Aspiring actor sentenced to 7 years in prison for extortion scheme
BECKLEY, W.Va. — A Hollywood hobnobber will spend the next seven years in federal prison after admitting to an "intricate, sophisticated plan" to extort more than $122 million out of several wealthy Americans, including a Beckley-native and coal magnate.
U.S. District Judge Irene Berger sentenced Vivek Shah, 26, of California to 87 months in prison Wednesday. Shah was arrested last August, at his parents Schaumberg, Ill., area home and has been held at Southern Regional Jail since then.
After changing attorneys several times, he pleaded guilty in May to one count of transferring a threatening communication and seven counts of sending threatening communications through the mail. He would have faced up to 160 years in prison and a $2 million fine if not for the plea agreement.
"Imagine how terrifying it would be to open the mail and find a threat to kill your spouse or children," U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said in a statement. "This defendant carried out a carefully planned scheme designed to frighten his victims out of more than $120 million.
"It was an extraordinarily brazen crime, and I'm pleased, for the victims' sake, that we were able to put a stop to it so quickly."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby told the court that Shah's actions — making threats to harm people, creating false identities and trying to set up off shore bank accounts for the ill-gotten funds — were "very serious," but that he did not believe Shah ever had any intention on actually harming anyone.
Both Ruby and Debra Kilgore, Shah's attorney, spoke of the support the man's family has shown since his arrest. They also spoke of his intelligence and desire to turn his life around.
Shah has a bachelor's degree in business administration and speaks five languages. Born in Ohio, his family moved to India for nearly 10 years before they returned when he was 15. He moved to California when he turned 21.
An aspiring actor, he appeared in minor roles in several movies including as a "Middle Eastern Bank Hostage" 2008's blockbuster "The Dark Knight" and as "Maitre'd" in the 2010 movie "Our Family Wedding," according to his page on the Internet Movie Database. He also had small roles on the television shows "Outsourced" and "Bones."
He previously told Berger that he committed the acts in part for publicity, according to the Beckley Register-Herald's report of his plea hearing.
"I believe this defendant has an unusually high degree of potential to turn his life around and move on from this," Ruby said, noting the "extraordinary" support from Shah's family, who traveled to West Virginia to be at his sentencing.
Berger said found it "atrocious" and "sad" that "someone with that type of family support engaged in this type of conduct."
"It cuts both ways," she said. "You have a better chance of turning this around than if you didn't have that support."
The judge said Shah spent time researching his victims and their families and developed an "intricate, sophisticated plan" to avoid detection by authorities. When he ran into trouble setting up an offshore bank account, she said, he came up with another plan using foreign trade accounts.
"Your letters were taken seriously," the judge said. "You put the victims in fear for their lives and their families' lives."
Kilgore said Shah understood his actions were wrong and that with the help of the U.S. Attorney's office had written letters of apology to his victims and that he intended them no harm upon his release. Five of his victims elected to receive them.
Shah's voice was thick with emotion as he spoke of his family's support.
"I have two wonderful and supportive parents and an older brother who deeply cares about me," he said. "If you accept the plea and sentence me today, I know in my heart my family is being sentenced as well."
He told the judge that if this incident were erased from his life that she might like him, but also that he had come to a deeper understanding while in jail.
"We live in a society with rules and laws we all have to follow and if you break them you lose your freedom and liberties," he said.
Berger ordered last year that the court records in this matter be sealed and imposed a gag order, but those were lifted Wednesday. She said the order was imposed to ensure against publicity so that a jury could be seated in case one was necessary.
Court records, obtained by the Daily Mail before the records were sealed, showed that Shah sent letters titled "Extortion Notice" to several wealthy individuals between June and August 2012.
"(Victim), if you follow the instructions, then you can take this notice lightly. If you don't, then expect at least one person dead in the next one year. It could be (first names of close relatives), or any other close relative," the letter read, according to court documents filed in California.
Such a letter arrived at the North Palm Beach, Fla., home of Christopher Cline on June 26, 2012.
Cline, a Beckley-area native, owns Foresight Reserves and was worth about $1.2 billion in March, according to Forbes magazine. The magazine ranked him at No. 360 on the Forbes 400 and No. 377 on the Forbes U.S. Billionaires lists.
The letter contained threats to kill specific members of Cline's family, many of whom live in Beckley, if he did not wire $13 million to an offshore bank account by June 28. It indicated further instructions would follow, and a second letter arrived soon after. That letter contained wiring instructions for a bank in Cyprus and a copy of the original extortion letter.
The coal magnate splits time between the Florida home and another residence in West Virginia and was in West Virginia when the letters arrived. The letters were sent to Cline's attorneys in Charleston.
Authorities found that several other wealthy individuals had received threatening letters nearly identical to Cline's in June, July and August. Those individuals were identified when the court records were unsealed, though publications had identified them in the weeks immediately after Shah was arrested.
Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of Miramax films, received a letter on June 9 in Connecticut demanding $4 million. A month later Terry Pegula, an oil and gas billionaire who owns the Buffalo Sabres NHL team and is worth about $3 billion, received a letter in Florida on July 9, demanding $34 million.
Eric Lefkofsky, Groupon co-founder worth $1.1 billion, received a letter in Illinois on July 9, demanding $16 million. Dannine Avara, who inherited an oil pipeline enterprise and is worth about $5.1 billion, received a letter in Texas that same day demanding $35 million.
Gary Goetzman, who co-founded Playtone film company with Tom Hanks, received a letter in California on Aug. 9 demanding $9.6 million. Ryan Kavanaugh, who is worth about $1 billion and is the founder of Relativity Media, also received a letter in California in August demanding $11.3 million.
Shah's demands totaled more than $122 million.
The U.S. Postal Inspector working for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service investigated the matter in California and found that Shah used a fake driver's license to rent a mailbox in West Hollywood and that a man matching his description could be seen on video surveillance buying pre-paid debit cards.
He also apparently was seen using his laptop in his car at various Starbucks stores and coffee shops where public Wi-Fi was available. Authorities also said he altered the address associated with his laptop's network card and routed his Internet communications through special servers that mask user's identities.
FBI agents caught up to him on Aug. 10, 2012, at his parents' Schaumberg, Ill., home. He had planned to return to Los Angeles on Aug. 12 where he was scheduled begin handgun training later that day.
The charges of acts of terrorism transcending national boundaries, identity fraud and aggravated identity theft were dismissed as part of the plea agreement.
Shah also made it known that he planned to further his education, at his own expense, while incarcerated. He requested that he serve his time at Federal Corrections Institute Butner, a medium to low security prison near Raleigh, N.C.
Berger said during the hearing she would make a recommendation to the Bureau of Prisons that he be sent there.
Shah will serve three years on supervised release upon his release from prison. She also forbade him from ever having contact with any of the victims or their families.
Contact writer Ashley B. Craig at email@example.com or 304-348-4850.