The Gangster Princess of Beverly Hills

Heiress, actress, singer, model - Lisette Lee wanted everyone to think she had it all, but beneath the bling were secrets, lies and private jets filled with weed

August 31, 2012 8:00 AM ET
gangster heiress
Illustration by Sean McCabe

"What's going on here? I'm a model," Lisette Lee shouted, flinging open the door of her Escalade and assuming her most indignant expression. Her Chanel heels clicked on the tarmac, police lights flashed and sirens blared, as she faced down federal agents swarming in with guns drawn. Behind Lee, the two other cars in her convoy – a van and a Suburban – had also halted, its passengers emerging with their hands in the air.

The agents who had been waiting for her at the Columbus, Ohio, airport regarded Lee with wariness and curiosity, taking in her expensive-tart look – false lashes, lavender eye shadow, tight black pants, lace-trimmed fuchsia satin camisole – and impeious demeanor, all befitting a woman who had just arrived from Los Angeles via a Gulfstream jet now idling in the twilight.

There was also the Hollywood-worthy entourage: a six-foot-nine, 300-pound bodyguard; and two personal assistants, one a 24-year-old woman in a prim blouse and pencil skirt, the other a tall, dark-haired man in a sports jacket whom agents had earlier watched press a lingering kiss on Lee's pouty lips.

From the moment they touched down minutes ago, the group had been in motion, hurrying down the jetway to unload their cargo: 13 huge suitcases so heavy that the two men had struggled to carry them, even the big guy. When confronted by the agents, Lee impatiently explained that she was bringing supplies to a horse farm. Before the night was over she would amend her story, confessing she'd been given $60,000 in expenses for the trip, and while she didn't know what she was transporting in those suitcases, she blithely figured it had to do with "weapons and money laundering or something."

Lee would go on to tell federal authorities a lot of things about herself: that she was a famous Korean pop star as well as the heiress to the Samsung electronics fortune; she was so emphatic on this last point that on police paperwork agents listed "heiress" as her occupation. Back at home in L.A., Lee called herself the "Korean Paris Hilton" and played the part of the spoiled socialite, with two Bentleys, a purse-size lap dog and, especially, her commanding, petulant personality that kept her posse of sycophants in check. It was as though Lisette Lee had studied some Beverly Hills heiress's handbook: how to dress, how to behave, how to run hot and cold to keep people in her thrall – in short, how to be a modern celebrity. But all of that would begin to unravel – amid the crowd and confusion on the Columbus tarmac that June 2010 evening – once a drug-sniffing German shepherd padded over to the van and sat down, signaling a hit.

Agents threw open the van doors. Inside the suitcases were more than 500 pounds of marijuana in shrink-wrapped bricks. In Lee's crocodile purse were three cellphones, $6,500 in cash, a baggie of cocaine and a hotel notepad scrawled with weights and purchase prices totaling $300,000: a drug ledger.

The Drug Enforcement Administration would ultimately uncover the scope of Lee's trafficking operation, estimating that in just eight months she and six co-conspirators moved 7,000 pounds of weed from California to Ohio, pocketing $3 million in profits. Incredibly, they'd pulled it off in plain sight. "It was all pretty elaborate," says Tony Marotta, DEA assistant special agent in charge of Ohio, amazed at the plot's brazenness. "Look at the way she did it – she came in here like a queen! It's like there was something romantic about it in her mind. The whole thing is bizarre." The most baffling part, however, was the mysterious figure standing at this nexus of glamour, thugs and drugs. When later that night one of the DEA agents informed her that she was under arrest, Lee looked dumbfounded.

"But what will I wear in jail?" she asked.

It had all begun so innocently four years earlier, in 2006, with two young women on a giddy blind girl-date. Twenty-year-old Meili Cady had only just met the young woman whose opulent $1.2 million West Hollywood apartment she was now sitting in, sipping vodka while snuggled into the cream-colored couch, but it was already clear their friendship was written in the stars. At least, that's what Lee was telling her.

"You're everything Alex told me and so much more," Lee said. "I just know we're going to be best friends."

Cady gazed fondly back at Lee, who looked every inch the haughty heiress she expected – in purplish contacts, eyebrows waxed to tapered arches and a mole penciled onto one flawless cheek. They'd been introduced by a mutual acquaintance who'd told Cady that his longtime friend Lee was bored of the rich, jaded brats with whom she typically kept company, and was seeking "a breath of fresh air."

Cady was an aspiring actress fresh from the small town of Bremerton, Washington – a pretty, friendly and goofy oversharer. "He thought it could be a yin-and-yang friendship," she says. At first Cady was skeptical; she'd seen Lee's MySpace page, decorated with luxury cars, jewels and unsmiling headshots, and figured they had little in common. But Cady was lonely. Since moving to L.A. a year earlier, she'd encountered little but the pain of fruitless auditions. She agreed to see Lee.

When they met that day, Cady was relieved. Lee, in a form-fitting velour sweatsuit, greeted her with a hug. The girls spent the afternoon browsing funky shops along Melrose and instantly opened up to each other. Speaking with rapid-fire confidence, Lee told Cady all about her much older live-in boyfriend, Christian Navarro, a dashing wine entrepreneur nicknamed "the sommelier to the stars," who curated the cellars of Hollywood celebrities. Lee said she was an heiress to Samsung on her mother's side, and that her father, whose family founded Sony, had made a fortune in casinos. Lee's pedigree didn't stop there. She said she'd gone to Harvard, where there were statues in her family's honor, and attended a London finishing school. Before that, she'd been enrolled at the tony L.A. prep school Buckley, where Lee and her mean-girl friends – "my army of skanks," she called them – had taunted schoolmate Paris Hilton, who'd begged for her friendship. But mostly she talked about how she had grown disgusted with her glamorous life stocked with privileged phonies, like that "fat Armenian" Kim Kardashian.

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