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Man accused of human smuggling says he got cash from girlfriend, not Nigerians in car with him

He says he believed the Nigerians were his friend's cousins, on their way to Canada for an Easter visit
Tamba Gbamanja repeatedly denied Monday that he was involved in a failed scheme to smuggle three Nigerian nationals into Canada at the International Bridge two years ago.

The Toronto man insisted that he was duped by an acquaintance, who paid him $500 to pick up his "cousins" in the Michigan Sault, and bring them to this country on April 15, 2017.

Gbamanja, 31, took the witness stand in his own defence on the sixth day of his human smuggling trial.

He has pleaded not guilty to two offences under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

His co-accused Babajide Desalu, who is behind bars after pleading guilty in December to charges stemming from his involvement, pointed the finger at Gbamanja when he testified last week.

Desalu was a key Crown witness, along with numerous Canada Border Services officers, who gave evidence before Ontario Court Justice John Condon.

On Monday, Gbamanja told the court that he was born in Sierra Leone and spent about six years, along with other family members, in a refugee camp in Lagos, Nigeria.

They came to Canada on Dec.15, 2004, what he called "the day of freedom," and he became a citizen seven years later.

He testifed that he didn't have an opportunity to attend school until he arrived in this country where he graduated from high school.

The accused told his lawyer Katie Scott that he often crossed the Canada-United States border, travelling three to four times a month to visit a girlfriend in Philadelphia. 

Gbamanja said he was employed with Toys R Us in 2017, and also worked as an Uber driver, and that's how he met Desalu, who sometimes personally contacted him to pick up his girlfriends and paid him in cash.

He testified that he also ran into Desalu at a gym and two or three times during African community functions, but didn't know his first or last name.

Prior to the incident, Gbamanja said he had travelled to Philadelphia on April 12 to see his girlfriend, then went to Columbus, Ohio to pick up a cousin to bring to Toronto for Easter and took her children to New York to visit their grandmother.

He indicated that he was often paid by people - family, friends and cousins - to drive them across the border.

Gbamanja said he ended up in Sault Ste. Marie, after he ran into Desalu, who told him his cousins were coming to Canada for Easter, and he agreed to pick them up. 

"I said I charge most people $500," the accused told the court. "He was going to get the car, gas and expenses."

Insisting he was "just the driver," Gbamanja testified he was told nothing about his passengers' passports.

Desalu rented the vehicle "and nothing seemed odd to me," the accused insisted, telling the court the pair arrived in the Sault about 10 or 11 p.m. on Aprl 14, and checked into the Days Inn.

"He paid for the rooms."

The next day they left the hotel at 8:40 a.m. to go to the Michigan Sault to pick up Desalu's cousins. 

When they arrived at the bridge plaza, Desalu asked him to stop, and jumped out of the vehicle after telling him he had forgotten his passport, Gbamanja said.

That's when Desalu also indicated the travellers were in Ann Arbor, not just across the river from here.

He then drove to that city, picked up five passengers and transported them to the Michigan Sault where he rented a hotel room for two of the people, who didn't have passports.

Gbamanja was detained, along with three other people, when they attempted to enter Canada.

During cross-examination by federal prosecutor Bill Boutzouvis, the accused denied he had lied to border officers.

Gbamanja insisted he didn't tell them his passengers were co-workers who called for a ride after they had been clubbing in Sault Michigan.

"I didn't say this," he replied. "I don't recall telling that."

When asked if he recalled telling one of the officers he would never bring people into Canada without passports, he said he remembered telling a RCMP officer that. 

"I would never do that. I wouldn't jeopardize my life for $500" at a time when refugees were walking across tbe border, Gbamanja told the Crown.

When Boutzouvis pointed to discrepancies between his testimony in court and what was indicated in the transcripts of his interview with the police officer, he suggested "maybe I misquote myself" or it was because of his accent.

"Is it your evidence that what you told the officer about Ann Arbor was incorrect?" the prosecutor asked him.

"It was incorrect the way I explained it to him," Gbamanja replied.

Boutzouvis wondered why he didn't question Desalu after learning his journey had changed from 20 minutes to five hours. 

"I was mad at him at the time because he forgot his passport," the witness said.

He testified that he didn't find it curious that two of the travellers indicated they didn't have Canadian passports.

Gbamanja had more than $2,000 in US currency when he was searched at the border.

He told the court that his girlfriend had given him $2,000 when he visited her in Philadelphia and the remainder was from the $500 he had received from his cousin he picked up in Ohio.

Boutzouvis suggested that one of the female passengers in the vehicle had given him the $2,000.

"I never collected any money from anyone," Gbamanja said.

When queried if he always walked around with that kind of money, he replied "it depends on the situation. Sometimes I have up to $5,000, it depends on what I'm doing."

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About the Author: Linda Richardson

Linda Richardson is a freelance journalist who has been covering Sault Ste. Marie's courts and other local news for more than 35 years.
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