Cleber Rene Rizerio Rocha, 28, whose arrest on January 4 led US authorities to discover US$17 million hidden in a mattress box, was sentenced to nearly three years in prison for trying to launder funds tied to a massive pyramid scheme. REUTERS

BOSTON: A Brazilian whose arrest led US authorities to discover $17 million hidden in a mattress box spring was sentenced on Thursday to nearly three years in prison for trying to launder funds tied to a massive pyramid scheme.

Federal prosecutors in Boston said Cleber Rene Rizerio Rocha, 28, traveled to the United States on several occasions to help retrieve money that a co-founder of TelexFree Inc left behind when he fled the country.

Raymond Sayeg, his lawyer, had argued Rocha should serve no more than the 13 months he had already served since his January 2017 arrest.

But US Attorney Andrew Lelling said Rocha, who pleaded guilty in October to conspiracy and money laundering charges, played a key role in illicit activity by acting as a courier and custodian of money from the pyramid scheme that TelexFree co-founder Carlos Wanzeler hid.

“Mr. Rocha is not some innocent lamb,” Lelling said.

US District Judge Leo Sorokin in imposing a 33-month sentence credited Rocha for cooperating with law enforcement at least initially by helping authorities locate an apartment in Westborough, Massachusetts, where the US$17 million was found.

“It’s essentially imperfect cooperation if you will, and that cooperation revealed a huge amount of money,” he said.

Prosecutors said TelexFree sold a voice-over-internet telephone service but was actually a pyramid scheme whose money came not from the product it sold but from people paying to sign up to be “promoters” and post ads online for it.

Massachusetts-based TelexFree collapsed in 2014, inflicting more than US$3 billion in losses on nearly 1.89 million people worldwide, prosecutors said.

James Merrill, another TelexFree co-founder, was arrested in May 2014 and was sentenced to six years in prison in March 2017 after pleading guilty to conspiracy and fraud charges.

Wanzeler, a citizen of Brazil, fled to that country in 2014 and cannot be extradited. He left behind tens of millions of dollars that he laundered from TelexFree accounts, prosecutors said.

To retrieve the money, he and Leonardo Casula Francisco, Wanzeler’s nephew, sent Rocha to the United States on several trips to deliver portions of it to other money launders, prosecutors said.

They said on two trips Rocha delivered about US$4 million to people Wanzeler or Casula delegated, and on Jan. 4, 2017, tried to give someone in a parking lot a suitcase with US$2.2 million.

That person, though, was cooperating with US authorities, who were watching and soon after arrested Rocha, prosecutors said. --REUTERS

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