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Miami Trial Gives Startling New Portrait of Sam Gilbert

April 23, 1990|GLENN F. BUNTING and TINA GRIEGO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

MIAMI — On two occasions in 1985, prominent UCLA basketball booster and millionaire contractor Sam Gilbert told his son to deliver several large boxes to a bank president in Encino.

No words were exchanged in the parking lot when Michael Gilbert pulled the sealed boxes from the trunk of his BMW and loaded them into a Mercedes-Benz driven by Jules Huppert, the head of Valley State Bank.

Neatly stacked inside the boxes, court testimony would later reveal, was $1.8 million of Miami drug money, a commodity that the late Sam Gilbert came to call "Florida sunshine."

The transfers were subsequently found to be part of an international money-laundering ring. According to financial documents, memos, cashier's checks and transcripts of witness testimony made public during a recent Florida trial, the operation was organized by the elder Gilbert and his Miami associates, primarily to build the sprawling Bicycle Club casino in Bell Gardens.

The federal trial ended last month with the convictions of Michael Gilbert, 48, and three Miami associates, as well as an order to seize the Bicycle Club--the single largest asset ever forfeited to the U.S. government.

While the case offers a glimpse at how easily drug money can filter into the Southern California economy, it also provides a startling new portrait of Gilbert, the respected developer who would have stood trial had he not died in 1987.

For now, the story of Sam Gilbert is, in many ways, a story of intrigue as told by a diverse chorus of characters. They include federal investigators who explored Sam Gilbert's dealings from Los Angeles to Liechtenstein; the legendary UCLA basketball coach who was stung by Gilbert's fatherly intentions to his players; the son who ran his construction business; the lawyer who gave his eulogy; the bankers, the dentist and the coin dealer who helped him launder money in Los Angeles, and the courier who disguised a shipment of cash as a biopsy sample for an ailing dog.

According to federal authorities, the elder Gilbert was the "West Coast architect" for a scheme that funneled $12 million from Miami to Los Angeles through the tiny Central European nation of Liechtenstein and the British Virgin Islands.

For his efforts, he collected a commission on the laundered money and a $2-million fee to finance and build the Bicycle Club, according to court documents and interviews.

But federal agents could never nail "Papa G," as he was affectionately called by UCLA players. They indicted him on charges of conspiracy, racketeering and money-laundering on Nov. 25, 1987--three days after he died of heart failure in his Pacific Palisades home.

While no one was left to defend his reputation in a South Florida courthouse, longtime friends insist that Gilbert would not have associated with dope dealers. Why, they asked, would a man who successfully built a career as an inventor and who was a wealthy developer engage in illegal activities at retirement age?

"The last thing in the world Sam would have been involved in was drugs," said Hubert R. Sommers, the attorney who represented Gilbert for the last two decades. "No one is here to say that no, Sam wasn't involved. I hope everyone remembers Sam was not convicted of anything."

Michael Pasano, the Florida attorney for Michael Gilbert, said: "Sam turned out to be a Jekyll and Hyde. It's still an enigma why a Sam Gilbert late in his life, having accomplished everything he did, did what he did."

The forfeiture order of the club that Gilbert built clouds the future of the casino, which is worth an estimated $150 million, employs 1,900 people and provides nearly half of the $21-million annual budget for the city of Bell Gardens. A fierce legal battle looms over whether the casino should be returned to its private owners in Los Angeles or handed over to the government.

Among the casino's owners are Michael Gilbert and members of his family. None of the other Bicycle Club partners has been charged with laundering money or dealing drugs. Moreover, they said they were unaware that the financing furnished by the elder Gilbert came from drug profits.

Michael Gilbert, who was not available for comment, also said in court that he never knowingly handled cash from drug profits. He said he routinely followed his father's orders without raising questions. But he did not dispute evidence that Gilbert had laundered drug money.

"He has no basis to argue with it or challenge it," Pasano said. "It surprised him as much as anyone else.

After acquitting Michael Gilbert on seven of 11 counts, including a conspiracy charge, eight jurors requested leniency for him. He faces up to 35 years in prison and is free on bail in Sherman Oaks. Gilbert, who was convicted of four counts, including one racketeering charge, is not expected to be sentenced for several months.

Gilbert's widow, Rose, an English teacher at Pacific Palisades High School, declined to discuss the case or her late husband.

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