The former USC football player turned alleged drug kingpin who we profiled last month is facing a potential sentence of 20 years to life
In December, VICE Sports published a story about a former USC football and volleyball player, Owen Hanson, who became an unlikely drug and gambling kingpin. Hanson's case was so full of twists and weirdo characters that his former attorney said in court that "It sounds like a good crime novel."
At the time of publication, Hanson had recently been denied a second shot at bond, and was preparing for a Valentine's Day trial from inside San Diego's Metropolitan Correctional Center. However, in late December, he entered a change of plea motion, signaling the beginning of the end of a conspiracy case that began in 2011 with the discovery of a mysterious suitcase filled with $702,000 at a hotel in Sydney, Australia, led to an extensive undercover operation by the FBI, ensnared a surreal cast of co-defendants, victims and hangers-on, and culminated with Hanson's arrest at a country club in Carlsbad, California in September of 2015.
On Tuesday, Hanson pleaded guilty to racketeering and drug trafficking charges in a federal court in San Diego. The guilty pleas come with a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years, and a fine of up to $20 million.
The deal he got will leave Hanson with at least a two-decades long sentence. The exact number of years will be decided by a judge at a hearing in March. The time he actually serves will depend on factors like his behavior in prison.
But because this case is never anything but complicated, even that might be changing soon. Hanson wrote me an email this morning to say he had been a victim of a "bait-and-switch."
"The new plea they made me sign in court yesterday will not stand, they added a mandatory minimum I never agreed to—and was pressured to sign it without reviewing with my family," Hanson wrote. "It was a travesty of justice, protocol and trust."
"I have contacted my lawyer and am expecting to go in and withdraw it (due to the changes they made last minute) keep you posted," he also said.
The U.S. Attorney's office in San Diego declined to comment on this. Hanson's attorney, Mark F. Adams, also declined to comment on the record.
In Tuesday's hearing, assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Young also revealed that Hanson admitted to selling anabolic steroids and HGH to multiple professional athletes. (He did not say which athletes.) The plea agreement refers to other specific drug allegations, including trafficking more than 250 kilograms of cocaine out of Los Angeles.
Hanson, who once told me he ran his operation like a Fortune 500 company—something his sportsbook clients confirmed—was undone in part by a vendetta he had against a gambler named RJ Cipriani, who is also known as Robin Hood 702. Cipriani and Hanson had a convoluted relationship. The short version (my story from December tells the more detailed version) is that Hanson gave Cipriani $2.5 million to launder and Cipriani lost it at the blackjack tables, possibly intentionally. Cipriani says he did not know he was being used to launder money. Hanson says Cipriani was a willing a conspirator.
Hanson wanted his money back and went to extreme lengths to get it—allegedly sending a DVD of a beheading to Cipriani and his wife, and also paying somebody to desecrate Cipriani's parents' grave in Philadelphia with fake blood.
"I was ecstatic to hear about Owen Hanson's plea deal," Cipriani told me on Tuesday. "A violent criminal drug dealer is off the street for at least two decades. He should have gotten another decade for fucking with my mother's grave."
Cipriani and his wife Greice Santo are also shopping the story around Hollywood, he told me. He says they've already talked to Brian Grazer and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Meanwhile, the man who threw red paint on Cipriani's mother's grave, 70-year-old private investigator Danno Portley-Hanks, pleaded guilty last month to a single count of racketeering. He could face up to 30 months in prison.
When we spoke before he reached his deal, Danno told me he wasn't sure he could survive prison. But when I spoke with him last week, he sounded at least a little bit more optimistic.
"I pled to the one count I actually did—going out there and creating that photo," Danno told me.
He was referring to what might be the most absurd aspect of this case, which is saying something. In 2012, Hanson allegedly paid Danno $7,000 in increments to help him put together a threatening photo to send to Cipriani. First Hanson asked Danno to visit Cipriani's parents' grave in Philadelphia and take a photo. Then he asked him to throw fake blood on the headstone and photograph it that way . Finally, Danno says he was asked to take a photograph of Hanson dressed in a lucha libre mask and holding a shovel at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. Danno photoshopped Hanson into the photo of Cipriani's parents' desecrated headstone. Hanson then allegedly sent the photo to Cipriani.
While he waits for his trial date, Danno is enlisting friends, associates, and clients in a letter writing campaign on his behalf. So far, more than a dozen people have written letters. He also hopes that the work he has done as an informant for the FBI since the 1980s goes at least some way toward engendering sympathy from the sentencing judge.
On Tuesday, three other co-defendants in the Hanson case also pleaded guilty, making it 16 of 22 people charged in the case who have avoided trial. Federal criminal cases rarely go to trial, so it is likely that more defendants will plead before February 14.
The last time I saw Hanson, in late November, he told me he was looking forward to finally getting some resolution in his case. He may have signed his messages to me from prison with the USC motto "Fight On!" but he was also thinking practically about the possibility of serving time—how he would want to serve it and where. He was excited to move onto a federal facility with work and education programs, and away from MCC, which is more of a waystation for people awaiting trial and sentencing. He talked about getting his master's degree.
After he filed his change of plea motion last month, Hanson wrote me from prison to say, "there is no good deal." The tone of that email differed from our usual email exchanges when Hanson seemed more upbeat and optimistic. It appears that despite appearing to reach a plea agreement on Tuesday, Hanson still doesn't think there's a good deal.
Update (1/17/17): According to a San Diego Union-Tribune report, Owen Hanson confirmed to a judge Tuesday that he would in fact stand by the guilty plea he signed last week.
"In anger, frustration, and fear, I lashed out," Hanson reportedly told Judge Mitchell Dembin.
The judge reportedly suggested that Hanson direct future comments to his lawyer.