A businessman killed himself in a London hotel room after losing his life savings to Nigerian con men, an inquest was told yesterday.
Jerry Stratton, 47, an American, took a drugs overdose and slashed his wrists after he was tricked into believing he could make £7m by handing over £48,000, in a classic case of an international swindle known as advance-fee fraud.
His body was found at the Cumberland Hotel in Marylebone last October when his relatives telephoned the manager. Police found a note written by Mr Stratton, a plumbing contractor from Live Oak, Florida, which said: "If anything happens to me, look for three people. They are Nigerians. They are responsible."
But yesterday, Detective Inspector Chris Byrne told the Westminster Coroners' Court that police inquiries showed no signs of foul play. "There is nothing to indicate otherwise from the scene and from the body," he said.
The Westminster coroner, Dr Paul Knapman, recorded a verdict of suicide, despite his family's belief that he might have been murdered.
Mr Byrne said Mr Stratton was caught up in a con operated by West African fraudsters, in which potential victims are offered huge profits if they put up money supposedly to help bribe officials at overseas banks to release huge sums of cash held on account.
The con men disappear with the victims' money leaving them with worthless contracts, or "promissory notes". Notes for $50,000 (£35,000) were found in Mr Stratton's room. He had been persuaded by the criminals that he could expect vast profits from the $10m (£7m) deal, but lost his money and flew to Britain on 5 October in a last-ditch attempt to salvage the deal.
The inquest was told he had unsuccessfully tried to raise $65,000 (£46,000) from family and friends to keep the deal going. Relatives became worried when he told them he "had nothing to come home for".
A pathologist, Dr Nicholas Hunt, said the cause of death was four deep incised wounds to the left forearm, and one to the right wrist causing heavy bleeding. Mr Stratton had taken five times the recommended amount of an insomnia drug called Nytol, he said. Police are still investigating the fraud.
Organised gangs from West Africa have been behind a series of other multi-million pound frauds operating in Britain over decades.
The National Criminal Intelligence Service said earlier this year that the gangs were using British frontmen, who hire temporary offices in Mayfair, central London, to lure victims from all over the world.
One fraud, which became known as the "419 scam" after a relevant section of the Nigerian penal code was responsible for about 150 stings every day. When the scam first emerged a decade ago, fraudsters would attempt to lure victims to Nigeria with letters purporting to be from high-ranking government officials, offering fortunes in return for assistance in moving huge sums of money.