by Jo Ellen Nott
On October 14, 2022, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution identified the victim of a spectacular con carried out by a Georgia prisoner from his cell.
In June 2020, while serving time at Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison, Arthur Lee Cofield allegedly used a contraband cellphone to dial the offices of international financial services giant Charles Schwab Corp. Then, over the course of the call, he managed to convince company employees he was a billionaire named Sidney Kimmel.
A 94-year-old fashion tycoon who has bankrolled successful films like Moneyball, United 93 and Crazy Rich Asians – along with quirky failed films that still received critical acclaim, like the love story featuring a sex doll, Lars and the Real Girl – Kimmel is worth $1.5 billion, according to Forbes magazine.
Schwab made a stab at due diligence, asking for identifying information. With the help of a co-conspirator who texted a picture of Kimmel’s driver’s license and a utility bill, Cofield then accessed an account in the billionaire’s name.
The con worked so well that Cofield soon had $11 million transferred to a precious metals dealer in Idaho, from whom the prisoner bought 6,106 American Eagle gold coins, prosecutors said. Cofield then arranged to have the coins flown to Atlanta by a private security service on a chartered plane, also paid for out of the account.
Still using the illegal cellphone from his prison cell, Cofield also contacted the owner of a six-bedroom house on 1.4 wooded acres in Atlanta and offered $4.4 million for the property, prosecutors said. With the help of accomplices, Cofield paid $720,000 cash as a down payment and later the full balance, also in cash, according to a federal indictment filed in December 2020. The property is still vacant and “rapidly deteriorating,” according to court filings in the case seeking to force its sale.
His two alleged co-conspirators, Eldridge Bennett and his daughter Eliayah Bennett, are also facing charges in the case and have pleaded not guilty A spokesperson from Schwab said that the real Kimmel was made whole as soon as the fraud was detected.
Cofield, 31, is serving a 14-year term for armed robbery. To allegations of the con, he pleaded not guilty to federal counts of conspiracy to commit bank fraud, aggravated identity theft, money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering. He also faces attempted murder charges in Fulton County in an unrelated case.
In addition, federal prosecutors believe he used a similar scheme to defraud $2.25 million from Nicole Wertheim, wife of Florida optometrist Herbert Wertheim, whose estimated $2.3 billion fortune make him “the greatest investor you’ve never heard of,” according to Forbes. No charges have been filed in that case.
A key question remains in the wake of Cofield’s elaborate scheme to defraud the billionaire: How did he get the illegal cellphone and hide it in his cell without detection? State Department of Corrections spokesperson Joan Heath said in a statement that the agency has a “robust plan” for intercepting contraband phones, confiscating 5,600 in the fiscal year that ended in July 2022 and another 1,300 since then.
Sources: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Forbes, Fortune, New York Times
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