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Approximately $17 million found under a mattress in connection with an investigation related to what authorities say was a pyramid scheme called TelexFree is shown from a January 2017 raid in Westborough, Massachusetts, U.S. released on March 7, 2017. Courtesy U.S. Attorney's Office in Boston/Handout via REUTERS


By Nate Raymond

BOSTON (Reuters) - A second Brazilian man has been charged with conspiring to launder money linked to a massive fraud out of the United States in a case that led to the discovery of $17 million in cash under a mattress in a Massachusetts apartment.

Leonardo Casula Francisco was charged on Tuesday in an indictment filed in federal court in Boston that also named another Brazilian, Cleber Rene Rizerio Rocha, who was arrested in January.

Casula, 30, remains in Brazil, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Boston said. A lawyer for Casula could not be identified. Rocha's attorney, Raymond Sayeg, said his client plans to plead not guilty.

The case stemmed from an investigation into TelexFree, a Massachusetts-based company that sold voice-over-internet telephone service and was founded by James Merrill, a U.S. citizen, and Carlos Wanzeler, a Brazilian who is Casula's uncle.

Prosecutors said TelexFree was a pyramid scheme, making little to no money selling its service while taking in millions of dollars from thousands of people who paid to sign up to be "promoters" and post ads online for it.

TelexFree filed for bankruptcy in 2014. Prosecutors said 965,225 victims in the United States, Brazil and various other countries lost $1.76 billion when it collapsed.

Merrill, who was arrested in May 2014, is scheduled to be sentenced on March 22 after pleading guilty to conspiracy and wire fraud charges in October.

Wanzeler fled to Brazil in 2014 and could not be extradited. In February, federal prosecutors in the Brazilian state of Espirito Santo filed charges against 22 people for their involvement with TelexFree, including Wanzeler and Casula.

According to Tuesday's indictment, Casula in mid-2015 asked a cooperating witness to help transfer cash earned through the fraud that was hidden in the greater Boston area out of the United States.

The pair agreed someone would be sent to the United States to deliver the money in increments to the witness, who would send it to accounts in Hong Kong where it would be transferred to Brazil, prosecutors said.

In December, Casula sent Rocha to the United States to deliver money to the witness, the indictment said.

Prosecutors said that after a Jan. 4 meeting in a parking lot where Rocha gave the witness $2.2 million in a suitcase, federal agents followed Rocha to a Westborough, Massachusetts, apartment complex.

They returned to it after arresting Rocha to find $17 million hidden under a mattress, prosecutors said.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston, additional reporting by Stephen Eisenhammer in Rio de Janeiro; editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

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