A foreign national with local ties, currently wanted by federal authorities, is accused of laundering thousands of dollars through the Hard Rock Casino Cincinnati – money that was later used by his wife to buy expensive items.
Ismail Shalash, 36, a dual citizen of Jordan and Palestine, allegedly sold luxury vehicles online to car dealership owners in several states and failed to deliver those vehicles as promised after he received payment.
Authorities reviewed his bank account and found "that almost immediately after receiving funds from victims, Shalash would make withdrawals of large sums for the purposes of transferring those funds into the casino," an FBI affidavit reads.
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Shalash attempted to defraud eight victims in five states out of a total of $3.48 million and successfully defrauding five victims in four states out of a total of $1.77 million, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court. He occasionally used the alias "Armand Brigante" of MDDI Inc. as part of his scheme to deceive buyers.
Documents say Shalash laundered the money he obtained through his wire fraud scheme by cashing large sums into the casino and later cashing that money out in credits.
The casino's currency transaction reports revealed that from May 24 through Aug. 24 Shalash cashed in $464,796 and cashed out $789,541, the documents show. He also made a number of front money deposits, or money deposited by a player for future gaming, at the casino in August.
"... Shalash was redeeming chips totaling significantly more than the amount of deposit," the affidavit reads. "Hard Rock (Cincinnati) documents also reveals patterns of suspicious activity in which Shalash’s casino account was used as a conduit to transfer significant amounts of funds he received from victims through financial transaction channels."
A federal warrant was issued for Shalash's arrest in late September, but he and his new wife, Abir Mulawwah, of Houston, Texas, had already moved overseas to Morrocco, documents state. The pair met through Facebook and Mulawwah flew to Cincinnati where they were married.
Shalash depleted his bank accounts, withdrawing about $500,000 in cashier's checks, before fleeing Cincinnati, according to the affidavit. Mulawwah also opened a safe deposit box at a branch of PNC Bank in Houston, believed to be used to store Shalash's illegally obtained funds.
Documents state FBI agents learned Mulawwah was planning to return to the U.S. at the end of November to retrieve the money stored in the safe deposit box. She arrived in Houston on Nov. 19.
While back in Houston, Mulawwah "enriched herself on a shopping spree while paying for items in cash," the affidavit reads, adding that she "was purchasing items at various retail stores for the purposes of taking items, clothing in particular, back to Morocco for herself and Shalash."
"Mulawwah was planning to travel back to the United States frequently and slowly take cash back with her to Morocco," documents read. She had also planned to "purchase high dollar items in the United States and take them to Morocco to sell."
On Nov. 23, FBI agents obtained a search warrant for the safe deposit box and found about $300,000 in cash, the documents state.
Federal authorities confronted Mulawwah at George Bush International Airport on Sunday as she was about to depart on a Turkish Airlines flight, according to the affidavit.
Agents were able to overhear her phone conversation and "see Mulawwah’s phone which indicated that she was communicating with an individual she had programmed as 'Ish'," documents read. "During the conversation, Mulawwah made references to money and Morocco, and expressed to the individual that she regretted marrying him."
While being interviewed by the FBI, officials said, Mulawwah said she was no longer married to Shalash, denied knowledge of his whereabouts and told agents she had not been in contact with him since September.
She was arrested by federal authorities and is facing charges of conspiracy to defraud the U.S., false statements and laundering of money instruments, documents show.
According to the FBI's website, Shalash is still at large for wire fraud and laundering of money instruments.
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Feds: Man laundered money through Hard Rock Casino, fled the country