How Nigerian criminal cast spells to control enemies African witchcraft gave Tizhe his 'power'

February 03, 1997|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

It doesn't take much for Christopher Tizhe's cohorts in crime to tremble in fear.

It's not because the heroin trafficker and money launderer has a fast trigger finger or hardened hit men at his side.

The man who has been on trial in Baltimore for his ties to an international Nigerian fraud ring is claiming to have an infinitely more powerful weapon -- African witchcraft, known as "juju" in Nigeria.

Tizhe is not the only ring member to try using juju to avoid prosecution. In May, another member allegedly tried to have a spell cast upon a judge in Baltimore and three federal agents assigned to the case, according to court testimony and law enforcement officials.

In the secretive circles of Nigerian organized crime, Tizhe (pronounced "Tizzy") has built a reputation as a respected practitioner of the ancient craft.

The Nigerian national claims that he cast a spell on a woman who was planning to testify against him in a 1992 Baltimore heroin case -- and she developed brain cancer, according to law enforcement officials and court records.

Without her testimony, prosecutors were forced to drop the charges, the records show.

During the fraud trial in U.S. District Court in Baltimore last week, another government witness told a federal judge that he was afraid to testify because Tizhe, 36, was threatening to cast a spell on him and plant a tumor in his brain.

The judge ruled that the threats were so serious that jurors should hear them -- as evidence of Tizhe's "consciousness of guilt."

Last week, the government witness decided to testify.

"Is voodoo regarded seriously in Nigeria?" prosecutor Robert R. Harding asked the witness, David Phillips, who testified about Tizhe's heroin dealing days and his credit card schemes.

"It is regarded very seriously," said Phillips, averting his eyes from Tizhe's stare in the courtroom.

"Is it used to kill someone?" the prosecutor asked.

"Yes, it is," Phillips said. "That is a constant in Nigeria."

Tizhe was one of six defendants to go on trial last month in Baltimore, accused of working for an international ring of Nigerian nationals who stole the identities of victims around the country and in Canada, applied for credit cards in their names, and then ran up charges in the millions.

The proceeds were then sent in overnight mail packages to Maryland and to Georgetown in Washington, where they were bundled up and wired to banks and corporations in Africa, South Korea, the Far East and Eastern and Western Europe.

Tizhe began to build his reputation as a practitioner of juju in 1992, according to law enforcement officials.

A flashy dresser who drove a red Porsche, Tizhe ran a clothing store in Georgetown. Prosecutors say he recruited Alois Coleman, a 49-year-old Bethesda woman, to fly to Sierra Leone in West Africa to smuggle heroin.

On Feb. 2, 1992, Coleman was arrested at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. U.S. Customs agents found a quarter-pound of marijuana in her bra. They found 5 pounds of heroin strapped to her waist.

Agreed to be witness

Coleman agreed to become a star prosecution witness.

While awaiting trial, Tizhe allegedly tried to hire an inmate to kill Coleman, according to grand jury testimony. Reginald Carter testified that Tizhe asked him if he was willing to do a job.

"I said, 'What do you want done?' " Carter testified. "So he says in reference to the courier [Coleman], he would like for her to be, like, met and shot and robbed. Make it look like a common-day robbery."

As it turns out, Tizhe didn't need a hit man. Coleman was diagnosed with terminal cancer and she was deteriorating rapidly. The cancer, which began in her breast, had spread to her brain.

On Dec. 5, 1992, Tizhe's attorney, James C. Savage, took a statement from Coleman at her Bethesda apartment. With the tumor swelling in her skull, she said she was losing her memory and couldn't remember much about the deal.

"Do you remember being introduced to or meeting an individual named Chris Tizhe?" Savage asked.

"No," she said.

Case dismissed

On Jan. 22, 1993, prosecutors dismissed the case against Tizhe.

Tizhe claimed responsibility for the tumor, telling his cohorts that he cast a juju spell on Coleman.

"They were all scared of Tizhe because of the juju," said U.S. Customs agent Christopher Buzzeo, who investigated the heroin case and the card fraud ring.

Tizhe's cohorts had every reason to believe him.

Tizhe and his friends come from the Yoruba region of Nigeria, where evidence of juju and other forms of magic date back 1,000 years, according to anthropologists and religious experts. Many Nigerians believe that charms and organic items can be be "manipulated" for good and evil.

"Many places in sub-Saharan Africa believe an expert can harm other people without touching them, or they can kill them or make them sick," said J. Lorand Matory, a professor of anthropology and Afro-American studies at Harvard University who specializes in African religion.

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