U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers at Los Angeles International Airport know there are basic signs that can help expose an international narcotics operation: A traveler with no known employment or criminal record who makes frequent trips abroad using tickets purchased within a few days or hours of a flight and schedules a relatively quick return.
Suspicion is heightened when the prospective passenger can't provide consistent answers to such simple questions as "What is the purpose of your trip?" or "Where are you staying?"
Such was the case for outbound LAX passenger Fatymas Math on the morning of March 9, 2013. Math didn't make her 11-hour, Korean Airlines flight to Tokyo from Gate 121 inside the Tom Bradley International Terminal. The unemployed, Southern California card dealer who'd once worked at the Hustler Casino and Crystal Park Casino had triggered the aforementioned warning signs.
Questioned by CBP officers, Math–secretly a courier for an Asian organized-crime ring with Southern California ties–got rattled. The El Monte resident, who was carrying just $536, said she was flying to Japan to vacation for four days and would meet an old friend there, but she couldn't remember the person's name. She also said she planned to stay at the Ginza International Hotel, but she couldn't produce a reservation.
These clues prompted federal agents to grab Math's checked-in luggage after it had been loaded onto the aircraft. Inside, amidst women's clothes, they found several boxes of Fiber One bars as well as oatmeal bars. Drug testing on 48 of the tampered, commercially wrapped products proved positive for 1,977 grams of crystal methamphetamine.
Law-enforcement officials in Japan have witnessed an increase in the use of meth over recent years. In May 2014, the Japan Times reported the problem was "soaring." A portion of the narcotic arrives from foreign sources for underworld, yakuza distribution. Unlike on this continent, meth can cost double the LA street price in Asia, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. The value of Math's seized stash could have been $1.4 million on the streets of Tokyo.
Though Math continued to give dishonest answers even after the drugs were found, she eventually cooperated during interrogations, according to a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report. An acquaintance had made her reservation, bought her plane tickets from an Alhambra travel agent, packed her luggage, bought her and her boyfriend breakfast in Rosemead, and drove her to LAX with instructions to find a woman holding a sign once she landed at the airport in Tokyo, she explained. Her reward? Hundred-dollar bills totaling $4,000, a $300 increase from an earlier, 2013 meth mission to Japan.
This week, inside Orange County's Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse, Assistant United States Attorney Sandhya Ramadas acknowledged Math's post-arrest cooperation that enlightened DHS agents about details of the trafficking route and participants. But Ramadas argued the defendant deserved a punishment of 63 months in prison. What Math, who was born in 1974, wanted isn't exactly known. U.S. District Court Judge Cormac J. Carney allowed the drug courier to plead her case for a lower punishment in secrecy. She must have been convincing. Carney–a 2003, lifetime appointee of President George W. Bush and a former UCLA football star–decided the appropriate term is 48 months of incarceration followed by supervised probation for three years.
More Moxley-reported mayhem and madness on the next page!
HE'S NOT A MONSTER?
Not too long ago, Orange County mortgage broker Michael Schwartz lived in an ocean-view, 9,000-square-foot, eight-bedroom, Spanish Colonial-style, San Juan Capistrano home with an elevator, infinity pool, wine cellar, spas, supplemental outdoor kitchen, movie theater, live-in housekeeper, palm-tree-adorned lawns, nine-car garage and a two-bedroom guest house.
"Here, you can lie in bed and watch the waves for $6 million," boasted Lee Ann Canaday, real-estate agent for the ultra-rich. "The master retreat is the crown jewel, a tranquil haven with a marble fireplace and a balcony showcasing the hillside and ocean views."
In case you missed the point, Canaday added that the Peppertree-Bend estate is "a fantasy of California living."
Soon, however, Schwartz is scheduled to be living in larger, yet less comfy digs: federal prison.
It turns out that the fast-talking businessman was stealing money–often retirement funds and life savings–from ordinary people in mortgage fraud and investor schemes, according to the FBI. How brazen was Schwartz? His victims include his own uncle. That's how he afforded the $11,000 monthly rent for the Casa Del Mar estate. For at least five years beginning in 2008, Schwartz snorted methamphetamine, illegally enriched himself with at least $1.8 million in unearned income and played big shot on the local scene.
Inside Orange County federal court this week to learn his punishment, Schwartz told U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter he is remorseful.
"I can't say sorry enough to repair the damage," he said, reading a brief, typed statement. "I'm sorry I abused people's trust."
Schwartz hoped Carter would agree that the best punishment excluded prison so that he could, he claimed, focus solely on working to repay his victims.
But his uncle, Jack Schwartz, told the judge the remorse was fake. "Mike is stupid but not dumb," he said, claiming his nephew stole his identity to obtain loans, shamelessly concocted the con games and still has hidden bank accounts.
Two other distraught victims described how Schwartz–who, like Math, was born in 1974–conned them out of their life savings, created horrific financial circumstances for their families and reacted callously to their plight while he lived comfortably.
"Words cannot explain the pain," said one weeping victim. "Mike stole our dreams. If he did this to a single mother of two kids, what else is he capable of?"
Advocating for leniency, Diane Bass, the defendant's lawyer, disputed the victims' characterizations and noted her client's inability to sleep at night, as well as his desire not to abandon his own three kids during incarceration.
"Mr. Schwartz is not the monster they are making him out to be," said Bass. "Let him go back to work so he can pay them. He's been humbled by this experience."
Federal prosecutor Jennifer Waier wasn't impressed. "That's the first time I've heard him say, 'I'm sorry,'" she told Carter as she pushed for a lengthy prison term for Schwartz, who also has a 2002 cocaine conviction and last year lost a San Juan Capistrano city contract to operate a popular hockey rink due to his FBI arrest for wire fraud.
Award-winning Hollywood composer/songwriter Hélène Muddiman tried to intervene, writing Carter to say she'd had positive business dealings with Schwartz during the past four years. Muddiman even described the defendant as "honest" and "professional."
But the judge, a 1998 Bill Clinton appointee and Purple Heart recipient for his Marine service during Vietnam War combat at the Battle of Khe Sahn, agreed with the prosecutor, ruling the conduct warranted 37 months in prison.
With members of his family–including his supportive wife, brother and father–sitting nearby in court, Schwartz grimaced briefly but remained silent.
"I want you to rehabilitate," said a stern Carter.
Schwartz–who has lost his home, his cars, his businesses, his real-estate license and his image–must self-surrender to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons by noon on Feb. 16.