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Ex-Jewelry CEO Gets 14 Years in $90M Scam

May 23, 2003

MIAMI (AP) _ The former chief of a jewelry company was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison Friday for a work-at-home Ponzi scheme that defrauded 16,000 people out of about $90 million.

Enrique Pirela, former CEO of Unique Gems International Corp., said through tears that he was ``truly repentant″ about the scam, which operated from 1995 to 1997.

People paid a $3,000 deposit for necklace-making kits and were paid for assembling the jewelry. Spanish-language psychic Walter Mercado promoted the hematite necklaces on television as useful for curing cancer, sexual dysfunction and poverty.

The company sold only $1,400 worth of necklaces, investigators said.

One man told the judge he lost his life savings and his children’s college fund. ``This man right here put my family through misery,″ Nelson Bauza said.

Pirela, 55, fled to Venezuela when the company collapsed. He was arrested last year when he returned to the United States for a son’s wedding and pleaded guilty to money-laundering conspiracy and fraud conspiracy. He had faced 20 years in prison.

Two people indicted with Pirela are believed to be fugitives in Spain, and a third is thought to be dead.

About half of the $90 million has been recovered. A civil suit is pending against Wachovia Bank for handling $89 million in Unique Gems money.

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