Contraband cellphones are invaluable to inmates, but in the hands of Arthur Lee Cofield, who is serving a 14-year sentence for armed robbery at a Georgia state prison, a mobile phone turned out to be worth $11 million, federal prosecutors said.
From the prison in Butts County, about 45 miles south of Atlanta, Mr. Cofield called the Charles Schwab Corporation in June 2020 and impersonated a billionaire named S.K., who was later identified as Sidney Kimmel, according to a federal indictment.
Mr. Cofield spoke with a company representative about opening a checking account. After Mr. Cofield was told he needed a form of identification and a utility bill, a co-conspirator texted him a picture of Mr. Kimmel’s driver’s license and a utility bill, prosecutors said.
Mr. Cofield was so convincing that he persuaded the financial-services giant to transfer $11 million from Mr. Kimmel’s bank account to a precious metals dealer in Idaho to buy 6,106 American Eagle gold coins, prosecutors said.
From there, Mr. Cofield used his contraband phone to hire a private security company to take the coins from Boise, Idaho, to Atlanta on a chartered plane. After the coins had been delivered, he contacted the owner of a six-bedroom house on 1.4 wooded acres in Atlanta and offered $4.4 million for the property, prosecutors said.
With the help of accomplices, Mr. Cofield paid $720,000 cash as a down payment and later the full balance, also in cash, according to a federal indictment filed in December 2020.
Jose Morales, who was the warden of the unit that housed Mr. Cofield, could not be reached. He told The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, which had previously reported on the case, that Mr. Cofield was “a shrewd, intelligent individual who could con you out of millions.”
Mr. Cofield, 31, was charged with several federal counts, including conspiracy to commit bank fraud, aggravated identity theft, money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering, according to court documents. He has pleaded not guilty. A lawyer for Mr. Cofield, Steve Sadow, declined to comment on Friday.
Almost two years later, federal prosecutors and Mr. Sadow have a pressing problem: What to do with the Atlanta property?
In court documents filed on Oct. 7, the two sides asked a judge for permission to sell the property so the proceeds could be held until Mr. Cofield’s case is resolved. The indictment said that Mr. Cofield, if convicted, must forfeit any proceeds he received arising from his offenses.
In the filing, both parties said the property, which was valued at about $3.5 million in 2020, is vacant, has been “rapidly deteriorating” and is at risk of losing its fair-market value because it has not been maintained.
The bank account that prosecutors said Mr. Cofield stole from belonged to Mr. Kimmel, a 94-year-old fashion mogul who has bankrolled box-office hits like “Moneyball,” “United 93” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” along with quirky flops that were nevertheless critically acclaimed, like “Lars and the Real Girl,” a love story featuring a sex doll.
Some key details about the scheme remain unclear: Court documents do not reveal why Mr. Kimmel was targeted. And prosecutors did not say in the indictment how Mr. Cofield — who is also facing attempted murder charges in Fulton County, Ga., in an unrelated case — was able to acquire the phone, which they say he hid in his prison cell.
A spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Corrections declined an interview request but said in a statement that the agency had a “robust plan” for cracking down on contraband phones.
The spokeswoman, Joan Heath, said that about 5,600 contraband phones were confiscated in fiscal year 2022, including more than 1,300 since July. Citing security reasons, she did not disclose details of the crackdown but said that “any and all resources available” were being used to curb the practice.
“One of those efforts includes conducting shakedowns across all of our facilities,” she said, adding that the tactic had been in place for numerous years and had not been the result of Mr. Cofield’s case.
Two co-conspirators, Eldridge Bennett and his daughter, Eliayah Bennett, also face charges in connection with the case and have pleaded not guilty, according to court documents. Their lawyers did not immediately respond to emails late on Friday.
Mr. Kimmel could not be reached. A spokeswoman for Charles Schwab said that the client in the case had been fully reimbursed.
“As soon as Schwab was aware of suspected fraudulent activity, we launched an investigation, initiated measures to protect the client’s account, and notified the authorities,” the spokeswoman, Tatiana Stead, said in an email. She declined to comment further because of the continuing investigation.
Jack Begg contributed research.