions from his country’s treasury and stashed the money in Swiss banks. The story had a familiar ring to it. And con-men adopted the story to rake in millions from the gullible and the greedy.
By the mid-1980’s when the gullible investors had not received a penny on their contributions, and local law enforcement authorities in Philadelphia had been alerted to Blay-Miezah’s con-game, Blay-Miezah was happily ensconced in a posh mansion in London where he was safely protected under diplomatic immunity.
When Blay Miezah arrived in Ghana during General Acheampong’s military regime (about 1975), he conned the government into believing his story. Mr. Ebenezer M. Debrah who had served as Ghana’s ambassador to the United States, and was quite aware of Blay-Miezah’s machinations, was the secretary to the military government of the National Redemption Council.
Reports at the time indicated that Mr. Debrah provided a dossier on the criminal activities of Blay-Miezah and strongly warned the government to stay clear of the man.
However, Blay-Miezah’s story had made such an imprint on the Ghanaian psyche, and the man laundered money so much so that, Debrah was seen as an impediment to Ghana receiving a windfall. Mr. Debrah was sacked as Secretary to the government. Blay Miezah’s public relations machine was quite effective, and it included stalwarts in the Nkrumah regime such as the impressive Krobo Edusei and Kwasi Amoako-Attah a former Minister of Finance.
With his main antagonist out of the way, Blay-Miezah successfully sold his story to the government and then claimed that he could only retrieve the money if a diplomatic passport was issued to him. In reality, his acquisition of the diplomatic passport provided immunity and cover from outside prosecution. Consequently, when a criminal case pertaining to the fraud was brought against him in the United States of America in the 1980’s, Blay-Miezah could not be extradited to Philadelphia to face charges relating to financial extortion and other crimes. Blay-Miezah’s diplomatic passport would be renewed by the PNDC military government which ruled Ghana from 1981-1992.
Thus, the late Ed Bradley had to go to London to interview Blay-Miezah for the American CBS TV station’s 60 Minutes investigative report. The Americans wondered how the African could come up with such a well-crafted story to outwit these highly educated, professional white Americans?
The master stroke however, was Blay-Miezah’s insistence that the interview with 60 Minutes could not commence unless Bradley provided the best gin for Blay-Miezah to invoke the spirit of his ancestors, by purifying his Stool, the symbol of his traditional authority, and the embodiment of the souls of his ancestors! Bradley looked on rather bemused as Blay-Miezah gargled a mouthful of the liquor and then released powerful sprays 3-times onto the ancestral Stool!
As one elderly Jewish woman who had invested his lifetime savings in the OGTF, and who appeared on the program wondered: How could Blay-Miezah not be rich, and be the beneficiary of such huge largesse when he accommodated the investors in posh most exclusive hotels in London, Geneva, and Paris. Of course, Blay-Miezah could afford exquisite entertainment for his investors because he was using their money!! Blay-Miezah himself did not have a dime to his name by himself. No wonder, Ed Bradley said that of all the con men he had been involved with, Blay-Miezah was “clearly head and shoulders above the rest . . . the best con man I’ve ever seen in my life.”
When Blay-Miezah concocted his scheme and defrauded the gullible and greedy investors of their hard-earned money, the scheme was largely anonymous. Today, thanks to the Internet and massive participation by Nigerian fraudsters, the scheme is called 419, so-called after the section of Nigeria’s legal code dealing with financial scam.