Fugitive guilty of nearly $10M in bogus travel purchases

By JOE MANDAKMarketsAssociated Press

A man who escaped to Mexico in the 1990s to avoid sentencing in a New York credit card fraud case has pleaded guilty before a federal judge in Pittsburgh for a scheme to make nearly $10 million in fraudulent credit card purchases, most of them international airline tickets, while on the lam.

Nicolas Frank Sucich, 48, likely faces more than four years in federal prison under a plea agreement struck Tuesday to charges of wire and access device fraud. He'll return for sentencing Jan. 5, when prosecutors and his defense attorney hope the judge will approve their agreed-upon 51-month sentence.

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Sucich and his co-defendant and former lover, Jimmy Lee Johnson, a petty criminal with a history of crack cocaine abuse and prostitution, worked the scheme while living together in Mexico, according to information from Tuesday's hearing and sentencing documents filed in Johnson's case. Johnson already has pleaded guilty and was sentenced last year to the two years in prison he already had served by the time he was convicted.

Johnson "was poor, hungry, desperate and mentally ill" when he was "recruited to join the scheme" by Sucich, according to a presentencing memorandum filed by his public defender.

Sucich had been convicted in an unrelated credit card fraud in Duchess County, New York in 1996 and was awaiting sentencing there when he fled to Mexico, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Melucci and defense attorney Stephen Misko.

Sucich set up a business called FCO Travels in Mexico. Using that business, he used a fraudulent Scotiabank MasterCard account to buy millions of dollars' worth of airline tickets from a legitimate Pittsburgh-area travel agency, then re-sold the tickets for cash at discounted rates to travelers, among other schemes.

Sucich obtained the fraudulent card from Scotiabank of Canada using the alias Francisco Javier-Alvarez Johnson, and eventually got several other cards in other aliases, plus one in Jimmy Lee Johnson's name. Those cards were used to overdraw a bank account to which they were linked by making "substantial purchases of merchandise and airline travel," including international tickets purchased on Iberia, Log Air Compans and Deutsche airlines, according to an indictment returned four years ago by a grand jury in Pittsburgh.

Melucci told the judge many of the purchases were part of a forced post scheme. A forced post is a credit card purchase that is refused by a business, but then put through once a banking representative calls the business to authorize it.

In several transactions made over the phone, Sucich and Johnson impersonated the voice of a female Scotiabank employee who would convince the businesses to allow the purchases to go through, the indictment said.

Sucich also used one of the debit or credit cards on the account to make multiple unauthorized purchases nationwide, including airline tickets for trips to Central America and the Middle East between 2008 and 2011.

Homeland Security agents finally tracked down Sucich in Veracruz, Mexico in February, and he's been in custody ever since.

Misko said Sucich "is at peace because it's over." He still must return to New York for sentencing on the earlier case, which Misko could not detail.