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Livin' Large

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.

For example, during the time he was allegedly running his scam at the port, Sosa went by the name of Carlos Curvo. The private investigators also believe he has used the names Carlos D. Cuervo, Michael A. Middleton and Heriberta C. Bernal. His last known address was at an apartment complex at 5151 Richmond, south of the Galleria. There are also addresses connected to Sosa at several other locations, most of them across southwest Houston. His dates of birth put his age at anywhere from 32 to 44.

It's unclear how Sosa wound up as a federal snitch. Some people -- but not many -- become informants because they believe it's the right thing to do. Others are mercenaries who do it for the money. But many, if not most, do it as part of a deal with the authorities to minimize their own legal trouble. The use of informants by law enforcement is frequently criticized by defense attorneys. To noted defense attorney Dick DeGuerin, law enforcement falls back on informants out of laziness, and the practice can lead to definite legal problems.

"It's much easier to have a guy come lay a case in your lap than it is to go out and do the detective work that is necessary to build a case against someone engaged in a crime," says DeGuerin. "It also encourages perjury, because in order for the informants to get paid or [get] credit for what they're doing, they will always be tempted to make their stories better than they actually are."

Customs officials refuse to say how Sosa became one of their snitches. But one possible answer, though not confirmed, can be found in the details of a January 1, 1988, Los Angeles Times story. In the article, a Carlos Alberto Sosa was one of five people, including a 15-year-old girl, arrested by local and federal authorities in the San Fernando Valley in connection with the seizure of 44 pounds of cocaine and $180,000 in cash. Although the Sosa arrested in that bust was reportedly 32 years old at the time, it would not be unlike Sosa to have given California authorities a bogus birth date, if the recent background checks by private investigators are any indication.

Harris County court records list Sosa's date of birth as April 11, 1968. The documents also show that 1996 was a very bad year for Sosa. That year, he pleaded guilty to assault and to violating the terms of a protective order. Also that year, another assault charge against him was dismissed. Additionally, he received deferred adjudication for the forgery of a $350 check, but eventually served just under a year for that crime in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice system. The Press made numerous phone calls to Sosa's attorney. He left one message, but did not return the others, and the Press was never able to speak with him.

Last summer Sosa wandered into the life of Robert Yanouri, a tall, handsome, dark-haired, olive-skinned man who can still laugh at himself despite his recent financial setbacks but was too embarrassed by his situation to be photographed for this story. Born in Morocco, Yanouri moved to the United States when he was 18 and now holds dual citizenship, here and in his native country. For several years he worked as a food and beverage manager for the Wyndham hotel chain, with his last assignment at the Warwick near Hermann Park. But the stress involved in the job resulted in such a severe case of acid reflux that Yanouri underwent surgery. He resolved to change careers. Taking advantage of his ties to Morocco and his bilingual skills, he decided to go into the import-export business, a venture he assumed to be less stressful than hotel work.

"And it was," says Yanouri. "At least, it was until I met Carlos."

When Yanouri first met Sosa last July, it seemed like a godsend. At that point, Yanouri was attempting to put together a deal to sell used American clothing to Moroccan businesses. Used clothing that doesn't move at places like the Salvation Army and thrift stores, says Yanouri, can be purchased in bulk for less than 20 cents a pound. The clothes are then shipped to third world countries and sold for a profit. Yanouri had already completed a few small used-clothing deals when one of his business partners introduced him to Sosa, whom he had met at a local garage while having his car repaired.

 

"My first impression of him was that he was a nice person," says Yanouri. "He said he was a family man. He told me about his kids. That he had been working in San Francisco and had been transferred here."

Sosa and Yanouri also discussed business. Yanouri had made a small amount of money on the clothing deals, but he was interested in finding a cheaper way to ship the cargo. In his first two deals, Yanouri paid $4,400 and $3,600, respectively, to ship a 20-foot by ten-foot cargo container of used clothing to Morocco. Sosa claimed that because of the volume of cargo he moved, he could get the job done for a mere $900.

It seemed like a hell of a deal to Yanouri. But it turned out to be a deal from hell.

I n the United States, only the Port of New York handles more tonnage than the Port of Houston, which also ranks as the eighth-largest port in the world. According to port statistics, more than 7,000 ships made their way through the Houston Ship Channel to the Port of Houston in 1998. That same year, more than 169 million tons of cargo moved through the port. According to its own Web site, the port generates more than 75,000 direct jobs and almost 130,000 indirect jobs in the Houston area.

The Port of Houston is governed by the Port of Houston Authority, which is composed of a seven-member board. Two members each are appointed by Houston City Council and Harris County Commissioners Court, which jointly appoint a chairman. The Harris County Mayors & Councils Association and the City of Pasadena also appoint one member each. The Port Authority owns and operates all public facilities along the Ship Channel. It also has its own police force.

Access is restricted to some areas along the port's 25 miles of public and private businesses, but Yanouri recalls that Carlos Sosa moved about with the ease of a person who was supposed to be there. He took Yanouri and Yanouri's two partners, Todd Zapel and Ben Hadj, on tours of the facility. He also claimed to be able to get extraordinary deals on much of the merchandise sitting along the docks and stored in the warehouses. Sosa provided them with brochures that outlined the supposed 20-year history of his company, Coastal Logistics. He also provided them with ship manifests and arrival and departure schedules, as well as bills of lading detailing the merchandise available.

"He showed me cars," says Yanouri. "Baby formula. Motor oil. Water pumps. He showed me bags of coffee. He would break them open and show me the beans. Rice, the same thing. He said it couldn't be sold in the United States because it had been seized by Customs or the Port Authority. He said the stuff was going to be sold cheap in auction and that the companies [that produced the goods] would have a problem with their own goods being resold here at a cheap price. He said the government didn't want to screw up the market here. That it all had to be sold overseas. It made sense to me."

While Sosa may have been a good con, Harris County Assistant District Attorney Harry Lawrence, who is prosecuting the case, admits that Yanouri and the other alleged victims were gullible. Those brochures that Sosa handed out, for example, say nothing about Coastal Logistics being in the stevedore business and, therefore, having access to goods as they are unloaded off ships. Nor do the brochures mention the import-export business. Instead, the pamphlets tout Coastal Logistics as "servicing the oil and gas industry in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean water since 1970." The brochure goes on to say, "Whether the need is for marine exploration, production, or pipeline inspection vessels, we can facilitate all of your requirements. Coastal Logistics can reduce your decision-making burden by providing you with sound, knowledgeable choices concerning your marine needs."

Additionally, according to a spokesperson for the Customs Service, seized goods are kept in secure locations at the port, not just lying around on the docks and in unguarded storage areas. What's more, say port officials, if Sosa had been running a legitimate stevedore business handling freight at the port, he would have had a license issued by the Port Authority's operations division.

Nevertheless, seeing the possibility for a big quick profit, Yanouri and his partners took the bait. Yanouri liked much of what he saw, especially the high-quality coffee beans from Colombia and the water pumps that could be used to irrigate his arid homeland. So, Yanouri changed his mind about exporting clothes. Instead, he checked with some potential buyers in Morocco who were interested in the coffee and the water pumps. Yanouri also decided to buy some tires, Igloo coolers, two Chevrolet Suburbans, a Ford Mustang and some antifreeze in steel barrels. (He figured after the antifreeze was removed, those barrels could then be reused to ship olives back to the United States.) Yanouri and his partners gave Sosa about $140,000 in cash as a down payment, about half of what Sosa wanted for the merchandise. The rest would be paid after Yanouri got his money from the Moroccans.

 

In September, Sosa told Yanouri that the cargo had been loaded onto a ship and was ready to set sail for various ports in Europe and that his goods should arrive in Melilla, a port on the northern coast of Morocco, by December. Yanouri made arrangements to meet the shipment. Just before Christmas, he and his two partners flew to Melilla.

During one of his numerous $8-a-minute phone calls back to the States, Yanouri spoke with Sosa, who told him there was a problem: The shipment was delayed in Spain and would arrive late in Morocco. Yanouri told Sosa that that was not his problem, that Sosa had guaranteed the cargo would be there, and that he had better figure out a way to get it there.

Meanwhile, the meter was running. Yanouri and his two friends were racking up expenses: meals, rooms, phone calls. Every time Yanouri talked with Sosa, the big man had another excuse for why the goods had yet to reach Morocco, or why he hadn't checked on their status.

"He tells me he's very sick," says Yanouri. "It's cold. It's Christmastime. His kids. His family. And I finally said, 'Listen, man. Your kids and your family are one thing. But I've got my ass on the line here with these people. I have these buyers here. I've put a lot of money into this. You'd better come up with something.' "

And every time, Sosa would tell Yanouri that he was working on it.

Hotel Toubkal in Melilla is named for the highest peak in Morocco, but while staying there, Robert Yanouri was touching bottom. From his room, he could see cargo being loaded and off-loaded at the Port of Melilla. Christmas 1999 came and went, and Yanouri still didn't see any of his stuff. All the while, the Moroccan buyers he'd lined up, some of whom had given him partial payment up front, were getting increasingly anxious, especially the man waiting on the coffee beans. If they didn't arrive soon, he'd have to shut down his coffee processing plant for a year and lay off his workers.

Yanouri flew home on December 30. He was angry and exhausted when he called Sosa.

"He comes over to my apartment and brings me two bottles of champagne," says Yanouri. "He says he's sorry, that he screwed up, and he's going to fix it. I just gave him a look and told him that he'd better do something."

A couple of weeks later, Sosa gave Yanouri the telephone number of a shipping company in Spain. Yanouri called it and was told that, yes, his cargo was there. He was given a booking number and assured that the merchandise would be in Morocco by March. Yanouri suddenly thought he was back in business. Even so, he decided he had to fly back to Melilla to see for himself that the cargo actually reached its destination and that his buyers got their goods. He threatened Sosa that, this time, everything had better be okay.

At the beginning of March, Yanouri flew back to Morocco and headed straight to the port. When he got there, the stuff was nowhere to be found. Immediately he was on the phone to Sosa. But like the cargo, Sosa couldn't be found, or wasn't taking any calls -- at least not from any numbers that he recognized on his caller ID. So Yanouri phoned a friend, who placed a three-way call to Sosa. Upon hearing Yanouri's voice, Sosa hung up.

"At that point, I just couldn't believe that this guy had fooled me all this time," says Yanouri. "It didn't make sense to me. The motherfucker should be a movie star."

Not sure what to do next, Yanouri flew back to Houston. His friend and partner Ben Hadj picked him up at Bush Intercontinental Airport. On the drive back, Hadj told Yanouri that while he was in Morocco, Hadj had run into some of Sosa's other acquaintances, and that they, too, claimed to have been duped by their friend from Coastal Logistics. Hadj said that they were are all going to report Sosa to the police the next day. Yanouri wished them luck but was too depressed to go anywhere other than to bed.

 

Most of the $140,000 that Yanouri and his two partners gave Sosa had come out of Yanouri's personal funds. The would-be exporters had also incurred about another $140,000 in expenses, much of it during the two trips to Morocco. Yanouri admits that's a lot of expense money but says that at the time he wasn't concerned because he was confident of clearing more than $600,000 when the deals were finalized.

At the end of April, Yanouri contacted the Port Authority police department. The police took Yanouri's information. Later that month, all of the alleged victims were called together for another meeting with the port investigators. A U.S. Customs agent also sat in on the session. None of the complainants were told that Sosa had been working as an informant for the feds.

"[The agent] didn't say anything," says Yanouri. "He just listened to our stories."

During the meeting, as he looked around the room at the faces of other people who allegedly had been duped by Sosa, Yanouri thought that if he was going to get his money back, he'd better try to get to Sosa before anyone else. With the help of his friend and partner Todd Zapel, who had also lost money, Yanouri decided to bypass the police and find Sosa himself.

The two men contracted the services of Blue Moon Investigations, located in the Clear Lake area. Blue Moon produced Sosa's criminal history as well as a list of the telephone numbers recently called by Sosa from his cell phone. Yanouri then crisscrossed those numbers with their physical addresses. The search led Yanouri to Cafe Miami, a large hole-in-the-wall Cuban joint on Bissonnet that claims to have the best black beans in the city.

In late April, Yanouri went to Cafe Miami to look for Sosa. To keep Sosa from easily recognizing him, Yanouri drove his girlfriend's Land Rover to the restaurant instead of his older-model BMW. Sure enough, as he and Jim Vickery, another of Sosa's alleged victims, cruised past the front of Cafe Miami, they spotted Sosa sitting at the bar.

"I was so excited, but I couldn't believe it at the same time," says Yanouri. "My first thought was to go inside and get him, but Jim convinced me not to. He said we needed a plan."

The two men drove around the block, and then they drove around the block some more, unable to decide what to do with Sosa now that they had found him. Finally, as they drove by the cafe one more time, they saw Sosa getting into a small used Nissan pickup, a fact that surprised Yanouri, given Sosa's preference for large flashy trucks.

Yanouri and Vickery followed Sosa for a few miles but still were unable to come up with a plan. At a light, when Sosa took a right, they ended the pursuit for the evening. At least they now knew where Sosa liked to hang out; they would come back later after they had developed a course of action.

For several more days, Yanouri continued his surveillance of Cafe Miami, and each time he found Sosa sitting at the bar. Finally Yanouri decided he would go to the restaurant early and confront Sosa when he arrived. But on the day Yanouri hoped to surprise Sosa, the big man didn't show up.

Then on a Friday in April, Yanouri received a call from his brother, who lives in Dallas, as do their parents. Yanouri's brother told him that the Moroccan businessman who had gotten stiffed on the coffee was in Dallas. The brother suggested that Yanouri come to Dallas and have lunch with the man and Yanouri's parents. Yanouri agreed.

During the meal, Yanouri convinced the businessman to return to Houston with him. Yanouri was concerned that the man thought he was a crook, and he wanted to introduce him to Sosa's other alleged victims. The man agreed, and he and Yanouri headed to Houston in Yanouri's car. Along the way, Yanouri decided he would drive straight to Cafe Miami. They arrived there at about 8:30 p.m., and when they pulled up in front, Yanouri saw Sosa sitting at his usual spot at the bar. Without telling the Moroccan businessman what he was doing, Yanouri got out of the car, walked into the restaurant and, to the concern of other Cafe Miami customers, began screaming at Sosa.

 

"Hey, motherfucker!" Yanouri yelled at the large man on the barstool. "Where's my money?"

Yanouri's words stunned Sosa, the people around him and Yanouri himself, who still didn't have a clue what he was going to do next, so he just kept yelling.

"He told me he didn't have it," says Yanouri. "So I said, 'Excuse me, are you telling me you didn't take my money?' "

Yanouri says Sosa seemed rattled by the outburst. His hands were shaking, and he tried to get Yanouri to take the discussion outside. Meanwhile, the Moroccan businessman who had stayed outside sensed what was going down. He stayed beside Yanouri's car with one hand in his jacket pocket as if he had a gun. He didn't, but his act made Sosa even more paranoid. Sosa continued to plead with Yanouri to discuss the situation somewhere else.

Although he had the upper hand for the moment, Yanouri began to wonder if some of the other patrons at Cafe Miami might be in cahoots with Sosa and worried they might come to his assistance. So he agreed to relocate. Yanouri rode shotgun in Sosa's pickup. The Moroccan businessman, who spoke no English, followed in Yanouri's BMW. (It was somehow fitting that the three men drove to a nearby Starbucks, seeing as how the Moroccan was still waiting on his coffee beans.) The Moroccan stayed outside. Sosa and Yanouri went inside.

As they sat at a table, Yanouri asked Sosa, simply, why he did it. Sosa replied that he didn't have a choice, and followed that with an explanation that sent Yanouri reeling.

"First he tells me that he was working as an informant for Customs," says Yanouri. "Then he adds that he also works for the Mafia. Those were two things I never expected him to say."

Now it was Yanouri who was paranoid. Although Sosa's explanation was not what Yanouri had expected, the story began to make some sense to him. For one thing, it explained why Sosa seemed to have unrestricted access to most areas at the port. He also remembered that on a couple of occasions, Sosa had mentioned that should Yanouri ever want to do something a little more nefarious -- like, say, smuggle cocaine through the port -- he could get it done.

Yanouri wondered: Was Sosa trying to set him up? Were the feds already watching him? He knew he hadn't done anything wrong, but there was no way of knowing what sort of tale Sosa might have fabricated for the feds. Now that he had found Sosa, would Sosa have the Mafia kill him?

As they sat at Starbucks, Sosa told Yanouri that he had $1,300 in his bank account, and that he would give it to Yanouri until he could find a way to repay the rest of the money. But first, Sosa said, he had to meet someone at ten o'clock.

"To say the least, I was not optimistic about it," says Yanouri.

All sorts of thoughts were running through Yanouri's mind as he and the Moroccan businessman drove toward Yanouri's Galleria-area apartment. He explained the situation to the businessman, who also freaked out. To make matters worse, Yanouri was certain that he spotted someone following them in a green Jeep.

"So I take an immediate right turn just before I get to a traffic light," says Yanouri. "Then I make a U-turn and pull into a gas station, park my car and get out. And I see this guy in a baseball cap driving this green Jeep coming. And he's looking around like he's looking to see where I went. So that confirmed for me that he was really following us."

Now completely paranoid, Yanouri again headed toward his apartment, when he spotted another car following him. Back at his apartment, Yanouri decided to spend the night at his girlfriend's place. The businessman opted to stay at Yanouri's.

The next day, Yanouri laid out what he had learned the previous evening to Port Authority police department Sergeant Mark Robinson, the lead investigator in the Sosa scam case. Robinson told Yanouri that he shouldn't worry; he was certain that Sosa did not work for the Mafia.

"However, I realized later that he never answered the part about Carlos working for Customs," says Yanouri. "I also remembered that there had been a representative from Customs at one of our meetings with the other victims at the port. It all started coming together."

An awful thought suddenly struck Yanouri: While working as an informant for the federal government, Carlos Sosa had been running his own personal scam on the side -- and the U.S. Customs Service and the Port Authority either had not monitored Sosa's activities closely enough, or had turned a blind eye to the whole damn deal.

 

The next Monday, Sosa was arrested following his indictment by a Harris County grand jury. It wasn't until then that Robert Yanouri fully understood what a widespread scam Sosa had allegedly been running. It gave him some comfort to know there were so many other intelligent people susceptible to Carlos Sosa's charms. One of them, in a strange twist, was the owner of Cafe Miami.

During his confrontation with Sosa at the Cafe Miami bar, Yanouri was rightly concerned that some of the other people there might be Sosa's friends. Unfortunately for them, some were. In fact, the owner of Cafe Miami, Carlos "Kalo" Bucio, thought he knew Sosa well enough to invest $23,000 in Caterpillar tractors that Sosa said had been seized at the port. It wasn't until that Friday evening in April, when Yanouri burst into the restaurant and screamed at Sosa, that Bucio realized he'd been had.

Bucio first met Sosa last October when he was at Cafe Miami talking to one of Bucio's regular customers about a lucrative deal. In addition to serving up some mean black beans, Bucio prides himself in making the best espresso in Houston. Sosa, he says, loves coffee. It was through that caffeine connection that the two men became friends.

"He comes off as a white-collar type guy," says Bucio. "He's very decent. Very polite. Uses good English. Likes good cigars -- Cohibas -- nice drinks, and good wine. And good Italian food. And he likes to drive and talk big."

In particular, says Bucio, Sosa liked to talk about all the "downtown" people he knew, and about all the profitable deals involving seized cargo he was on the verge of making. Sosa related his deals as if they were stories, and every listener he told them to was a potential character in them, if they so chose.

Like everyone else, Bucio got a tour of the port from Sosa, who showed him all the items that were available at a discount. Bucio went for the tractors that he hoped to resale in Mexico.

Following the confrontation at his restaurant, Bucio knew something was wrong, particularly since he couldn't find Sosa after that evening. Bucio hired private investigator Ernest Medina to find Sosa. In tracking Sosa, Medina says, he came across multiple social security numbers, addresses and birth dates. Most of those pieces of information, he says, had some common denominator that could be traced back to Sosa. Based on his research, Medina formed an opinion about the man who landed in jail before he could track him down: Sosa appears to be an extremely skilled con man who has been scamming people for a long time.

The sheer number of people listed on the indictment against Sosa would appear to validate Medina's claim. One of those is Austrian-born Tony Fritsch, the former placekicker for the Cowboys and Oilers. Since his retirement from football, Fritsch has dabbled in numerous business ventures. He met Sosa last year through Peter Webber, an international car dealer, with whom Fritsch has done numerous deals. Webber had met Sosa at Mia Bella, and the two had discussed seized cars that could be had for next to nothing. Compared to Yanouri, Fritsch would appear to have gotten off lightly. He lost approximately $5,000, which supposedly was going toward the storage of 28 Mercedes-Benz S500s. Webber and Fritsch say they realized they'd been duped when Sosa disappeared a couple of months ago. When he learned recently that Sosa had been working as an informant for Customs, Fritsch was outraged.

"Somebody besides him needs to be held accountable for this," says Fritsch, who seems more concerned about the money lost by Yanouri. "This is just terrible for him."

The list of Sosa's alleged victims also includes Noel Roulin, a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from Belgium and the owner of CQS Inc., a Galleria-area corporation that conducts focus groups for companies that want to test products and services before putting them on the market. Roulin met Sosa through Yanouri's friend Ben Hadj (who owned the now-defunct restaurant Casablanca). Like Fritsch, Sosa interested Roulin in the Mercedes automobiles that were said to be stashed away in cargo containers at the port. In addition to the cars, Sosa told Roulin that sometimes there were items such as cowboy boots also stored in the containers.

"And I had ways of selling those sort of items to retail stores and whatnot, so I was very interested," says Roulin. "And if there were actually some Mercedes in there too, that would really be a hell of a deal."

Roulin remembers that on his visit to the port to see the container, Sosa talked with security guards at the main checkpoint and with other workers along the docks and in the warehouses as if they were all old friends.

 

On April 11, Roulin met with Sosa to give him a down payment of $13,090 -- in cash.

Roulin says Sosa called the next day to tell him everything was in order, that his bid had been approved by Customs. He never heard from him again. What's more, there was no longer a description of, or information about, Sosa's company on the Port Authority's Web site, as there had been when Roulin first began checking into Sosa and his operation. The company's phone number had also been disconnected. At about the same time, he heard from Hadj that Yanouri's shipment of goods had never arrived in Morocco. Hadj told him that Sosa must be some kind of a con artist. No kidding, thought Roulin.

Roulin wasted little time in making a call to the Port Authority. He stated why he was calling and that he'd like to be connected to the port's police department. Instead, he says, he was transferred to the port's legal division.

"And their statement, before I got to explain even much of anything," says Roulin, "was, 'He is not an employee of the Port of Houston, and we are not responsible.' They also told me there was no police department at the Port of Houston."

Indeed, ever since Sosa's arrest, Port Authority and Customs Service officials seem to have been in a cover-your-ass mode. In fact, Customs officials refuse to discuss Sosa or anything about him. They don't even concede that he is an informant. It's an interesting stance, to say the least, for an agency that proudly boasts a list of "core values" on its Web site. Those values include "Integrity: We know right from wrong and conduct our actions in a manner that will bring honor upon the agency," as well as "Accountability: We honestly assess our actions and take responsibility and the ownership for those actions and their consequences."

Port Authority officials are not much more forthcoming, although public affairs director Rosie Barrera does confirm that the Customs Service asked to rent space for the undercover operation in one of the port's warehouses.

"Rent was being paid [by Customs]; that was being done," says Barrera.

Barrera says the Port Authority became aware of the situation after several complaints were lodged with the port police by people who had done business with Sosa. The port's investigation indicated, she says, that these people had paid cash to Sosa after being shown pictures of seized cargo supposedly for sale. Barrera was surprised to learn that most of the people not only had seen pictures of the cargo, but had been given tours of the port by Sosa. (The Press also had no difficulty clearing the port's main security checkpoint to take photographs for this story.) She also was unaware that the Port Authority had listed Sosa's company, Coastal Logistics, on its Web site as a legitimate outfit doing business at the port. That's something the Port Authority will have to look into, says Barrera.

"We're not like the Better Business Bureau," says Barrera with regard to the Port Authority's ability, or effort, to verify a company's legitimacy. "In the event that there is litigation, I'm our sure our attorneys will certainly look into that matter." However, Barrera says the Port Authority will continue to cooperate with the Customs Service and its request for assistance in undercover operations.

Litigation against the Port Authority and the Customs Service is exactly what Yanouri and some of Sosa's other alleged victims are contemplating. Good luck, says defense attorney DeGuerin. He says that anyone who files a civil suit against a federal agency with the hope of reclaiming damages begins with the odds stacked against them.

"It would be a big fight," says DeGuerin, "because the Customs people are going to want to shove it under the rug. And if these folks have to sue, then the U.S. attorney's office will defend the agents for free and make it cost a lot of money for whoever is suing."

Despite the misgivings of a prestigious attorney, Robert Yanouri views a lawsuit against the Port Authority and Customs as one of the few options available to him to put his life back together. With his own finances in shambles, he doesn't have the funds to hire a high-powered attorney by himself, so he hopes he can convince some of the others allegedly swindled by Carlos Sosa to join with him in some sort of joint action against the government. Yanouri feels betrayed by Sosa, who is scheduled to go on trial this fall. But Yanouri truly believes that had it not been for the federal government, with assistance from the Port Authority, Sosa never would have been in a position to clean him out.

 

"They gave this guy the ammunition," says Yanouri. "If they hire informants, they should supervise their activities. He was working for them. They set him up with an office and a business. Everything fit. Everything looked right."

A lot of the former friends of Carlos Sosa couldn't agree more.


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