File picture

A retired US Navy officer. A spy on a secret mission to South Africa. A 60-year-old Texan supervisor of a “road crew”. A civil engineer unjustly arrested during a stopover from China.

These are just some of the aliases used by Olayinka Sunmola, a Nigerian romance scammer, who for years operated out of Johannesburg, targeting more than 30 middle-aged women in the US over the internet.

After convincing them he was their one true love using false names such as Elias Dyess and Henry Harrell, he de-frauded them of amounts ranging from thousands of rand to more than R1 million.

This ended in August 2014, when he was arrested by British police as he was about to board a BA flight from London to Johannesburg. The South African police were also investigating him at the time.

He was later extradited to face trial in the US.

Now the 32-year-old has pleaded guilty in a US court to charges including mail fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy and extortion.

And the man who once posed as a spy on a secret mission faces up to 127 years in prison and a fine of up to R30m.

A 30-page indictment filed in a US district court in Illinois, indicates Sunmola scammed women between 2008 and 2013, although it is possible he was active before these dates.

The indictment details how, operating out of Johannesburg, he convinced women he met over the internet on free online dating sites he was their soulmate.

To do this he created a grabbag of false identities. Some were invented, others were stolen from social media profiles of real people.

The US Department of Justice said Sunmola expertly “played upon each victim’s romantic feelings and vulnerability” to manipulate them to send him money or electronic goods.

Sunmola often impersonated a middle-aged US man, who he claimed had travelled to South Africa for a lucrative business deal, spinning a sad tale of how his wife had died.

Using the name Adonis Dee, a “colonel in US Army Intelligence”, he told his fraud victims his wife was killed in a car crash. “He looked forward to retiring from the military and finding the perfect woman with whom to spend the rest of his life,” the indictment reads.

On another occasion, he said his wife was dying of breast cancer and he needed money to care of his nine-year-old daughter.

Sunmola also sent women flowers, stuffed animals, greeting cards and chocolates. Once a relationship had been cemented, he would “manufacture emergencies” and prey on the women’s willingness to help him.

Putting himself forward as Texan road builder Henry Harrell, he claimed he had become “isolated and depressed” in South Africa.

To help him, he asked the women to send him Apple iPads. At other times he asked for cash to be transferred to his account by wire transfer, or his credit card to be topped up. He even impersonated police.

In August 2012 he convinced a woman to send him five Apple computers and three iPads.

Then, in the guise of a concerned police officer, he contacted the same woman to say she had been the target of a scam. He claimed he would ship her goods back to the US, once she had paid a “legally required” customs fee of a few thousand dollars. The woman paid, only to discover the policeman and scammer were the same person.

Sunmola is to be sentenced on June 17.

Sunday Argus