Former Columbia GA court clerk faces federal judge in ploy case

Of the $ 5.9 million in cash collected by the Muscogee County Superior Court clerk’s office from 2010 to 2019, only $ 210 was deposited into office accounts, an FBI agent testified on Wednesday. fraud case against former Deputy Chief Registrar Willie Demps.

Arrested on Aug. 18, Demps is one of eight suspects named in a federal indictment of 71 counts alleging wire fraud, conspiracy to commit bank fraud and transporting stolen goods and money. He worked for 30 years in the clerk’s office.

The 63-year-old had a detention hearing before U.S. investigating judge Stephen Hyles, where FBI Special Agent Kate Furtak testified to some of the evidence investigators uncovered.

So far, Demps faces charges of stealing over $ 467,000 in public funds in 2019 while overseeing deposits and bank accounts from the Clerk’s Office, taking blank checks from the Clerk’s office and by writing them to accomplices who cashed checks in the Columbus banks.

But U.S. Assistant District Attorney Melvin Hyde told Hyles that investigators found significantly more money was lacking and that authorities expect to seek a replacement indictment accusing Demps of taking a total of about $ 1.5 million.

“There’s a lot, a lot more,” Hyde said of the missing funds.

The federal investigation is ongoing, but so far authorities do not know what happened to the funds still missing, he said.

Transfer money around the world

Hyles has ruled that Demps was a flight risk, so he will remain held at the Lee County Detention Center in Opelika, Ala., Where he was jailed last week after officers arrested him at an apartment he was detained. he rented from Smiths Station.

Hyde had filed a request for detention last week claiming that Demps could flee prosecution, having “wired or had more than $ 500,000 transferred to various locations in Africa” ​​between 2010 and 2018.

During Hyde’s questioning on Wednesday, Furtak said Demps sent money to various countries overseas. “The money went mainly to Africa, and Cameroon in particular.

The other countries included Nigeria, Senegal, Gabon, Gambia, Ecuador and Canada, Furtek said. Forty people received the funds, she said.

He sent money with such frequency that Western Union ultimately turned down his business, suspecting he was involved in money laundering.

Demps then started asking others to wire money for him, or send it through another service or from his own Kinetic account here in Columbus, Furtek said.

She said the FBI was working with the IRS, which found that Demps’ largest income reported for tax was $ 38,531 in 2019, although records show he made around $ 1 million. from 2010 to 2019.

Hyde argued that the missing sum of money and the mystery of where it all happened, in light of Demps’ connections to overseas contacts, was enough to justify his continued imprisonment.

“We don’t know where he is,” Hyde said of the money. “We don’t know what his plans are.”

Demps was represented by lawyer Charlie Cox from Macon, who told Hyles that Demps had been married to a Cameroonian woman for at least 10 years and that the couple had relatives in Nigeria.

He noted that Demps had long known he was under investigation, as federal agents questioned his wife in November and questioned Demps on March 31, warning him that he risked being charged and arrested. . Still, Demps did not flee the area, Cox said.

Shortly before his arrest last week, officers called him and told him they were coming to pick him up and asked if he would surrender or possibly force authorities to handcuff him in front of his children. Demps replied that he would surrender if the officers had a warrant.

Showing no signs of leaking, Demps could wear an ankle monitor to make sure he didn’t leave the area if released, Cox argued.

Hyles said the evidence indicates that no conditions of release would ensure that Demps shows up for future legal proceedings.

At the end of the hearing, the judge asked if anyone was present to represent the office of the clerk of the Superior Court, the victim in the Demps case.

No one stood up.

“Incredible,” the judge said. “It’s absolutely amazing, but so be it.”

Superior Court Clerk Danielle Forte, who said last week that she requested an audit and investigation when she took office in 2018, texted the Ledger-Enquirer on Wednesday afternoon, saying that ‘ she was not free to comment on the matter.

“As you may know, this continues to be an active criminal case and is now on a large scale,” she wrote. “More importantly, in order not to interfere with any outcome, the US attorney’s office asked me not to comment on the case.”

The so-called diet

Federal investigators said Demps was responsible for depositing court funds from felony and misdemeanor fines, forfeitures and convictions. The money went to the accounts in the clerk’s office at Synovus Financial Corp., SunTrust Bank and Colony Bank.

These payments were frequently made in cash, his indictment says.

He says Demps took blank checks, wrote them to the co-defendants, and signed them. He then met his accomplices in the parking lot of the government center or at a designated bank to hand them the checks, and recovered the money after the checks were cashed, the co-defendants receiving a cut, according to the indictment. .

He says it happened so often that bank workers started calling Demps to ask if the checks were legitimate. The indictment lists 114 checks cashed between January 4, 2019 and November 29, 2019, amounts ranging from $ 2,125 to $ 9,725.

The other people named in the indictment are Terry McBride, Rosalee Bassi, Lamarcus Palmer, George Cook, Samuel Cole, Curtis Porch and Dereen Porch, also known as Dereen Fitzgerald.

Tim Chitwood is originally from Seale, Alabama, and began as a police reporter for the Ledger-Enquirer in 1982. He has since covered the Columbus serial murders and other homicides, following some from the crime scene to verdicts in the trials and subsequent appeals. . He has also been a comedian columnist for the Ledger-Enquirer since 1987. He graduated from Auburn University and started working for the weekly Phenix Citizen in Phenix City, Ala.

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Harold Shirley

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