The bank account of a Kennewick man charged with scamming an elderly Florida man out of $6,000 has been frozen while investigators look to see if there are other victims.
Zhihua Lei and his attorney, Ryan Swinburnson, did not argue against an extension of the temporary hold during a hearing Thursday in Benton County Superior Court.
The request, which Deputy Prosecutor Terry Bloor described as “unusual,” is allowed under Washington state’s money laundering law if the proceeds are traceable to unlawful activity.
Lei, 40, and co-defendant Joshua L. Berry, 32, are accused in just one case, in which the victim believed his grandson was locked up in a Panama jail and needed bail money.
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But court documents show Lei has deposited $61,759 total into his bank account since Oct. 12 — $51,890 of that in cash deposits. He withdrew $54,157 in that same six-month period.
“These amounts far exceed (Lei’s) known income,” Bloor wrote.
Lei worked in Chinese restaurants in Hermiston from 2014-16, according to wage and tax statements found in his house. He was paid $17,872 over the three years, including $9,145 in 2016.
Investigators could not find any employment information for Berry.
The bank account balance was $8,795 when Lei and Berry were arrested April 23 at the Tri-Cities Airport after returning from a trip to Bangkok, Thailand, according to court documents.
Kennewick police Detective Dan Todd searched their West John Day Avenue home on April 19 while Berry and Lei were out of the country. Todd then got a search warrant to review Lei’s bank account.
He had been tipped to the alleged criminal activity by a Florida detective.
The 83-year-old victim told the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office that he initially was not suspicious about the call he got March 21, because his grandson had traveled recently to Panama.
He was told to get a $2,000 gift card from a Target store and then read the card’s number to his grandson on a phone call. He then was instructed to get two more cards, this time at Best Buy, for $2,000 each, court documents said.
The Florida detective used the numbers on two of the cards and discovered they had been redeemed at the Best Buy in Kennewick on March 22.
Berry and Lei were identified as the local suspects after investigators viewed surveillance video from the West Canal Drive store. The two men also used store rewards memberships in their own names when redeeming the cards, documents said.
It is not clear if there was a middleman who talked to the victim and then passed on the card numbers, or if Berry or Lei called him directly.
Lei and Berry are charged with first-degree trafficking in stolen property and money laundering. The charges include aggravating circumstances of victim vulnerability and that it was a major economic offense.
Both men have denied the charges and face June 19 trials.
Bloor wrote that when detectives searched the home, they found that Lei and Berry had bought $11,000 worth of gift cards from Best Buy on several occasions dating to March 22.
The bank account will be unavailable for Lei to access until the case is resolved, either by sentencing after a conviction or a dismissal, Bloor said.
Berry and Lei remain in the Benton County jail on $50,000 bail each.