“Unknown immigrant” puzzle

For six years, a man who refuses to identify himself has been held in a Canadian maximum-security prison

The only thing the government seems sure of is that the man is not who he claims to be — a French citizen named Herman Emmanuel Fankem

An image of a the accused is displayed on a screen during a press conference at Toronto Police Headquarters in downtown Toronto, Ont. Monday April 15, 2013. TORONTO SUN/QMI AGENCY

TORONTO — The immigration detention hearing went off kilter right at the beginning, when the man seeking release from prison was asked to identify himself.

“Madam, I hope that everything you do against me, it will stop,” he replied, in French, via video link from an Ontario prison.

“I will listen to what you have to say, sir,” said the Immigration and Refugee Board’s adjudicator, Aminata Barry, “but I would like to know first of all, am I speaking to the right person?”

“I don’t care,” the man said.

Barry then got just three words into her formal opening of the hearing on April 27, 2017, before his outburst.

“I don’t care what you do, you can go to hell,” the man said as she spoke. “That’s all I have to say to you. Go to hell.”

He stood and started for the door.

“The hearing is not over,” she called out.

“I don’t care. Go to hell,” he called back as he stormed out of the prison’s videoconference room.

A prison guard, assuming the hearing had ended, popped into view saying the next inmate scheduled for a hearing was on his way.

“Actually, the hearing has not even started,” Barry told him.

The bewildered guard asked, “How come he left?”

The question is valid but it is not the only one unanswered in this case, or even the most important.

The courts have designated the man “the Unknown Person” and he has been behind bars for more than six years because officials don’t know who he is. This puts him in a bizarre state of limbo: Until Canadian officials know his identity and nationality, they cannot deport him; until they can deport him, they don’t want to release him.

I don’t care what you do, you can go to hell. That’s all I have to say to you. Go to hell


He has been imprisoned since April 9, 2013, serving the equivalent of a manslaughter sentence — most of it in maximum security, although he has not been convicted of a crime in Canada.

About the only thing the Canadian government seems sure of is that the roughly-40-year-old man is not who he claims to be, a French citizen named Herman Emmanuel Fankem.

After years of international investigation spanning 11 countries on three continents, the mystery remains.

Fankem, for lack of a clearer way of identifying him in this story, arrived in Montreal on a flight from Cuba on Oct. 28, 2012. At customs, he handed over a French passport. He said this wasn’t his first visit. He originally came to Canada six months earlier and had left just a week before. He was returning, he said, because his friend’s sister had died and he came for her wake.

He had a reservation at a Days Inn in Montreal, $3,000 in a bank account and a return airline ticket.

He was given a 10-day visitor’s visa and welcomed back.

Fankem didn’t leave in 10 days, as authorities would learn six months later when Toronto police arrested him for a merciless scam.

He and four associates had answered a Toronto man’s real estate ad for a commercial property, police said at the time. Fankem and his associates told the man they had a large sum of money arriving from South Africa, police said, but the money had been covered in a black coating to get it out of the country and needed to be cleaned off with a special chemical.

They showed the victim how it worked, police said, with black bills becoming clean before his eyes. But that chemical was expensive, the victim was allegedly told, and he was convinced to pay for more chemicals for a cut of the cash. The black money turned out to be fake and the victim was out $450,000 before he realized, police said.

A kit used to make “black money,” seen during a press conference at Toronto Police Headquarters in downtown Toronto, Ont. Monday April 15, 2013. ERNEST DOROSZUK/TORONTO SUN/QMI AGENCY

When officers arrested Fankem on April 9, 2013, he was staying at a hotel under a different name. He said his passport was at his apartment in Montreal. Police charged him with two counts of fraud and personation. When police learned he was a visitor to Canada, they called the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).

All criminal charges against Fankem for the fraud were stayed on Aug. 20, 2013, at the request of prosecutors to facilitate his quick removal from Canada.

If he thought he was free, he was mistaken. While released from his criminal charges, he was immediately held in immigration custody awaiting deportation to France. And if officials thought he would soon be gone, they were just as wrong.

At first, Fankem was civil with immigration officials. He insisted he was French and had no other citizenship, according to internal CBSA notes.

At his early immigration detention reviews (hearings must be held monthly to determine if someone in custody can safely be released while their case is sorted out) he seemed cooperative but defiant.

“I am French,” he said at his first hearing, on Aug. 22, 2013, “but I work in England.”

He also demanded he remain in Canada to face trial for the fraud charge.

“I asked for a trial so that I could settle the allegations against me,” he said. “My right is to prove that I am not guilty.”

And he complained — even back then — he had been in prison too long.

“It’s been four and a half months I’m incarcerated,” he told the IRB at the hearing. “I want my freedom.”

Fankem was ordered detained that day, and many times after. The process got increasingly frustrating for everyone.

He expressed his exasperation in different ways, including angrily telling the IRB to go to hell at a hearing. He refused to meet with CBSA officers trying to solve the mystery of who he is. He refused to have his photograph taken or to give fingerprints.

He also started refusing to appear at his detention reviews, creating an odd situation at each hearing where the IRB would connect via video link to an empty chair, leaving the link running during the hearing in case he changed his mind and attended. He never did.

In a remarkable display of defiance, over four-and-a-half years he refused to attend 51 detention review hearings. Each hearing ordered his continued detention.

He also spurned CBSA officials wanting to speak with him at least 40 times. He wasn’t polite about it, often telling them to “go f— yourselves” and claiming they had “kidnapped” him, according to CBSA notes. Despite insisting he needed to speak to French diplomats, he twice refused to be taken to meet with them.

As Fankem marked time in prison, information slowly trickled in from agencies around the world answering requests from Canada through Interpol.

Det. Alan Spratt, Financial Crimes Unit, during a press conference at Toronto Police Headquarters in downtown Toronto, Ont. Monday April 15, 2013. ERNEST DOROSZUK/TORONTO SUN/QMI AGENCY

In October 2013, a diplomatic cable from Paris said the man known as Fankem had earlier obtained various identity and travel documents using a fraudulent birth certificate supposedly issued in Ivry-sur-Seine, a suburb of Paris.

A search of municipal records showed it was fake; it doesn’t even look like a real birth certificate nor does the serial number match the numerical sequence for a 1980 birth. Further, no one named Herman Emmanuel Fankem is in the registry.

The French said that, in 2009, Paris police investigated passports issued using fraudulent birth certificates. After wiretaps, searches, arrests and interrogations, they exposed a ring selling passports for 750 euros each. One of the conspirators admitted selling a passport in the name of Herman Emmanuel Fankem. The man using that bogus passport was then arrested at a French airport trying to board a flight to Canada. Why he was released is not known.

By 2014, CBSA was told by the French they believe the man is from Cameroon and doesn’t appear to have a criminal record in France.

In 2015, CBSA assigned an investigator who had a unique skill set; he had been involved in closing a previous case remarkably similar to this one.

A man claiming to be an American named Andrea Jerome Walker also refused to cooperate with Canadian officials trying to figure out his identity after U.S. officials said his identity papers were false. Walker was eventually identified as Michael Mvogo from Cameroon and deported in 2015 — after nearly 10 years in prison. (The National Post reported on the case of The Man With No Name, in 2010, and then in 2013 revealed how messy and desperate it had become.)

Still, this stalemate couldn’t be broken.

This court’s impression is that the Unknown Person considers himself to be the director of a play and Canadian authorities are but actors subject to his direction


A police investigator in Cameroon told CBSA in 2016 he thinks the man known as Fankem used to be a clothing vendor in Cameroon who moved to Britain. The inspector showed a photo of him around where he is thought to have lived. Someone provided a possible name.

Police in Britain, meanwhile, said a fingerprint check came back positive for the name Bouon Emmanuel Febile, a citizen of Cameroon. Any elation at a breakthrough was muted by a follow up cable from London: It was also positive for a different citizen of Cameroon, a citizen of Haiti, and a man of unknown citizenship.

According to British files, when immigration agents in Britain interviewed him in 2007, he admitted being from Cameroon. He said he didn’t want to stay in Britain and had already bought an airline ticket for Canada.

He was convicted for fraudulent documents and given an eight-month sentence in London. Afterwards, he stayed in Britain and was convicted again, under a different name, in 2009 on a fraud charge and sentenced to 12 months imprisonment.

Requests for further searches were sent to other countries. A hit came back from Germany that does nothing to allay suspicion. “We are not permitted to disclose it,” internal CBSA notes say. The United States Department of Homeland Security was asked to run him through their expansive facial recognition system.

Then, in June 2018, something unexpected happened.

At another in-absentia hearing, an IRB adjudicator ordered the man released. The Public Safety minister immediately appealed the decision to the Federal Court of Canada.

Judge B. Richard Bell ruled the release decision was unreasonable.

“During the course of the hearing before me, both counsel observed that this matter is complicated for all concerned. I disagreed. It may be complicated for detention review officers, lawyers, judges and CBSA officials. It appears not to be at all complicated for the Unknown Person,” Bell wrote in his decision in February.

“This court’s impression is that the Unknown Person considers himself to be the director of a play and Canadian authorities are but actors subject to his direction.”

He remains in prison but new activity has now gripped his case.

He recently appointed a lawyer, according to government records, who is objecting to the IRB’s handling of the case and demanding a new detention hearing, as well as appealing to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice for intervention.

The detention hearing is scheduled for Wednesday. The lawyer could not immediately be reached for comment.

It is unknown whether the Unknown Person will make an appearance.

Source: Ottawa Citizen

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