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How Police Busted A Web of Korean Timber Traffickers

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Top: A graphic showing members of an illegal logging syndicate busted by the Liberian National Police and charged. Above left to right: former police commander Dawoda Sesay, customs officer Peter Kpadeh and Isaac Richmond Anderson, Jr. Below left to right: former FDA rangers Edward Jallah, Varney Marshall, Isaac Railey. And the Edwin Wesley of Echo Group of Companies. The DayLight/Rebazar D. Forte


By Esau J. Farr


MONROVIA – In January the Liberia National Police (LNP) charged several men, including two Korean nationals, in connection with an illegal logging operation in Gbarpolu County.

The men included Varney Marshall, Dawoda Sesay, Isaac Richmond Anderson, Jr., Edward Jallah, Isaac Railey, Peter Kpadeh, David Tawah and Prince Kwesi Wallace. The two Koreans were Beomjin Lee and Jun Jeon Sik, according to the police charge sheet.

Their charges range from economic sabotage, theft, criminal conspiracy, and criminal facilitation to forgery and bribery, according to an arrest warrant by the Monrovia City Court.

“These people will go in the bushes, fell the trees, cut the logs and use bogus documents in order to evade taxes, and will use those documents to ship the containers of logs out of Liberia,” said the Inspector General of the Liberia National Police Patrick Sudue at a news conference.

That might have been the beginning of the men’s case but the end of a timber-trafficking network, first exposed in an investigation by The DayLight in August last year. This investigation further sheds light on the organization of the Korean-connected syndicate and illegal logging in Liberia.

A Phone Call from South Korea

It all started with a phone call Isaac Richmond Anderson, Jr. received a call from South Korea in June last year. A friend asked Anderson, a former official of the Liberian Consulate in Seoul, to help two Koreans export first-class logs to the Asian country, according to Anderson.

One of the trucks with the illegal logs in it at Sawmill in Gbarpolu County. The truck has been allowed to leave and the logs are being kept at the FDA checkpoint there. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue

Anderson then met Korvah Jallah from Gbarpolu County, one of the most forested regions in Liberia. They needed to strike a deal with people in the Weimu village in Bopolu District to get the trees and then assemble a team of chainsaw operators. They would then get container trucks and transport the logs to the Freeport of Monrovia.

“They (Koreans) want to carry the wood as a sample and then pay later,” Anderson told The DayLight back in August.    

Jobless and broke to pre-finance, Anderson turned to a long-term friend, Dawoda Sesay, who bought the idea. Anderson introduced Sesay to the Koreans, according to the police affidavit. Sesay, himself a police commander in the Paynesville area, arranged for the trucks, contacting truckers at the Freeport of Monrovia to transport the wood. He had provided an initial US$1,200 for the harvest.

In Weimu, they harvested a number of ekki logs, according to Anderson’s record of the harvest, obtained by The DayLight. Durable and water-resistant, ekki timber is used in shipbuilding and outdoor constructions. 

In total Sesay hired five trucks to transport the timber, valued at over US$60,000, according to the police. The deal with the truckers would expose the role of the trucking industry in illegal logging and start a conversation between drivers and the Forestry Development Authority (FDA).

‘You killed [us]’

While on their way to Monrovia, rangers at the checkpoint at Klay, Bomi County, arrested two of the trucks loaded with the logs. The drivers did not show a permit for the transport, known in forestry as a waybill. That was a red flag, a violation of the National Forestry Reform Law and the Regulation on the Establishment of a Chain of Custody System.  

“The FDA sees the actions of Mr. Sesay and the owners of the truck as a gross violation of the National Forestry Reform Law,” Cllr. Yanquoi Dolo, the head of the FDA’s legal department, told The DayLight in an email after the arrest of the trucks.  

“The Managing Director of the FDA, Hon. C. Mike Doryen has frowned on this gross illegality and has requested that sternest of action against the violators consistent with the laws governing the forestry sector,” Dolo added.

In an interview with The DayLight, Sesay admitted hiring the trucks to transport the illegal logs but at the same time denied any wrongdoing. 

“As police officers, we have our inalienable rights: the right to live, the right to survive. So, if my brother came to me and said, ‘Look, I need this assistance,’ then… I made the arrangement…, is that something prohibited?” Sesay asked rhetorically at his Mount Barclay residence.

“Even if I knew what they (truckers) were going to get, that is none of my business. If the transaction was illegal, I was not there to know that it was illegal,” Sesay added.

The FDA held two of the trucks at its substation in Tubmanburg, while it impounded another at the agency’s checkpoint at Sawmill, Gbarpolu County. The one in Tubmanburg is no longer at its location, while the one at Sawmill remains there.  

The FDA also filed two petitions to confiscate and auction the vehicles and the logs in them at the circuit courts in Tubmanburg and Bopolu, according to the court records.

News of the arrest of the containers reached the board of directors of the FDA, which asked the Liberia National Police to investigate. Following more than four months of the inquest, the police finally charged Anderson, Sesay, Beomjin, Jun, Jallah and Marshall. The Monrovia City Court then issued an arrest warrant for them.

Jallah and Marshall were the two rangers who arrested the trucks. However, they collected a US$600 bribe from Prince Kwesie Wallace and allowed one of the trucks to leave, according to the police. Wallace and David Tawah, both customs brokers, were contacted by Peter Kpadeh, a monitor for export at the Ministry of Commerce and Industry at the Freeport of Monrovia, according to the police.  

Upon receiving the US$600, Jallah escorted the container truck to the Freeport of Monrovia, the police said. However, it was a disagreement over the bribe for the other trucks that exposed the syndicate. The DayLight received a tipoff and broke the news of the containers with illegally harvested logs.

Records Anderson kept of the illegal logging operation. They show the license plates of two vehicles, the volume of logs, the markings on each log and the containers smuggling them.  
 

Police and FDA authorities traced the runaway truck and container, but from all indications, the logs had been exported. The Liberia National Police disrobed Sesay. Similarly, the FDA dismissed Jallah and Marshall and suspended Railey.  Efforts to speak with Railey and Jallah did not materialize. We will update the story once we get comments from both men.

In a WhatsApp chat, Marshall reproached Anderson for exposing him and the other rangers. “Brother, why you killed [us]?” We [have] been friends for long. Remember we are all young people. And this is Liberia,” Marshall said, according to a screenshot of their conversation The DayLight obtained from Anderson.

Anderson fired back at Marshall, accusing him of hypocrisy. “It is how our people are proceeding. We are Liberia but they [failed] to understand and posting our names and photos almost everywhere in the public,” Anderson wrote.  What so much have we done! And Jallah was there saying the money is small…”

Turns out Marshall was involved with at least another illegal logging operation. Leaked video and pictures published by The DayLight had also unearthed his illegal logging business. The videos show a furious Marshall fuming at an accomplice for tricking him. The pictures provided more details of his operations, including him posing before a man milling timber with a chainsaw.

A leaked picture shows Varney Marshall, then an FDA ranger, posing at an illegal logging site believed to be in Gbarpolu. He was dismissed by the agency and charged in connection with an illegal logging operation in the same county by the Liberia National Police in January.  

Marshall had pitched the videos and pictures to Anderson so that they could work on an operation together, based on a WhatsApp chat between the two men. Marshall has not faced any trial for it.  Marshall did not grant The DayLight an interview and also did not respond to WhatsApp messages.

‘Future embarrassment’

The police also charged Edwin Kpadeh, Wallace and Tawah for their role in the deal.

Anderson and the Koreans had first engaged Wesley for the operation but he charged them US$12,000. Echo charged the Beomjin and Jun US$2,500 to transport apparently one of the containers to the Freeport of Monrovia plus US$59 for insurance, according to a document dated June 30, 2022, obtained by The DayLight. The Koreans could not afford it, so the deal collapsed,  according to the police charge sheet. The police did not charge Wesley because their “investigation could not establish evidence.”

Echo is an illegal shipping line, as its shareholders are unnamed, according to its legal documents. The  Business Association Law of Liberia prohibits undisclosed owners of companies. A 2020 change in the 1977 law was a move by Liberia to fight global terrorism, tax evasion and other crimes.

Having failed to seal the deal with Echo, Anderson and co then turned to Kpadeh, according to the police charge sheet. This time they sealed a deal. Sesay gave Kpadeh US$1,200 Sesay through Isaac Railey, the head of the FDA law enforcement department, the police said.

It is not clear how Railey entered the picture. However, Railey helped Kpadeh forge a permit belonging to Conveiyallah Enterprise Incorporated to export the stolen logs, the police said. Kpadeh got help from Wallace and Tawah in the process, according to the police. The permit, a copy The DayLight obtained, had been issued to Coveiyallah, which operates in the Korninga A Community Forest also in Gbarpolu County in May of that year.

The DayLight attained an email thread with Kpadeh, Anderson and D. Prime Group of Company Inc., a company owned by Dawoda Sesay (80 percent) and  Mamanue Sesay, a resident of Gbarnga, Bong County (20 percent), according to the company’s article of incorporation at the Liberia Business Registry. A woman named Roseline Kamara of D. Prime forwarded the email to Kpadeh at about 2:49 pm on Tuesday, August 9 last year.  Kpadeh then forwarded it to Anderson two minutes later.  

Attached to the email is an invoice to a Korean man named Jin Lee of the MI Jun Co. Ltd in Busan, South Korea. It bears the bank details of the D. Prime company for the shipment of five 20-foot containers of ekki wood. The markings of the containers on the invoice match the ones the FDA seized. Kpadeh did not respond to WhatsApp messages for comments.

Less than a week after the email exchanges, Sesay arranged the transport of the illegal timber with Shakia Kamara and Layee Sheriff, truckers at the Freeport of Monrovia. Sesay agreed to pay the men either US$900 or US$1,000 per truck, Dawoda Sesay and the truckers told The DayLight.

Putting transporting and exporting logs in containers has offered illegal loggers an opportunity to smuggle timber out of Liberia. The DayLight/James Harding Giahyue

Containerized timber and corrupt officials make it easier for smugglers to operate. Earlier this year, an investigation by The DayLight revealed that in 2020, Assistant Minister of Trade Peter Somah issued an illegal permit to a Turkish company to smuggle timber to India for US$19,800. The FDA has instructed rangers at various checkpoints and the Freeport of Monrovia to open all containers and verify their legality.

The FDA also sued Shakia Kamara, who owns one of the Klay trucks, and Sheriff, the owner of the one at Sawmill, in separate lawsuits in Tubmanburg and Bopolu, according to court filings. The agency is seeking a US$25,000 fine, a 12-month prison term for the men, and forfeiture of the vehicles, all maximum penalties.  

Those cases have not been heard ever since. Two of the trucks are no longer parked at the FDA sub-office in Tubmanburg. It is the same with the one at Sawmill, Gbarpolu, with the logs in it now at the FDA checkpoint there.

The National Truckers Association of Liberia said it would take steps to prevent timber smuggling. “We want to have a memorandum of understanding [with the FDA] because we want to avoid future embarrassment,” Yahaya Kemokai, the secretary general of the association, told The DayLight in August last year. “We know that there are a lot of clandestine activities going on with the transportation of woods.”

CORRECTION: This version of the story corrects the previous version, which said the police charged Edwin Wesley of Echo Group of Companies. Wesley was named in the police investigation but wasn’t charged.

We also corrected the spellings of Beomjin Lee and Peter Kpadeh. The previous version of the story had them as “Beonjin” and “Kpateh.”

UPDATES:


[Henry Gboluma in Bopolu, Gbarpolu County, contributed to this report]

The story was a production of the Community of Forest and Environmental Journalists of Liberia (CoFEJ).

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