Las Vegas celebrity impersonator/tribute artist Trina Johnson-Finn, has now been in jail for 91 days in the country where I served for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer: Suriname, South America.

Trina is charged with fraud stemming from a February 27 concert appearance at Paramaribo’s Anthony Nesty Sportshall that was promoted as a Toni Braxton concert. The Las Vegas resident has enjoyed a successful career as a back-up singer who has toured with M.C. Hammer and Barbara Streisand. Trina has appeared at Vegas resorts Mandalay Bay, The Venetian, The Plaza, Fitzgeralds and The Palazzo. She also works as a tribute artist and professional impersonator of singer Toni Braxton.

Trina Johnson-Finn on a happier day.

Trina Johnson-Finn on a happier day.

Trina states, “I am completely innocent. I was hired to do a tribute imitation act for a birthday celebration.” In support of her innocence are event contracts, business licenses and a number of email transmissions.

Here’s how she found herself in this situation:

Booking agent Rob Garrett, owner of Las Vegas-based RNRH Entertainment, was initially contacted by one Angel Ventura of a Paramaribo, Suriname company, Events 4 Suriname. Garrett later said Ventura was “overly interested in someone who looked and sounded like Toni Braxton” after initially asking for Mariah Carey or Madonna impersonators.

45-year-old Ventura said he wanted to hire the singer for a private birthday party. RNRH Entertainment employed Trina Johnson-Finn to impersonate Toni Braxton.

“Obviously it was a con job from the start,” says Garrett. Ventura signed a contract clearly stating that Trina Johnson-Finn was not to be promoted as the real Toni Braxton.

The contract was for Trina to appear at a “private party” as an impersonator of Toni Braxton for $3,600 plus hotel, dinner, air fare and a cell phone.

Here are some quotes from that contract -

  • 1) “Purchaser agrees that there will not be any advertisements or promotions, whatsoever, listing the performer as literally being Toni Braxton.”
  • 2) “The performer shall not reveal her true identity, however the performer shall not claim to be Toni Braxton if directly asked so.”

Trina’s husband, Raymond Finn, concerned with his wife’s safety while traveling alone to South America, accompanied her.

The Johnsons were flown to Suriname on Feb. 25th, arriving on Thursday the 26th at 1:30 a.m. At Pengal airport, Ventura, his girl friend, a television camera person and an interviewer greeted them. When Raymond Finn reminded Ventura that the contract stated “no promotions”, the latter said the interview would run privately on a screen at the party.

They all went by limo to a Best Western Hotel. The next morning, Finn and his wife noticed posters in Paramaribo with a photograph of Toni Braxton, promoting a concert. They called Ventura, who assured them that the language (Dutch, which the Finns couldn’t read) on the poster explained that it was an impersonation show.

The night of the performance, over 3,000 people packed the venue, having paid $20, $25 and $55 for their tickets.

According to a Carib World News Entertainment article, Raymond Finn said that half-way through her first song, the crowd began to boo and call for Toni Braxton.

When she began her second song, several people rushed the stage and some began throwing bottles. When the crowd began to riot, Finn and two armed guards rushed Trina offstage, through an angry throng, and into a limo.

At their hotel, Finn says Trina packed for their flight the next morning at 6:30 a.m. while he paid the guards $200 to take him back to the venue, presumably to look for Ventura.

He said he was met there by police and two of Ventura’s staffers. He reiterated to the them that Trina had been hired as an impersonator of Braxton.

Finn said the police then asked if both he and his wife would submit to an interview. They all returned to the hotel, where Finn tried to check out. That was when he discovered that Ventura, who had booked their room, had not paid the bill. Finn says he was forced to settle that bill before they were taken to the local police station for questioning.

Finn and his wife were questioned for about three hours, during which he presented the contract. By the time they were let go, they’d missed their 6:30 a.m. flight to Miami.

As they tried to leave on March 1, they were stopped at immigration and told they were wanted for further questioning on the concert incident. After hours of more questioning at police headquarters, they were both arrested on fraud and swindling charges.

Raymond Finn was held for two weeks because they thought he was Trina’s body guard, then released when they did not find enough evidence to link him to the case.

He told Carib World News Entertainment that he shared an eight-by-ten jail cell with eleven other men. “There was only one latrine, one urinal, and no soap or toilet paper,” he said. And the only meals were tea and bread for breakfast, a small cup of rice and meat for lunch and flavored water for dinner.

Angel Ventura, who vanished after the show began, is estimated to have escaped with around $300,000 (American dollars).

Meanwhile, Trina remained in jail with the possibility of a three-year jail sentence. Initially she shared a jail cell with five other women who smoked, but on April 27 she was moved to a prison facility called Santaboma, where she has her own cell and a bit more privacy.

Her husband speculates: “The only thing I can possibly imagine is that they’re not familiar with the impersonation industry here in the United States, so by defacto, by simply impersonating someone, they’re saying she committed a crime.”

I find this entire situation amazing and sad. Entertainers in Las Vegas are appalled that this could happen. We have lots of tribute artists in America. The Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority works with about 35 “Elvis” and about 25 “Marilyn Monroe” impersonators for special events. A popular Las Vegas show called “The Rat Pack” features four guys doing tributes to Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Dean Martin and Joey Bishop.

This is how Trina Johnson-Finn was able to walk into this nightmare believing that she was doing a legitimate tribute performance. And that is why her contract clearly described her as a tribute artist, and not the real Toni Braxton.

Both Nevada Senator Harry Reid and the U.S. State Department have reached out to the local Embassy in Parmaribo. But since a criminal charge was filed, the U.S. Embassy in Suriname legally can’t intervene.

Three appeals have so far been denied. During yesterday’s trial Ventura admitted he perpetrated the entire hoax and that Trina was an unknowing participant of his scheme.

“I never said to the prosecutor that Trina Johnson knew beforehand that she was part of a scam,” he told Judge Robby Rodriguez on the first day of Trina’s trial.

According to yesterday’s MSN news story, Trina’s Surinamese lawyer, Kathleen Brandon, called for the release of the 41-year-old Nevada woman, saying she has been unjustly held.

“Ventura told her to go all out as an impersonator and play a role in the whole thing. She thought that everyone knew that she was just an impersonator, but Ventura did not tell anyone in Suriname,” Brandon said.

But the judge declined to release Trina and adjourned the trial until June 2.

With all the documents stating Trina is a tribute artist and Ventura’s admission that she had no part in his scam, I don’t know what more the judge wants in order to free her. What more will he know on June 2 that he doesn’t know now?

Unfortunately, I think that cultural differences and language differences also contributed to Ventura’s near-success in putting this over on the people of Suriname.

Sadly, this is terrible publicity for Suriname. For those Americans who had previously never heard of Suriname, they will now associate the country with a negative event in the same way they associate French Guyana with Devil’s Island and British Guyana with the Jonestown massacre. Americans who might once have thought about visiting Suriname for a bird-watching or fishing vacation will now think twice about the safety of traveling to the country. Those tourism dollars will go to somewhere like Costa Rica instead.

I’m also saddened that so many angry, defensive Surinamese comments on the internet reflect their authors’ opinion that Americans consider Surinamers as poor, illiterate third-world people who can be taken easy advantage of.