'Innocence of Muslims' filmmaker has a credit card crime past
By Martin Merzer | Published: September 16, 2012
The reputed creator of the anti-Muslim video that incited mob violence throughout the Middle East and endangered Americans abroad is a convicted credit card con artist and bank fraudster who, at one point, offered to become a government snitch, according to court documents.
Screenshot from "Innocence of Muslims"
Nakoula Basseley Nakoula of Cerritos, Calif., identified by federal authorities and media reports as the key figure behind the incendiary 14-minute trailer for a movie called "Innocence of Muslims," has a long criminal record -- a run-of-the-mill grifter with broader ambitions but not much skill.
He keeps getting caught. In fact, on Saturday, Nakoula, 55, was interviewed by federal probation officers who suspect that he violated the terms of his latest release from prison.
In 1997, Nakoula was convicted of drug charges, found to be in possession of the raw materials for manufacturing methamphetamine, commonly known as meth, and a paper bag filled with $45,000 in cash. He was sentenced to one year in Los Angeles County Jail and three years' probation. He also had liens filed against him in 1996 and 1977.
Credit card crime
But he really hit his stride by 2008, joining in a sure-to-fail bank fraud scheme involving credit cards, convenience checks provided by credit card companies, stolen Social Security numbers, false identities and a host of victimized banks, according to federal prosecutors and court records.
The original indictment refers to Wells Fargo Bank and the Capital One credit card company. But many court documents are sealed and prosecutors later said the scheme involved hundreds of fraudulent credit accounts and also victimized Bank of America, Discover, Chase (Wamu) and other firms.
Nakoula pleaded no contest and was sentenced to jail again and ordered to pay nearly $800,000 in restitution to the banks and credit card companies. Among his aliases: Nicolay Bacily, a name similar to "Sam Bacile," the apparent pseudonym listed as producer of "Innocence of Muslims." Nakoula is a self-described Coptic Christian who harbors resentment toward the Muslim majority of Egypt. The film denigrates Islam and repeatedly slurs the Prophet Muhammed.
How did his schemes work?
The six-count felony indictment filed by federal prosecutors at the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles alleged that Nakoula and unnamed "co-schemers" deposited bogus credit card convenience checks into illicit accounts Nakoula opened using stolen Social Security numbers (including one belonging to a 6-year-old child). Then, before the checks bounced, he hit up ATMs to withdraw cash from those accounts -- basically, a fairly common check-kiting con.
Prosecutors said Nakoula also ran his own personal Ponzi scheme, running up credit card charges and bank balances on various accounts and then making partial payments with the phantom assets of other accounts.
Nakoula and his alleged partners did all of this repeatedly, starting at some point before March 2008 and ending in November 2008, when federal authorities caught up with him.
162 credit cards found
Formal court documents mention 15 credit cards and debit cards allegedly used in the scheme. But during a June 24, 2010, sentencing hearing, Nakoula's attorney reported that 162 credit cards were found during a search of Nakoula's home.
During that sentencing hearing, Nakoula told U.S. District Judge Christina A. Snyder that he acted out of desperation, unable as an ex-con to support his family in any other way.
"I would like to make an apology to the Judge Snyder and I hope that you accept my apology," Nakoula, speaking in broken English, told Snyder. "I also make apology to my father, who is 83 years of age. I supposed to give him comfort and relief in his old age.
"And, also, I make apology to my wife, and she is a father and mother for the children and my young child, which I didn't see him for more than a year now, any my daughter, Christina, which I was very close to her."
Cooperated with feds
Apparently to diminish his own sentence, Nakoula also offered at some point during the prosecution of his case to testify against others believed by federal authorities to be involved in the scheme.
"I decided to cooperate with the government to retrieve some of these mistakes or damage happened," he told Snyder. "I want to cooperate with the government that they can catch with this other criminals, who is their involvement."
His attorney, James Henderson Sr., told the judge that Nakoula submitted to "detailed debriefings" with federal investigators. For what it's worth, Henderson said his client suffered from hepatitis C, diabetes and prostate issues
In the end, Judge Snyder ordered Nakoula to pay restitution of $794,700.57, including $409,886.50 to Bank of America, $223,343.09 to Chase (WaMu), $69,310.53 to Wells Fargo Bank and $31,711.63 to Capital One.
He also was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison, followed by five years of probation. And he was ordered not to use false identities or computers and the Internet, the directive likely at the center of Saturday's inquiry by federal probation officers.
Nakoula was released from prison June 22, 2011. He reportedly spent much of his time behind bars hard at work -- on the script for "Innocence of Muslims."
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