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Nicaraguan man’s guilty plea wraps up old drug money-laundering case

New Orleans’ federal courthouse, via Google

A dual citizen of the United States and Nicaragua who evaded authorities for nearly two decades pleaded guilty Wednesday in New Orleans to his role in a plot to launder drug money, all but wrapping up a case also involving a disgraced coffee importer and the brother of a famed local mob boss.

Erwin Jose Mierisch Jr., 49, will serve four years in prison if U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance approves his plea deal at a sentencing hearing Dec. 13. Mierisch can withdraw his guilty plea if Vance rejects the deal.

The case against Mierisch dates back to 1999, when a grand jury indicted him in a money-laundering and drug-trafficking scheme. The federal probe led to the conviction of Roberto Gambini, a high-profile businessman who made a name for himself as New Orleans became the nation’s busiest coffee-importing port.

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Charges were also filed against Mierisch’s uncle, Jose Esteban McEwan, but he died years ago without ever going to court. A fourth suspect in the case, Joseph Marcello Jr., was the brother of notorious New Orleans mob boss Carlos Marcello; he died before charges were handed up.

The case against Mierisch languished for years as he remained in Nicaragua, which refused to extradite him to the United States.

He was captured in Mexico late last year while in transit between Nicaragua and Tokyo. Mexican authorities flew him to Miami. He initially pleaded not guilty after being transferred to New Orleans.

Mierisch’s guilty plea spares a federal prosecution team led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael McMahon the challenge of trying an 18-year-old case built on aged evidence and scattered witnesses.

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Authorities busted Mierisch, Gambini and McEwan with the help of an FBI informant who introduced an undercover customs agent to Gambini after May 1998, according to a formal admission signed by Mierisch as part of his guilty plea.

The informant told Gambini that the undercover agent had large amounts of drug money that had to be “cleaned up,” and Gambini said he could help because he had done that kind of work in the past.

Gambini would falsify invoices documenting the wholesale purchase and transfer of coffee, with the list price matching the amount of money being laundered.

In return for the fake invoices, Gambini would receive cash from the undercover customs agent, the “factual basis” filed in court said. Customs officials and FBI agents paid Gambini $45,000 the first time, then returned nine more times with similar requests to launder money, according to the factual basis signed by Mierisch.

Twice, Gambini wired what he believed to be drug money to the bank account of a Nicaraguan business using his and Mierisch’s surnames, authorities said.

Meanwhile, for several months beginning in late 1998, Mierisch spoke numerous times with an undercover FBI agent about the ability he, Gambini and McEwan had to supply cocaine. At one point, the agent was given 99 grams of cocaine as a sample, the factual basis said.

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Mierisch also admitted paying $20,000 to the agent to arrange an attack on the spouse of a Texas man who had filed a lawsuit against one of Gambini’s associates.

Gambini ultimately pleaded guilty in 1999 to laundering $900,000 in what he thought was drug money. He received a prison sentence of 5½ years and was deported to Italy.

Gambini also admitted he paid undercover agents to burn down a Miami warehouse full of coffee beans to collect insurance money, and authorities confiscated more than two dozen guns from his home.

Many were stunned by the turn of events for Gambini, who arrived in New Orleans in 1990 and would take over more than 200 old grain silos at the Nashville Street wharf, refurbishing them to process and store coffee, according to an account at the time in The Times-Picayune.

Mierisch’s uncle, McEwan, remained on his coffee plantation in Nicaragua and sought to file documents attacking the charges against him from there.

But McMahon successfully opposed McEwan’s efforts, arguing that he shouldn’t be able to challenge the indictment in a land where U.S. officials wouldn’t be able to enforce any judgment he might receive against him.

Members of Mierisch’s family showed up Wednesday to support him.

His attorney, Matthew Coman, declined comment.

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