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.