Jacob Moritz, who evaded federal authorities on marijuana trafficking charges for nearly 30 years before being apprehended in April 2018, walked out of a federal courthouse in Manhattan a free man Monday afternoon.
Mr. Moritz’s three children shared an embrace in the first row of the courtroom as Southern District Court Judge Loretta Preska sentenced him to time served with no additional fines. The 73-year-old had pleaded guilty in June to one felony count of participating in a conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to sell less than 50 kilograms of marijuana. As part of his plea deal, Mr. Moritz agreed to forfeit $2 million in assets, a bank account and title to property he owns in the Republic of Maldives, an island nation in South Asia.
The sentence, which was announced after Mr. Moritz, his two sons and a daughter made emotional pleas to the judge for mercy, offers a stark contrast to the 50-year sentence handed down to William LaMorte of Southold, a codefendant in the case, who was found guilty at trial in the fall of 1990 and died while still incarcerated more than 16 years later.
“Thank you so much, Your Honor,” a visibly shaken and surprised Mr. Moritz told the judge. “Thank you for your leniency.”
Federal prosecutors had recommended that Mr. Moritz, who was arrested near the Canadian border in Montana last April, serve five years in a federal prison. His attorney, Ryan Poscablo of Manhattan, had asked that his sentence be served through home confinement so he could care for his ailing wife.
Judge Preska said that before issuing the sentence she weighed the role Mr. Moritz has played as a caregiver to his wife, Carol Ann, in Tampa, Fla., since he was released on bail soon after his arrest last year. Ms. Moritz, who could not travel to be at her husband’s sentencing, suffers from several ailments and has twice battled cancer, her children told the court Monday.
Judge Preska also said that Mr. LaMorte’s sentence was given consideration in her decision.
But the sentencing hearings, held in the same courthouse more than 28 years apart, painted the histories of the two men — who were accused of smuggling more than 1,200 tons of marijuana and hashish into the U.S. and Canada from countries like Morocco and Lebanon between 1971 and 1986 — in very different light. At his March 1991 sentencing, Judge David Edelstein chastised Mr. LaMorte, who prosecutors and witnesses called the ringleader of the operation, for engaging in criminal activity despite being raised in a life of privilege.
“It is very difficult for me to see how much generosity I can bring to this,” the judge said to Mr. LaMorte, who owned the former Key Foods in Cutchogue during some of the years he also allegedly ran the large-scale drug smuggling operation. “Do I ignore everything else? Isn’t it important at this time to send a message that the law only has a keen edge when it deals with ghetto people? I have in some cases imposed a sentence of 40 years and more on ghetto people conspiring in a massive criminal enterprise to distribute drugs. Why is Mr. LaMorte different? He’s different, very much different, from the people I have sentenced to very heavy punishment because they had nothing to start with and he had everything to start with.”
In a pre-sentencing memo to the court, Mr. Poscablo reiterated that Mr. LaMorte and his younger brother, Thomas, who testified against him at trial, were raised by a wealthy family in Pelham Manor, N.Y., while Mr. Moritz grew up poor. Born to a Jewish family in Romania 15 months after the end of World War II, Mr. Moritz was 14 when his family was granted asylum into the United States and moved to Brooklyn in 1960.
He said at his sentencing Monday that he was 27 years old when he met the LaMorte brothers.
“They introduced me to a totally different world,” Mr. Moritz told the court. “A world of money and influence.”
The money he earned shipping marijuana into the U.S. along with the LaMortes was initially used to take care of his mother and sister, he told the judge.
But several years after the birth of his youngest child, Mr. Moritz, who had maintained residences in Greenwich, Conn., and New York City, decided to flee the country. The pre-sentencing memo states that he left for Italy with his family in May 1989, nine months before his indictment was unsealed. He assumed the alias Arthur Chestnutt and also spent years living in Paris and other parts of France and Europe as well as Canada. Mr. Moritz even lived in Tampa, Fla., as Mr. Chestnutt at times when he was considered a fugitive in this country, according to the memo.
His wife filed for divorce and changed her and their children’s names to her maiden name in an effort to distance themselves from Mr. Moritz’s crime, but they continued to be a family and remarried last October. His children returned to the U.S. as teenagers to pursue their education. All three attended law school and became attorneys.
His children said Monday that their father took an active role in raising them during his years as a fugitive and despite his circumstances instilled in them a respect for the law.
“He knows he’s done wrong,” his older son, Jonathan Brozyna, told the court. “He’s always known that fact.”
After issuing the sentence, Judge Preska said Mr. Moritz should be proud of his children’s accomplishments.
Mr. LaMorte had previously been the only person convicted among four indicted co-conspirators in the case. To this day, co-defendants Fayez Barade and Harry Sunila have never been apprehended by federal authorities.
While the other three defendants in the case fled, Mr. LaMorte stood trial and, in addition to his 50-year prison sentence, was ordered to pay $49.2 million in fines and forfeit $25 million in assets.
The well-known businessman later admitted to The Suffolk Times in a jailhouse interview that he would transport the drugs from freighters anchored miles offshore through Gardiners Bay to houses his family owned in Southold using smaller boats. He always maintained that he should not have been convicted, saying he had stopped smuggling drugs years before his arrest and the statute of limitations had passed.
Mr. LaMorte, who died in prison on July 4, 2007, at the age of 60, lost several appeals of his conviction.
At trial, Thomas LaMorte testified that his older brother had received 50% of the proceeds from the massive amounts of marijuana they would bring into the U.S. He testified that he and Mr. Moritz would split the remaining half. It was said at trial that shipments could exceed $15 million.
Thomas LaMorte, who had testified against his brother to avoid serving time in prison for an unrelated drug arrest, would later write a letter to the judge in support of his brother’s appeal.
One point of contention leading up to Monday’s sentencing was just how much money Mr. Moritz had actually earned in the years he worked with the LaMortes. His attorney maintained that he made no more than the $2 million he was ordered to forfeit.
“[Mr. LaMorte] controlled the relationships, he controlled the shipments, the money used to fund the purchases was his, and he gave the orders and instructions and expected people who worked for him to follow through,” reads the pre-sentencing memo Mr. Poscablo filed on behalf of his client. “Individuals who worked for him were also left clueless of other transactions or cut out of deals that he ran with others.”
The letter characterizes Mr. Moritz as an employee of Mr. LaMorte, who made far less during the years they imported marijuana into the country.
On Monday, assistant U.S. attorney Tara LaMorte, who is of no relation to the LaMorte brothers, suggested Mr. Moritz could have earned more than what he has admitted to since his apprehension. She said federal investigators found evidence that Mr. Moritz still had at least $1 million in foreign bank accounts as of 2008, two decades after he left the U.S.
Mr. Moritz is currently living with his wife in an apartment in Tampa, and will no longer be required to be monitored there via GPS technology.
Caption: Mr. Moritz walks away from the federal courthouse after his sentencing Monday.