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Falasiri, set to plead guilty, changes mind when faced with jail

STORY BY EILEEN KELLEY, (Week of March 29, 2012)
Photo of Jafar Falasiri.

The setting Monday in a Fort Pierce federal courtroom was not typical for a defendant facing a seven-figure fine and the possibility of spending the rest of his life behind bars.

Jafar Falasiri, 62, a prominent Vero businessman and highly regarded philanthropist, casually chatted with his wife and lawyer about the new federal court house, traffic and car accidents as if they were strangers sitting abreast on an airport tarmac.

If there was any nervousness in the moments leading up to what was supposed to be Falasiri pleading guilty to U.S. charges of illegally importing more than 200 Iranian rugs and at least six pounds of opium into the U.S., he did an exceptional job or hiding it.

That was until U.S. Magistrate Judge Frank Lynch spoke of immediately incarcerating Falasiri until his sentencing.

With that, Falasiri bowed his head.  His wife inched closer on the edge of the wooded bench.  The attorneys – both prosecutors and the defense  – were clearly caught off guard.

“That’s a significant departure,” Falasiri’s attorney Gregory Eisenmenger told Lynch.

Lynch, who oversees some of the duties for U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez of Miami in the case,  reiterated that Martinez was not one to show discretion when it came to putting those up on federal drug charges behind bars until sentencing, generally a four- to six-week period after a conviction or a guilty plea.

Eisenmenger apologized, saying he was unprepared to discuss case law or even argue as to why discretion should be shown in the case of his client.

 With that, the hearing was over with no clear outcome nearly eight months after Falasiri was hauled off in handcuffs when federal agents raided Falasiri Oriental Rugs on U.S. 1 last July.

Falasiri continued to bow his head as he rode down in an elevator.  His attorney, however, was willing to speak later.

“The judge threw us a curve today,”  Eisenmenger said.

For months, Falasiri has been working with federal prosecutors to reach a plea agreement in the case to avoid going to trial. Many of the documents filed in December have been sealed from the public view.

Now, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen. “We need to explore all of our options at this point,”  Eisenmenger said.   He added that he was grateful Lynch mentioned the mandatory jail time before his client pleaded guilty.

Falasiri was incarcerated  for close to a month after his July arrest.  His wife Barbara Banister pledged $1 million in real estate and put up a nominal cash bond later in July to get him out of jail.

Since then, Falasiri has had to surrender his passport and submit to regular drug testing. His movements have also been monitored by an electronic monitoring bracelet that he must wear around his ankle.  

A bid to have the monitor removed because it impeded his ability to swim was previously denied.

In spite of the unexpected glitch this week,  Eisenmenger said he still hopes to hammer out a deal with prosecutor Russell Killinger that could allow Falasiri to remain free until sentencing.

Eisenmenger said those conditions were what his client and the federal prosecutors agreed to recently.

“It is my goal and I hope that we can get back to that posture. How do we achieve that? I’m not sure right now,” he said.

Falasiri was born in Iran and became a naturalized US citizen in 2001.  He has been living in Brevard County since 1978.  In Brevard, records indicate Falasiri owns two high-end waterfront condos; four other parcels of land and a Cocoa Beach home. He recently sold off vacant commercial land for $125,000 with the court’s blessings because of the bond agreement.

His Vero rug business was incorporated in 1986. It’s considered a mecca for many islanders seeking expensive, hand-woven Middle Eastern rugs. 

Last year, Falasiri received the Laurel award from the Indian River Cultural Council for his various philanthropic fundraising efforts.

His life began to unravel a year ago when an employee of the company reported him to authorities and detailed illegal activities at the rug store.

Court records say that last January, Falasiri cut into the binding of a 10- by 14-foot Persian rug just after it arrived at his warehouse from Turkey, pulled out a bag of opium and began smoking it.  The employee said that Persian rugs were hidden inside the Turkish rugs. 

Under an Iran trade embargo, it is now unlawful to import such rugs into the U.S.

Federal investigators believe the Iranian rugs were sent intentionally through Turkey in an attempt to throw off authorities.

In June, investigators learned another shipment from Istanbul was headed to Falasiri. 

This time, a federal agent acting in an undercover capacity delivered the bundles of rugs to the store.

Records say investigators discovered 86 bar-shape packages of drugs woven into the rugs and also found a backpack with 34 packages of drugs.

Falasiri was originally arrested only on the drug charges. 

Eisenmenger said his client had no intention of dealing the opium and that the drug was for his own personal use.

As charges now stand, Falasiri faces 25 years and or $1.25 million in fines.