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Weighing in at 350 pounds, Carlos Sosa's impressive girth reflected his huge appetite for la dolce vita. Before his arrest on a felony theft charge this past spring, Sosa was known for his appreciation of fine wines and expensive cigars, and could often be found at trendy downtown cafes and nightspots. He frequented eateries such as Mia Bella, where he was fond of the portobello mushrooms and lamb kabob. At the Mercury Room, he sucked down top-shelf Bombay Sapphire gin and tonics. Indeed, much of the time, say acquaintances, Sosa seemed at least half-drunk. He also drove large late-model pickups -- and he drove them fast and recklessly.
Perhaps most of all, Sosa enjoyed running his mouth, and he talked like he drove. He had a knack for making strangers feel like best friends, and he portrayed himself as a fearless and freewheeling maker of deals. His cellular telephone appeared permanently affixed to the side of his huge head, and he gave others the impression he was always discussing a new, lucrative business venture, one they could participate in and profit from if they so desired.
Most of the time those deals involved merchandise -- anything from coffee beans to Caterpillar tractors to luxury automobiles -- stored along the docks at the Port of Houston, where Sosa kept an office at Pier 25, part of a long, gray sheet-metal warehouse along the waterfront. Those goods, he told his new friends, had been seized, for one reason or another, by port or government officials. Sosa convincingly maintained that he could get the goods on the cheap. There was, however, one condition: Because of federal regulations, the items could not be sold in the United States. Not to worry, Sosa would soothe his potential buyers; he could arrange for the cargo to be shipped abroad. To do this, he would need the money up front, for both the merchandise and the transport fee, and he would need it in cash. The sweet life, after all, comes with a price tag.
The pitch worked on more than a dozen people who willingly forked over thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of dollars to Sosa. But every once in a while, the pitch rang out like a sour note.
"Honestly, I always thought he was some kind of cop," says the manager of one of the downtown restaurants Sosa favored, who asked not to be identified. "I figured he was FBI."
Good guess, but not exactly.
According to the Harris County district attorney's office, Sosa was an undercover informant for the United States Customs Service. With the acquiescence of the Port Authority of Houston, Customs officials provided Sosa with an office at the port and a bogus company by the name of Coastal Logistics. Coastal was even included on the Port Authority's Web site of legitimate companies doing business at the port. In other words, the U.S. Customs Service, with the help of the Port Authority, gave Sosa a cover that enabled him to have unfettered access, and the appearance of legitimacy, along the docks of the nation's second-largest port.
Customs officials refuse to discuss Sosa or his operation. It apparently called for Sosa to gain the confidence of smugglers, whether they were moving drugs or other contraband. Once Sosa fingered the smugglers, Customs then would swoop down and bust the criminals. Customs officials decline to say if Sosa's efforts resulted in any arrests -- besides his own, that is.
This past April, Sosa was indicted on a charge of felony theft. Over and over again, say investigators, Sosa sold the same goods to different customers. Not that it made any difference; none of the stuff was his to sell in the first place.
The indictment lists 15 victims and charges that Sosa allegedly conned more than $200,000 from them. Other alleged victims are still coming forward. They range from experienced businessmen such as former Dallas Cowboys and Houston Oilers placekicker Tony Fritsch to 32-year-old Robert Yanouri, a native of Morocco just starting out in the world of international trade. While Fritsch lost a little more than $5,000, Yanouri is out close to $300,000, including his expenses. In their opinion, as well as the opinions of some of Sosa's other victims, the U.S. Customs Service and the Port Authority either turned a blind eye to Sosa or, at the very least, did not pay enough attention to his activities. They believe that not only Sosa should be held accountable, but the two agencies as well.
By definition, con artists -- the good ones, anyway -- always leave multiple muddy trails when it comes to their personal data. No one has yet proved in a court of law that Sosa is a thief or a con artist, but the lack of details about his background point to a man who would rather maneuver through life without his past catching up to him.
Despite background and criminal history checks by two local private investigation firms hired by a couple of his alleged victims, and despite the investigative efforts of the Houston Press, not a great deal is known about Carlos Alberto Sosa before he surfaced as an informant for the U.S. Customs Service at the Port of Houston. His personal data appear littered with a variety of names, birth dates, addresses and social security numbers.