February 8, 2018 / 11:19 PM / a month ago

Brazilian who led U.S. to $17 million in mattress box spring gets prison

BOSTON (Reuters) - A Brazilian whose arrest led U.S. authorities to discover $17 million hidden in a mattress box spring was sentenced on Thursday to nearly three years in prison for trying to launder funds tied to a massive pyramid scheme.

FILE PHOTO: Cleber Rene Rizerio Rocha, 28, whose arrest on January 4, 2017 led U.S. authorities to discover $17 million hidden under a mattress, is seen in this image from a video of an interrogation. Courtesy U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

Federal prosecutors in Boston said Cleber Rene Rizerio Rocha, 28, traveled to the United States on several occasions to help retrieve money that a co-founder of TelexFree Inc left behind when he fled the country.

Raymond Sayeg, his lawyer, had argued Rocha should serve no more than the 13 months he had already served since his January 2017 arrest.

But U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said Rocha, who pleaded guilty in October to conspiracy and money laundering charges, played a key role in illicit activity by acting as a courier and custodian of money from the pyramid scheme that TelexFree co-founder Carlos Wanzeler hid.

“Mr. Rocha is not some innocent lamb,” Lelling said.

U.S. District Judge Leo Sorokin in imposing a 33-month sentence credited Rocha for cooperating with law enforcement at least initially by helping authorities locate an apartment in Westborough, Massachusetts, where the $17 million was found.

“It’s essentially imperfect cooperation if you will, and that cooperation revealed a huge amount of money,” he said.

FILE PHOTO: Approximately $17 million found under a mattress in connection with an investigation related to what authorities say was a pyramid scheme is shown in this photo from a January 2017 raid in Westborough, Massachusetts, U.S. released on March 7, 2017. Courtesy U.S. Attorney's Office in Boston/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

Prosecutors said TelexFree sold a voice-over-internet telephone service but was actually a pyramid scheme whose money came not from the product it sold but from people paying to sign up to be “promoters” and post ads online for it.

Massachusetts-based TelexFree collapsed in 2014, inflicting more than $3 billion in losses on nearly 1.89 million people worldwide, prosecutors said.

James Merrill, another TelexFree co-founder, was arrested in May 2014 and was sentenced to six years in prison in March 2017 after pleading guilty to conspiracy and fraud charges.

Wanzeler, a citizen of Brazil, fled to that country in 2014 and cannot be extradited. He left behind tens of millions of dollars that he laundered from TelexFree accounts, prosecutors said.

To retrieve the money, he and Leonardo Casula Francisco, Wanzeler’s nephew, sent Rocha to the United States on several trips to deliver portions of it to other money launders, prosecutors said.

They said on two trips Rocha delivered about $4 million to people Wanzeler or Casula delegated, and on Jan. 4, 2017, tried to give someone in a parking lot a suitcase with $2.2 million.

That person, though, was cooperating with U.S. authorities, who were watching and soon after arrested Rocha, prosecutors said.

Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Tom Brown

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