An elderly woman scammed of her life savings has been sentenced to jail after laundering almost $2.4 million – for scammers – in a bid to recover her lost funds.
In sentencing 68-year-old Rossmani Eckl in the Supreme Court in Brisbane yesterday, Justice Freeburn admitted “the circumstances of this case are unique”.
Ms Eckl, of Brisbane, was convicted by a jury in June of five counts of dealing with proceeds of crime, in amounts of between at least $1000, and at least $1 million, from about May 2019 to about July 2020.
She used accounts at several banks, registered to businesses in her name, to receive and distribute the funds scammed from an Australian geological waste company ($205,866); a France-based global leasing company ($1,164,000); a Sydney residential aged care facility ($911,529), and a South Australian hay export company ($83,068).
Ms Eckl received the sums and distributed them in accordance with instructions from scammers “Andy Morris” or “Kumar”, who had promised to replace $600,000 she lost in 2010 to a sophisticated financial scam.
After a lengthy discussion of the quirks of the matter and precedent cases, Justice Freeburn eventually sentenced Ms Eckl to a total of 9.5 years’ imprisonment, made up of five sentences to be served concurrently, but ordered that she be released on a $1000 recognisance, and on the conditions that she be of good behaviour for five years and undergo two years of counselling.
Justice Freeborn stated the offending involved “very significant sums”, that Ms Eckl’s role “facilitated serious and organised criminal activity”, and the jury had found she knew the money she dealt with was the proceeds of crime.
However, he rejected the Crown submission that her role was “multifaceted, deliberate, premeditated and trusted, forming an essential part of organised criminal activity”.
“A proper characterisation of Ms Eckl’s role is that she provided access to bank accounts which facilitated the criminal enterprise, and she made the numerous transfers of money she was instructed to make. She did what she was told. She did it in the naïve hope that the scammers would assist her to recover the money she had lost,” he said.
The Crown also submitted Ms Eckl benefited from at least $80,000 in cash withdrawals.
“It is true that there were cash withdrawals, both from branches and from ATMs,” Justice Freeburn said.
“However, in evidence tendered by the Crown, Ms Eckl explained to police that she withdrew money and handed the cash to others she met in accordance with Mr Morris’s instructions.
“Normally, the court would be sceptical about that type of evidence. However, the police evidence did not establish that in fact Ms Eckl took ultimate possession of the cash.”
He said there was one exception – when she extracted $1300 to pay for dentist – which was “illuminating”, because “only when she was expressly given permission did Ms Eckl take a benefit for herself”.
“She otherwise followed her instructions. Ms Eckl was not one of the scammers. It was not her criminal enterprise. Her role was to follow the instructions of others, including providing the facility of her bank accounts,” he said.
He said the fact Ms Eckl received little or nothing from the scam was “all the more surprising given the amount of money that was laundered” and illustrated three points relevant to sentencing.
“The first is that, whilst she was the instrument used by the scammers, she was not one of the people who profited from the enterprise,” he said.
“The second is to reinforce an impression I gained at trial that Ms Eckl’s personal traits include a willingness to assist others.
“The third is that Ms Eckl had a blind and almost certainly irrational belief that the scammers would honour their promise to help her recover the money that she had lost.
“As Detective Robertson frankly acknowledged during the trial, there was a tone of desperation to Ms Eckl’s communications with the scammers.”
Justice Freeburn noted that in November, after being refused legal aid, a self-represented Ms Eckl had pleaded not guilty to all counts.
“It is regrettable that a defendant, facing a complex Supreme Court trial of five money laundering charges, including some complicated financial evidence, was unable to obtain any legal or other assistance at all,” he said.
He also noted an “odd twist” to that situation, in that after she was charged, her employers continued to employ her, and it was only after she was found guilty that they suspended her employment – which had the consequence that she became eligible for legal aid.
In explaining the sentence, Justice Freeburn stated this was a case where “the factors relevant to the sentence pull in different directions”.
He considered factors such as the “very significant losses for the companies involved as a result of serious criminal activity”; the maximum penalty of 25 years imprisonment, or a fine of $232,000, or both; the long period of 14 months over which the money was laundered; and the lack of a guilty plea.
He also considered mitigating factors such as Ms Eckl’s lack of criminal history; a lack of deceit and planning in the enterprise; family dependency; co-operation with police; and the mandatory visa cancellation (and resultant deportation to Malaysia) that would follow a full-time prison term of 12 months or more.