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2 Sisters Who Embezzled $898,000 From Bank Given 5 Years in Prison

Times Staff Writer

Two San Fernando Valley sisters who admitted embezzling $898,000 from First Interstate Bank, claiming that they received typed orders to take the money from a mysterious Filipino businessman, were sentenced Monday to five years in prison.

Appearing in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, Edna Pantig, 33, and Marissa Puno, 31, tearfully apologized but said through their lawyers that they had been forced to take the money by the businessman and his U.S. agent, whom they knew only as “Mr. Felix.”

Defense lawyers said the two sisters were blackmailed by businessman Efrem Arriola and his agent, Felix, who threatened to notify U.S. authorities that the women’s husbands were residing in the United States illegally.

But prosecutors called the story “far-fetched,” pointing to the $40,000 red Mercedes, jewelry, cash gifts and trips abroad that were also financed with the proceeds of the embezzlement.

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“I think it’s complete nonsense,” Assistant U.S. Atty. Maurice Leiter said. “The story has kept evolving over the last couple of months every time they knew we knew something else.”

Leiter said the FBI found a bank account in Manila in the name of Efrem Arriola, but agents were unable to find any trace of Arriola himself. As to Felix, he said, “we have no knowledge as to whether he exists at all.”

Prosecutors said Puno was acting supervisor of First Interstate’s safekeeping department. Her duties included reconciling the balance of the bank’s automated money transfer account used for bank client stock transfers.

In August, 1985, a little over $1 million was transferred to the account without authorization from the Bank of New York. Leiter said prosecutors still do not know how the money came to be transferred, but Puno began transferring portions of that balance to two accounts controlled by Pantig.

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After a new supervisor took over Puno’s department, Puno claimed to have health problems and resigned from the bank. The two women moved shortly thereafter to the Philippines, where U.S. authorities found them after a grand jury indictment last August.

They traveled to the Philippines not to escape criminal charges but because their husbands had finally obtained legal residency status in the United States and could return safely, said Pantig’s lawyer, Federal Public Defender Peter Horstman.

Puno’s attorney Michael Treman said the money transfers were carried out so blatantly that it was clear that Puno was hoping bank officials would notice she was being blackmailed.

“I would like to tell the court that I’m sorry for what I have done,” Pantig told the judge, her voice breaking.

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Her sister told the judge: “I only say that I’m very sorry for what I have done, and if you would just give me another chance.”

Rymer said it is “never easy” to separate families, especially in view of Pantig’s newborn infant.

“However, I am convinced that the activity was quite knowingly done, and regrettably, a price must be paid for embezzling of the order of magnitude that occurred here,” the judge said.

In addition to the five-year prison terms, Rymer also ordered each of the women to serve five years’ probation and pay restitution of $449,316 to the bank.

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