Beth Hale, Daily Mail, December 14, 2018
When fire ripped through Grenfell Tower resulting in a tragedy that claimed 72 lives, the generosity of those who came forward with offers of time, money and much-needed supplies was humbling.
An entire community — locally and more widespread — responded in an instinctive, heartfelt way that helped shine a symbol of hope amid great sorrow.
But, wherever in life there are those who demonstrate the very best of human nature, there are others who show it in its darkest light.
For as a string of recent court appearances have proven — even as firefighters negotiated the smouldering ruins of the West London tower block, as medical staff and emergency services began the harrowing task of identifying those who lost their lives, and families mourned together — a small group of unscrupulous, utterly callous individuals were calculating how they could capitalise on the tragedy.
This week father-of-five Abolaji Onafuye became the 14th person to be convicted of fraud following the blaze in June 2017.
The total taken from funds intended for victims by those convicted stands at around £670,000. Not only is it unlikely ever to be recouped but there are more cases in the pipeline.
Onafuye said he witnessed the blaze, and that two genuine victims to whom he had no relation were his sister and nephew.
He used his fictitious tale to claim more than £30,000 from Kensington and Chelsea council and charity Rugby Portobello Trust, and when his ruse was rumbled, insisted he had been rendered temporarily insane because he had been fasting for Ramadan.
Speaking after his conviction, Detective Constable Carlos Araujo said the fraudster ‘shamelessly took advantage of the support being offered to those who were directly affected by the Grenfell tragedy’.
But Onafuye’s ill-gotten gains pale compared to the £88,000 another conman racked up after claiming he had slept rough in the tower — and the £62,000 totted up by a seemingly respectable finance manager who skimmed the funds set up for survivors, which she was supposed to manage.
Shamelessly, fraudster after fraudster took rooms in four-star hotels meant for those in need (and stayed there for months at a time), racked up bills for room service, demanded better food, took prepaid credit cards to cover expenses — even submitted bills for Netflix while pretending to be traumatised and bereaved.
More cases seem likely: Kensington and Chelsea council has several other investigations under way, another man is awaiting trial and several more cases are being probed by police following a series of arrests in the summer.
Deputy council leader Kim Taylor-Smith said: ‘Fraud is an issue the council takes very seriously, not just because taxpayers’ money is being used to support people, but because genuine survivors and bereaved families have raised concerns with us. It is hugely important to me, and to the council, that public perception of survivors and bereaved is not tarnished by the acts of what is a very small minority.’
Beth Hale takes a look at the rogues’ gallery of those who have been exposed so far.
- ABOLAJI ONAFUYE, 54
From Hammersmith, West London
Father-of-five Onafuye insisted he was traumatised witnessing the blaze, but was in fact 12 miles away when the fire broke out.
The Nigerian property consultant said he was living in the tower — even claiming that victim Zainab Deen, 32, and her two-year-old son Jeremiah, who both died in the blaze, were his sister and nephew.
As a result, he was housed in the four-star Grosvenor Hotel for nearly a year, at a cost of £23,500, before racking up another £13,000 after he was rehoused. When he was arrested in June, he claimed temporary insanity, caused by not eating during Ramadan, and denied fraud. He will be sentenced later next week.
Abolaji Onafuye, 54, insisted he was traumatised witnessing the blaze, but was in fact 12 miles away when the fire broke out. While Sharife Elouahabi (right), 38, told social workers that he suffered from ‘constant nightmares’ after losing his uncle, aunt and three cousins to the blaze
- SHARIFE ELOUAHABI, 38
No fixed address
Elouahabi told social workers that he suffered from ‘constant nightmares’ after losing his uncle, aunt and three cousins to the blaze.
He only survived, he said, because he was out breaking his fast for Ramadan.
In reality he lived three miles away and concocted the ruse because of the similarity between his own surname and that of genuine victims — the El-Wahabi family, who lived on the 21st floor.He lived in three different hotels for a year — and was kicked out of two for bad behaviour — racking up enormous bills for accommodation, travel and maintenance, including £300 a week for food.
Elouahabi admitted fraud on the first day of his trial last month and was sentenced to six years.
- KOFFI KOUAKOU, 53
Chelsea, South-West London
When Kouakou was arrested in June, the newspaper cutting found in his rucksack couldn’t have been more apt: it was entitled ‘Pure greed of Grenfell fraudsters’ and related to the jailing of a pair of fraudsters a week earlier. He falsely claimed to have been in a relationship with Zainab Deen, the same victim fraudster Onafuye had claimed was his sister.
But Kouakou simply concocted his story in order to benefit from hotel accommodation, rent in a council-funded flat, food and emergency cash.
He admitted two counts of fraud in October and was sentenced to four years in prison.
- SYED RINKU, 46
Bethnal Green, East London
Bangladeshi over-stayer Rinku pretended he was having a gay love affair with a man on the 20th floor, who died in the fire, to swindle cash from the disaster fund and stay in the UK.
Quizzed about his affair by police, it became clear that the illegal immigrant had researched who had died in the fire and officers subsequently found heterosexual porn and dating apps on his phone.
By then Rinku had already spent £5,070 on a prepaid credit card provided by the authorities and been granted temporary leave to remain in the UK under the Grenfell Survivors Immigration Policy.
He was jailed at Isleworth Crown Court for 18 months for fraud in October, with 11 months to run concurrently for obtaining leave to remain by deception, after pleading guilty to both offences.
- ABDELKARIM REKAYA, 28
Chelsea, South-West London
Tunisian illegal immigrant Rekaya took advantage of a Government amnesty policy for those living in the block.
After claiming he’d been sleeping rough in a stairwell, he enjoyed 209 nights in a four-star hotel before landing a council-funded studio flat in Chelsea for a further six months.
He was given furniture, his bills were paid and he even asked that his subscription to the TV streaming service Netflix be paid.
He admitted fraud by false representation and obtaining leave to remain by deception and was jailed last month for four-and-a- half years.
Abdelkarim Rekaya, 28, claimed he’d been sleeping rough in a stairwell. While Jenny McDonagh (right), 39, began stealing days after starting her job at Kensington and Chelsea council
- JENNY McDONAGH, 39
Abbey Wood, South-East London
Recruited by Kensington and Chelsea council to manage a public fund for survivors, McDonagh began stealing days after starting her job — even treating herself to five-star holidays to Dubai and New York over 10 months.
Photos were found of her posing in a £99 Hobbs dress bought on a credit card set up for a victim. She blew £16,000 on gambling. She admitted theft, money laundering and a second fraud charge while employed by an NHS trust in Kent, and was jailed for five and a half years in September.
- DERRICK PETERS, 58
No fixed address
Brazen burglar Peters was put up in a £192-a-night four-star hotel for six months after claiming to have been living with a resident who had died.
During his stay, where he racked up a £5,200 bill on drinks, food and laundry, he burgled a nearby flat.
He admitted the crime and was remanded in custody before sentencing, but he soon got out after writing a letter to the judge asking for leniency, explaining he had been a Grenfell resident.
When his duplicity was uncovered, it was branded ‘repulsive’ and he was jailed for six years.
- ANTONIO GOUVEIA, 33
No fixed address
The homeless cleaner claimed to have lived with 80-year-old Hermine Harris in Flat 42, on the seventh floor of the tower.
Mrs Harris was there on the night of the tragedy, with her daughter, and they both escaped. Despite the Portuguese father-of-two not even knowing her, he managed to land a nine-month stay at a £155-a-night hotel, emergency cash and even a £249.99 laptop. He admitted two counts of fraud by false representation and was jailed for three years and two months.
- YONATAN EYOB, 26
Notting Hill, West London
Eyob claimed to have lived in a flat on the 21st floor of the block that was actually home to the El- Wahabi family, a married couple and their three young children who all perished in the disaster.
In a ruse lasting nearly a year he was housed at a Hilton hotel, and refused several offers of housing because properties were too small or didn’t meet his needs.
He asked for a clothing allowance of £500 after complaining the hotel food had caused him to put on weight and outgrow his clothes.
When the scam was finally rumbled, police discovered a haul of drugs in his hotel room.
He was jailed for six years and eight months in September.
Yonatan Eyob (left), 26, claimed to have lived in a flat on the 21st floor of the block that was actually home to the El- Wahabi family, a married couple and their three young children who all perished in the disaster. While Mohammad Gamoota (right), 32, pretended to be the heartbroken son of a man who died after becoming trapped in his flat
- MOHAMMAD GAMOOTA, 32
Pimlico, Central London
The business student pretended to be the heartbroken son of a man who died after becoming trapped in his flat, claiming he had only survived because he’d been attending midnight prayers at his mosque. In reality he took the details from a newspaper story about 77-year-old Abdeslam Sebbar, whose real sons had been at the mosque, and who had a heartbreaking final phone call from their father, who told them: ‘I can’t breathe.’
Gamoota was given £500 and booked into a Holiday Inn hotel for nine days, racking up a £374 room service bill. He tried to claim a further £5,000, but a technical issue with his bank account prevented it being paid in.
He admitted two counts of fraud and was jailed for 18 months.
- ELAINE DOUGLAS, 52
Elaine Douglas, 52, and Tommy Brooks, 52, plucked two names from the list of the dead and claimed they lived with them on the 19th floor when the Government announced an amnesty for illegal immigrants living in the tower
- TOMMY BROOKS, 52
No fixed address
The callous pair plucked two names from the list of the dead and claimed they lived with them on the 19th floor when the Government announced an amnesty for illegal immigrants living in the tower. They had entered Britain illegally from Jamaica on separate flights 16 years ago.
Douglas visited Grenfell community centre The Curve with her tale, six weeks after the disaster, and Brooks followed suit.
They were granted temporary leave to remain — running up bills of £67,125 (her) and £58,397 (him) during eight months at a £400-a-night hotel, with meals and clothing on pre-paid cards given to them by authorities.
Douglas even had the gall to complain about the quality of the food at her hotel, after spending more than £267 on room service.
They admitted fraud and obtaining leave to remain by deception and were sentenced to three years (Douglas), and three years and three months (Brooks).
- JOYCE MSOKERI, 47
Sutton, South London
Msokeri travelled 14 miles from her own flat to the smouldering tower block, claiming she had lost her husband in the tragedy.
Feigning trauma, she was given cash, food, clothing, three mobile phones and a room at the Hilton and splashed out on her hair, beauty treatments and handbags. When police became suspicious, she claimed her ‘husband’ had been found alive, miraculously, in a cave in Margate, in Kent.
She was branded ‘callous and contemptible’ when she was convicted of fraud and possessing a false document in March. She was jailed for four and a half years.
- ANH NHU NGUYEN, 53
Bromley, South-East London
With a tale of losing his home, wife and son, Nguyen gave tearful interviews about his own escape and the horror of climbing over dead bodies. The serial conman had never lived in the tower block and didn’t have a wife or children. Yet he even shook Prince Charles’s hand when the royal visited a relief centre.
He scammed more than £11,000 in the fortnight after the fire.
It later emerged he had 17 aliases and 28 convictions for 56 offences over more than 30 years. He admitted two counts of fraud by false representation and was jailed for 21 months in February.
GRAND TOTAL: £670,894.56
[Editor’s Note: The original story includes photos of each of the men and women convicted of fraud.]