Developer who bilked condo buyers in Coachella resort scam gets 20 years in prison
A developer who tricked more than 160 would-be buyers into giving her at least $26 million in down payments for condos at a Coachella resort she never built was sentenced Monday to 20 years in prison.
Ruixue “Serena” Shi, 38, used the stolen money to pay for luxury cars, worldwide travel and a high-fashion wardrobe, court records show.
Most of the buyers were Chinese citizens who believed California real estate was a safe investment, and some of them lost their life savings, prosecutors said.
“This is about as bad as it gets in the white-collar sphere,” Assistant U.S. Atty. Alexander Schwab told U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner.
The judge imposed the maximum prison sentence allowed by law and ordered Shi to pay $35.8 million in restitution to victims. The full amount of their losses was uncertain, but prosecutors estimated it was at least $26 million and might have exceeded $40 million.
Before she was sentenced, Shi told Klausner she wanted to withdraw the guilty plea she made last year. Shi said she had not understood what she was doing when she admitted that she committed wire fraud.
“I maintain my innocence,” Shi, who was wearing a beige jail uniform with handcuffs and ankle shackles, told the judge on Monday.
Prosecutors had initially sought just under 16 years in prison, but after Shi tried to back out of her plea deal, they increased their recommendation to 20 years.
The judge agreed that she deserved the maximum because she refused to accept responsibility for the crime.
Serena Shi spent millions of dollars stolen from investors in a proposed retro-chic resort in the California desert that was a mirage
“There’s been denial of responsibility,” Klausner said.
Shi’s attorney, Bernard J. Rosen, had asked for a sentence of just over two years in prison. He argued that 20 years was excessive, telling Klausner that Shi would have faced less time if she’d held a gun to the head of each investor.
“The government’s position is unreasonable,” Rosen said.
Shi ran a Beijing real estate firm, Global House Buyer LLC, with an office in Beverly Hills. Her proposed project, Hyde Hotel & Residences Coachella Valley, was planned as a 350-unit “lifestyle resort” that would have been built by an arm of SBE, a Los Angeles company that ran trendy hotels, restaurants and nightlife venues.
Coachella city officials traveled twice to Beijing for glitzy sales events where Shi promoted the project to investors. Her attorney declined to comment on the sentencing, but prosecutors were pleased.
“We hope it can provide some modicum of comfort to the many, many victims who suffered at this defendant’s hands,” Schwab said.
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