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Trial in 419-related murder under way

Nigerian scam claims another life

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Nigerian 419 scams have bilked untold billions of dollars from people who have more hope than sense. A trial underway in the US will detail how one scheme claimed the life of a Tennessee minister whose wife is accused of gunning him down after it came to light she fell victim to Nigerian-style swindlers.

Mary Carol Winkler, who according to news accounts is 33, stands accused of first degree murder. Her husband, Matthew, was found dead of a single wound from a 12-gauge shotgun blast suffered while he lay sleeping. Earlier in the evening, the two had argued about the dire state of their family finances, according to news reports from the Associated Press and other outlets.

A day before the murder, the Winklers' bank notified them they had fallen prey to an advance fee fraud in which she deposited $17,500 in fraudulent checks into family accounts. Prosecutors say Mary was at fault in the scam. She likely fell victim to a variety of the scam that uses religious angles to gain a victim's confidence. (Attorneys for Mary say Matthew was aware of the deposited checks and say their client is not guilty. They have stressed the couple's argument involved other disagreements as well.) Additionally, Mary is reported to have had a weakness for online gambling.

Such scams are frequently dubbed Nigerian or 419 because they are said to have originated in that country, where article 419 of the Nigerian criminal code prohibits such activities. Since the early 1990s, criminals in many other countries have adopted the technique.

Last year alone, 419 scams resulted in losses of $790 million in the US and 530 million pounds (about $712 million US), according to some estimates. According to a report by Caslon Analytics, the US Department of State says at least 25 tourist murders or disappearances have been directly linked to the scam after traveling to destinations where they were sent.

A minister with a church in Selmer, Tennessee, Matthew was found dead in March, 2006. Jury selection in Mary's trial began on Monday. She remains free on $750,000 bond. ®

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