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.