By GWEN MURANAKA
RAFU ENGLISH EDITOR IN CHIEF
SANTA ANA — Sentencing for former financial planner Hitomi Tsuyuki, 57, who has pled guilty to stealing $2.8 million, mostly from elderly Japanese American victims, was postponed to next Friday.
Orange County Superior Court Judge James Stotler, who was not the judge to take the initial guilty plea, said on Oct. 28 that the delay will give him the opportunity to review the case file.
“We have to make sure we have a permanent guilty plea that’s not going to be attacked later on,” said Stotler.
Tsuyuki pleaded guilty on Sept. 30 to 17 felony counts of the use of untrue statements in the sale of a security, 10 felony counts of theft from an elder, a felony count of grand theft, and a felony count of the use of a scheme to defraud, with a sentencing enhancement for causing property damage of more than $2.5 million. He faces a possible sentence of 18 years in prison.
From Nov. 22, 1997, to Nov. 8, 2007, Tsuyuki, who was working as a financial planner, convinced his victims to give him their money under the pretext of investing it in bonds. Instead, he spent the money on his himself, including his Coto de Caza home, a vacation property in Mammoth, a golf club membership, and cars.
Wearing a dark blue shirt and orange prison pants, Tsuyuki was in handcuffs as he was led into the courtroom by a sheriff’s deputy. He didn’t look up as three victims came forward to tell Stotler how Tsuyuki, whom they once considered a trusted friend, had deceived them and stolen their life savings.
“Years after Mr. Tsuyuki is released from prison, many of his former clients will still be paying for his actions. Restitution will cover just a fraction of our losses,” said Ernest Ikuta, who said his 69-year-old wife has to work full-time to make up for the loss of their retirement funds.
Sandi Kato said she had first met Tsuyuki in the late 1950s when their families lived in Boyle Heights. Many of the victims were members of Konko Church of Los Angeles, a Shinto church where Tsuyuki’s father served as minister.
“In July of 2001, he called me and said that he had an investment opportunity that he was offering only to his close friends and family members. He said it was a type of bond that would earn around 6 percent and was secure and liquid,” said Kato.
Kato said that she gave Tsuyuki two $20,000 checks, one of which was her father’s redress money given to him by the U.S. government as an internee at the Topaz camp during World War II. When her father became ill, Kato said she didn’t have the heart to tell him of the lost money, and he passed away not knowing that his money had been taken.
“In my culture, when shame is brought to a family, the one causing it should take responsibility for it in some way.” said Kato. “As I stand here and reflect over the past decade of fraud, I see no remorse or shame in him. To me, he is a very sick and manipulative man who does not deserve to be released short of the 18-year sentence.”
Margaret Abo told the court that Tsuyuki had offered to help her after she became a widow at age 41 with two teen-aged children to care for. She said he had her give him four $25,000 checks, which he said were for bonds.
“Since I was a widow, I had to get my children through high school and then college by myself. It was a hardship because I was the sole bread-winner and my children were very active in sports as well as various high school activities …” said Abo. “Hitomi knew all of this and he helped me with all the necessary papers to refinance my mortgage in an attempt to reduce my expenses. He repeatedly assured me that he knew what he was doing and had a plan to help me. And because of these assurances, and because he helped me (or so I thought he was helping me) so much, I put a lot of trust and faith in him.”
Abo said when she tried to get cash out of her accounts, Tsuyuki began to avoid her.
“Despite my numerous requests to cash out, as I needed the money for my son’s wedding, Hitomi did nothing. He gave excuse after excuse, lie after lie. He even sent me faked [securities brokerage]WS Griffith statements, in an attempt to quell my fears,” she said.
Tsuyuki fabricated documents when some of his clients grew suspicious, but when he failed to produce a return on their investments some of them complained to Orange County prosecutors. Some of the victims didn’t know about the fraud until they were contacted by investigators.
“No one should have to go through what he put me through. I spent many stress-filled days and sleepless nights blaming myself for allowing him to steal from me,” said Abo.
“This is probably one of the most despicable cases I’ve prosecuted,” said Deputy District Attorney Yvette Patko, noting that most of the victims were elderly, widowed or ill.
Patko estimated that once sentencing is completed, 5 to 10 percent of the $2.8 million in assets may be recovered for the victims. Some of the victims have filed civil lawsuits and received some of their money back, with 37 percent retained by the lawyers.
Patko, who negotiated the plea deal, said that if Tsuyuki is sentenced to 18 years next week, he will most likely serve a maximum of nine years, including three years’ credit for time served.
—Additional information from City News Service