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'He fell into the money trap’: Baltimore restaurant owner ordered to pay $8.6 million for royal con

The owner of Nailah’s Kitchen was ordered to repay more than $8 million to a member of the Kuwaiti royal family who jurors said defrauded her over several years. The Howard Street location (pictured) has closed; a Belvedere Square location remains open.
The owner of Nailah’s Kitchen was ordered to repay more than $8 million to a member of the Kuwaiti royal family who jurors said defrauded her over several years. The Howard Street location (pictured) has closed; a Belvedere Square location remains open. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

The fairy tale ended for Jean Agbodjogbe with an $8.6 million verdict in federal court.

The Baltimore restaurant owner had enjoyed a Cinderella rise after a chance encounter with Middle Eastern royalty brought him a million-dollar windfall. But he lost the money in a clumsy attempt to redevelop Howard Street, even buying gas appliances without a gas hookup.

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Jurors deliberated a few hours Friday before finding he defrauded the Kuwaiti royal Alia Salem Al-Sabah out of $7.6 million. They ordered him to pay back her money and punished him with $1 million more in punitive damages.

The decision for punitive damages speaks volumes, said her attorney, Michael MacWilliams.

“The jury delivered a clear and unmistakable message: The Defendants lied to Ms. Al-Sabah for their own financial gain. The jury found that her unfortunate reliance on Defendants’ web of deceptions and concealments was justified and reasonable,” MacWilliams wrote in an email.

Agbodjogbe did not return messages Tuesday, when the verdict became available. During trial, his attorney had told jurors the small-time restaurant owner became seduced by big money.

“He fell into the money trap. It was a honey hole, and he fell in," James Sweeting III told them.

The jury found he concealed and misrepresented his business dealings with Al-Sabah to enrich himself. A two-week trial in downtown Baltimore revealed he spent Al-Sabah’s money on a $450,000 house in Pikesville, private school for his children, and travels to West Africa for exotic spices. Agbodjogbe owns the Senegalese restaurant Nailah’s Kitchen near Belvedere Square.

The immigrant restaurant owner wasn’t the typical pick to manage millions of dollars in real estate investments, his attorney told jurors.

"Does it comes as a surprise that he would be overwhelmed?” Sweeting said.

During trial, Agbodjogbe did not dispute how much money she sent him. Instead, he argued her money was a gift, not an investment — his to spend freely, no matter the losses.

The lawsuit traces back to June 2014 when Agbodjogbe welcomed Al-Sabah, a surprise guest, to the original location of Nailah’s — a small restaurant on Howard Street.

She was a member of the Kuwaiti royal family — her uncle served as head of state; her father, president of the national guard; and her husband, the former minister of the interior. During trial, she put her personal fortune at $24 million.

Al-Sabah had flown in to visit her daughter at the Johns Hopkins University.

In an act of charity for the holy month of Ramadan, she ordered $10,000 worth of dinners for worshipers at the neighborhood mosque. Agbodjogbe, a devout Muslim himself, immigrated from the West African country of Senegal. They struck up a partnership.

He dreamed of expanding Nailah’s Kitchen into a chain of halal restaurants — “halal” is the Muslim equivalent of kosher for Jewish people — across the U.S. Al-Sabah flew home and wired him $150,000.

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Soon he encouraged her to invest in the vacant storefronts on Howard Street. Once famous for its upscale department stores, the street has long fallen on hard times. The old stores, he told her, come cheap.

In two years, she wired him nearly $6 million to redevelop Howard Street. Her attorneys told the jury that she intended for Agbodjogbe to buy and redevelop the properties on her behalf, meaning she owned them as real estate investments. He was to be her man on the ground.

Instead, he established the real estate firm 9 Jewels LLC in his own name. She wired him money; he bought the properties through the firm. He retained ownership.

Meanwhile, he inflated the prices, her attorneys say. She wired him $305,000 for the former women’s hat shop at 327 Eutaw St. He purchased the shop property for $180,000.

She wired him $1 million for the old Isaac Benesch and Sons department store at 400 N. Howard St. He bought it for $139,000.

And she wired him $665,000 to construct a Muslim cemetery in Baltimore. He didn’t tell her when the deal collapsed, her attorney say.

He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on architects, marketing firms, contractors and restaurant supplies. Creditors have sued him in state court.

With the projects languishing and money running out, he began mortgaging the properties he had bought with her cash. Desperate, he turned to hard money lenders. One loan came with an interest rate as high as 58 percent.

He hid the troubles from Al-Sabah. She wired him more and more money.

Meanwhile, he was attracting publicity as a wealthy restaurateur and developer. He was featured in news stories and met with officials at City Hall.

“Mr. Agbodjogbe is telling big, audacious lies, lots of them,” her attorney, MacWilliams, told the jury.

By November 2016, he stopped returning her phone calls. Four months later, she sued him in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

Her attorney says they will work to collect the full $8.6 million.

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