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Man admits extortion plot against coal executive

BECKLEY, W.Va. -- An aspiring actor admitted his guilt in an extortion plot involving a West Virginia coal executive, among others, in U.S. District Court on Thursday.

Vivek Shah, 25, of California, pleaded guilty to one count of transferring threatening communications in interstate commerce and seven counts of mailing or sending threatening communications through the mail. His trial had been set to begin Monday.

Wearing orange prison garb and shackled at the ankles, Shah, who has appeared in small film roles, told U.S. District Judge Irene Berger he sent the threatening letters to get publicity.

He was indicted last year on charges he threatened 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.

Shah told the judge he sent the letter to Cline's home in Florida on June 9, 2012.

"I used words that ... um ... if the money isn't sent at least one family member would be dead," Shah told the judge.

Other threatening letters were sent between June 26 and Aug. 9, 2012, including one demanding $4 million to film producer Harvey Weinstein's Connecticut home. Gary Goetzman, who owns Playtone with actor Tom Hanks, received a letter demanding $9.4 million, and 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, $16 million, and Terry Pegula, founder of natural gas drilling company East Resources and owner of the National Hockey League's Buffalo Sabres, $34 million.

"... I demanded a certain amount of money -- millions," Shah said in court. The letter stated the money would be returned with 4 percent interest.

"I expected to receive publicity out of it," Shah told the judge. "I know it put some people in fear of their life."

Shah was also charged in California, but those cases were transferred to West Virginia. He has been in the Southern Regional Jail in Beaver since August, and was returned there after Thursday's hearing.

Berger, who issued a gag order in the case and sealed court documents last year, will decide whether an 87-month prison sentence called for by the plea agreement is fair.

Shah is scheduled to be sentenced at 1:30 p.m. Sept. 11. He will also be subject to three years of supervised release, according to the agreement.

Berger told Shah the charges carry a maximum prison sentence of 160 years and fines of up to $2 million.

Berger ordered a pre-sentence investigation report be prepared to help her decide whether to accept the agreement.  

Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby told Berger that when FBI agents arrested Shah at his parent's home in Schaumberg, Ill., document versions of the letters were found on his laptop computer.

Also on the computer, Ruby said, was evidence that Shah opened a foreign financial account in Cline's name. In a backpack confiscated by police, officials also found prepaid American Express debit cards used to pay for postage to send the threatening letters, he said.

Videos obtained by investigators show Shah purchasing the debit cards at a supermarket and Rite Aid pharmacy near his Los Angeles residence, Ruby told the judge.

Shah's DNA was found on a letter sent to one of the victims, according to Ruby.

Shah, who told the judge he had a bachelor's degree, looked back at his family for a moment during the hearing. Six of his family members attended. His mother identified herself to Shah's attorney, Debra Kilgore, after the hearing and they went to a room in the courthouse to talk.

Kilgore was appointed by U.S. Magistrate Clarke VanDervort to represent Shah, who fired his first attorney in December and had a public defender withdraw as his counsel in February.

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1211.


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