4-year sentence caps off 18-year-old New Orleans money-laundering case

By: Ramon Antonio Vargas

A dual citizen of the United States and Nicaragua who evaded authorities for nearly two decades received a four-year prison sentence Wednesday after previously pleading guilty in New Orleans to his role in a plot to launder drug money, capping off a case that also involved a disgraced Italian coffee importer and the brother of a famous local mob boss.

U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance additionally ordered Erwin Mierisch, 49, to spend three years under federal supervision.

The case against Mierisch, himself a coffee businessman, dates back to 1999, when a grand jury indicted him in a money-laundering and drug-trafficking scheme. The federal probe led to the conviction of Roberto Gambini, a New Orleans businessman who made a name for himself as the city became the nation’s busiest coffee-importing port.

Charges were also filed against Mierisch’s uncle, Jose Esteban McEwan, who died years ago without ever going to court. A fourth suspect in the case, Joseph Marcello Jr., was the brother of notorious New Orleans mob boss Carlos Marcello, but he died before charges in the case were finalized.

Led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael McMahon, the case against Mierisch languished for years as he remained in Nicaragua, which refused to extradite him to the United States. It was revived after Mierisch was captured in Mexico City late last year while in transit between Nicaragua and Tokyo.

He was eventually transferred to New Orleans, where he pleaded guilty, sparing federal prosecutors the challenge of going to trial on an 18-year-old case depending on aged evidence and witnesses who have scattered.

An FBI informant turned authorities onto Mierisch, Gambini and McEwan by introducing an undercover customs agent to Gambini after May 1998, according to a formal admission signed by Mierisch as part of his guilty plea.

The informant told Gambini that the undercover agent had large amounts of drug money needing to be “cleaned up,” and Gambini said he could be of assistance as he had done that kind of thing in the past.

Gambini falsified invoices documenting the wholesale purchase and transfer of coffee, and the list price matched the amount of money that was laundered.

In return for the fake documents, Gambini accepted cash from the undercover customs agent, the “factual basis” filed in court said. Federal officials paid Gambini $45,000 the first time, then returned several more times with similar requests to launder money, according to Mierisch’s factual basis.

Twice, Gambini wired what he thought was drug money to the bank account of a Nicaraguan business using his and Mierisch’s surnames, authorities said.

Meanwhile, Mierisch spoke numerous times with an undercover FBI agent about how he, Gambini and McEwan could supply cocaine. At one point, the agent received 99 grams of cocaine as a sample of the available product, the factual basis said.

Mierisch also acknowledged he paid $20,000 to the agent to arrange an attack on the spouse of an unidentified person who had filed a lawsuit against one of Gambini’s associates.

In the end, Gambini pleaded guilty in 1999 to laundering $900,000 in what he thought was drug money. He was deported to Italy after receiving a prison sentence of 5½ years.

Gambini also admitted he paid undercover agents to incinerate a Miami warehouse full of coffee beans to collect insurance money, and authorities seized an arsenal of more than two dozen guns from his home.

Many were stunned by the fall of Gambini, who arrived in New Orleans in 1990 and would take over more than 200 old grain silos at the Nashville Street wharf, refurbishing them to process and store coffee, according to an account at the time in The Times-Picayune.

Mierisch’s uncle, McEwan, remained on his coffee plantation in Nicaragua and sought to defend himself from the charges remotely.

But McMahon thwarted McEwan’s efforts by arguing that he shouldn’t be able to challenge the indictment in a country where U.S. officials wouldn’t be able to enforce any judgment he might receive against him.

In other cases handled by Acting U.S. Attorney Duane Evans’ office:

• U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt ordered Lionel “Lot” Allen, 23, to spend the rest of his life in prison — and 35 more years after that — for convictions of murder, firearms conspiracy and racketeering following a trial centering around the violent Young Melph Mafia gang, Evans’ office said Wednesday.

The trial resulting in the convictions of Allen and several other defendants was largely shadowed by the 2012 murder of Briana Allen at a birthday party in Central City. Lionel Allen was the target of the gunfire that killed Briana as well as a passing motorist named Shawanna Pierce.

Other defendants had pleaded guilty without going to trial.

Allen’s convictions involved participating in the April 22, 2012, shooting death of Vennie Smith as well as the deadly shooting of Deshawn Hartford later that year. He also found to have been an aider and abettor in the shooting death of Travis Thomas on Interstate 10 on May 6, 2013, Evans’ office said.

• Vance sentenced Angie Cambre of LaPlace to 2 years, 9 months in prison after she previously pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $940,000 from a New Orleans commercial printing company that employed her as a bookkeeper and accountant between November 2011 and June 2016, Evans’ office said Wednesday.

Cambre was also told to pay restitution in the amount stolen as well as spend three years under federal supervision following her release.

• Jarvis Wheeler, 29, of New Orleans, pleaded guilty Wednesday to plotting to alter U.S. Postal money orders, Evans’ office said.

Evans’ office said that Wheeler acknowledged he worked with unidentified co-conspirators to buy U.S. Postal money orders worth $1 or other small amounts and then sent them out of state, where they were amended to higher amounts.

Wheeler said he and the others then deposited the modified money orders to local bank accounts, from which the funds were withdrawn and split up once they cleared.

Wheeler faces up to five years in prison as well as a maximum fine of $250,000.