Sunday, June 10, 2012

Mastro mystery: Aging ex-magnate nears 1 year on the lam

Michael R. Mastro celebrated his 87th birthday Friday.

The big question, of course, is — where?

It's been nearly a year since the onetime Seattle real-estate magnate and his wife, Linda, moved out of the $2 million house they had been renting in Palm Desert, Calif., and headed for parts unknown.

The couple left June 23, days after the judge in Mastro's massive bankruptcy case ordered them to turn over two giant diamond rings valued at $1.4 million. They officially became fugitives a month later when warrants were signed for their arrest.

But they remain at large, and there are just two plausible explanations:

Either federal authorities don't know where the Mastros are — or they do know, but haven't moved to apprehend the couple yet because legal complications stand in the way.

Denny Behrend, a retired deputy U.S. marshal, suspects it's the latter. His former colleagues in the Marshals Service are very good at finding people who don't want to be found, he says, but extracting fugitives from other countries can be legally tricky.

"I'd bet they're just putting all their ducks in line so that when they do move in, it'll go smoothly," says Behrend, now vice president of Lacey OMalley Bail Bonds in Seattle.

Mark Ericks, U.S. marshal for Western Washington, won't say if Behrend is right. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Seattle won't say anything about the Mastros.

But all this silence hasn't halted rampant speculation about the couple's whereabouts.

"I was at a charity event recently and I had people come up to me and swear they'd seen Mike and Linda in South America, or Europe, or Canada, or Sun Valley," says James Frush, Mastro's lawyer. "It was ridiculous."

Frush won't say whether he's been in contact with his client-on-the-lam. When he's asked if he knows where the Mastros are, he jokes about one of their favorite restaurants.

"I tell people they're in the wine cellar at Canlis," Frush says.

Michael Mastro was a longtime and prolific real-estate developer and lender whose website alluded to his "billion-dollar career." But his highly leveraged empire fell apart when the market tanked.

Three lenders pushed Mastro into bankruptcy in 2009. The most recent estimate of his debt to unsecured creditors is $250 million, and court-appointed trustee James Rigby has said those creditors will be lucky to get back more than a few pennies on the dollar.

In the Mastros' absence, the $5,000-a-day fine that Bankruptcy Judge Marc Barreca imposed to persuade them to turn over the rings has continued to accrue. It now totals more than $1.5 million.

Ericks, the U.S. marshal, revealed last September that his agency had tracked the Mastros to an apartment in Canada in August — only to find they had left a day or two before.

If they are in another country, marshals can't bring them back without that nation's cooperation. And some countries are more cooperative than others.

About 70 — from Russia and China to Afghanistan and Somalia — don't even have extradition treaties with the U.S. But Douglas McNabb, a Washington, D.C., criminal-defense attorney who specializes in international extradition, says those nations hold little appeal for most fugitives.

"Any country that you could go to without an extradition treaty — they wouldn't want to live there," he says.

Extradition can be challenging even in countries with treaties, however.

For one, there's no indication the Mastros have been charged with a crime. Barreca issued the arrest warrants for them last July for contempt of court, a civil violation.

Extraditing someone on that basis is difficult, if not impossible, experts agree.

"They're not going to get to extradite him on a civil matter," says Jacques Semmelman, a New York lawyer and international extradition expert. "There has to be a crime."

John Strait, who teaches criminal law at Seattle University, agrees. "There might be some ways you could do it," he says, "but it wouldn't be easy, and it would take a lot of time."

Mastro is the subject of a federal criminal investigation. While the U.S. Attorney's Office in Seattle won't confirm it, Frush acknowledged the probe more than two years ago. It's still under way, lawyers for a Mastro associate who also is under investigation said last month in court documents.

If federal marshals know where the Mastros are, they could be waiting for a grand-jury indictment before they move to apprehend the couple. That would make extradition much easier, experts agree.

But they also say it's possible a sealed indictment already has been issued that hasn't been made public for fear of pushing the Mastros further underground. There could be new arrest warrants — also sealed — based on that indictment, they add.

McNabb suspects that's what has happened. The Marshals Service probably wouldn't have been pursuing the Mastros in Canada last year with warrants based only on a contempt citation, he says.

If Mastro has been — or will be — indicted, the government's success in extraditing him could hinge on exactly what the charges against him are.

One likely possibility is bankruptcy fraud — hiding assets from creditors. Rigby filed a civil suit accusing Mastro of that, and Barreca ruled in the trustee's favor last fall.

Experts differ on how easy it would be to extradite Mastro to be tried for that offense.

Some extradition treaties list specific crimes for which other countries will turn over a fugitive American to U.S. authorities. Other treaties are more general, authorizing extradition if the offense with which the American is charged also is a crime in that country.

Bankruptcy fraud is recognized as a crime almost universally, says Strait — if not by that name, then as a form of "theft by deception." Semmelman agrees.

But McNabb says it's not always that clear-cut.

One example: While Brazil's treaty with the U.S. authorizes extradition for "crimes or offenses against the bankruptcy laws," that country's Supreme Court declined in 1999 to extradite an American charged with bankruptcy fraud.

If foreign authorities balk at extraditing Mastro for that offense, McNabb says, the hurdle might be overcome by also charging him with other, possibly related crimes: perjury, mail fraud or wire fraud, for instance.

Tax fraud is another possibility. Internal Revenue Service agents, as well as FBI agents, interviewed Mastro associates last summer, Frush says. One Mastro associate, Bellevue developer Winstron Bontrager, was indicted in March for tax fraud, including concealing income from a real-estate deal in which Mastro was involved.

But the people who know what charges Mastro may — or does — face aren't talking.

"You're trying to read the tea leaves," says Frush, "but the tea is just too murky."

There are a few shards of new information about the search for the Mastros that only raise more questions:

• In January, the Mastros' Bentley, Chihuly glass pieces and other household goods were auctioned off in Palm Desert. Auctioneer Tim Murphy observed a large number of hits on the auction website from Italy, and he speculated the Mastros might be staying there.

Murphy said recently that he allowed the FBI to burrow into his firm's computers to try to learn more, but he understands they hit a dead end. The FBI also asked for a list of people registered for the auction, he said.

• Last November, after Barreca ruled that Linda Mastro, now 62, owed her husband's creditors more than $1.3 million, her lawyer, Michael Gossler, filed an appeal on her behalf.

Did she authorize it? Gossler won't discuss whether he's been in contact with his client. Frush says Gossler could be acting in what he considers Linda Mastro's interests without communicating with her.

The last person who publicly acknowledged speaking with the Mastros was Gloria Plischke, Michael's sister. She said last September that he had phoned her several times. (Plischke couldn't be reached for comment for this story.)

Behrend, the retired marshal, says the Mastros almost certainly aren't communicating with family or friends now. They're probably living under assumed names, he says, and paying for everything with cash.

But "the Mastros are really not fugitive-type people," he says. "And being a fugitive is really hard work."

Authorities could be negotiating with the country where the couple are staying to extradite or deport them, Behrend says. Or marshals could be trying to lure the Mastros to a country where extradition might be easier.

Few fugitives remain at large this long, says Frush, a former federal prosecutor: They can't withstand the tug of home, family and friends.

"But once those ties are cut, at a certain point your life changes so much that you escape that pull," he says.

Ericks, the U.S. marshal, won't respond to all this speculation. "There's just things I can't talk about," he says.

"Just know that if we have the authority to get him, we're going to get him."

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