A Grenfell Tower fraudster who claimed he ‘hallucinated’ his escape from the burning building to claim £33,000 worth of hotel and temporary accommodation has been jailed for five years.
Nigerian father-of-five Abolaji Onafuye, 54, claimed genuine victims of the fire Zainab Deen, 32, and her two-year-old son Jeremiah, were his sister and niece, respectively, and that he was living elsewhere in the ill-fated west London tower block.
A total of 72 people died as a result of the blaze in June last year.
Onafuye denied two counts of fraud, but was found guilty after telling trial jurors that he only told cops he lived in the west London block because he was fasting for Ramadan – and even said he was owed compensation for his traumatic visions.
He also accused a volunteer for Kensington and Chelsea council of wrongly filling out a form which stated he lived at flat 84 and was related to the victims who died in the fire which claimed 72 lives last June.
Onafuye, said to be studying for a master’s degree in law after finishing “top of his class” at law school in his native Nigeria, showed no emotion as he was jailed at Isleworth Crown Court.
Judge Giles Curtis-Raleigh said: “The fire at Grenfell Tower was a tragedy in which dozens of innocent lives were lost, families were ripped apart and communities devastated.
“It was a disaster which shocked the nation – most people reacted with horror and dismay and feelings of deep sympathy and profound concern for the survivors.
“Your response was very different you decided to use the situation to your personal advantage to enrich yourself dishonestly by plundering public funding designed to assist genuine victims of the disaster at their hour of need.
“Amongst the things you did was use the names of Zainab and Jeremiah suggesting you had a link with them, they were genuine people and tragically they died in that fire.”
The judge said after his arrest on June 7 this year, Onafuye reacted defensively in police interviews after he was told the real occupants of flat 84 had contradicted his account.
He said: “You denounced the genuine victims, the genuine occupants of 84 Grenfell Tower whose statement had been presented in that interview, as liars, and you continued the lies.”
Referring to Onafuye’s evidence during his trial, the Judge added: “At trial you dismissed what you said in that interview. What you said was that was a product of a hallucination and temporary insanity.
“You’ve even sought to blame the very people who assisted you and were in the business of assisting the genuine victims of the tragedy.
“You have shown not a shred of remorse throughout these proceedings.
“Your fraud lasted for 50 weeks and was continuing and doubtless would have continued for much longer.”
Earlier Ben Holt, prosecuting, read a statement from Zainab’s father, Zainu Deen.
He described the ordeal of being forced to tell police he had no son.
Mr Deen said: “I found this horrible and disturbing. It was very difficult and awkward as this man stated he was older than Zainab and it brought up issues of possible distrust between me and my wife.”
Referring to another fraudster who claimed to be living in Zainab’s flat during the fire, he added: “Having to discuss these men between the police and ourselves has been deeply upsetting.
“I cannot really believe that any one would use the tragic events of June 2017 to their benefit. Surely these people would know these are real families that are suffering and their lives will never be the same.
“I’m angry, cross, confused and incredibly frustrated about it. My daughter and grandson have lost their lives in this fire. My family have experienced something which no family should have to go through.
“These men have made our pain worse, much worse.”
Grenfell United vice-chairman Edward Daffarn branded Onafuye as “beneath contempt” while Grenfell Tower survivor Manuel Alves added: “The actions of these fraudsters have totally ripped the heart and faith of the Grenfell Tower community.”
Onafuye was today forced to represent himself for his sentencing after he sacked his defence barrister Rishy Panesar and made a rambling plea for a new taxpayer-funded barrister.
He said: “I believe if I’m well represented by the same solicitors but another barrister that would fine.”
His request was thrown out by Judge Curtis-Raleigh, who said: “It seems to me at first blush this is a man who has decided to dispense of the services of Mr Panesar who as far as I can tell provided him very good service during the course of the trial.
“I see no reason why the public should have the expense of it.”
Earlier Mr Holt said Onafuye was given £250 and a room at the Grosvenor Hotel in Victoria, south west London, the same day he claimed he was a Grenfell Tower survivor to a volunteer on June 21 last year.
He said: “Mr Onafuye resident at the Grosvenor Hotel he stayed there until about the 25th of August 2018 and the council were paying £190 per night for his stay and in adition there was room serve in the shape of food and laundry bills which were also met by the council.”
Kensington and Chelsea council paid around £33,000 for Onafuye to stay at the Grosvenor Hotel in Victoria, south West London, and a temporary flat in Hammersmith, west London.
Mr Holt said Onafuye could have been involved another person in his fraud as his hotel room was paid for from June 21 to October 1 last year which overlapped with his flat stay from August 25 last year and June 7.
He denied anyone he knew was using the hotel room, but police found laundry bills dated from September 2017 when he was staying in the flat.
Onafuye had two previous convictions for fraud to make a gain for himself – where he conned two people pretending to an estate agent with properties for rent.
By Berny Torre