HANCOCK COUNTY — A Fortville woman accused of working with co-conspirators overseas in a scheme that scammed deaf and elderly people across the country out of about $1.2 million has been convicted on multiple federal charges in a federal court in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Donna L. Summerlin, 62, Fortville, was found guilty late last week following a seven-day jury trial held before U.S. District Court Judge Jennifer P. Wilson, the Department of Justice announced in a news release. The case, dating to 2018, was brought by the U.S. District Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.
Summerlin, who was convicted of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering, faces a long prison sentence.
According to acting U.S. Attorney Bruce D. Brandler, Summerlin was charged with taking money from victims in a so-called advance-fee scheme. Many of the victims were either elderly, deaf or both.
In the schemes, victims were contacted through Facebook and told they were winners of a “deaf lottery” or that they had been selected for special and exclusive government grants or other programs.
To claim their supposed financial reward, the “winners” were directed to prepay expenses such as taxes and customs fees with the promise of a much larger payoff. After making an initial payment, victims were directed to make additional, larger payments. In some cases, fraudsters were successful at getting multiple payments from victims, who never received any financial reward, the press release said.
The fraudsters used fake names and photographs to disguise themselves. They also took over some of the victims’ social media accounts so they could lure the victim’s friends into sending money and to reassure them of the scheme’s legitimacy when victims had doubts about participating, officials said.
Victims were instructed to send payments to Summerlin, who worked as a “money mule” or intermediary for the fraudsters for approximately four years, from 2012 to 2016.
She regularly received money from fraud victims at her home address outside Fortville, said Dawn Clark, public affairs officer for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, in an email.
Victims sent cash and checks in the mail to Summerlin’s address, in addition to sending money transfers through MoneyGram and Western Union and sending bank-to-bank wire transfers.
According to court documents, Summerlin was indicted by a grand jury in August 2018. None of the victims listed in the 21-page indictment was from Indiana. She was arrested at her Fortville home shortly after the indictment.
No one else from Indiana was arrested or charged in the case.
“It is believed that Summerlin’s co-conspirators are primarily located in other countries,” Clark said.
Clark said officials received significant assistance from several law enforcement agencies in the Indianapolis area, including Fishers Police Department, Madison County Sheriff’s Department and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Homeland Security Investigations office in Indianapolis.
At trial, prosecutors showed Summerlin, who is also deaf, received more than $1.2 million from over 100 people across the country and, in some cases, other countries such as Canada and Australia.
The victims included a deaf elderly couple in Pennsylvania who sent Summerlin about $500,000, depleting their life savings.
After receiving the funds, testimony showed, Summerlin would rapidly withdraw them from the more than 40 bank accounts she used for the activities. Typically, she wired a portion of the funds to co-conspirators in Nigeria and Great Britain. She also made large cash withdrawals, which were used to send funds to co-conspirators and for personal use.
“Records show that she kept a portion of the victims’ funds for personal use,” Clark said. Evidence at trial showed Summerlin kept about $100,000, which was spent on household expenses, tuition payments, a family vacation, a large purchase at the Apple Store in Indianapolis and other things, Clark added.
The jury returned a guilty verdict after about one hour of deliberation. Summerlin was convicted of both counts in the indictment.
The maximum penalty under federal law for the offenses is 20 years of imprisonment, a term of supervised release following imprisonment, and a fine.
The sentencing date has yet to be determined. A pre-sentence conference is set for Oct. 19 in the Pennsylvania court.