- Philip Jankowski American-Statesman Staff, KVUE News
In what federal authorities call a “diabolical scheme,” three men carried out a wide-ranging fraud and racketeering operation that culminated in a plot to assassinate state District Judge Julie Kocurek, according to an 11-count indictment unsealed Friday.
The indictment accuses 28-year-old Chimene Hamilton Onyeri, who was previously named as a suspect in the shooting that seriously wounded Kocurek, of traveling to Austin last fall with co-conspirators Marcellus Antoine Burgin, 26, of Cypress and Rasul Kareem Scott, 24, of Marrero, La., to kill the judge.
Federal agents were working Friday to apprehend Burgin, who evaded police during a chase in Houston on Thursday night. Officials said he should be considered armed and dangerous, and they asked the public to alert authorities to his possible whereabouts. A $5,000 reward is being offered.
Onyeri and Scott, who was taken into custody in New Orleans, had initial court appearances Friday.
The indictment says the group relied upon stolen credit cards to fund their trip to Austin from the Houston area the night of the Kocurek shooting last November. They decided to kill the judge because she was likely to send Onyeri back to prison, and the “existence of the criminal enterprise was threatened,” federal officials said.
Kocurek was attacked in the driveway of her West Austin home the night of Nov. 6 after returning from a high school football game. She suffered serious shrapnel wounds from multiple gunshot blasts and returned to the bench in February. For the past two weeks, she has been presiding in the trial of Mark Norwood for the 1988 murder of Debra Baker — Kocurek’s first high-profile case since the shooting.
Kocurek didn’t address the indictments in court Friday.
“A violent attack against a judge doesn’t just threaten our justice system; it’s an assault on the bedrock of our democracy which upholds the laws protecting our freedom,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Christopher Combs. “This case should send a strong message to those who threaten or harm members of our judiciary.”
Federal, state and local law enforcement officials from more than a dozen agencies in Texas and Louisiana have been working to identify anyone involved in the attack. Police initially said they linked Onyeri to the shooting after realizing he had been named in a threat against an unnamed judge several weeks before the shooting.
Judges have said they were never alerted to that threat, which has resulted in new policies for how similar matters are now handled.
Police said soon after the shooting that they also were looking into whether others might have participated or been involved in the attack.
The indictment states that Onyeri was the head of a criminal organization that, over the course of several years, committed myriad financial crimes in which it stole bank account and personal identification information to commit fraud.
The indictment states that the day before the attack, Onyeri, Burgin and Scott all traveled from Louisiana to Houston and then on to Austin. All three used stolen financial information for expenses related to the attack, the indictment said.
The day before the attack, Onyeri used stolen debit card information to buy gloves at an Auto Zone, and the three men used a stolen debit card to pay for a motel, the indictment says. Burgin and Scott also used stolen financial information to purchase clothes, the indictment says.
The bulk of Onyeri’s criminal activity outlined in the document revolves around what appears to be a network of associates assembled in a ring that aimed to steal credit and debit card information and to file fraudulent tax returns using the names of people whose identities they had stolen.
Onyeri sought out bank employees to find ways to “clean” the money and postal workers to intercept the delivery of tax refunds, according to the indictment.
Onyeri revealed part of the scheme to an undercover investigator with the U.S. Postal Service, telling the agent that he would pay him to intercept tax refund checks and deliver them directly to him, the indictment said.
Rollingwood police had investigated Onyeri in 2012, believing him to be a part of an organized crime ring that traced its origins to Nigeria that employed similar methods to steal financial information from unsuspecting victims. At the time, Rollingwood police identified more than two dozen suspects from the Houston area involved with Onyeri and financial fraud, police said earlier this year.
Onyeri was on probation for that Travis County case, but, at the time of the shooting, he had an upcoming hearing in Kocurek’s court in which she was likely to revoke his probation because of a subsequent arrest.
His organization took great lengths to conceal what they were doing, federal officials said. They would swap license plates on vehicles, used tools to make gift cards encoded with stolen information appear genuine and had associates don disguises, such as burqas, when using stolen credit cards to buy items.
The men could face up to life in prison on conspiracy charges, 20 years behind bars for trying to commit mail or wire fraud and two years for each aggravated identity theft charge.