Nearly every day, former movie actor Erik Aude writes to his mother from his prison cell in Pakistan.
He tells her about the beatings he has endured, the executions he has witnessed. He tells her about his boredom and despair, and the wasting away of his once-chiseled weightlifter’s body. Sometimes, the 23-year-old muses about suicide.
He tells her he is not a drug smuggler, despite the 3.6 kilos of opium found in his suitcase at the Islamabad airport. And he rages against the man who he says tricked him into hauling drugs -- a smooth-talking businessman he met at a Burbank gym.
Since Aude’s arrest 20 months ago, Sherry Aude, 52, of Lancaster has exhausted and nearly bankrupted herself trying to save her youngest child from a seven-year sentence she doubts he will survive.
But she received one surprising glimmer of hope this month, when the smooth-talking businessman corroborated key aspects of her son’s story in a statement to U.S. prosecutors.
The statement raises two questions: Was Erik Aude duped into being a drug “mule”? Or was he trying to make a fast buck?
The answer hinges on how one views Razmik Minasian, 37, a used-car dealer from Glendale who has pleaded guilty in a separate drug smuggling case in Los Angeles.
In a sworn statement, Minasian said he hired Aude to pick up a suitcase filled with leather jackets from Pakistan in 2002. But he said he never told Aude about the drugs also inside.
Legal experts say the statement would probably exonerate Aude in an American court, where mules typically must know they are carrying drugs to be found guilty.
Sherry Aude is hoping the statement will win her son an early release. “Good things are coming,” she said. “With the grace of God, Erik will be home soon.”
Minasian’s attorney, James Blatt, said his client was just trying to do the right thing. “There’s a strong probability that Mr. Aude did not have knowledge that there were drugs in that suitcase,” Blatt said. “And I’m hopeful that the information that was gathered in this investigation will aid the State Department in gaining an early release for Mr. Aude.”
Minasian’s statement has bolstered the hopes of Aude’s friends in Hollywood and the Antelope Valley suburbs who have prayed and protested on the behalf of the actor, a former high school football standout whose career was just gaining traction with appearances in TV sitcoms and movies such as “Dude, Where’s My Car?”
But it is unclear whether the statement would sway courts in Pakistan, where the government is battling an epidemic of opium smuggling, spurred by the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
Calls to the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, D.C., went unreturned. But Nahida Mahboob Ellahi, a attorney with 18 years experience in criminal law in Pakistan, said that the statement could end up helping Aude in court.
“Here, also, you have to have knowledge of what you are carrying,” she said in a phone interview from Rawalpindi, where Aude is being held.
Back in the United States, some federal officials have a hard time believing that Aude is innocent. Minasian’s statement could have been an attempt to win favor from the judge before his Dec. 22 sentencing, they say.
They also ask how Aude could have been so gullible.
“I personally think that Aude knew exactly what he was doing,” said a federal official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Yet the thought of Aude as an international drug smuggler makes many of his acquaintances laugh. Diane Lawless, a former co-worker, said he was a sweet, harmless young guy -- a “ditz,” maybe, but not a high-stakes schemer.
“To say Aude would scam some type of drug thing is absolutely hysterical,” Lawless said. “Heaven help him.”
Aude met Minasian in the fall of 2000, less than two years after graduating from Bethel Christian, a private high school in the Antelope Valley.
With the blessing of his mother -- who runs a casting company for movie extras -- Aude decided to market his athletic frame and All-American looks in Hollywood. He found some film work, from small parts in established features to larger roles in more offbeat projects. He also was working the night shift at the World Gym in Burbank to earn extra cash and take advantage of the free workouts.
Minasian was a member of the World Gym in 2000. Aude recalled that Minasian was not in great shape and was always seeking workout advice.
“He came across as a very sincere, kindhearted man,” Aude wrote. But Minasian was secretive. He introduced himself to Aude as Rai Ghazarian.
The buffed young actor and the squat businessman struck up an unlikely friendship. Friends said Aude also was impressed that Minasian seemed to pay for everything with cash. And after a few months, Minasian offered Aude a job.
“Basically what he said was, ‘Fly around the world picking up leather samples, and get paid for it,’ ” Aude said in a letter home.
Aude was skeptical at first, and asked Minasian why he didn’t mail the samples. Minasian told him he was worried about shipping damage.
He also said was trying to avoid a 55% import tax on the high-quality leather items, which were worth about $3,000 apiece. It made better sense, Minasian said, to pay someone to pick them up.
In December 2000, Aude told his mother he was going on a courier run to Turkey.
“I said, ‘Erik are you crazy?’ ” she recalled. “ ‘Those people are going to kill you over there.’ ”
A few days later, Erik sent her a postcard -- with greetings from Istanbul.
“Everything went as [Ghazarian] said it would,” Aude wrote later. “I picked up the samples and came back no problem. Then I went again in June of 2001. Once again same results ... as far as I was concerned it was a great job.”
Minasian, in his statement to authorities, said that on both trips Aude unwittingly brought opium home with him in the suitcases.
Friends said Aude was paid about $1,500 a trip. For a while, he tried to recruit others into the enterprise -- including Katrina Churchwell, an old friend from high school. Today, Churchwell sees Aude’s recruitment effort as a proof of his innocence.
“If he knew what he was doing,” she said, “he wouldn’t be asking his friends and family if they wanted to do it too.”
David “Shark” Fralick, an actor who was Erik’s housemate at the time, told him the venture sounded too much like “Midnight Express,” a 1978 movie about an American drug smuggler arrested in Turkey.
“He just said, ‘Don’t worry about it, ‘cause I’m not moving dope,’ ” Fralick said.
In January 2002, Minasian told Aude he had found a cheaper leather supplier in Pakistan, and asked him if he would make a third trip, Aude later wrote. But this time, Aude was nervous: It was just four months after 9/11. Minasian assured him Pakistan was safe.
According to Churchwell, Aude sent her instant messages from Pakistan saying he had grown suspicious of Minasian’s intentions. Aude said Minasian wanted him “to avoid customs as much as possible,” she said, and had changed Aude’s itinerary a number of times.
But by his account, Aude was not worried when he entered the Islamabad airport on the morning of Feb. 15. He said that one of Minasian’s contacts gave him a suitcase and when he checked inside, he saw six neatly folded leather jackets. “Everything seemed fine to me,” he wrote.
In customs, an officer searched the bag and asked the usual questions: What did he do? Why was he in Pakistan?
He waved Aude through. Then another man stopped him and asked if the bag contained drugs.
“I laughed and told him to check it again,” Aude wrote. “I was not the least bit worried.” As the customs officers tore the bag apart, Aude wondered if they would buy him a replacement.
Fifteen minutes later, the officers found the opium. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration estimated its retail street value at $1.26 million.
As soon as Aude was arrested, Sherry Aude began hunting for “Rai Ghazarian.” She hired a private investigator to help. But because they were chasing the wrong name, the trail soon went cold.
In late August 2002, she received an anonymous phone call. The male voice said the man she was looking for had just made the local papers. The caller faxed her a story about a smuggling case in Glendale.
The case involved Razmik Minasian, who had recruited a young Swedish woman to import suitcases of leather clothing from Turkey. Customs agents in Los Angeles found opium sewn into the lining of the bags.
Authorities eventually deemed her a “blind mule” with no knowledge of the drugs, and the U.S. attorney’s office declined to file charges against her.
This summer, Minasian pleaded guilty in the Glendale case to a charge of opium possession with intent to distribute. He faces up to 20 years in prison, though his sentence may be closer to three years, prosecutors said.
Sherry Aude wonders how many other people were recruited over the years. She said she will go to Minasian’s sentencing hearing and ask the judge to give him the maximum term.