Brazilian who led U.S. to $17 million under mattress to plead guilty


BOSTON (Reuters) – A Brazilian whose arrest led U.S. authorities to discover $17 million hidden under a mattress is expected to plead guilty on Wednesday after being charged with try to launder funds tied to one of the largest pyramid schemes ever.

Cleber Rene Rizerio Rocha, who prosecutors said tried to help get millions of dollars out of the United States that a co-founder of TelexFree Inc left behind when he fled the country, is scheduled to enter his plea in federal court in Boston.

Rocha, who faced conspiracy and money laundering charges, has been held without bail since his arrest in January. The 28-year-old’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.

His case stemmed from an investigation of TelexFree, a Massachusetts-based company that sold voice-over-internet telephone service and that was founded by James Merrill, a U.S. citizen, and Carlos Wanzeler, a Brazilian.

Prosecutors said TelexFree was a pyramid scheme, making little to no money selling its service while taking in millions of dollars from thousands of people who paid to sign up to be “promoters” and post ads online for it.

It collapsed in 2014, inflicting more than $3 billion in losses on nearly 1.89 million people worldwide, prosecutors said.

Approximately $17 million found under a mattress in connection with an investigation related to what authorities say was a pyramid scheme is shown in this photo from a January 2017 raid in Westborough, Massachusetts, U.S. released on March 7, 2017. Courtesy U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston/Handout via REUTERS

Merrill was arrested in 2014. He was sentenced this March to six years in prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy and fraud charges.

Wanzeler, meanwhile, in 2014 fled to Brazil, where he cannot be extradited from, prosecutors said. They say in the process, he left behind tens of millions of dollars he laundered from TelexFree accounts.

In mid-2015, Leonardo Casula Francisco, his nephew, asked a cooperating witness to help transfer cash hidden in the greater Boston area out of the United States, an indictment said.

The pair agreed someone would be sent to the United States to deliver the money in increments to the witness, who would send it to accounts in Hong Kong where it would be transferred to Brazil, prosecutors said.

In December, Casula sent Rocha to the United States to deliver money to the witness, an indictment said.

Prosecutors said that following a Jan. 4 meeting in a parking lot where Rocha gave the witness $2.2 million in a suitcase, federal agents followed Rocha to a Westborough, Massachusetts, apartment complex.

After Rocha was arrested, he then helped agents locate the apartment, leading them to find $17 million hidden under a mattress, prosecutors said.

Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Lisa Shumaker

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