College admissions scandal: Heir to Hot Pockets fortune sentenced to 5 months

Michelle Janavs walks to the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse on March 29 in Boston.
Michelle Janavs walks to the federal courthouse in Boston last March.
(Joseph Prezioso / AFP/Getty Images)

Michelle Janavs, heiress to a frozen foods fortune, was sentenced Tuesday to five months in prison for paying $100,000 to fix her daughters’ college entrance exams and agreeing to pay twice that amount to sneak one girl into USC as a bogus beach volleyball player.

Janavs, a resident of Newport Coast, pleaded guilty in October to conspiring to commit fraud and money laundering, admitting she paid William “Rick” Singer, a Newport Beach college admissions consultant, to rig ACT exams for her daughters and bribe a USC administrator to misrepresent the older girl as an elite beach volleyball player.

The five-month term, handed down by U.S. District Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton, came short of the 21 months that federal prosecutors had requested. They wanted an enhancement for what they called an abuse of trust, saying Janavs used her status as trustee of her daughters’ school, the Sage Hill School in Newport Beach, “to insulate herself from the fraud.”

The school wouldn’t ask questions if she switched her daughter’s test location to a school where Singer had bribed an administrator, Janavs told Singer in a recorded phone call, assuring him, “They can’t say anything to me.”


In addition, she must pay a fine of $250,000 and remain on supervised release for two years.

Janavs, the 15th parent sentenced in the admission scandal, was among four parents who reversed their not-guilty pleas last year after learning they would probably be charged with bribery.

One, Douglas Hodge, was sentenced this month to nine months in prison. Hodge, the former chief executive of Pimco, conspired with Singer to get four of his children into USC and Georgetown as bogus athletic recruits, at a cost of $850,000. The other two, Elizabeth and Manuel Henriquez, will be sentenced next month. Prosecutors have asked Gorton to commit them to prison for 26 and 18 months, respectively.

Michael Center, the former men’s tennis coach at the University of Texas at Austin, was sentenced Monday to six months in prison. In exchange for $100,000 — $60,000 of which he received from Singer in cash, the rest paid to his tennis program — Center recruited the son of Singer’s client, whom The Times previously identified as Chris Schaepe, a high-profile venture capitalist. A spokeswoman for Schaepe, who wasn’t charged with crimes, said he was “shocked” and “deeply disturbed” to learn Singer’s outfit was less than above board.

In court papers filed before her sentencing, Janavs’ attorneys said that Singer, who has pleaded guilty to four felonies and cooperated with the government, made Janavs believe USC was the ideal school for her daughter, then convinced Janavs “that cheating was the only way for her to get in.”

Janavs arranged with Singer to have his Harvard-educated accomplice, Mark Riddell, fix her older daughter’s ACT exam. The girl took her test in 2017 at a private school in West Hollywood whose administrator, Igor Dvorskiy, allowed Singer and Riddell to tamper with exams in exchange for bribes. Riddell and Dvorskiy have pleaded guilty and are cooperating with the government. Riddell netted Janavs’ older daughter a top-flight score, and Janavs paid Singer’s sham foundation $50,000.


Two years later, Janavs mailed Singer a $25,000 check and texted him that she wanted her younger daughter to receive a 33 or 34 out of 36 on her ACT. Riddell notched a 34, and Janavs wired Singer another $25,000. She was arrested a month later, “handcuffed at gunpoint” by FBI agents, her attorneys wrote in court papers.

Janavs’ attorneys asked Gorton, the judge, to spare her prison altogether. Janavs conspired with Singer for a shorter time, and paid him far less, than many of his other clients, they said. She did not need to be incarcerated to deter others from committing similar crimes in the future, they wrote.

“Michelle’s path from well-respected mother and philanthropist to scorned felon is on display for everyone to see,” they wrote.

Janavs’ family invented the Hot Pocket microwavable snack, which Nestle purchased in 2002 for $2.6 billion. Three years later, her father, Paul Merage, donated $30 million to UC Irvine — the largest gift in school history at the time. The university’s business school bears the family name.

As a child, however, Janavs grew up in a modest — and triple-mortgaged — San Fernando Valley home, her attorneys wrote in court papers. Her father started a frozen waffle business out of the family’s kitchen, and one of Janavs’ earliest childhood memories “is the smell of frozen waffles,” her attorneys said.

In a letter to the judge, Janavs said she had never thought seeing her children attend a top university was “the end all, be all.” She even gave a book by Malcolm Gladwell to the director of college counseling at her daughters’ school, she wrote, and “suggested that he encourage every parent to read Chapter 3, which discusses how sending a child to an elite school for the sake of the name” could hurt a child’s confidence.

“But when the time came for me to play by the rules,” she said, “I cheated.”