Friday, May 04, 2001

African teen not missing after all

U.S. officials say he was victim of identity theft

By Kristina Goetz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The African youth who authorities said ran from child slavery and disappeared from a Northern Kentucky motel in December never left his West African home, the State Department says.

        The youth, who officials thought was Oumar Nkeng, a U.S. citizen, was actually a Cameroonian classmate of Mr. Nkeng's named Maxwell Tabeson, an African soccer player who assumed his friend's identity.

        Authorities say the U.S. Embassy received a letter in March postmarked from the real Mr. Nkeng from Cameroon stating that his friend had taken his birth certificate, U.S. passport and his Cameroon passport and left Africa.

        That's when the pieces of the story started falling into place for Mr. Nkeng's family in Memphis, Tenn., who have been looking for him since they thought he disappeared in December.

        “Something deep inside my heart told me that if life was that bad over there, there is no way he would come over here and run from police,” said Evelyn Williams, Mr. Nkeng's aunt.

        Ms. Williams said her family received word last year of Mr. Nkeng's impoverished condition in Cameroon and his wishes to come back to the United States. A picture she saw of a young man back then might have been him, she said. But she had not seen the 17-year-old since he was 3 years old. His father had kidnapped him and his sister and brought them back to Africa about 10 years ago.

        But the story of his hardships sounded horrendous. She couldn't wait to get him to America.

        Oumar's father had died, Ms. Williams said she had been told. His sister was given to white missionaries in the United States and he didn't know where she was.

        Ms. Williams says she has now learned none of the story is true. The teen's father is alive and his sister is living with the two of them.

        “The guy lived in the village with Oumar, and Oumar would tell him about America,” she said of Mr. Nkeng. “He knew tidbits about Oumar's mother and where she lived.”

        That's when Mr. Tabeson tricked his friend into giving up his credentials. Mr. Tabeson convinced Mr. Nkeng that his passport needed to be updated and that he would go the the U.S. Embassy and update it for him, Ms. Williams said.

        But Mr. Tabeson instead changed the pictures on the documents and went to the U.S. Embassy, assuming the identity of his friend and obtaining a $2,500 repatriation loan, State Department officials said.

        According to a press release sent out by the police at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, the State Department has spoken with the Tabeson family. A brother confirmed that the young man has been gone a long time.


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