From the start, NationsBank account No. 2362283 looked like trouble.
Investigators spotted suspicious deposits to the Maryland account. They saw a stream of checks coming in from around the country. They traced wire transfers to banks in England, Nigeria, and the Czech Republic.
But when they discovered the battered body of the woman who opened the account dumped in a field in Southern Maryland, the investigators knew they had real trouble on their hands.
"A brutal murder," U.S. postal investigator Robert F. Jones Jr. called it.
What began as a modest bank probe nearly three years ago turned into a large international fraud case, leading to the indictments of nearly a dozen Nigerian nationals, many of them operating out of homes and storefronts in Maryland and Washington.
Beginning today, seven members of the alleged ring are scheduled to go on trial together in federal court in Baltimore, where jurors will hear prosecutors describe a complex conspiracy that supposedly swindled people around the nation and in Canada out of millions of dollars through phony bank and credit card accounts.
Dale E. McKendry was one of the dozens of victims.
"If someone steals my car, that's fine," said McKendry, 59, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., investment adviser. "But when they steal your name, you've got trouble."
The ring members, according to court documents, stole birth dates, Social Security numbers and other information to recreate the identities of their victims. Using the information, they applied for credit cards, opened bank accounts and went on spending sprees, court records claim.
Ring members allegedly obtained the information by stealing bank statements, credit card reports and other financial information, and by using paid contacts within mortgage companies, car dealerships and credit-reporting agencies, according to court records.
Using a sophisticated national network of go-betweens, cash and money orders allegedly were sent from Chicago, New York, New Jersey, Georgia and Florida to mail drops in Maryland and Washington. Once there, court records say, the money was sent overseas, to accounts in Korea, Nigeria, London, Belgium, Taiwan and Italy.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys, who declined to discuss the case or did not return messages, say the trial could last two months. If convicted, members of the alleged ring would face up to 20 years behind bars.
The case is a window into the burgeoning world of electronic fraud and highly organized criminal rings operated largely by immigrants from Nigeria, a West African nation considered to be among the most corrupt in the world.
The rings have become so pervasive that the Secret Service, the Postal Inspection Service and other agencies and banks have formed task forces in cities such as Baltimore and Washington. Federal agents say Nigerian nationals are tied to more than two-thirds of their cases.
"There's a growing pattern of con games, scams and fraud here," said Benedict J. Ferro, chief of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in Maryland, one of the agencies that belongs to the task force. "They are working in a highly organized way."
The case about to unfold in U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake's courtroom illustrates just how organized the rings have become. Agents executed two dozen search warrants in six states, and they placed wiretaps and secretly recorded more than 200 telephone conversations -- many conducted in the Yoruba dialect of Nigeria.
The Maryland case started with a hunch nearly three years ago, according to sworn affidavits and hundreds of other court records.
A NationsBank fraud investigator noticed unusual transactions in an account belonging to Beverly Rene Mitchell, 26, a Northern Virginia woman who worked as a customer representative for a Bethesda investment firm. The investigator discovered that Mitchell had another NationsBank account with equally suspicious activity.
The investigator contacted the fraud task force.
While agents were investigating, a man looking at property in La Plata in Charles County found a body March 23, 1995. It was Mitchell's. To this day, homicide investigators have not solved the slaying, despite a $10,000 reward raised by her friends.
Mitchell's murder wasn't without clues. Agents searched her home. They discovered that when Mitchell wasn't working for the investment firm, she was moonlighting as a bookkeeper for an alleged international Nigerian fraud and money-laundering ring.
"Found in her bedroom were very detailed records concerning her laundering of over $1 million," according to a sworn affidavit filed by Internal Revenue Service Agent Donald C. Semesky Jr.
Prosecutors will be permitted to tell jurors that Mitchell died, but they will be barred from telling the panel that she was killed. None of the 13 people indicted last year in the case has been charged in connection with the slaying.
Within days of Mitchell's death, police learned of another murder.