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FBI tip leads French police to wanted U.S. mogul

PARIS: An FBI tip helped French police track down and arrest an 87-year-old real-estate developer and his wife wanted by U.S. authorities - more than a year after the couple quietly settled near an Alpine lake, French officials said Friday.

French police arrested former Seattle real estate developer Michael Mastro and his wife, Linda, on Wednesday at their apartment in the town of Doussard near Lake Annecy. A day later, U.S. authorities handed them a 43-count grand jury indictment on charges of money laundering and bankruptcy fraud - including allegedly lying about the whereabouts of two huge diamonds valued together at $1.4 million as part of a bankruptcy proceeding.

Patrice Guigon, a regional state prosecutor based in nearby Chambery, said the couple will remain in custody until a judge rules Nov. 7 on their lawyer's request for their provisional release. U.S. authorities have 60 days in which to present a formal extradition request. He said the couple had not yet met with American consular officials.

The arrests were made possible after the FBI informed French authorities that Michael Mastro had sought a reimbursement from his U.S. insurance provider for medical care he received in France, according to Julien Duhamel, a judicial police chief in Annecy.

"That led us to an address that was no longer valid, but was still pretty recent," he said by phone. "After investigating in the neighborhood, we were able to pretty easily find their current address." Duhamel said his office first learned of the case sometime in mid-October.

Guigon said the couple had been living in France at least since September 2011, and he couldn't explain why it took so long for the couple to be tracked down. The Mastros vanished 16 months ago after a U.S. judge ordered them to turn over the 27.8- and 15.9-carat diamonds.

Duhamel said that unspecified jewelry was part of an inventory of valuable belongings that police seized when the couple was arrested. He said the Mastros were "not very cooperative" with officers during the arrest, had used a postal address different from their current home and appeared to have "thought they were safe" from being apprehended.

Thomas Terrier, a French lawyer representing the Mastros, insisted however that they were "not on the lam" or in hiding, and were "totally surprised" when police came for them. The couple was shaken after being taken into custody, and Mastro's wife was "in a total state of shock," Terrier said, insisting the couple did not know U.S. authorities were looking for them.

The couple is being held in a detention facility in the southeastern city of Lyon, Terrier said.

On Thursday, James Frush, a U.S. lawyer for the Mastros, said the U.S. charges simply rehash allegations made during the U.S. bankruptcy proceeding, and suggested that if the alleged wrongdoing was such serious criminal activity, the American government could have charged them long ago.

Thursday's indictment accuses the Mastros of fraudulently transferring interest in their $15 million home in the tony Seattle suburb of Medina; failing to disclose a bank account that contained hundreds of thousands of dollars; and lying about the whereabouts of the diamonds - all to conceal those assets from creditors in a bankruptcy proceeding.

Mastro was a developer and money lender who oversaw commercial and residential projects worth an estimated $2 billion over a 40-year career. But the market's crash left him short, and three banks forced him into bankruptcy three years ago. He allegedly owes more than $200 million to creditors, who are expected to receive little of that.

The once high-flying couple's first recent home in the area was in the town of Veyrier du Lac, before they moved to a more-modest apartment in Doussard - possibly for financial reasons, Guigon said.

 

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