Two former aerospace technicians were convicted Monday of mailing extortion letters demanding millions of dollars from hundreds of prominent Antelope Valley residents.
Richard Faroni, 27, and Roman Makuch, 28, described during the trial as bright loners with a penchant for electronics, guns and cloak-and-dagger schemes, face up to eight years in state prison for conspiracy, attempted extortion and mailing threatening letters. San Fernando Superior Court Judge Ronald S. Coen, who heard the case without a jury at the request of defense attorneys, set a Feb. 21 sentencing date.
The verdict came 15 months after the November, 1988, mailing of at least 267 “pay or die” letters to professionals, business people and political leaders created a mystery strange enough to attract tabloid television programs, including “Unsolved Mysteries.” The case caused intense speculation about the authors’ motives and whether they actually hoped to extort money or were merely playing a malevolent joke.
The letters, which were strewn with profanity, threatened the lives of victims and their families, providing personal details that indicated the victims may have been watched.
The recipients were not instructed to pay Faroni and Makuch directly. Instead, some were directed to pay large sums of money to other people who had received letters. Some of the victims who were to receive money were told to buy two-way radios and drive to Las Vegas with the cash once a week until contacted by radio.
No money was ever collected, and Makuch and Faroni were arrested in Las Vegas by investigators acting on a tip about three weeks after the mailing.
A clearly relieved Deputy Dist. Atty. Stephen L. Cooley called Coen’s decision Monday “correct and courageous.” But he acknowledged that a central part of the mystery--the identity of others allegedly involved in the plot--remains unsolved.
“I have never left a case with such an abiding sense of curiousity,” Cooley said. “We will never be completely satisfied until all of the questions are answered.”
It was never disputed during 18 days of testimony that Faroni and Makuch, known to friends as “Rocky and Bullwinkle,” were on the East Coast at the time of the mailing. So prosecutors believe an accomplice or accomplices mailed the letters.
In addition, attorneys on both sides said the detailed personal information in the letters and the political prominence of some victims suggest the involvement of someone with deeper local roots than the defendants. Faroni and Makuch began working as Rockwell International flight line technicians in the Antelope Valley in the mid-1980s.
If they agree to provide new information on the plot, Cooley said, their cooperation “may be a very significant consideration” in determining the severity of the sentence requested by prosecutors.
Like several other recipients of letters, Lancaster attorney Cathrin L. De Voe said she had paid little attention to the trial. But she and others said fear and doubt will linger for some victims until all the questions are answered.
“Certainly I would feel more comfortable if the whole thing was resolved now and forever,” she said. “If those people who didn’t get caught were in fact the brains of the outfit, what’s to say they couldn’t go somewhere else and do it again?”
Former Lancaster Mayor Lou Bozigian, another letter recipient, said he believes that Makuch and Faroni carried out the crime with someone who was more knowledgeable about the community and its politics and had a grudge against local leaders.
“It was a combination of Makuch and Faroni’s expertise, their interest in trying to accomplish this challenge, with the motives yet unknown of someone yet unknown,” Bozigian said. Of the possibility that Makuch and Faroni may cooperate with prosecutors by naming names, he said: “I would guess that yes, somebody in the Antelope Valley is probably sweating right now.”
Judge Coen said before announcing the verdict Monday that he had spent a good deal of time reviewing the demeanor and credibility of the defendants, who maintained their innocence during sometimes combative cross-examinations. He cited contradictions in their testimony with that of other witnesses, including relatives who were asked about the defendants’ activities in the time before the mailing.
Defense attorney William Allen Clark expressed disappointment, saying as he did during the trial that despite circumstantial evidence offered by the prosecution about Makuch’s and Faroni’s suspicious behavior and talk about committing the perfect crime, there was no direct evidence linking them to the letters.
“Without physical evidence, I don’t see what demeanor has to do with it,” said Clark, who defended Faroni. Makuch’s attorney, Jo Ann Stipkovich, said she may recommend an appeal based on what she called weak evidence.