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May 26, 2004

Deaf Swindler Pleads Guilty

From: Hartford Courant (subscription) - Hartford,CT,USA - May 26, 2004

By LYNNE TUOHY, Courant Staff Writer

Years after Massoud Shokouhi Vafa graduated from the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford, he returned to prey on the insular deaf community that trusted him as one of their own.

Shokouhi pleaded guilty to wire fraud in federal court in Hartford Tuesday, in connection with bilking $384,432 from six people who believed he was the Wall Street investor he claimed to be.

All six victims were either alumni of the American School for the Deaf or otherwise affiliated with the school. Five of them sat stoically in the front row of the courtroom Tuesday, watching interpreter Mary A. Morehouse sign the proceedings. They made it clear afterward that he stole more than cash from them.

"Our community is very close," one woman said, through Morehouse. "We feel devastated.

"We trusted someone because he was part of our community and our lives," she added. "We value every part of our culture. This is a devastation of our culture. Our lives will never be the same."

Their individual financial losses ranged from $12,000 to more than $100,000, paid to Shokouhi between August 2002 and January of this year.

"Mr. Shokouhi falsely represented himself to be a sophisticated investor in the stock market," Supervisory Assistant U.S. Attorney Ronald S. Apter told U.S. District Judge Alfred V. Covello. Shokouhi told his "clients" that he had accounts at some of the nation's most prominent investment firms.

Shokouhi, 55, did not invest the money in stocks and bonds but gambled it away in Atlantic City. Apter said he would tell his victims to get him money on short notice, and they would tap into savings accounts or take cash advances on credit cards. Often they wired the money to him. Their trust was consummate.

After Apter detailed for Covello the government's evidence, the judge asked Shokouhi if he still wanted to plead guilty. "Yes," Shokouhi signed.

Shokouhi, who was arrested April 8 and has been confined to a halfway house in Hartford since that time, waived formal indictment by a grand jury. He faces 27 to 33 months in prison when he is sentenced Aug. 13. He also faces almost certain deportation to his native Iran once any prison term is completed.

The plea agreement Shokouhi signed requires him to make restitution to his victims. But Apter noted after court that Shokouhi "has not been gainfully employed for some time."

Copyright © 2004 by The Hartford Courant