Miami-Dade County

He made big bucks off Ovaltine and fancy furniture. Was he ‘duped’ into dealing dirty gold?

Jeffrey Himmel and his wife, Patricia, left, are shown at Violetas with Patricia Kronfle.
Jeffrey Himmel and his wife, Patricia, left, are shown at Violetas with Patricia Kronfle. Special for El Nuevo Herald

Walk into Violetas, a boutique home décor store in Coral Gables’ premier shopping district, and the only gold in sight is in the glittering jewelry and Christofle flatware.

There’s no sign of another lucrative business, MVP Imports, which shared an address on the Miracle Mile with Violetas and was used to import roughly $337 million worth of illegally mined Latin American gold, according to federal prosecutors. MVP flew the gold through Miami International Airport, then sold it to NTR Metals, a Doral-based company at the center of the largest money-laundering case involving precious metals in U.S. history, prosecutors said.

READ MORE: Dirty gold, clean cash: A Miami Herald investigation

Now, Jeffrey Himmel — a millionaire 63-year-old New York transplant who owns both Violetas and MVP Imports — finds himself in the middle of an ongoing federal investigation.

The case involving NTR is uncovering the little-known role played by Miami, the nation’s hub for imported gold, in smuggling schemes — and shows how peripheral players in the gold industry like Himmel can be drawn into the web of international organized crime.

Himmel, who made a tidy fortune revitalizing castoff products like Bromo Seltzer, Ovaltine and Gold Bond medicated powder, says he was an unwitting victim of three NTR Metals traders. The trio pleaded guilty last fall to buying $3.6 billion worth of gold from drug traffickers and other criminals in Latin America. MVP is mentioned in a criminal complaint against the NTR traders as a front, or intermediary, company used to hide their wrongdoing. In court documents, prosecutors have not alleged that Himmel knew about the scheme.

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A view of Violetas Home Design, located at 223 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables, on Aug. 21, 2017. A business registered at the same address, MVP Imports, bought hundreds of millions of dollars of gold for South Florida precious-metals traders who were arrested for money laundering. Roberto Koltun rkoltun@miamiherald.com

He is cooperating with authorities by providing information about NTR, MVP and the wider gold industry.

“I didn’t see the sharks swimming under the surface but, apparently, they were there,” Himmel said in a statement provided by his lawyers. “A lifetime in business without a blemish, obviously I feel betrayed. I’m kicking myself for allowing myself to be deceived. I will do everything I can to help the government deliver justice to this miserable episode.”

The fig leaf

On paper, MVP, which was registered to Himmel and listed an address at Violetas, 223A Miracle Mile, bought gold in Ecuador, shipped it to Miami and sold it to NTR.

In reality, MVP was a fig leaf, according to a criminal complaint.

“Although NTR was the ultimate purchaser of the gold, MVP Imports was the ‘importer of record’ on U.S. Customs declarations, masking NTR’s role as the ultimate purchaser on the U.S. Customs import records,” the complaint states.

NTR needed Himmel’s company because of an earlier scandal involving illegally mined gold in Peru.

In late 2013, Peruvian authorities seized a shipment of gold that NTR bought from an alleged money launderer for drug cartels. After that bust, the firm’s traders couldn’t risk buying any more large quantities of gold from Peru in case the deals drew the attention of foreign and U.S. law enforcement. So, prosecutors said, NTR smuggled Peruvian gold to Ecuador and other South American countries for export to the United States.

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Federal prosecutors say an import-export company that shared an address with Violetas, a home décor store on Miracle Mile, purchased $337 million of illegal gold from Ecuador. Now, Jeffrey Himmel, the owner of both companies, says he was duped by associates and did not know the gold had been mined illegally. Roberto Koltun rkoltun@miamiherald.com

They needed an extra layer of separation: a company that could put its name on the transactions instead of NTR.

That’s when MVP began shipping huge amounts of gold from Ecuador to NTR’s office in Doral.

In 2014, MVP helped NTR triple its gold imports from Ecuador, including buying $128 million in gold from Spartan del Ecuador, an exporter implicated in a separate money-laundering scheme in that country, the criminal complaint said.

The complaint identifies only Himmel’s business, not Himmel himself. Violetas, which opened in 2011, is also not mentioned by name. Himmel started MVP in 2013. The business was dissolved in September 2017 — six months after the NTR employees were arrested and indicted by a federal grand jury in Miami.

Himmel’s Miami attorneys — Daniel Fridman, Michael E. Garcia and Dan Gelber — said the businessman was duped by the NTR dealers and others associated with the purchase of the gold in Ecuador. The lawyers said MVP did not collaborate with NTR to cover up the gold deals.

“Mr. Himmel wants to be clear that the first time he learned that the gold MVP had been purchasing in Ecuador was potentially connected to illegal activity was when he read the government’s criminal complaint against the former employees of NTR Metals,” his lawyers said in a statement to the Miami Herald.

Losing their luster

Himmel, who owns a $6.4 million waterfront mansion on Miami Beach’s Palm Island called the “House of Sun and Sea,” got rich decades before getting into gold trading.

A graduate of the prestigious Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Himmel joined his father’s business in 1983 revitalizing over-the-counter products that had lost their luster like Doan’s backache pills, Lavoris mouthwash and Breck shampoo.

Fortune once called him a “scavenger entrepreneur.”

Himmel said in recent years he grew interested in pursuing business opportunities in Ecuador, where his wife, Patricia, has family and the couple planned to retire.

“I was excited to finally have a business in Ecuador that would allow me to spend more time there with my family and at my home there,” he said in the statement.

In an interview, Himmel’s attorneys said an associate introduced him to NTR employees in Ecuador in 2013, several months after he incorporated MVP Imports in Florida. The goal of the meeting was for Himmel to develop a business relationship with NTR. Himmel’s lawyers declined to identify the associate, citing the pending federal investigation.

Himmel’s lawyers said he was not directly involved in buying the gold in Ecuador and that others purchased it on behalf of MVP Imports.

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NTR Metals in Doral shut down after federal prosecutors charged its traders with laundering $3.6 billion in dirty gold from Latin America. Jay Weaver Miami Herald

Himmel’s company began buying gold in Ecuador and importing it to the United States in August 2013, according to his lawyers. Then MVP sold the gold shipments to NTR in Miami “at a modest markup to cover the costs of transportation, logistics, insurance, and a profit,” his lawyers said.

According to sources familiar with the federal probe, Himmel dealt mainly with Renato Rodriguez, who was in charge of NTR’s Ecuador territory. Rodriguez’s fellow NTR dealers, Juan Granda and Samer Barrage, were based in Peru and Colombia. Himmel also came to know them, as well as senior executives in NTR’s parent company, Dallas-based Elemetal. Elemetal is also under investigation, sources with knowledge of the case say.

Rodriguez’s defense attorney, Sabrina Puglisi, declined to comment. According to his plea agreement for money laundering, Rodriguez is cooperating with prosecutors. So are Granda and Barrage.

Himmel’s attorneys say his motives for trading Ecuadorian gold went beyond profit. The financial venture became a “personal passion,” they said. The businessman developed a project called Ecosolami to clean up mining waste discharged into rivers by processing plants.

For Himmel, the federal investigation has already led to fallout: Two weeks after the NTR traders were indicted, he resigned as chairman-elect of the American Diabetes Association.

In the Colombian rainforest, outlaw gold mines are poisoning workers and the environment. Police venture deep into the jungle to destroy them with explosives.

Nicholas Nehamas: 305-376-3745, @NickNehamas

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