By Dave Zeltserman

It really all started with the email I received. The message was marked “Urgent/Confidential” and was from one Celestine Okiti who claimed to be a senior accountant with the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Finance. The gist of the email was that ten and a half million dollars was sitting in a Nigerian bank account and she was looking for a partner to pose as the next of kin of some dead foreign contractor so she could get the money out - and that my cut would be four and a half million dollars, minus expenses.

Of course it was a scam. It was too silly to be anything else, and besides I had read about this years ago. The “pigeon” who went for his four and a half million cut would be asked to put up some money to show good faith and to cover the expenses. It was a pretty simple and childish scam, one that makes you wonder how anyone in the world could fall for it, but still, I was fascinated by that email. It got my mind spinning on different crime story scenarios.

I guess I should tell you a little about myself so that this makes some sense. My name’s Dan Wilson. I’m thirty-eight, live in a suburb near Boston, been married ten years, and have a pretty boring job processing insurance claims. In order to keep my sanity I write crime stories in my spare time. Usually I write hard-boiled PI stories, sometimes crime caper stories. I’ve had limited success. I’ve sold a couple of stories to print magazines and have given away a fair number of them to online Internet magazines.

I sat for a good two hours staring at Celestine Okiti’s message, playing out different story ideas in my mind. The one idea I kept coming back to was responding to her email message, pretending to be a pigeon, and then writing up the exchange of emails as a story. I didn’t do anything, though, at least not then. By the time I gave up it was one in the morning. I didn’t want to wake Cheryl so I slept in the guest room.

The next morning as I sat drinking coffee my mind raced with different possible Nigerian bank scam stories. I didn’t notice Cheryl had come into the room until she sat across from me with her yogurt and newspaper. She seemed too absorbed with the newspaper - and I guess I was too deep into plotting my story - for us to say much to each other. After I finished my coffee I headed off to work.

After three days of working out different scenarios in my mind, I decided on a plan of action. Instead of replying back to the email as a “pigeon”, I would instead create my own scam. I have written stories with a roguish conman named Pete Mitchel. For the hell of it I decided to use his identity. I created an email account for Pete and wrote an email back to Celestine Okiti, telling her how fortuitous it was that she had contacted me, that I worked in the office of a large construction company, and that a Nigerian national died on the job several months ago and seven hundred and twenty thousand dollars in death benefits were sitting there waiting for a next of kin. I told her that I was planning a trip to Nigeria to find someone who could pose as the dead man’s next of kin, but Celestine could save me the trouble. I further explained that I wasn’t greedy, that ten percent - or seventy-two thousand dollars, would be all I wanted.

I sat in front of my computer for several hours with my email message typed out, trying to decide whether to send it. Of course, the scam letter they sent to me had been sent to thousands of other addresses, probably from a purchased email list. They’d have no idea whether or not an email was originally sent to a Pete Mitchel, nor would they check. As I was trying to decide what to do with the email, Cheryl walked into the room and interrupted me. She told me it was late, that she had to get up early the next day, and asked if I’d be quiet when I went to bed. She looked tired, a little worn out. I told her not to worry, that I’d sleep in the guest room again. After she left, I stared at the email message for another thirty minutes, and then sent it.

I didn’t get a response for several days. I must’ve checked my email a few hundred times before I found a reply from Celestine Okiti. In her reply she thanked me for the opportunity that I presented, but that her opportunity was urgent and was far more lucrative. She wanted me to contact her right away so that I could reap my four and a half million dollars, minus expenses of course.

I had already worked out in my mind what my next step would be if I heard back from Ms. Okiti. First, I used a travel web-site to book a flight to Nigeria for my fictitious Pete Mitchel. I then sent her back a reply stating that I knew her proposal to me was a scam, but that I considered it good fortune that she had contacted me when she did, possibly saving me from a trip to Nigeria that I wasn’t anxious to take. I told her, though, that time was running out for me to collect the insurance money and that I had booked a flight for the following week to Nigeria so that I could find a local who could pose as the dead man’s next of kin. I passed along all the flight information, and told her if she changed her mind she could let me know, but that time was running out.

I didn’t expect a reply to my email. I guess I must have been feeling a bit queasy about the whole thing and at a subconscious level had decided to put a stop to it. I was more than a little surprised when I got a terse reply back from Ms. Okiti to fax her a copy of the dead man’s death certificate and the insurance policy.

The insurance policy was easy. I was able to get a fairly realistic policy printed up in no time. The trick was filling in all of the contact information and then blacking it out with a pen. As far as the death certificate, I found some samples on the Internet, and then used a graphics package on my computer to create a fairly realistic looking one. It took some time, but I was happy with the results. I faxed both of them to the number I was given.

Over the next four days we went back and forth over a number of issues until we were able to settle things. First, Celestine Okiti wanted to pay me my ten percent cut after she received the insurance money. I flatly refused, reminding Celestine Okiti that her and her associates were scam artists, hardly to be trusted. With the deadline of my booked flight approaching, she finally gave in. The next issue was how my ten percent was going to be sent to me. They wanted to send me a check and I wanted them to wire the money to a bank account that I had opened for Pete Mitchel (I had obtained a fake driver’s license for Pete Mitchel - which is actually quite easy to do in Massachusetts, and had used it to open a bank account). Since they gave in on the other matter, I gave in on this one. I rented a mailbox in Pete Mitchel’s name and sent Celestine Okiti the address.

During those four days, I guess I must have been acting somewhat manic. I could tell Cheryl knew something was up, but I didn’t want to tell her anything. She’d think I was nuts and wouldn’t be at all happy with what I was doing. She tried a couple of times to ask me what I was doing, and I just told her that I was working on a new crime story. I could tell she was annoyed, but she left it alone.

To be honest, I never expected them to send a check. Even when I called up the store where I rented the mailbox and was told that I had a letter waiting for me, I still didn’t believe that they would send me a check. But when I picked up the letter and opened it, there it was. A check for seventy-two thousand dollars made out to Pete Mitchel. I drove home and put the check in my desk drawer. I then sent Celestine Okiti an email message, telling her that after the check cleared I would send them the necessary documentation to collect the insurance money.

I had a restless night as I tried to decide what to do. The next morning, though, I drove to Pete Mitchel’s bank and deposited the check. Over the next couple of days, Cheryl made comments about how quiet I had gotten. I couldn’t tell her about what was going on, so I told her I had some stuff going on at work.

After I heard the check had cleared, I transferred the money to a Swiss bank account I had opened up. I also destroyed Pete Mitchel’s email account. I kept the email messages, though. I was still planning on using them for a short story.

Things pretty much settled back to normal after that. About a week later I had gotten home early from work and was sitting at my computer when the doorbell rang. There were two black men standing outside my door. My guess they were Nigerians. They were both tall, thin. Both were wearing slacks and polo shirts. Either one or both of them had on a heavy, musky cologne. The smell was overpowering. Both of them looked angry.

“We’re here for our six hundred and forty-eight thousand dollars, Mr. Mitchel, or should I say, Mr. Wilson,” the one closest to me said.

So they had tracked me down. They must’ve been waiting at my rented mailbox and followed me home after I had picked up the check. I looked at the two of them scowling at me and I just started laughing. “I can’t believe you fell for my scam,” I told them. “Especially since it was so much like your own scam, using the same next of kin angle. Jesus, how stupid can you be?”

They both looked stunned. I watched with amusement as my words seeped in and the anger in their faces boiled into pure hatred. It was shining in their eyes. “We want our money, now!” the same man demanded, his voice rising. My neighbor, Carl Moscone, had opened his door and was staring at us, making sure everything was okay. Moscone is a retired Boston Cop. He’s a big man, almost as wide as he is tall. I waved at him. The two men on my doorstep noticed him also.

“You’re not getting a dime,” I said, still laughing softly. I couldn’t help it. “You know, at first I was just playing around, seeing if I could get enough emails to get a good crime story. It never occurred to me that you would actually send me any money. But now I’m having fun. And I’m going to have even more fun spending your seventy-two thousand dollars. First thing I’m going to do is buy my wife a very expensive mink coat. Every time she wears it I’ll think of the two of you standing there looking like saps.”

The two men were aware of Moscone staring at them. It seemed to effect them. The man closest to me asked in a low voice how I would like it if he called the police. That just made me laugh harder. The harder I laughed the more infuriated they both got, but I couldn’t help it. It took a few moments before I could talk.

“I’ll call them for you right now if you want,” I said when I could. I had to wipe tears from my eyes I was laughing so hard. “I’ll show them all the emails that went back and forth between us. I’ll explain to them how I decided as a lark to see if I could scam you instead, and how you actually fell for it. I’m sure they’ll get as good a laugh out of it as I am. You want me to call them?”

Neither of them said anything.

All of a sudden the amusement had dried up within me. “Get out of here,” I said, now dead serious. “If I see either of you again I will call the police.”

“It is not over,” the one closest to me said. “We will get our money.” And then they both turned and left. I watched as they got into their car and drove away, then I went next door and shot the breeze with my neighbor. He asked about the two men. I told him they were scam artists who struck out with me, and left it at that.

The next day I had a bunch of issues pop up at work. It took me until seven that night before I had them under control, and I didn’t get home until eight. When I opened the door I couldn’t help noticing how quiet it seemed. I called out for Cheryl and got no answer. There was a light on in the kitchen. I walked in and saw the butcher knife lying on the counter top. Its edge faced me and I could see a red smudge running along it. Then I spotted the severed finger. It took me a moment to realize what it was. I don’t why - I guess it looked like a finger, but it just seemed odd lying there. It was placed on top of a note. The note was written in small, neat letters, and informed me that if I wanted to get my wife back without any more missing parts I had better pay them the money I owed them. The note ended by asking if I was still laughing. I got the phone and called the police.

The detective looked incredulous as I told him the whole story. I showed him all of the emails - the ones I had received and the ones I sent. I didn’t leave anything out. I told him about the fake documents I created, the bank account for my fictitious Pete Mitchel, the rented mailbox, the seventy-two thousand dollars, I told him everything. When I was done he had me tell my story to another detective, and after that to an FBI agent.

It turns out the police found Cheryl less than three hours after I had called them. It was probably due to a combination of the Nigerians being sloppy, since this was most likely their first kidnapping, and not considering that I would call the authorities. In any case, my neighbor Moscone had written down their license plate number from the day before, and they had used the same car for the kidnapping. The police found them in a small house in Chelsea. They had hacked Cheryl into pieces and were in the process of packing the pieces into boxes when the police broke in. I guess they were planning on mailing Cheryl back to me, piece by piece, after I paid them their money.

At the time the police didn’t tell me anything, and I didn’t find out about Cheryl until the next day. That night they took me in for more questioning. I was asked several times if I wanted a lawyer, and each time I declined. At one point I was asked if I’d be willing to take a lie detector test. I told them I would. They then left me alone for several hours. I was then brought to another room, hooked up to a polygraph, and questioned. I answered each question truthfully, and they seemed satisfied with the results.

I think it was past nine o’clock the next morning when I met with the District Attorney. He looked uncomfortable as he told me about Cheryl. It was the first I heard of it and it took a moment for it to register. When I finally made sense of what he was saying, I just started sobbing. I couldn’t help it and I couldn’t stop myself. I just sat there sobbing uncontrollably, sobbing until it felt like my chest was going to break apart.

In the end the District Attorney decided not to press charges against me. While I acted criminally in trying to defraud the Nigerians, it was hard to muster much sympathy towards them. He was also convinced that I didn’t intend for any harm to come to Cheryl. When the Nigerians were arrested they had confessed fully and bitterly, explaining why they had hacked my wife to pieces. The D.A. decided not to hold me criminally negligent, even though in his opinion I acted stupidly. We agreed that I would turn over the seventy-two thousand dollars to a local youth group. I think it really got to him the way I reacted when I heard about Cheryl. He knew my reaction was genuine, he knew I wasn’t faking it, but he completely misunderstood the reason behind it.

I was lucky to pass the lie detector. I was lucky that all they were trying to do was verify my statement - and I had been completely truthful with my statement. If they had had some imagination I would’ve been sunk. To be honest I had never expected the Nigerians to send me any money. Up until the point where they told me they were mailing me the money, I was just playing around. But from that point on I guess my mind was spinning with different ideas of how I could make it more than a scam. I knew that they wanted to send a check instead of wiring funds to my bank so that they would be able to follow me when I picked up the money. And I saw the Nigerians watching my mailbox when I picked up the check. I saw them when they were following me home - I even slowed down several times so I wouldn’t lose them. And I had no intention of spending any of that seventy-two thousand dollars on a mink coat for Cheryl. I told them that to infuriate them, to give them ideas. And I had found reasons to stay late at work to give them time to do what they were going to do.

The thing of it was Cheryl and I had drifted apart over the years. We didn’t really talk much any more, and we didn’t really like being with each other. It had been over a year since we’d had sex, and even longer since I cared about it. A divorce would’ve been costly and unpleasant. So while I had to give up the seventy-two thousand dollars, I was paid six hundred thousand dollars from her life insurance policy. Her parents are now suing me for it, claiming I negligently contributed to her death, but my lawyer doesn’t think they have much of a case. I’m not worried about losing the money.

No, the D.A. wasn’t even close to understanding why I broke down the way I did. It had nothing to do with Cheryl’s death. It just hit me all of a sudden as to what I had done and what I had become. It took me a while to get used to it. But I’m fine now.