When British police arrested a purported spiritual healer wanted in a series of peculiar frauds last year, word travelled quickly to Paramjit Bhullar in Woodbridge.
The suspect called himself “Kamal-Ji.” He wore white Indian kurta pyjamas, usually spoke in Hindi and allegedly gained the trust of victims before bilking them out of thousands of dollars.
Bhullar, 49, no longer cared about the money — $105,000 he gave to a holy man known as “Brother Roshan” in 2007 on the promise of a lottery win that never came. No, now it was about the others, scores of victims across North America who said that they, too, were suckered by false assurances and fantastical tricks.
Bhullar would soon be on a plane to England. He had a strong suspicion that “Kamal-Ji” was the man he had spent the past seven years hunting. This time, he told himself, the conman would not slip away.
Mohammed Umar Ashrafi, 50, was found guilty on Thursday in Leicester, England, of 15 counts of fraud and one count of blackmail for what the Crown prosecutor described as “a cynical campaign of dishonesty” that netted $1.2 million.
But what the jury heard was only a small piece of the puzzle.
The same self-styled healer is alleged to have bilked dozens of victims in Canada and the U.S. out of more than $7 million using various aliases, purported magic and a grab-bag of tricks and scams dating back to 1997.
Known to law enforcement officials on this side of the Atlantic as Mohammad Umar Ashrafi, he is wanted in Canada, along with his alleged sidekick, Latafat Ali Khan, Peel Region police confirm.
Following their disappearance from Mississauga in 2008, police claimed the pair had defrauded 34 believers in the GTA out of $1.2 million with a lottery trick involving boiled eggs. An extradition request for Ashrafi is outstanding, Peel police say. Khan’s whereabouts are unknown.
The con, according to victim allegations: At his request, victims brought him white eggs from the supermarket, which he boiled and proceeded to cut open. Inside one of the eggs, there was a lottery ticket, inscribed with numbers, the victim’s name and the drawing date.
Though the intricacies of the trick aren’t known, victims say he told them his prayers could deliver a big win — for a price. Several days before the drawing date, however, he was gone.
Before arriving in Canada, police in the U.S. allege Ashrafi and Khan conducted similar egg-lotto scams in New Jersey, California, Texas and Illinois.
Following the trail of Mohammad Umar Ashrafi
It is an alleged trail of deceit that has confounded law enforcement officials, who believe they may have captured only a fraction of the true losses. While many victims are shamed into silence, for others, the embarrassment is fuel for vengeance. Working together, they have launched independent investigations, preparing thick dossiers of evidence and using their contacts in India to piece together the identities, motivations and movements of the suspects.
They have written letters to mayors, senators and FBI officials, and chased Ashrafi and Khan around the globe. In one instance, a trio of victims pursued Khan to Texas, where they were charged with kidnapping after trying to take justice into their own hands.
One victim from San Jose, Calif., who asked that only his first name be used in this story, prepared an extensive “crime report” on Ashrafi and Khan in 2006.
“It is a sin to do wrong onto others,” Amrik wrote in the covering letter. “It is also a sin of the same magnitude when others do wrong to you and you don’t fight against it.”
In Leicester, the court heard victims were drawn in by leaflets promising help with family, health and money problems. Victims say Ashrafi used what seemed like magic to make them believe they were going to win the lottery.
This time, they say, he boiled dough balls, and when he cut them open, one revealed a ticket, inscribed with lotto numbers. Again, he said they could trade money for a big win.
When police searched his London flat, they found some of the props he used to convince victims he could perform magic, including Dictaphones with recordings that he claimed were the voice of a deity.
Ashrafi, whose lawyer declined to comment for this story, denied the charges in Leicester. He testified during his month-long trial that he had travelled to the U.K. from his native India to help “the poor and sick,” the Leicester Mercury reported.
He said he became a faith healer after being cured by a devotee of the Indian spiritual master Sai Baba, whose prayers had enabled him to walk again four years after a gunshot wound left him paralyzed. He denied promising lottery wins, and said all the donations he accepted were voluntary.
Bhullar, who travelled to Leicester for the trial, says he will not rest until Ashrafi faces charges in Canada.
“I have to stop him. I feel very bad for people,” Bhullar told the Star. “People sold their houses, shops, businesses . . . and he (does) not care.”
Union City, Calif., 2005: “Iqbal”
At first, the holy man with the soft voice provided his prayers for free.
“He said, ‘No, we don’t take money,’” recalled Amrik, the victim from San Jose.
Amrik, an engineer, said he and his wife were struggling in the wake of a trio of recent deaths in the family when she heard an ad on a South Asian radio station for a man who called himself “Iqbal,” Ashrafi’s alias at that time.
Amrik was skeptical, but agreed to accompany her to Iqbal’s rented house in nearby Union City to give her “peace of mind.”
In the beginning, Amrik said, Iqbal gave his wife special papers inscribed with messages to take home and burn. Her anxieties soon began to fade.
Although Amrik remained unsure, he was gradually convinced, particularly after a prediction that he would get a job offer came true. At one point, Amrik says, Iqbal told him to bring a dozen white eggs from the supermarket. He says Iqbal boiled the eggs and prayed. When he cut them open, one contained a rolled-up piece of foil inscribed with a message, stating that Amrik, who was looking for more stable work, should find a new business partner.
“He’s very shrewd in making other people believe in him,” Amrik says.
Iqbal told Amrik that he had such a business partner in mind, someone with experience, who needed a large payment to prove that Amrik was trustworthy. Once the deal was done, Iqbal said, the man would return the money.
Amrik says he took out a second mortgage on his house and handed over more than $300,000. A few weeks before the supposed introduction, Amrik arrived at Iqbal’s home in Union City to find he had vanished.
Amrik compares how he felt to “standing on a road, naked, and everybody is spitting at you.”
“I was not angry at him at that time. I was more angry with myself. I can’t believe that I got entrapped by this person,” he says. “Every morning when I wake up, I feel ashamed.”
He soon learned that there were others — in all, 17 people had handed over more than $1.6 million to Iqbal and his associate, “Kabir,” mainly through the egg-lotto scam, according to Union City police documents.
The detective who handled the case in Union City, Brandon Hayward, would later conclude that Iqbal and Kabir disappeared four days before the lotto drawing date in January 2006.
After receiving the lotto numbers from the egg, the victims were given strict instructions not to discuss the windfall, according to police documents. It appears they did not find each other until it was too late.
Many were shamed into silence. But the more Amrik learned, the more he became convinced that, “No matter what, I should try and bring this person to justice,” he says. “The more I did, the better I feel — like I’m getting the honour and respect back in my life.”
The crime report Amrik provided to city officials in 2006 included photographs of the suspects’ passports, which he said he obtained from a travel agent — information that was new to police, according to Hayward.
Hayward used the image of the prime suspect to create a photo lineup. Several victims identified Iqbal as Mohammad Umar Ashrafi.
Mississauga, 2007: “Brother Roshan”
In early 2008, Paramjit Bhullar distributed a flyer to South Asian shops and places of worship in Mississauga, offering a $10,000 reward to anyone with information about the whereabouts of a spiritual healer called “Mohammed Roshan.”
“It has been found that once the visitors came to Roshan, he amazed them with magic tricks and promised to help them win the lottery provided he be given some money,” the flyer read. “If you have given money to Roshan and feel that you are a victim to this fraud pls (sic) contact us … so that the matter can be investigated.”
Bhullar was one of dozens of victims who claim to have been duped by Ashrafi’s then alias Roshan, also called Roshanbhai or Brother Roshan, with the egg-lotto scam.
Roshan and his associate fled a few days before the big drawing date.
As Amrik was doing in Union City, Bhullar took the lead for the GTA’s scam victims.
“How do I feel? Stupid,” he told the Star in 2008. “I’m coming out front because I want him to get caught so he can’t rob anyone else.”
Peel police have been tight-lipped about their case against Ashrafi and Khan.
But according to Hayward’s police report, he reached out to a constable in Peel after hearing about the fraud from Amrik, who believed Brother Roshan was their man.
He said the Peel officer told him he had identified the suspects as Mohammad Umar Ashrafi and Latafat Ali Khan.
By that time, Hayward had discovered that the pair was alleged to have conducted similar scams in New Jersey in 1997, Sugar Land, Texas, in 2001, and Chicago in 2003.
“In all of these instances, Ashrafi has used illusions, sleight of hand, and false promises of lottery winnings to fraudulently fool clients/victims into handing over in excess of $6 million,” he wrote in a 2008 report, in which he argued the allegations amounted to theft under false pretenses.
However, Hayward says his investigation hit a wall when it was “flushed” by the California district attorney’s office.
The problem, according to Hayward: The lotto numbers could have been winners.
“He gave the same numbers to everyone. He set it for the same exact lotto,” Hayward said in an interview. “So, essentially, what it came down to, as ridiculous as this sounds, is: What if they would have all won?
“This went through three district attorneys and our vertical prosecution unit, and every single one of them came up with the same finding,” he said. “It just went nowhere.”
Sugar Land, Texas, 2001: “Amir”
While official investigations stalled, the victims banded together and continued their pursuit.
Kamaljit Kaur Khairah says she was scammed out of more than $100,000 with the egg-lotto trick in Sugar Land in 2001, by a self-proclaimed healer who operated alone, and called himself “Amir.” In a recent interview, she told the Star that after he disappeared, she reached out to victims of similar scams across the U.S. and Canada, and routinely answered ads for spiritual healers in South Asian papers on the chance that he would resurface.
In 2010, she visited a man she suspected could be the assistant that was described by victims in Utah City and Mississauga. She surreptitiously recorded his voice, and shared it with victims in the GTA, who believed he sounded like Latafat Ali Khan.
Several victims, including Amrik and Bhullar, travelled to Texas to confirm his identity, and make sure that he was apprehended.
There are varying accounts of what happened next, but when police in Sugar Land responded to a call about an assault, they believed that the person in need of assistance was Khan.
Khan claimed he had left a house for a walk when he was pushed inside a parked car and driven to another location, where he was beaten and threatened with deadly force, police spokesman Doug Adolph told the Star.
Amrik, for his part, maintains that before police arrived, Khan bit his own lip and ripped his shirt to make it seem as if he was roughed up. But both he and Bhullar, along with another alleged fraud victim, were arrested and charged with aggravated assault and kidnapping.
While in custody, Amrik and Bhullar say, they told police about the alleged frauds, and local detectives confirmed that there was indeed an arrest warrant for Khan in Canada. However, Canadian authorities chose not to extradite Khan on the warrant, so he was released, Adolph said.
Peel police did not respond to questions from the Star about this decision.
Adolph said the state’s district attorney ultimately dropped the kidnapping and assault charges because Khan “was out of the country and non-responsive.”
But the mission was not a total bust. When they confronted Khan, he revealed an important clue: Ashrafi, he told them, was now living in England.
Ashrafi would soon have to answer for his crimes there.
Leicester, U.K., 2014: “Kamal-ji”
When Ashrafi was convicted on Thursday, Crown prosecutor Steve Chappell praised the victims for their “courage and fortitude.”
“Mohammed Ashrafi ran a sophisticated operation to gain the confidence of his victims and showed no sign of stopping until he was arrested,” Chappell said in a release.
South Asian groups in the U.K. lauded the conviction, saying they were hopeful it would deter other fake spiritual healers and encourage victims to come forward, according to the Leicester Mercury.
Sachdev Virdee, general secretary of the Asian Rationalist Society, believes the case against Ashrafi in Leicester “is just the tip of the iceberg,” noting investigations are ongoing in Birmingham and London, England and Canada, the newspaper reported.
It was an emotional day for Bhullar, who was in court for the verdict.
He says he will continue to push for Ashrafi to face charges in Canada. But for now, he is enjoying a rare moment of vindication, a feeling that has eluded him for years.
“I’m very happy,” he said, through tears. “I’m thankful to my God. God helped us.”