Nigerian insists that jury convicted wrong man He gets 40 years for drug smuggling

November 24, 1992|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Staff Writer

Continuing to insist that federal agents and a federal jury had nailed the wrong man, a Nigerian was sentenced yesterday to 40 years in prison for his conviction on drug smuggling charges.

The man sobbed and flailed his arms as he begged U.S. District Judge John R. Hargrove to believe that his was a case of mistaken identity. The Nigerian insisted that he is Charles Onwauzombe, and not Ebele Onwuazor, who federal prosecutors say conspired to ship millions of dollars worth of heroin into the United States.

Making a statement before his sentence was levied, he pulled a copy of the New Testament from his pocket. Speaking with desperation in his voice, he declared: "I am not Ebele. Ebele is my cousin from Lagos," the capital of Nigeria.

"Why put me in jail for thing I don't do?" he asked, speaking brokenly. "I beg you, I beg you," he cried, asking the court to consider his contention that he is being wrongly sentenced.

The Nigerian, in his early 30s, was convicted July 20 of four felony counts, including conspiracy to import and distribute heroin and illegal importation of heroin.

Judge Hargrove said he was bound by the jury's verdict. He sentenced him under federal guidelines to 480 months without parole for helping to smuggle more than 30 kilograms of heroin into the U.S.

"I understand you still maintain you're not Ebele, although the jury said you were," the judge said. "I think you're saying everybody in the case is framing you for one reason or another. But as judge, I have a responsibility -- the jury has spoken, and I have to respond to that. All I know is that the only Ebele we have in this case is you."

The Nigerian was identified as Ebele Onwuazor by five members of the heroin conspiracy who testified as government witnesses during a 50-day federal trial this year. Eight Nigerians were convicted in the conspiracy, which has led to prosecution of more than 40 people.

Members of the conspiracy shipped heroin into the United States by getting carriers to swallow balloons containing the narcotic and to hide it in suitcases. The heroin originated from places like Laos and Thailand and was sent through South Korea and Singapore, prosecutors said.

Jan P. Miller, chief of the U.S. attorney's narcotics section, said he was "positive" that investigators had the right man. He noted that the Nigerian defendant was arrested at the New York apartment of Jerome Onwuazor, who was convicted as being the mastermind of the conspiracy. Mr. Miller said Jerome Onwuazor is the defendant's brother.

The defendant used the alias Charles Onwauzombe to throw off drug investigators, Mr. Miller said.

Randolph O. Gregory, the defense lawyer, said he would appeal the case, saying that his client should have been tried separately and that he was not given enough time to prove his client's true identity.

Mr. Gregory said medical records from Lagos would show that his client was not Ebele Onwuazor.

Using a common defense strategy, he accused the government's witnesses of lying about his client to seek a deal from prosecutors that would give them a lesser penalty.

The Nigerian said he was living in the West African country of Togo with his wife and children. He said Jerome Onwuazor was his cousin, not his brother, whom he was visiting during his first trip to the United States when he was arrested.

While in jail, he said, he gave a photograph of himself to a man who said he would take it to a priest to be blessed. He said the man was a government witness who used the picture to help identify him at trial.

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