A judge sentenced a Woodland Hills con artist to 12 years in prison Friday for preying on hundreds of families by offering them free accordion lessons in order to get access to credit information that was used to steal more than $2 million.
Mario Alberto Yunis, 34, allegedly used part of the money for a sex-change operation.
"Our children felt guilty because we owed money" to various credit card companies, said victim Carmen Martinez, a working mother. "It's not fair to play with children's emotions like this. Twelve years is not enough."
Yunis, who is now a woman and calls herself Marilyn, apologized for "material lust," and pleaded for her victims not to be hateful. But the defendant also lashed out at more than a dozen victims who attended for creating "a circus [and] a humiliation of my sexuality."
"None of you can come and tell me that I directly did the things I did," the Costa Rica native said, facing the stern crowd as she sat in a wheelchair clad in a blue prison jumper.
Another victim, Jose Sanchez, 38, of Pacoima, said Yunis' explanation was an attempt to deflect attention from her crimes to her sexuality. Yunis, he said, "was still trying to make excuses."
Calling the case "horrible and unfortunate," Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Michael Hoff imposed the sentence as part of a plea agreement reached by Yunis' attorney, Bradley Brunon. A hearing to determine restitution for the victims was scheduled for Feb. 19.
As part of the deal, Yunis pleaded guilty to four counts, including identity theft, grand theft and conspiracy.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Jonathan Fairtlough said the case was about "more than just identity theft," calling it "a complex financial crime" that resulted in big losses for a number of credit card companies.
A second suspect in the scheme, Juan Manuel Rocha, pleaded guilty in September 2002 to a single count of grand theft and has since been released after being sentenced to two years in state prison. A third suspect, identified as Omar Adalberto Arroyo, 30, is awaiting extradition to the United States after he was arrested by Costa Rican authorities on Aug. 30. He is facing 41 counts ranging from money laundering to identity theft.
Even while on the run, Arroyo opened a phony music school in the Costa Rican capital of San Jose, said Det. Juan Baello of the Los Angeles Police Department.
Yunis and Arroyo had operated phony music schools across Southern California, in Glendora, Long Beach, Montclair, North Hollywood, Panorama City and Riverside, under names such as Kid's Musical Kingdom, Universal Children's Academy and Long Beach Arts Center, Baello said.
They marketed free introductory children's accordion lessons through telemarketing and ads in the Spanish-language media, Baello said.
After a few weeks of "lessons," they held pizza parties featuring a performance by a young accordion player to encourage parents to pay for additional instruction, according to authorities. They also wooed parents by telling them of their children's musical prowess.
But after a month or so, the suspects would close their school. They would use customers' financial information to get large cash advances from the customers' credit cards, police said.
The suspects also sold fake bonds to the mostly working-class parents, with the promise that the interest they earned would pay for future lessons, Baello said. In many cases, the scam left the customers with bills of $2,000 to $10,000, Baello said. One family was on the hook for $30,000 after giving the group three credit card numbers, he said.
As the parents fended off debt collectors, Yunis, Arroyo and Rocha took the illegal proceeds to live the high life, Baello said, making trips to Miami Beach, Milan, Amsterdam and Puerto Rico, renting a $2,700-a-month home in Woodland Hills, and leasing a Mercedes-Benz, a Lexus and a Lincoln Navigator.
Police said Yunis used $100,000 of the stolen proceeds to finance a sex-change operation. Arroyo took $150,000 to record and promote a Latin music CD.