CHAMBERY, France — Before considering whether fugitive Seattle real-estate developer Michael R. Mastro and his wife, Linda, should be freed while prosecutors seek their extradition for bankruptcy fraud, a French judge here dealt with a man wanted for murder in the Netherlands.
Then the judge had to wait while someone ran next door to buy new batteries for the 87-year-old Mastro’s hearing aid.
When the session finally got under way Wednesday, the court heard evidence that the Mastros had settled into a comfortable and seemingly well-heeled lifestyle in the French Alps.
The judge said a Range Rover registered to them in Washington state was imported to France, and in their apartment authorities found an invoice for 15,000 euros ($19,000) from a Geneva jewelry store.
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Two diamonds were found in a safe-deposit box they rented in Annecy.
And Linda Mastro, testifying Wednesday on her 63rd birthday, told the judges that they’d made their home in the area “because a priest from Seattle University told us about this place that was so nice, and we were accustomed to going skiing in the area. We only want one thing: to live in peace.”
Judge Marc Baudot said the court would rule Friday on the Mastros’ request to be released from the jail where they have been held since their arrest Oct. 24. “This decision has nothing to do with the extradition request,” he said.
The Mastros disappeared in June 2011 after failing to comply with a Seattle bankruptcy judge’s order to turn over two giant diamond rings valued at $1.4 million.
They were arrested last month by French police at the FBI’s request. They have been indicted by a federal grand jury in Seattle on 43 counts of bankruptcy fraud and money laundering.
The U.S. Department of Justice has 60 days to present its evidence for the extradition.
It’s unclear whether the diamonds found in the Mastros’ safe-deposit box are the same as the ones subject to the bankruptcy judge’s order.
James Rigby, the court-appointed trustee in Mastro’s massive bankruptcy case, said the couple should remain in custody.
“If they never want to see them again, they should let them go,” he said in Seattle Wednesday. “They took off once.”
But James Frush, Michael R. Mastro’s attorney in Seattle, said authorities could seize their passports, or require electronic monitoring or daily check-in with police, to insure the Mastros don’t disappear.
The Mastros hope to stay in France indefinitely, Frush said.
Michael R. Mastro’s son, Michael K. Mastro, who was in court Wednesday, is raising money from friends to help pay the couple’s living expenses and legal bills, the Seattle lawyer added.
Frush said Thomas Terrier, the lawyer in France for the Mastros, told him that he and Michael K. Mastro haven’t been allowed access to the apartment in which the Mastros were living at the time of their arrest — but lawyers hired by Rigby have entered it, without permission.
It’s not known whether they took anything, he said.
Rigby wouldn’t address Frush’s allegation directly. “I am pursuing the Mastro creditors’ legal remedies in France,” he said, declining to elaborate.
Frush said Terrier told him that judges expressed interest during Wednesday’s hearing in Linda Mastro’s mental health, the legal status of the two giant diamond rings, how much Rigby has collected for creditors, and how much the trustee, his lawyers, accountants and consultants have been paid.
The judge also wanted to know how much prison time the Mastros’ face if convicted in the United States, Frush said. In response, he filed a declaration Wednesday indicating federal attorneys have told him that, under sentencing guidelines, the Mastros would face terms of at least 30 years.
Michael R. Mastro was pushed into one of the largest bankruptcies in Washington’s history in July 2009 after his real-estate empire collapsed during the financial crisis.
His debts to unsecured creditors have been estimated at $250 million. So far they have received only a penny on the dollar, and Rigby has said they are unlikely to get much more.
Laure Kepes and Ingrid Blanquer are free-lance journalists based in Grenoble, France. Translation assistance provided by Marie Koltchak, Seattle Times staff.
Seattle Times reporter Eric Pryne contributed to this story.
Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or firstname.lastname@example.org