With her prison memoir “Orange is the New Black,” and the Netflix series that followed, Piper Kerman may have spun gold from the youthful crime that nearly ruined her life more than a decade ago, but the heroin trafficking case that upended her Ivy League world is still an open book at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in Chicago.
With a mix of comedy and drama, and packed with tales of lesbian sex and inmates abused by guards, the edgy, fictionalized version of Kerman’s life in prison has become one of the hottest shows in Hollywood this year. But in the real story behind the experiences of the fictional “Piper Chapman,” the central character is the accused drug kingpin, a Nigerian businessman and political boss who has avoided U.S. authorities for 15 years.
Buruji Kashamu, who is frequently given the royal title “Prince” in African news reports, claims he was targeted in a case of mistaken identity. Rather than being the international drug smuggler known as “Alaji,” he says he was actually a U.S. government informant who provided information about terrorist attacks on the U.S. before and after 9/11.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago won’t say much about the case because Kashamu is still wanted on charges alleging his drug ring moved millions of dollars worth of heroin from Europe and Southeast Asia through O’Hare International Airport during the 1990s.
The case has frustrated prosecutors here, in part because they once had Kashamu in their grasp but lost him. English authorities arrested him when he landed there in 1998 and held him for five years during extradition hearings. Ultimately, however, British courts let Kashamu go after ruling that Chicago prosecutors had tainted their eyewitness identification evidence by failing to disclose that one of his co-defendants failed to pick him out of a photo lineup.
Over the years, a series of Chicago lawyers have argued on Kashamu’s behalf, most recently in an unsuccessful 2011 appeal to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals attempting to have the charges dismissed.
Kashamu claims the real “Alaji” was his dead brother and that he has been mistakenly identified by everybody involved in the case. The government has argued that those claims are absurd, given that the witnesses include his former American lover and her sister, who recruited Kerman into the ring.
“We’re still trying to figure out ways we can fix this for Buruji,” said his Chicago lawyer, Scott Frankel. “They’re trying to bring this guy back and then have a bunch of people who haven’t seen him in years testify that he’s the guy.”
In her book, Kerman makes a few references to “Alaji,” but she never mentions Kashamu by name and says she never met him. But her girlfriend “had stayed at his compound (in Benin) and been subject to ‘witch-doctor’ ministrations and was now considered his sister-in-law.”
Published in 2010, five years after Kerman was released from a federal prison in Connecticut, “Orange is the New Black” immediately drew attention from Hollywood. By early 2012 — just a few months after appellate judges in Chicago refused to dismiss Kashamu’s charges — Kerman had sold her story to Netflix.
The popularity of the show has helped Netflix shake the foundations of the television industry this year. Because it streams over the Internet and is producing hit shows, Netflix is starting to challenge the very definition of “television.” Although the Washington political drama “House of Cards” caused a stir this year by winning multiple Emmy awards without airing on broadcast or cable TV, Netflix officials announced this fall that “Orange is the New Black” will finish the year as the company’s “most-watched” original program.
Kerman did not respond to requests for comment through her own email or Netflix’s chief spokesman. Her Chicago attorney, Patrick Cotter, initially said he would consider commenting but then stopped responding to inquiries.
While Kashamu’s lawyers try to clear his name in Chicago, he has become a player in Nigeria’s chaotic politics, according to African news reports. He runs a faction of the ruling People’s Democratic Party near the capital, Lagos, and is frequently quoted criticizing other politicians in the West African country.
Recently, newspapers there have reported that the Nigerian courts are reconsidering whether to extradite Kashamu to the U.S. Such a decision would be unlikely, and the development is more likely a bargaining chip in some dispute among competing players of the People’s Democratic Party, said John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria who is now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
While Kashamu has remained free, 14 other people in the case have long since been convicted, served prison time and been released. All but one pleaded guilty. Most were like Kerman, Northeasterners without criminal backgrounds, recruited into the smuggling ring with the promise of adventure and travel.
Kerman writes in her book that she was raised in a genteel Boston family, went to Smith College and stuck around the Northampton, Mass., campus after she graduated in 1992. Living a bohemian and aimless life working in bars and restaurants, she started a romance with an older woman, who also lived near the prestigious women’s college.
Dazzled by the woman’s jet-setting life and looking for adventure, Kerman was intrigued rather than repulsed when her new girlfriend told her she helped an African drug dealer move heroin around the globe, she wrote.
According to her plea agreement, Kerman admitted to making three overseas trips for the trafficking ring in 1993. On her second trip, in October of that year, she acknowledged carrying a suitcase containing about $50,000 on a flight from Chicago to Brussels.
Kerman does not identify her former girlfriend by her real name in the book, but court records identify the woman as Catherine Cleary Wolters. Her sister, Ellen Wolters, allegedly had a romantic relationship with Kashamu, according to court papers. Both women pleaded guilty in the case. . . .
After the 9/11 attacks, Scotland Yard investigators paid several visits to Kashamu in London’s Brixton Prison and received his written statements about terrorism information he’d gleaned in the jail, according to an affidavit written by a Brixton officer that was filed in court records.
During meetings with the inmate, the investigators “Thanked Mr. Kashamu for the information and stated it was extremely useful. They then continued to ask about terrorists living in London who were linking with a terrorist who had been arrested in Washington,” the officer wrote in his affidavit. “In concluding his … meeting they confirmed that the U.S. government found the information extremely valuable.”
Fitzgerald did not respond to a request for comment on the case, and Randall Samborn, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, declined to discuss whether Kashamu cooperated in terrorism cases. But Samborn pointed out that in 2011 court documents, prosecutors denied Kashamu’s claim that Fitzgerald offered him a plea deal on his heroin case if his terrorism information panned out.
•Excerpted from the article, ‘Orange is New Black’ drug case still open in Chicago federal court, published last on November 14, 2013 by the US newspaper, Chicago Tribune. Photo shows Buruji Kashamu, whose appointment as PDP South-West Leader is the main reason given by former President Olusegun Obasanjo for withdrawing from PDP activities.