Inmate Allegedly Steals $11 Million From Behind Max Security Prison Bars by Impersonating California Billionaire
Contraband phone leads to a multimillion scam.
If you've ever seen a prison movie, you know that the goings-on in lockup aren't always on the up-and-up. But officials say a Georgia inmate took bad behavior behind bars to the next level. The man is accused of stealing $11 million from a California billionaire while serving time in a maximum-security prison.
Arthur Lee Cofield Jr., 31, is serving a 14-year sentence for armed robbery at a Georgia state prison. Officials say he used a mobile phone to impersonate billionaire Sidney Kimmel and convince a Charles Schwab brokerage to transfer $11 million out of the Hollywood tycoon's account to buy gold coins, hire a private plane, and make an offer on a $4.4 million house in one of Atlanta's wealthiest neighborhoods.
"One of the biggest fraud cases ever committed from behind bars," is what the Washington Post called it. Read more to find out what went down. As for how and why, that's a little confusing.
In a federal indictment, prosecutors allege that in June 2020, Cofield used a mobile phone—banned in prison—to call the brokerage Charles Schwab, impersonating Kimmel. He asked a company representative about opening a checking account. Told he needed to present a form of ID and a utility bill, a co-conspirator texted the bank Kimmel's driver's license and a bill.
"Mr. Cofield was so convincing that he persuaded the financial-services giant to transfer $11 million from Mr. Kimmel's bank account to a precious metals dealer in Idaho to buy 6,106 American Eagle gold coins," the New York Times reported. The scheme, prosecutors say, was just getting started.
After obtaining the coins, Cofield used the phone to hire a private security company to take the coins from Boise, Idaho, to Atlanta on a chartered plane. He then contacted the owner of a six-bedroom house in Atlanta and offered $4.4 million for it.
According to a federal indictment filed in December 2020, Cofield used accomplices to pay $720,000 cash as a down payment, then the full balance, also in cash.
Cofield has been charged with several federal crimes, including conspiracy to commit bank fraud, aggravated identity theft, money laundering, and conspiracy to commit money laundering, according to court documents. He has pleaded not guilty.
Two co-conspirators on the outside have been charged: Eldridge Bennett and his daughter Eliayah Bennett have also pleaded not guilty. Cofield reportedly conducted his scam from inside the prison's Special Management Unit. He was transferred there after allegedly—from a lower-security area of the prison—ordering gang members to shoot one of his romantic rivals in Atlanta.
Jose Morales, who was the warden of the unit that housed Cofield, told The Atlanta-Journal Constitution that Cofield was "a shrewd, intelligent individual who could con you out of millions." But in this case, how and why? Investigators and prosecutors either don't know, or they aren't saying. "Some key details about the scheme remain unclear: Court documents do not reveal why Mr. Kimmel was targeted," the Times reported on Oct. 16.
"And prosecutors did not say in the indictment how Mr. Cofield—who is also facing attempted murder charges in Fulton County, Ga., in an unrelated case—was able to acquire the phone, which they say he hid in his prison cell."
Cofield's alleged scam is attracting headlines, but it's just one of the crimes committed with contraband in prisons nationwide, corrections expert Paul M. Adee told the Washington Post. "Here's the thing: Inmates don't just walk outside. Someone brought that phone inside, and that's something that can severely compromise the security of a facility," said Adee of the allegations against Cofield. "Sometimes it's guards being bribed, visitors bringing stuff in or inmates hiding them by inserting them inside their bodies."
"This is a pretty widespread problem," Adam Meyer, a specialist at Prisonology, an expert network firm of retired Bureau of Prisons professionals, told the Post. He said many inmates pay corrections officers to provide them with phones. "And it really comes down to guards not being paid enough because it's a big amount of money that's hard to turn away from when they smuggle the phones in."