Court Digest

South Carolina
Charges dropped against deputy after 2 died in flooded van

MARION, S.C. (AP) — Criminal charges have been dropped against a former deputy who was helping to transport two mental health patients who drowned while locked in the back of a van that was driven into floodwaters caused by 2018’s Hurricane Florence in South Carolina.

The van’s driver, former Horry County Deputy Stephen Flood, was convicted in May of two counts of reckless homicide and is serving nine years in prison. But authorities decided to drop involuntary manslaughter charges against former Horry County Deputy Joshua Bishop, who was riding along and didn’t realize until it was too late that Flood was risking their lives, Solicitor Ed Clements told news outlets last week.

Clements said Bishop did everything he could to rescue the women. He said Flood’s trial helped clear up Bishop’s role in the September 2018 deaths of Wendy Newton, 45, and Nicolette Green, 43. The two women had been involuntarily committed for mental health care and were being transferred for treatment outside Horry County.

While judges agreed to the commitment orders for Newton and Green, their families said they were not violent. Newton was only seeking medicine for her fear and anxiety and Green’s family said she was committed to a mental facility at a regular mental health appointment by a counselor she had never seen before.

The floodwaters swept the police van off its wheels and pinned it against a guardrail, preventing the women from being able to get out the sliding door they used to enter the van. Flood and Bishop did not have a key to a second door and there was no emergency escape hatch, according to testimony at Flood’s trial.

The deputies said they spoke to the women and tried to keep them calm for about an hour as the water kept rising before it got too dangerous and rescuers could no longer hear them.

Bishop testified he tried to shoot the locks off the second door, but it still would not open. The delay in getting help was costly too. A firefighter testified they were able to cut the roof off the van and started working on the cage, but the water got higher and faster and it was too dangerous to continue.

Flood told investigators he was trying to find the shortest and quickest route to the treatment centers and if the road was too dangerous, he thought National Guard troops at barricades closing the highway leading to the bridge would have told him to stop.

Prosecutors said Flood should not have been stubborn and turned around when he started driving through water covering the highway.


Woman gets 20 years for bilking Chinese in $26M hotel fraud

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A woman who bilked investors in a Southern California hotel and condominium project out of at least $26 million was sentenced Monday to 20 years in federal prison.

Ruixue “Serena” Shi, 38, of Arcadia was sentenced after a judge refused to allow her to withdraw her plea last year to wire fraud.

“There has been no acceptance of responsibility; there has been a denial of responsibility,” U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner said, according to a press release from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Prosecutors said that from late 2015 to mid-2018, Shi was the general manager of a real estate company based in China that had a Los Angeles office. She solicited investments, mainly from Chinese investors, in a 207-unit luxury complex to be built in the city of Coachella, in the desert southeast of Los Angeles.

In reality, Shi spent much of the money on luxury cars, travel, clothing, dining and shopping, prosecutors said. That included $800,000 at a “full-service styling agency” in Beverly Hills, prosecutors said.

“While her victims suffered financial ruin and psychological torment, (Shi) was living large off their investments,” prosecutors said in a sentencing document.

In court statements, more than two dozen victims submitted statements.

“Several discussed their reliance on Shi’s false promises that their investments would assist them in securing visas to immigrate to the United States. One victim even wrote that, after losing his retirement savings to Shi’s scheme, he ‘even contemplated suicide,’ the Department of Justice statement said.

In addition to prison time, Shi was ordered to pay $35.8 million in restitution.


North Dakota
Former tribal ­official sentenced to prison for bribery

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A former Three Affiliated Tribes official was sentenced Monday to six years and three months in federal prison after pleading guilty to a scheme that involved soliciting and accepting bribes and kickbacks from a contractor providing construction services on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

The U.S. Attorney’s office said Frank Charles Grady, 54, of Billings, Montana, was a tribal business council representative from 2014 to 2018 for the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, also known as the Three Affiliated Tribes.

Authorities say Grady solicited and accepted bribes and kickbacks for more than $260,000 from a contractor operating on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. In exchange for the payments, Grady used his official position to help the contractor’s business by awarding contracts, fabricating bids and managing fraudulent invoices.

Grady a nd two others were originally charged with receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from the bribery scheme that lasted for eight years on the oil-rich reservation. The contractor has pleaded guilty to bribery and has been cooperating with prosecutors. Prosecutors said the business received more than $17 million over the past decade for construction work on the reservation.


New Hampshire
Man pleads guilty to stealing kids’ pills at treatment home

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — A former worker at a residential treatment home in New Hampshire pleaded guilty Monday to stealing medication from children and replacing it with pills he colored with markers.

According to prosecutors, Thomas John Ball Poirier, 41, of Tilton stole Ritalin from children at Spaulding Academy and Family Services in Northfield in 2020. He was arrested in March 2021 and pleaded guilty Monday to first degree assault, second degree assault and obtaining a controlled drug by deceit.

The attorney general’s office said two of the children experienced severe behavioral changes as a reaction to having their prescriptions tampered with.

Poirier will be sentenced Jan. 13.


Man gets 17 1/2 years for cannabis pen fraud

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A Southern California man who once competed on the Philippines national decathlon team was sentenced Monday to 17 1/2 years in federal prison for bilking investors out of more than $35 million with a phony scheme to market cannabis vape pens.

David Joseph Bunevacz also was ordered to pay $35.2 million in restitution by U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer, who said he had “preyed on individuals who believed he was their friend” and that the “seriousness of (his) conduct cannot be captured in mere dollars and cents,” according to a statement from the U.S. attorney’s office.

Bunevacz, 53, of Calabasas, pleaded guilty in July to securities fraud and wire fraud.

According to his plea agreement, Bunevacz created several businesses as far back as 2010 that he claimed were involved in the cannabis industry and the sale of vape pens.

He raised tens of millions of dollars from at least 10 investors, prosecutors said.

But instead of financing business operations, Bunevacz was accused of using much of it to fund a lifestyle that included a fancy house, Las Vegas trips, jewelry, designer handbags, horses and a lavish birthday party for his daughter.

Bunevacz is a former decathlete at the University of California, Los Angeles, and also competed for the Philippines in the 1990s.


New Jersey
Prosecutor: ­Mother gets life in death of 17-month-old son

CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) — A New Jersey woman convicted of murder in the death of her 17-month-old son 4 1/2 years ago has been sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole, authorities said.

Judge Gwendolyn Blue also sentenced Heather Reynolds, 45, of Sicklervile last week to concurrent terms on child endangerment and drug counts, the Camden County prosecutor’s office said. Reynolds was convicted of the crimes in July but acquitted of conspiracy in an alleged murder-for-hire plot to kill a former boyfriend.

Prosecutors alleged that Reynolds suffocated her son, Axel, by holding a cleansing wipe over his nose and mouth in May 2018. They alleged that she was driven by a drug addiction and desire to maintain an extra-martial affair and killed her son to get him out of the way.

Her attorney, who has vowed an appeal, called her a devoted mother who tried to revive her son when she found him unresponsive and then ran out holding him and screaming for help from neighbors.


Ex-Homeland Security agent sentenced for bribery

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A former special agent with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security who was bribed to feed information to an organized crime figure was sentenced Monday to more than 10 years in prison.

Felix Cisneros Jr., 48, of Murrieta, was sentenced by a federal judge in Los Angeles.

For 18 months in 2015 and 2016, Cisneros accepted $100,000 in bribes in the form of “cash, checks, private jet travel, luxury hotel stays, meals and other items of value” from someone linked to organized crime, the U.S. attorney’s office said in a statement.

In return, he accessed restricted government databases to provide the crime figure with information about some investigations and he removed some damaging information about a German citizen who had a criminal record and was trying to enter the country, prosecutors said.

Cisneros also obtained an official DHS letter supporting efforts of the crime figure’s brother-in-law to move from Mexico to the U.S. and seek asylum, the U.S. attorney’s office said.

At the time, Cisneros was working for Homeland Security Investigations on cases involving drugs, money laundering and human trafficking.

He was convicted in May of 30 felony counts of conspiracy, bribery, falsifying tax returns and money laundering.

The indictment against Cisneros didn’t name the crime figure but other court papers made it clear that it was Edgar Sargsyan, a Beverly Hills lawyer who pleaded guilty to bribing a Homeland Security agent, the Los Angeles Times reported last year.

Cisneros was named as the agent in court papers filed by Sargsyan’s lawyer, the Times said.