N.Y. City Alleged Murder-for-Insurance Case Nears Trial

May 8, 2007

When Basdeo Somaipersaud turned up dead in his favorite park in New York City in 1998, his family assumed he must have cracked his head during one of his drinking binges.

Then the autopsy came back with a curious result: the 42-year-old from Guyana actually died from intoxication from alcohol and chlorpormazine, a sedative sometimes used to treat schizophrenia. Also noted were small punctures on the victim’s torso.

Authorities now claim that someone injected Somaipersaud with lethal doses of the sedative while he was in a defenseless, drunken stupor — and then tried to cash in on the man’s life insurance policy.

Two men from the same tight-knit Guyanese community in Queens Somaipersaud were due to go on trial Wednesday on federal murder charges. The trial involves the deaths of four people, but investigators have said the defendants may have killed several more people in a scheme to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars from life insurance policies the victims never knew about.

If convicted, Richard James, 46, and Ronald Mallay, 61, could face the death penalty.

Lead defense attorney Kenneth Kaplin denied the allegations, and claimed prosecutors built the case on the flimsy testimony of shady coconspirators who were “given deals by the government.”

James — a former insurance agent known for hosting a cable television show featuring Guyanese music and dance — and Mallay, an ex-postal worker, have been formally accused in the poisoning and shooting deaths of four victims, two in the United States and two in Guyana since the 1990s.

Court papers allege $300,000 (euro221,222) was collected from the death of Mallay’s nephew in Guyana, where he was killed with alcohol and ammonia. The 1993 shooting death of Mallay’s brother-in-law also was part of the conspiracy, investigators said.

In the case of Somaipersaud, MetLife paid out $84,000 (euro61,942) in proceeds. Investigators say most of the money was secretly funneled back to James.

MetLife discovered the scheme after noticing that 21 death claims had been filed from policies written by James within a few years. The rate “was approximately 318 percent higher than expected (and) … a large number of deaths were violent or under unusual circumstances,” court papers said.

MetLife fired James in July 2000 and notified authorities, who put him under surveillance.

In 2002, investigators caught him on audiotape trying to pay an informant $25,000 (euro18,435) to kill another victim with a mix of alcohol and drugs to collect insurance, court papers said.

“The higher the dose, the better,” he allegedly told the informant.

Before the plot could be carried out, agents arrested James trying to flee to Guyana with a large amount of cash, authorities said. Both he and Mallay were ordered held without bail after pleading innocent to federal murder conspiracy charges.

Investigators say the murder-for-profit scheme mostly victimized down-and-out alcoholics like Somaipersaud.

The second of 10 children and known as “Hilton,” he was born into poverty in Guyana, his sister, Jasmatie Seejattan, told The Associated Press in an interview shortly after the arrests. In 1979, he arrived in New York, where he worked odd jobs and sent money to his wife and two children back home.

Somaipersaud’s weakness was scotch. He would stash quart bottles in his pocket, then take drinks whenever “he got lonely,” his sister said.

After Somaipersaud’s family and some of his siblings followed him to New York, he began complaining to them about mysterious wounds, including needle marks.

“We didn’t pay attention to him because he was drinking,” she said.

Somaipersaud apparently didn’t know James or Mallay. But authorities say James had covertly written an insurance policy on his life with his sister as beneficiary.

Another cooperator later told investigators that in 1998 he turned down $5,000 (euro3,687.04) from Mallay to kill a “drunk” who hung out at Smokey Oval Park, court papers said.

A few days later, Somaipersaud was found dead.

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