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Would-be extortionist sentenced to 7 years

BECKLEY, W.Va. -- An aspiring actor who sent threatening letters demanding money from a West Virginia coal executive and other moguls will spend the next seven years in jail.

Vivek Shah, 26, of California, was sentenced Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Beckley to 87 months, as agreed upon in a plea deal.

Shah, who has appeared in small film roles, pleaded guilty in May to one count of transferring threatening communications in interstate commerce and seven counts of mailing or sending threatening communications through the mail.

He previously told U.S. District Judge Irene Berger that he sent the threatening letters to get publicity.

At Wednesday's sentencing, Berger called Shah's scheme "an intricate and sophisticated plan." She said the sentence would "deter others seeking money and/or publicity."

Shah was indicted last year on charges of threatening to kill relatives of Christopher Cline, owner of the coal company Foresight Reserves, if Cline refused to send $13 million to offshore bank accounts. Cline has homes in Beckley and North Palm Beach, Fla.

Other threatening letters were sent between June 26 and Aug. 9 of last year, including one demanding $4 million to film producer Harvey Weinstein's Connecticut home. Gary Goetzman, who owns the film and music production company Playtone with actor Tom Hanks, received a letter demanding $9.4 million. Ryan Kavanaugh, founder of Relativity Media, got one demanding $11.3 million.

Dannine Avara, who inherited her father's oil fortune, received a letter in Texas that told her to send $35 million. Eric Lefkofsky, the co-founder of Groupon, got one demanding $16 million. Terry Pegula, founder of natural gas drilling company East Resources and owner of the National Hockey League's Buffalo Sabres, was told to send $34 million.

Shah was arrested Aug. 10, 2012, at his parents' house in Schaumberg, Ill. He has been in jail since.

The original charges against Shah carried a maximum prison sentence of 160 years and fines of up to $2 million. Berger did not impose a fine. The federal sentencing guidelines advise an 87- to 108-month sentence. Shah's guilty plea, however, was contingent on the judge agreeing with the 87-month sentence.

Also Wednesday, the judge lifted a gag order imposed last year that sealed documents and barred attorneys from speaking about the case.

Berger said Shah had researched to find the names of his victim's family members, found their personal email addresses and sent follow-up letters with instructions to wire money to offshore bank accounts, which he had opened in their names.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Ruby told the judge during Shah's plea hearing in May that police had confiscated prepaid debit cards used to pay for postage to send the threatening letters.

Videos obtained by investigators show Shah purchasing the debit cards at a supermarket and Rite Aid pharmacy near his Los Angeles residence, and Shah's DNA was found on a letter sent to one of the victims, Ruby told the judge.

"The government was struck by the degree of sophistication," Ruby said Wednesday. He added, though, that prosecutors don't believe Shah would have carried out the threats.

"Imagine how terrifying it would be to open the mail and find a threat to kill your spouse or your 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."

Berger said she could tell the letters were taken seriously based on statements she received from the victims.

"You put the victims and their families in fear of their lives," she told him.

The crime was especially disturbing, the judge said, given Shah's educational background and family support. Shah, who speaks five languages and has a bachelor's degree in business administration, is a member of the Screen Actors Guild, Berger said.

Shah apologized in court and said he had learned that "we live in a society that has rules and laws we all have to follow." His attorney, Debra Kilgore, told the judge that, with the help of prosecutors, Shah had written letters to the victims.

Shah told the judge his actions were the "complete polar opposite of who I truly am.

"I have two wonderful and supportive parents and an elder brother who deeply cares about me. If you accept the plea and sentence me today, I know in my heart my family is being sentenced, as well," Shah said, tearing up as he spoke.

Several of Shah's family members, including his mother and brother, sat behind him during the sentencing.

He was born in Akron, Ohio, and moved to India when he was five, where he attended a private school, Berger said. At age 15, his family moved to Illinois and, at 21, Shah moved to Los Angeles.

"You have enormous potential and, unfortunately, still find yourself in this position," the judge told him. "You devoted a significant amount of time and energy and thought to plan this extraordinary scheme."

 Berger agreed to recommend that Shah be housed in a facility where he could further his education.

"I believe the defendant has an unusually high degree of potential to turn his life around and put this episode behind him," Ruby said. The judge agreed.

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.


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