3 charged in alleged plot to extort $20 million from Saudi sheik

Los Angeles TimesJuly 14, 2014 

— The young Saudi man had been in Los Angeles for about a year studying English when the horrific accusations came to his door.

A woman he'd met during a 2012 family trip to Vienna had come to visit him in L.A. But not long after she arrived, the woman went to police, saying the 23-year-old Saudi had raped, tortured and imprisoned her in his tony Wilshire Boulevard high-rise condominium.

The charges stunned Thamer Albalwi and his family, one of the wealthiest in his native Saudi Arabia. Quickly, they raised $3 million in bail to free him from jail. He stayed in his adoptive home and resolved to clear his name.

Albalwi appeared to achieve his goal, with a stunning reversal in recent days: Los Angeles authorities declared Monday that the woman accusing him of abuse had concocted her story and then conspired with two prominent attorneys in an attempt to extort as much as $20 million from the student's family.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James R. Dabney on Friday declared Albalwi factually innocent, a rare action, while authorities charged Leyla Ors, 33, and lawyers Joseph G. Cavallo and Emanuel K. Hudson with extortion and several acts of conspiracy - to commit extortion, to receive a bribe and to obstruct justice. If convicted, each could spend up to four years in prison.

Despite his ordeal, Albalwi plans to continue his English studies in Los Angeles and might even stay to pursue a four-year college degree, according to his attorney. "I prayed that the truth would come out," Albalwi said in a statement Monday, "and, thanks to the American justice system, it did."

Ors appeared briefly in court Monday but, because a German interpreter could not be found, a judge postponed her arraignment until Tuesday. That is the same day Cavallo is scheduled to be arraigned; Hudson is slated to face the charges later in the month.

This is hardly what Albalwi could have imagined when he met Ors in 2012. His family had traveled to Austria, and the young woman of Turkish descent became their guide around Vienna. She was so striking that an associate of the Albalwis later compared her with the actress Salma Hayek. She bonded with the young Saudi, a decade her junior.

When he arrived in Los Angeles about a year ago for his English studies, a correspondence with Ors soon began. They eventually arranged that she would come to Southern California for a visit that was supposed to last about two weeks.

But before the visit ended in early March, Ors was telling authorities that her host had turned abusive. He beat her and raped her and burned her with cigarettes, she claimed. Her attorney, Cavallo, told Fox 11 News in Los Angeles: "He would lock her in the apartment so she couldn't go anywhere. He is a true animal, this individual, he really is. He doesn't belong on the streets."

But Albalwi's family swung into action. His father hired Alan Jackson, a former Los Angeles prosecutor who once ran for district attorney, and the lawyer's team put together telephone and credit card records, emails, text messages and surveillance video that showed the accuser's allegations did not add up, the lawyer said.

Jackson called the story "a massive fiction," though some details - including how Ors got the cigarette burns - remain a mystery.

Speaking for Ors early in the case was Cavallo, who had known controversy before. The Orange County lawyer was sentenced to six months in jail in 2007 after three felony convictions for paying bail bondsmen to steer business his way. The state bar suspended his law license, but he was reinstated in 2010. He also testified to laundering campaign contributions for then Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona.

Cavallo's attorney said Monday that his client was no different from police and prosecutors in believing Ors' original account of being attacked.

He said Cavallo had taken a phone call from the Albalwi's representatives but that a request that they pay $20 million was merely a mention of the "civil claim aspect" of the case, not an extortion attempt.

Hudson, the second lawyer representing Ors, had previously represented a number of professional athletes, including a U.S. track champion accused of doping. Other clients, according to his website, "include members of the Saudi Arabian royal family."

Authorities in the extortion case allege that on June 30, Hudson called Albawi's father - Sheik Mansur Albalwi - and said a payment of $15 million would mean that "Leyla would not testify" and the case against the son would be over.

On the same day, the sheik spoke to Cavallo about the $20 million and Cavallo said that Hudson would set up a bank account in Lucerne, Switzerland, to receive the funds, prosecutors said.

Hudson could not be reached for comment. Ors' public defender did not comment.

Jackson said that other young men of means, caught in Albalwi's predicament, might have jumped on a plane and fled the country.

"But that never crossed his mind or his father's mind," Jackson said. "That showed enormous character. They allowed the legal system to do its job."

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