Less than 10 years after graduating at the top of the Johnstown High School class of 1998, Ian Barker finds himself in a county jail in North Carolina, a federal prisoner convicted of wire fraud and lying to federal agents about Costa Rican sweepstakes fraud.
The former valedictorian pleaded guilty to the two felony counts and acknowledged his involvement in sweepstakes fraud from Costa Rica, not only in court, but in a 200-page document he wrote that details the scam and the cast of characters involved.
The former Caroga Lake resident said he was railroaded by the federal government into pleading guilty after being promised immunity or a lesser sentence for his cooperation in uncovering the scheme.
But the government says Barker and his partner owe $1.72 million in restitution to go along with a 10-year stint in prison. He was sentenced Dec. 12 and is awaiting transfer to a federal prison.
According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, two dozen people were arrested in a scam that fleeced more than 2,000 U.S. citizens out of more than $20 million.
ICE said victims were told they won a sweepstakes prize and had to send a refundable insurance fee from $1,000 to several thousand dollars to guarantee that the prize money would be sent.
The ICE got involved in September 2003, when agents in Miami learned about victims in Montana, who said the calls came from Florida. Agents determined that the con men were using Voice Over Internet Protocol
software to hide the fact that the calls were actually coming from Costa Rica.
ICE spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez declined further comment because Barker’s case is on appeal.
The news of Barker’s involvement in the con game shocked his former mentors at Johnstown High School.
A student remembered
“I can’t imagine Ian making a bad decision like this,” history teacher and student government adviser Judith Kane said.
Kane and other educators recalled an individualist, a great student, someone, as art teacher Kathryn Zajicek said, who was “bound for greatness.”
Barker wasn’t much for sports, but he excelled in his course work. He won numerous academic awards for art, science, math, Latin and global studies, according to the 1998 yearbook. He was a member of the National Honor Society, student council, peer mediation group and the staff of “Baronet,” the yearbook, and “Arts and Letters,” a JHS literary publication.
“Congratulations on another job well done,” reads the yearbook message from his father, Steve, mother, Carol, and sister, Ali.
“He was extremely intelligent and very talented. As an art student, he was very insightful and very creative,” Zajicek said. “I also remember that he wouldn’t compromise his beliefs. He would look at both sides but he had very strong beliefs.”
Zajicek said Barker displayed a great sense of humor and was “very kind but different.”
“I think he thought he was too old for his years because he was thinking beyond what other high school students were thinking, whether it came to politics or art. He thought there was life beyond Johnstown, and he was looking forward to it,” Zajicek said. “I always wondered where he would end up. I always thought he was bound for greatness. I can’t even imagine that from this individual. He always thought everything out and he never jumped into anything.”
Kane said Barker was quiet, but not afraid to speak in public, whether arguing against a proposed closed-lunch policy at school board meetings, or during student council meetings.
“He was quite the individual, too. And certainly, if it was acceptable, [he would] take the time to express his feelings and his opinions. A lot of times 10th-graders have their opinions but they usually don’t have the facts to back it up,” she added.
In federal hands
So, how did Barker end up in the federal prison system? He and his family contend he was betrayed by federal prosecutors.
“He got set up and knocked down like a bowling pin,” Steve Barker said. Barker said his son also made a series of bad decisions.
Ian Barker went to St. Peter’s College in New Jersey to study the classics after graduation. He left after two years with a 4.0 grade-point average, his father said.
“That still mystifies and bothers his mother and I, but I think it was part of a rebellious streak that started in high school. [One day] the principal called; he said he’s the first valedictorian to be in detention,” Barker said.
After dropping out of St. Peter’s, Barker worked at a Gloversville deli for a while, and moved to Costa Rica early in 2001.
He did very well in legitimate business interests, including real estate and banking ventures, his father said. But then Barker decided to get involved in the lucrative world of sweepstakes fraud.
In his written account, he talks of cocaine addiction, getting involved in the sweepstakes fraud and his attempts to reform his life.
“I figure I was involved on an intermittent basis on the criminal side of sweepstakes fraud from in or about December 2003 to May 2005,” he wrote. “In February 2005 I found out that my girlfriend at the time was pregnant with our son. The next two months, I went on an aggressive campaign of self-reformation.”
Back from the dark
Barker wrote that he quit, cold turkey, a “significant” cocaine habit. He and his partner, Donald Alfred Duncan, quit the sweepstakes fraud con game in May 2005, he said.
The con had a modest beginning but blossomed, he wrote.
“By 2005 the sweepstakes racket was responsible for employing an army of the most disgusting human beings imaginable. Child molesters, crackheads and kidnappers employing child molesters, crackheads and kidnappers,” Barker wrote. Barker said he and Duncan decided to not only close their shop but to turn in others still in the game. They started sending e-mails to the U.S. Department of Justice.
“Knowing that sweepstakes fraud had become a shelter providing a standard of living to such a harmful segment of the population — and that I was in a unique position to end it — was probably the primary factor in my decision to contact the government,” Barker wrote.
Justice initially didn’t reply.
“We figured it would take us 4 to 6 months to bring down the entire industry in Costa Rica. We could never have imagined it would take that long just to receive a reply,” he wrote.
Eventually Barker and Duncan started making phone calls and it worked. They teamed up with an investigator from the U.S. Embassy, documenting the ongoing sweepstakes enterprises and the people involved, with the understanding that they would receive immunity for their cooperation.
Barker claims that he identified all but three of the con artists that were arrested in the two-year investigation, that the U.S. attorney’s office blew his cover and reneged on the immunity deal.
Laura Sweeny, a spokeswoman for the Department of Justice, noted the case is on appeal.
“So to protect the integrity of the judicial process we wouldn’t have anything to say,” she said.
Steve Barker said his son was lured to North Carolina under false pretenses — to prepare for trial testimony — and was arrested on the spot.
He eventually agreed to plead guilty to avoid a 30-year prison sentence but did appeal. He was sentenced Dec. 12 in Charlotte.
Barker said his son realized that what he was doing was wrong, and he was right to stop, but he should never have gone to the government.
Ian Barker, in his account, explained that he and his partner wanted to move on with their lives. He wrote that they didn’t want the sweepstakes con game to come back to haunt them years down the road and figured they could secure immunity by helping bring down the various sweepstakes operations.
“A lot of it has to do with youth, a lot of it has to do with the rush of getting involved in these investigations,” Steve Barker said. He said one of the saddest aspects is that his son did very well in the legitimate business world before playing the con game.
“It’s unfortunate he got involved. I would expect him to have better sense,” Barker said.
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