NEW YORK—A federal jury has convicted two women, one of them from Colorado, of cheating more than 1,000 investors across the nation out of nearly $2 million with a religion-laced scam promising them a cut of the late Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos’s fortune.
It took jurors less than three hours Wednesday to find Roberta Dupre, 61, of New York and her accomplice, Beverly Stambaugh, 55, of Montrose, Colorado, guilty. Both were jailed.
The wire fraud trial featured a God-made-me-do-it defense seen occasionally in state trials involving violent crimes but rarely in white-collar cases in federal court. The case also was unusual because many victims still believe Dupre’s claim that she was using their money to free billions of dollars from a secret bank account belonging to Marcos.
When investors raised doubts, they were directed to Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”
The defendants each could face up to 20 years in prison at sentencing January 21. The US district judge, Denise Cote, revoked their bail, saying she was concerned that if free they would continue “the manipulation of the victims through the religious element.”
The jury rejected Dupre’s claim that God had spoken to her and encouraged her to recruit investors with promises that $1,000 could become $1 million if the secret account were unlocked.
Prosecutors said the bank account did not exist. But the claim did not seem so far-fetched, in part because Marcos and his wife were once indicted by a federal grand jury in New York for allegedly embezzling millions of dollars to buy property. Marcos died before the trial; his wife, Imelda Marcos, was acquitted in 1990.
Dupre and Stambaugh quoted from Scripture and urged investors in e-mail messages to pray for the funds to be released. It worked.
Not only did investors pour money into the project since 1994, but many of them remain convinced the account exists and fear prosecutors are spoiling their chance at riches, said Dupre’s lawyer, Robert Baum. He said two investors called him Wednesday night.
“They were shocked at the conviction,” he said. “They wanted to know if they could do anything to help Ms. Dupre.”
The judge, though, has forbidden any contact between investors and the defendants.
Baum said the investors were ordinary Americans, the only common denominator among most being a “firm religious belief.”
Trial witnesses included Roger Walter Ekenberg, the vice president of a Pentagon contractor, who testified he had worked in the White House during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He invested $50,000 in the plan.
Another witness was Marvin Lavern Graves, a contractor who has worked on federal disasters such as hurricanes and floods since 1979. He said he invested $125,000.
FBI agent Michael Keeley testified he posed a year ago as a Wall Street money manager seeking to invest in Dupre’s project. He said Dupre told him at a restaurant meeting that the Lord told her to work on the project.
David Hayes of Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania, testified he became suspicious after he wired $1,000 to Dupre in November 2003 and read an e-mail from a group of disgruntled investors.
“We were subjected to one failed prophecy after another, as religion was mixed in an odd attempt at trying to legitimize the project and its failure to be completed,” he said.
His disgust was shared by Assistant US Attorney Bret Williams, who told jurors the women suggested to investors that a US senator was among those providing money for document fees, travel expenses and bribes to Filipino officials.
Williams said Dupre since 1999 had been living in a $5,000-a-month room at a posh midtown Manhattan hotel and using the investors “like a personal ATM machine.”
Baum, Dupre’s lawyer, told the jury that his client, a great-grandmother who worked in real estate for 30 years, “felt she was being guided by the . . . [and] was chosen to act on his behalf.”