Obinwanne Okeke, the 31-year-old Nigerian held by American authorities for alleged fraud, entered a plea of not guilty to two counts of wire and computer fraud at his first hearing on Monday.
The presiding judge at the Newport News, Virginia, federal courthouse, declared the case as “complex,” but said Okeke should be remanded in prison until February 18, 2020 when the trial would continue. He appeared in court at about 2 p.m. and waived his right to a speedy trial.
The appearance came a week after a federal grand jury examined the evidence gathered by the F.B.I. and presented by the United States Department of Justice and found Okeke guilty as charged and recommended him for trial.
Upon conviction, the jury also said Okeke should be made to forfeit at least $11 million in asset and an emerald shaped diamond engagement ring found on him when he was first arrested by federal agents as he was about leaving the U.S. on August 6.
The Monday’s appearance marked the commencement of Okeke’s criminal trial since he was arrested and remanded in custody of the U.S. Marshals Service more than a month ago.
He had made previous appearances before separate judges for preliminary hearings in his bail applications — all of which were declined.
Okeke, known in Nigeria as ‘millionaire entrepreneur’ Invictus Obi, was accused by the F.B.I. of orchestrating the theft of $11 million from a foreign subsidiary of American heavy equipment manufacturer, Caterpillar.
Using the infamous business email compromise scheme, Okeke and his alleged accomplices spoofed Unatrac officials into making illicit transfers of about $11 million over several weeks in the first half of 2018.
Investigators said those who worked with Okeke remained at large, and continued to seal crucial references to them in the case.
Dozens of other Nigerians have been arrested in largely unconnected fraud busts by American authorities since Okeke was taken into custody.
Many of those cases were also traced to business email compromise, a process of targeting unwary business executives now commonly deployed across intricate networks of cybercriminals.
He faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted, as well as the possibility of forfeiting any ill-gotten acquisitions traced to him. Officials familiar with the trial told newsmen the evidence against Okeke was compelling enough to elicit a guilty plea from him.
But since he had decided to go through the lengthy trial road, he could face maximum sentences with additional punitive liabilities if ultimately found guilty.
By the time he returns to court in February 2020, he would have spent six months behind bars, and could still spend more time in the course of the trial as authorities continue to mark him as a flight risk.