On an August afternoon in 1991, a federal judge in California sent an unmistakable message in the “war on drugs” when he sentenced four men convicted of laundering cocaine cartel cash to more than 500 years each in prison.
None of the men had previous criminal records. Nor were they convicted of direct involvement in the massive cocaine distribution ring at the center of the case.
The sentences by US District Court Judge William D. Keller were considered harsh even back then and represent the sort of draconian punishment that has since been widely condemned amid a national conversation around justice reform.
For decades, the men sentenced by Keller that afternoon seemed destined to die in prison, just as the judge predicted they would.
Then last year, they got what appeared to be an extraordinary reprieve:
Federal prosecutors, who had been investigating defense claims of undisclosed special treatment given to a key government witness by FBI agents, recommended that the men’s convictions be overturned “in the interests of justice” and that they be released from prison right away.
All that stood between the four men and their freedom was the blessing of another federal judge. That seemed likely given that prosecutors had taken the highly unusual step of siding with the defense in seeking to have the convictions thrown out.
But US District Court Judge Stephen V. Wilson, a former prosecutor himself who once worked under Keller in the US Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles, was not inclined to simply “rubber stamp” the request.
Wilson had questions, and his search for answers was going to take time.
In the eyes of prosecutors in the early 1990s, brothers Nazareth and Vahe Andonian, Raul Vivas, and Juan Carlos Seresi may not have personally committed any acts of violence or handled any kilos of cocaine, but their activities enabled those who did. The more than $300 million the men helped launder, the logic went, kept the cartels in business.
Even before trial, Judge Keller, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, made his disdain for such crimes known.
“I intend to deter forevermore anybody doing anything like this,” he said at a pretrial hearing.
At trial, defense attorneys depicted their clients as legitimate businessmen whose participation in any sort of money laundering scheme was unwitting. They acknowledged the men had been involved in massive financial transactions through their precious metal and money exchange companies, but denied they had any knowledge that their activities involved money derived from illicit sources. The Andonian brothers and Vivas were already successful business owners before the alleged crimes began, according to court records. Seresi worked for Vivas.
The trial lasted eight months, and the jury was out for another 28 days. The panel could not reach a verdict on drug conspiracy charges against the men, resulting in a hung jury on those charges. But they were each convicted of multiple counts of money laundering and conspiracy.
At sentencing, Keller made good on his earlier comment about deterrence. He detailed how he put together a string of consecutive terms intended to put the men away not just for one lifetime, but many.
The judge alluded to the apparent finality of the sentences when he temporarily balked at ordering any sort of customary post-release supervision.
“It just flies in the face of common sense,” Keller said. “I don’t anticipate there is going to be any release.”
On top of the prison terms, Vivas was fined $7.6 million and the Andonians $1.7 million each. Seresi, in a nod to what Keller acknowledged was his “rather modest means,” was spared a fine.
A key witness breaks his silence
For two decades, the Andonian brothers, Vivas and Seresi, tried to make the most of life behind bars. They stayed connected with their expanding families, memorized grandkids’ birthdays, earned college degrees, worked with their attorneys filing appeals.
Their legal efforts, however, always ended in disappointment.
But in 2012, a man who played a key role in putting them in prison would set in motion their best chance of getting out.
That man is Sergio Hochman, a co-conspirator who once worked at a Los Angeles gold brokerage used in the money laundering scheme, according to court filings.
Hochman, who was facing a potential life sentence in a related case, cut an early deal with prosecutors. He spent seven days on the witness stand testifying for the government. He described how “bulk cash” from narcotics sales were used to buy gold. The gold was then sold, and the proceeds were wired to Central and South America.
Hochman explained a code used to discuss financial transactions at issue in the case and his testimony helped bolster the prosecution’s contention that the defendants knew the money was dirty.
What jurors didn’t know was that Hochman had been receiving special treatment from his FBI handlers, including a handcuff-free seaside lunch in Malibu and visits with his wife in the backseat of a car and in her apartment in Tucson, Arizona.
In exchange for his cooperation, Hochman received a sentence of five years and eight months and was released in 1994. In fact, all of the defendants convicted along with Hochman in his case and sentenced by Judge Consuelo B. Marshall have since been released from prison.
Hochman first disclosed some “benefits that he received” to his own attorney in a conversation 18 years after his release, according to a declaration by the lawyer, Errol Stambler.
Stambler said he realized what Hochman was alluding to was new information and pressed him for more detail. He said Hochman was initially “very reluctant to share more,” but a few months later signed a sworn declaration detailing the special treatment. In it, he said he had been warned by his FBI agent handlers “not to disclose those benefits to anyone.”
As a result of the warning, Hochman wrote, “I remained silent and did not volunteer that information to anyone, not even to my attorney.”
An unexpected turn
For prosecutors – and by extension their investigators – failing to turn over evidence that might point toward a defendant’s innocence or raise serious questions about his guilt is considered a cardinal sin and can lead to convictions being overturned. Special treatment given to a key witness by FBI agents and withheld from defense attorneys could fall into that category.
Recognizing the potential importance of Hochman’s declaration to the imprisoned defendants, Stambler turned the document over to Vivas’s attorney, Alan Eisner.
In 2013, Eisner filed a motion seeking to have his client’s conviction overturned based on the newly disclosed information from Hochman.
Prosecutors, not surprisingly, were skeptical of Hochman who, as Assistant US Attorney Daffodil Tyminski wrote in 2014, “has supposedly come forward almost 25 years after the trial.”
Tyminski asked Keller to throw out his declaration, which she argued was “untimely” and “without merit.” Even if his claims were true, Tyminski wrote, “there is no reasonable probability that… the result of the proceeding would be different.”
By this time, Keller had gone into “senior status,” meaning he had a reduced caseload. The case was ultimately transferred to Wilson, who had once served as one of Keller’s top prosecutors in the Los Angeles US Attorney’s Office.
Seresi and the Andonian brothers later joined Vivas’s efforts to have their convictions overturned, since Hochman testified against them as well.
The case dragged on for years until last summer, when it took an unexpected turn.
Prosecutors were no longer taking the position that Hochman’s declaration was “without merit.”
Just the opposite. Newly assigned Asst. US Attys. Diana L. Pauli and Michael G. Freedman were siding with the defense. They asked Wilson to throw out each of the men’s convictions and order their immediate release.
Wilson called a hearing in July to learn more about their rationale.
Following some back and forth with one of the prosecutors, the judge said there was no doubt an FBI agent allowing a conjugal visit for a witness who was in federal custody was problematic.
“This is the kind of stuff you see in bad movies, not by FBI agents,” the judge said. “It was highly inappropriate and wrongful conduct, but the question is, is this the kind of stuff that would persuade a jury that he was lying?”
Several weeks later, Pauli and Freedman filed a brief at Wilson’s request expanding on Hochman’s role in the case. They noted that prosecutors “relied repeatedly on Hochman’s testimony to explain certain events” during the trial and that “the jury focused on his testimony and appears to have found him credible.”
His special treatment by the FBI, if known to defense attorneys, could have been used to attack his credibility and may have “altered at least one juror’s assessment,” the prosecutors wrote.
Wilson remained unconvinced. At a hearing in November, he asked if the FBI agents had been interviewed about Hochman’s allegations.
“Yes, your honor,” Freedman replied. “The Government’s position is based on what the FBI agents have told us.”
“I see,” Wilson said.
Most concerning to the judge and prosecutors was the conjugal visit allowed by one of the agents.
That agent, now retired, also admitted that he did not divulge the liaison to prosecutors at the time, Freedman said.
Wilson said he agreed it was “a significant nondisclosure,” and that the agent allowing Hochman to be alone with his wife demonstrated a “special relationship or special interest.”
Freedman added later that the agent’s improper dealings with Hochman could also be used by the defense to attack the agent’s overall role in the case, which included collecting evidence and testifying as a witness for the prosecution. Laura Eimiller, a spokeswoman for the FBI in Los Angeles, declined to comment.
As the judge continued to pepper Freedman and defense attorneys with questions about the details of the case, Jerry Newton, one of the defense attorneys, reminded Wilson that the defendants had been in prison for three decades and were eager for the judge to render a decision that could potentially result in their freedom.
“I realize that time is important,” Wilson said, adding that he wouldn’t allow the matter to linger. “We’ll get to it.”
‘A thorough review’
More than eight months later, and following inquiries about the case by CNN, Wilson issued a 32-page order earlier this month detailing his findings.
In addition to the transcripts of key witness testimony and closing arguments he’d requested and received from prosecutors, the judge explained how he had ordered “a complete record of the trial” from the court archives.
The thousands of pages of documents filled 18 boxes.
“As is its duty, the Court has undertaken a thorough review,” Wilson wrote before launching into a detailed analysis of the case and Hochman’s role in it.
The upshot was that, in Wilson’s analysis, Hochman’s testimony had been “helpful” to the government, but “not critical.”
“It is not enough that the government’s case would be slightly weaker without Hochman,” he wrote.
He also took aim at the US Attorney’s Office where he once worked, blaming prosecutors for being disinterested in the official record of the case and for effectively abandoning their role in the adversarial process.
He said the government “demonstrated no familiarity” with the case, “initially misrepresented to the Court that no trial transcript was available” and “did nothing to demonstrate to the Court that it has diligently reviewed the record.”
For those reasons, Wilson explained, he could not simply defer to the US Attorney’s Office about whether the failure to disclose the special treatment by the agents was likely to have made a difference in the outcome of the case.
The defendants’ motions, he wrote, “are DENIED.”
‘A lot at stake’
Within 24 hours of Wilson’s order, defense attorneys representing the Andonian brothers filed papers challenging the judge’s authority and signaling their intent to appeal.
“The decision to either institute or terminate a prosecution lies with the executive branch of government,” they wrote.
Robert Weisberg, a Stanford University law professor specializing in criminal law and sentencing policy, said it’s rare to see prosecutors join defense attorneys in seeking to have a conviction thrown out, and rarer still to see a judge block that from happening.
He said it’s a gray area under the law and that there’s no guarantee Wilson’s order will be upheld if appealed.
Weisberg said he agreed with the judge’s assessment that the special treatment given by the FBI agents was not sufficiently troubling to overturn the convictions. But he wondered if prosecutors would have fared better had they leaned harder on the “judicial harshness” of the sentences as background for their primary argument about an alleged constitutional violation.
“This looks like a brutal sentence that would suggest these guys merit a little mercy,” he said. “There’s a lot at stake here.”
That sentiment was echoed by Tess Lopez, who helped craft hundreds of sentence recommendations during her 13-year tenure as a federal probation officer.
Lopez said she watched judges agonize over imposing 20- or 30-year sentences as a result of mandatory minimums. Stacking such already lengthy terms to be served consecutively, as Keller did, is “really unheard of,” said Lopez, now a private defense consultant.
“It goes well beyond making an example,” she said. “It’s very, very, very excessive.”
‘A punch in the gut’
Lawyers representing the four inmates, now in their 60s and 70s, said their clients, while disappointed, would press forward with an appeal and remained hopeful.
“These guys got a raw deal,” said Stanley Greenberg, who represents Nazareth Andonian. The sentences they are continuing to serve, he said, “are grotesquely unfair and cruel.”
For Seresi, who Judge Keller deemed the least culpable of the 505-year defendants, the cold reality of his current status appears in black and white in his projected release date: July 8, 2419.
“The day that he was sentenced his entire family was sentenced along with him,” his wife, Maria, wrote in an appeal for clemency to President Barack Obama in 2016.
The packet was filled with letters from family and friends attesting to the hardworking, warm-hearted family man Seresi was before his offense, and the studious, model prisoner he has been since.
He’s earned three associate’s degrees while behind bars, speaks with family members over the phone daily and gets weekly visits at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles where he is currently being housed.
His oldest daughter, Patti Mawer, was a teenager when he was sentenced and has spent most of her life waiting and hoping for her father’s release.
Mawer, now 46, said Wilson’s order was particularly devastating because his freedom had never seemed so close as when prosecutors sided with the defense in seeking his release.
Wilson’s decision felt like “a punch in the gut,” Mawer said, but added that her father is a fighter who quickly recovered and set the tone for the rest of the family.
“We’re very positive. We’re moving forward,” she said. “This is not the end of the road.”