Couple behind 'religious scam' to be extradited to US

The Guardian, UK/June 30, 2006
By Mark Oliver

A Briton wanted by the FBI over allegations he set up a £16m religious-themed investment scam in the US is to be extradited.

Howard Welsh, from Liverpool, is accused of running a "divinely inspired" scheme that defrauded more than 1,000 religious investors. The 62-year-old will be extradited to face money-laundering charges before July 19.

His investment scheme was allegedly a version of a Ponzi fraud - named after a conman in 1920s Boston - which lures investors by creating a buzz through making a select number of big early payouts.

Mr Welsh and his 52-year-old American girlfriend, Lee Hope Thrasher, allegedly started the Living Your Sole Purpose scheme in Virginia Beach, Virginia, seven years ago.

The couple are accused of targeting deeply religious investors by using church networks in various US cities to play on their victims' sense of faith.

As more and more investors became involved, the payouts allegedly stopped, and it has been claimed that one investor lost around £4m.

In summer 2003, the US district court in Norfolk, Virginia, charged Mr Welsh and Ms Thrasher with conspiracy to commit money laundering. The couple disappeared from Virginia Beach and were placed on the FBI's most wanted list website.

They are thought to have spent time in South America, Africa and central Europe while being hunted by the FBI and, later, by Interpol.

US media reports said one investor had received an email, believed to be from Ms Thrasher, after the couple vanished. "We feel very good about everything ... so just take deep breaths with us ... and be surrounded by God's brilliant white light," the email said.

Police from Scotland Yard arrested the couple as they got off a train in Whitchurch, Shropshire, in November 2004. They had been staying with Mr Welsh's mother, Doris, who is in her 90s, at her retirement home in the town.

Since then, they have been held in UK prisons - Mr Welsh at Brixton and Ms Thrasher at Holloway - while fighting US attempts to extradite them.

In March this year, they applied to the House of Lords for leave to appeal to the law lords against extradition. However, their attempt to have the law lords hear an appeal was rejected last Tuesday.

This was their final avenue of appeal in the UK, and the Home Office said extraditions must be carried out no later than 28 days after such a decision had been reached.

The couple could attempt to have their case heard by the European court of human rights, but their solicitor, Colin Nott, said this option would not stop the extradition.

Mr Nott said they were disappointed that their case would not be heard at the House of Lords, adding that there was a "proper argument" to be made over the imbalance in the extradition relationship between the US and the UK.

The US has not ratified a 2003 extradition treaty with the UK, which means that while US citizens can only be extradited to Britain if prima facie evidence is presented, US authorities only need present information about allegations to extradite a UK national.

Mr Nott said the House of Lords had also refused to hear an appeal from three former NatWest bankers, who are to be extradited to the US to stand trial on Enron-related fraud charges.

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