The missive to film mogul Harvey Weinstein read “Extortion Notice.” The letter, which was mailed on June 9, stated that if the Weinstein Company co-chairman didn’t follow certain instructions, he could expect a family member to be dead in the next year.
Four other wealthy people received the same letter: Groupon cofounder Eric Lefkofsky, worth an estimated $2.9 billion; Terry Pegula, an oil exec and owner of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres; Christopher Cline, a coal magnate; and the daughter of the late oilman Dan Duncan. The extortion amounts differed, varying from $13 million to as high as $34 million. Three of the targets, Lefkofsky, Pegula, and Cline, were on the the Forbes 400, a list of the richest people in America. The letters were sent anonymously with the promise that there would be a follow-up with wiring instructions of where to send the loot.
Federal authorities ultimately traced the letters to a D-list actor in West Hollywood, Calif., who they allege was trying to swindle his way into the ranks of the rich and famous. On August 10, authorities arrested 25-year-old Vivek Shah, whose biggest roles include bit parts in Bones, Outsourced and an uncredited appearance in The Dark Knight.
Federal authorities allege that Shah, who apparently didn’t have a steady income, was demanding that his poison-pen recipients send millions to an offshore bank account. “He didn’t have any known connections to them,” said a source familiar with the investigation. “We think he just picked them because he found them on the Web and they had money.”
Although Shah’s picture can be found online in the company of such stars as Tom Cruise, Angelina Jolie, Zach Galifianakis, and Sofia Vergara, he doesn’t have any known connections with those celebrities. “My guess is he is an aspiring actor who hangs out and gets into premiers somehow and gets himself on the red carpet and walks up and gets his picture taken,” the source said. Shah’s attorney, Patrick E. Boyle, did not return a call for comment.
According to his IMDb profile, Shah was born in Akron, Ohio, and then moved to India for 10 years with his family. They returned to the United States and moved to the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg, where Shah’s father worked as an engineer.
Shah made his professional acting debut in the play A Passage to India at Chicago’s Theatre Building, according to the database. He later studied at Columbia College–Chicago, Chicago Actors Studio and Chicago’s Second City Training Center, according to the site.
In 2005, Shah, who was around 18 at the time, was arrested in Illinois at his parent’s house for allegedly physically assaulting his father, according to a police source, but it is unclear if he was ever charged with the assault (Shah’s family couldn’t be reached for comment). In 2008, the aspiring actor moved to Los Angeles, where he eventually got bit parts. According to IMDb, he also volunteered at Cedars-Sinai hospital in L.A.
In June 2009, Shah filed a temporary protective order against a roommate he met on Craig’s List. According to the court document, Shah alleged his roommate was verbally abusive, locked him out of his apartment, “vandalized” his belongings, and created “an intimidating environment.” Shah claimed he had no privacy because his former roommate “records everything on audio and video in my space.” However, a judge denied Shah’s request for the temporary protective order because he didn’t show reasonable proof in his application that he was being harassed or there was a threat of future harm.
Shah flitted around from apartment to apartment. In May of 2012, he was sharing a small three-bedroom with two roommates in the Russian section of West Hollywood. Shah’s neighbor Casey Shteamer described him as “a bit socially awkward.”
“I don’t think he was hip, but he didn’t seem socially nerdy,” she said. “My roommates said it was hard to have a normal social conversation with him.” She said he hung around his apartment most of the day, and would sometimes cook Indian food for his roommates.
According to Shteamer, one of Shah’s roommates filed a police report with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department after she got into a verbal altercation with him. “She asked to get a restraining order against him,” she said. “She wanted him to move out and he said he was not leaving, so she ended up moving out.”
Shah allegedly began plotting his extortion scheme sometime in May. Weinstein, who declined to comment on the case, was the first to receive a letter, followed by Cline on June 14. The letter to Cline, who is worth an estimated $1.5 billion, threatened to kill his family members “unless he transferred $13 million to an offshore bank account,” court papers say. The coal magnate was given a deadline of June 28 to transfer the money.
“If he had done it the old- fashioned way he wouldn’t have been arrested,” says a criminal law expert.
Shah allegedly used prepaid MasterCard and American Express credit cards that he purchased from drug stores and convenience stores in Los Angeles to buy stamps off the U.S. Postal Service’s Click-N-Ship program, which allows customers to purchase and print their own postage stamps. One of the aliases he allegedly used to buy the stamps was Rohan Gill, the name of an Indian radio personality living in the Bay Area.
“This guy got caught because he didn’t use stamps and an envelope,” said a criminal-law expert who has reviewed reports of the case. “If he had done it the old-fashioned way he wouldn’t have been arrested.”
Federal agents also discovered that Shah used one of his prepaid cards to make a $101.50 purchase to rent mailbox #560 from Wilshire MailBox on May 21. However, Shah covered his tracks by using the alias Ray Amin to rent the mailbox.
He was finally caught after agents ran a search for Amin in the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database and came across a report from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department officer who interviewed Shah over the domestic dispute he had with his roommate.
“When Shah produced the driver’s license, the law-enforcement officer present noticed another driver’s license still inside Shah’s wallet. The officer asked to see the second driver’s license. This second driver’s license was the fake ID: a California drivers license bearing the name Ray Amin,” according to the documents.
FBI agents arrested Shah on August 10 near his parent’s home in the Chicago area after federal agents discovered he had a class at a firing range when he arrived back in Los Angeles. Shah was charged earlier this week by the United States Attorney’s office in Charleston, W. Va., (Cline lives in the state) with two counts of interference with commerce by threats, and two counts of transmitting threatening communications in interstate commerce, all related to his alleged extortion of Cline. Shah has not yet entered a plea in the case.