For one starstruck fan in Arizona, it was like a dream come true: heartthrob Australian actor Chris Hemsworth had reached out on Facebook wanting to meet.
When Hemsworth’s purported manager began requesting $25,000 in cash to arrange the meet and greet, it still seemed too hard to resist. Investigators say the victim eventually forked over $50,000 before realizing it was a scam.
Federal prosecutors say the fraud was part of a broad romance scam ring centered around West Virginia, that involved at least two former Marshall University students, one of whom became a professional soccer player, and a group of Nigerian and Ghanian nationals living around the U.S. Nine of them were indicted in June.
On Tuesday, one of the former Marshall students, Romello Thorpe, 25, pleaded guilty to money laundering, admitting that while he was a student he had allowed his bank account to be used to receive payments from victims his co-conspirators had lured in.
Thorpe then would wire the money back to the other defendants and keep a portion for himself, according to his plea agreement. A civil engineering student from Washington, D.C., Thorpe told prosecutors he wasn’t aware of the full scope of the fraud but knew his co-conspirators were up to something nefarious.
The other former Marshall student named in the indictment, Abdul Osumanu, has since gone on to play professional soccer as a defender for Union Omaha in the USL League One. He has pleaded not guilty. After Osumanu was indicted the team announced he had been “removed from team activities,” pending further review. A message left with the team wasn’t immediately returned.
Messages left for attorneys for Thorpe and Osumanu weren’t immediately returned and a spokeswoman for Marshall had no immediate comment.
According to court documents, the Hemsworth scam was one of many in which the group would typically pose as men working on oil rigs in far-flung corners of the world and approach seemingly lonely, often elderly women online and woo them over the course of months.
Then the sob stories would come about needing money to pay for things like tax bills in order to leave the country they were in, or to receive an inheritance, or to pay a ransom because they had been kidnapped. In numerous cases, the victims forked over tens of thousands of dollars, sending it to accounts controlled by third parties like Thorpe, prosecutors said.
In one case, the scam artists posed as country singer Blake Shelton, convincing a victim to fork over $50,000 in order to have a better chance at winning a Blake Shelton fan of the year award, according to court documents.
Spokespeople for Hemsworth and Shelton didn’t immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
In another fraud, the scammers told the victim the man she had fallen in love with had suddenly died, but that he had named her as the beneficiary to his $3 million estate, but that she needed to send $70,000 to cover certain taxes in order to receive it.
The victim sent the money and then never heard back from anyone again, prosecutors said.