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Judge Won’t Release Inmate in Exchange for Youth Program

Times Staff Writers

A federal judge Monday denied a North Hollywood exporter’s request that he be released from prison so he could run a program for disadvantaged children with learning disabilities.

Ronald H. Semler, 44, who has served six months of a 3-year prison sentence for selling helicopters to North Korea, asked U.S. District Judge Dickran Tevrizian earlier this month if he could trade his remaining jail time for community service.

Tevrizian said Monday that although he considers Semler’s proposal a worthwhile project, he is precluded by law from granting it.

“I’m between a rock and a hard spot here,” Tevrizian said. “I want to modify his sentence, but I don’t think I have the authority to do so.”

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Semler was indicted in January, 1987, by a federal grand jury on charges that he and his brother, Monte Barry Semler, 40, of Santa Barbara, agreed to sell more than 100 Hughes helicopters to North Korea. The charges were reduced in February in a plea bargain after a 2-month federal trial.

Guilty Pleas

The brothers pleaded guilty to making false statements to customs officials and shipping radio parts to the Syrian army without proper licensing, and were sentenced the same day. Semler received a 3-year prison sentence and Monte Semler received a 1-year sentence.

Monte Semler originally asked that he be released from prison so that he could work with his brother to help disadvantaged children. However, he withdrew his request Monday because he is scheduled for release in December, said Assistant U.S. Atty. Jim Sanders.

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Semler said his proposal would involve operating a 20-week program for dyslexic children at his own expense at his Malibu ranch in the summers of 1989 and 1990. He has said that his proposal “would take several hundred kids off the streets and teach them to read.”

His lawyer, Vincent J. Marella, estimated that the educational program would cost $900,000.

Son’s Letter

Tevrizian said he was moved by a letter written on Semler’s behalf by his 16-year-old dyslexic son.

“Of all the letters, the one from your son Devon is the one that perked my interest in this case,” he said. “Your son articulated his feelings to me, and it really moved me.”

Prosecutors argued that Semler’s sentence was agreed upon as part of the plea bargain and, therefore, cannot be modified.

“These were binding plea agreements and there’s no basis for anyone to set them aside,” Sanders said.

Sanders has called the program “a cosmetic plan . . . solely designed to get Mr. Semler out of prison.”

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“If Ronald Semler is allowed to get out of his agreed-upon sentence, it sends the wrong message to our community,” Sanders said. “It says that people with money are able to get out of custody while regular people cannot.”

Although he denied the proposal, Tevrizian rejected the prosecutor’s assertion that Semler was attempting to buy his way out of a sentence.

“With someone like Mr. Semler, with his brainpower, his achievements, I think that’s what could make something like this work,” he said.

Semler will remain in prison until April 8, 1990.


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