By Joe Brandt
Anthony Romano thought he was meeting a man with ties to a Colombian drug cartel.
They made a deal: the man would give Romano cash proceeds from the drug trade in exchange for a check for that amount, minus a fee. Romano and the man met multiple times in Cape May and Atlantic counties.
In truth, the “cartel” man was actually a federal agent looking to nab money launderers, U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito said in a news statement Monday.
In September, Romano, 53, of Springfield, admitted his role in the scheme – conspiring to launder $590,000 in late 2017.
After several early meetings with the agent, Romano mentioned a friend down south who could help the “cartel” launder even bigger sums. He introduced him to John Eckerd, a developer in McKinney, Texas who was working on a massive development an hour outside of Dallas: a combination doomsday bunker, resort, golf course, and spa.
Carpenito said the development was pitched as “a five-star doomsday escape for the wealthy with DEFCON 1 preparedness” that was “capable of withstanding catastrophic events ranging from viral epidemics to nuclear war.”
And Eckerd was prepared to use it to launder Colombian drug money.
In January 2018, after several four- and five-figure transactions, the agent met Romano somewhere in New Jersey to give him $100,000 cash. Eckerd then wired money to a “cartel” account.
The next month, Romano accepted a backpack containing $100,000 cash after meeting the agent and giving him a tour of the development site in Fannin County, Texas. Eckerd then handed the agent a check.
Besides admitting to the money laundering scheme, Romano also pleaded guilty to a 2014 robbery of The Pawn Shop in Union, acknowledging that conspirators, in that case, had a gun during the incident.
U.S. District Judge Renee Marie Bumb, in Camden, sentenced him to 54 months in prison.
Eckerd, who admitted to conspiring to launder $200,000, was sentenced to 15 months in prison Monday in Bumb’s courtroom.
Carpenito credited FBI agents and detectives from the Union County Prosecutor’s Office for their investigation.