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The Gangster Princess of Beverly Hills

Page 4 of 6

When the truth finally dawned on Cady, around the fourth trip, she panicked: "That's definitely illegal, that's moving drugs! I was a drug trafficker and I had just gotten the news." But she worried she was in too deep to back out. And she was too fearful to discuss the matter with Lee, who had taken a dark turn. On their flights she'd swig Bombay gin from the bottle, sometimes emptying half a liter by the time they landed. She would fire her employees on a whim so they could prove their loyalty by begging for their jobs back. Everyone was on edge, bracing for Lee to berate them. "She treated people like dogs," remembers Garrett. More ominous were her threats. "I'm gonna bury you," she'd warn anyone who pissed her off. Lee talked about having a hit man on speed dial, of hiring private investigators, tapping everyone's phones, and putting Garrett's condo under video surveillance.

Around the 11th trip, in April 2010, Garrett was through with Team LL. "We had a bad breakup, but it wasn't personal, more of a falling out on a professional level," he says. "It was a trust issue." Garrett regretted being involved with amateurs. He bailed from the scheme, as did Young Ko. Despite Garrett's departure, however, Lee was determined to continue. She immediately recruited a man she introduced to Team LL as her assistant of six years, "Richard," who joined them on two trips – and, perhaps not coincidentally, also signed on as Lee's newest boyfriend. Second-string lover Hernandez, finding himself unceremoniously dumped, sat in the back of the plane, looking miserably out the window.

In reality, "Richard" was Christopher Cash, a 32-year-old jet broker who'd arranged some of their flights and, having deciphered what they were doing, agreed to join them. He'd actually known Lee for five months. "She had told each one of us to lie about how we knew her," says Cady, who, following instructions, had been telling everyone that she and Lee were childhood friends.

By this time, Cady knew that Lee wasn't everything she seemed. Back in L.A., a close friend of Cady's who'd grown up wealthy was introduced to Lee at a dinner – one of the rare times Lee met anyone from Cady's world – and told Cady she had doubts whether Lee was really an heiress. "She looks cheap. Her Chanel necklace looks fake. She has no social graces," the friend told Cady. Not long afterward, in Lee's new condo at the Remington, one of the Wilshire Corridor's poshest buildings, Lee showed Cady two new paintings she'd acquired, explaining at length that they were gifts from her mother, and that the artist was a family friend in Paris. Cady was suitably impressed. The following week, Cady saw both pictures for sale at Bed Bath & Beyond.

Cady chose to say nothing. "I loved her, I couldn't believe it was all fake," she remembers. There was another reason Cady remained in denial. If she admitted that Lee was a liar, she explains, "That would open up too many possibilities, like, 'Am I in danger?'" When it came time for another trip, Cady tried to find an excuse to stay behind, but Lee shamed her into going, saying, "I went out on a limb to hire you. If you fuck this up, then good luck to you in life!" Wrung out after all of Lee's emotional beat downs, Cady couldn't see a way out.

Finally, on June 14th, 2010, while the Gulfstream departed Van Nuys for Columbus with its four passengers – Lee, "personal assistant" Cady, boyfriend Cash and bodyguard Edwards – the DEA in Ohio was fielding a call about the highly suspicious flight. Turns out, Lee didn't realize that she had been assigned the same pilots more than once, and she'd given the same fishy stories to explain the trips. Airport personnel took note that it was the second or third time she claimed to be moving to Columbus from L.A., as well as of the surprising volume and weight of the baggage. By the time the plane landed in Columbus, agents were waiting. And as a DEA agent snapped the cuffs behind Lee's back, her arrogant expression crumpled into one of defeat.

Lee's real story, which emerged in court, turned out to be, if anything, even stranger and harder to believe than the version she had been telling in L.A., a soap-opera-worthy biography that began with a tale of forbidden love. Lisette was born out of wedlock in Seoul in 1981, with the name Ji Yeun Lee. Family members testified through an interpreter that her mother, Corine Lee, was a daughter of the late Samsung founder, Byung-Chul Lee, making her a member of one of Korea's richest and most reticent families. Her father's background, however, wasn't so illustrious. Yoshi Morita was a casino mogul; one of Lisette's relatives described him as a "gangster" before clarifying that in Asia, people in the casino business are often referred to this way and Morita is simply a businessman. Complicating matters further, Morita was Japanese, and owing to Korean cultural norms that condemn interracial relationships, marriage wasn't an option for the couple. The baby's very existence would be a stain on the name of the prominent Lees. Lisette was informally adopted by Morita's close friend Bum Geol Lee, a sixth-degree black belt known as "Master Lee," whom Morita had met while they were in martial-arts training together. "He had to look for a friend to take care of his family," Master Lee explained to the court.

Master Lee and his wife, Lauren, took the child to live with them in the States, where Master Lee took up work in Beverly Hills as a private tae kwon do instructor for film-industry clients, and Lauren was a stay-at-home mom. As Lisette grew, Master Lee sent her not to the costly L.A. private schools she had claimed, but to the local public school, Hawthorne Elementary. After her eighth-grade year, says Lisette from prison in Northern California, he was loath to send her to Beverly High, worrying about drug use there. Instead, seeking to shield Lisette from the corrupting influence of the outside world, he enrolled her in Laurel Springs, a home-schooling program that provides online courses and private tutors for child stars like Hayden Panettiere and Kristen Stewart.

Through it all, Lisette's biological parents remained in the picture, lavishly funding a life of excess. Lisette milked the arrangement for all it was worth: "If I couldn't get something from Master Lee and Lauren, I would run to my mom and dad." Lisette said Morita supported her with cash payments of as much as $100,000 a month – a figure so astronomical that during a court hearing, discussion erupted over whether it could be a typo. Master Lee would claim the number was closer to $50,000 annually. Lisette says she traveled the globe as a teen with her family and was spoiled by her birth father, who for her 16th birthday bought her a Mercedes convertible and a Ferrari 360 Modena Spider. Master Lee didn't approve. "He really thought that was unnecessary," Lisette remembers. Morita's ostentation was undermining the humbler values of Master Lee, whom Lisette describes as virtuous. "Master Lee and my father are yin and yang. My father's the dark one, Master Lee's the light," she says. And as Lisette matured, the two men clashed. Master Lee testified that he threatened he'd only continue caring for Lisette if Morita left the picture altogether. "I was always worried about her," Lee testified. "That's why I just wanted her to have one father and one father only. That's why I told him to stop contacting her."

Lisette Lee, caught in a tug of war between her fathers, had been resolving her daddy issues the same way she'd been handling her love life: She was seeing one behind the other's back. And she was trapped in a classic rich-kid existential crisis. Swaddled with too much money, she was not spending her days in Samsung boardrooms, as she'd led others to believe. She was doing nothing. "I was overdosed on my options," she remembers matter-of-factly. She says she'd taken a stab at modeling and singing in Korea, but didn't find either "challenging." As a teen, she'd dreamed of being an actor. Now she wasn't sure what she wanted. "Christian used to tell me, 'Don't be another trust-fund casualty.' It's like an internal war with yourself, like, 'Do I really need to get up out of bed today?'" She filled the void with "a lot of purposeless socializing. No direction, really."

The portrait of Lisette that emerged in court was that of a nonstop identity crisis, as she'd morphed from Ji Yeun to Diana to Chantel to Lisette. Faced with choosing her true paternity, deciding between the shadowy Morita versus the sunny Master Lee, Lisette at last resolved her identity struggle – by turning to drug trafficking. If she was truly a "gangster's" daughter, then so be it. Lisette had taken charge of her own destiny by becoming the authentic mafia princess she believed she was born to be. But at the same time, curiously, it appeared Lisette was also making moves to start a legitimate career. In a search of her apartment, the feds had found a Samsung press release announcing a VIP-only event starring "third-generation heiress, Ms. Lisette Lee Morita." It was dated the day before her final drug run. Maybe Lisette was preparing to climb back onto the straight and narrow by stepping into the other role tailor-made for her, and assume the crown of Samsung royalty.

In June 2011, Lisette Lee faced a Columbus federal judge, having finally thrown in the towel with a guilty plea. "I believe, Ms. Lee, that you were naive," said Judge Algenon Marbley. He revealed that her psychological evaluation had described her as having a significant "narcissistic dimension," which had underscored her crimes. "You knew it was wrong, but there was a certain fascination," the judge mused. "It almost appears that you believed that you were playing a role." He sentenced her to six years.

There was just one more wrinkle. As word of the Samsung-heiress-turned-drug-trafficker splashed across newspapers around the world, the Samsung corporation had something to say on the matter. They denounced the press release found in Lee's apartment as a forgery. Lee never worked for Samsung; on the witness stand, even her own family denied she was an employee. And Samsung dropped another bombshell, via a statement: "Lisette Lee is not an heiress of Samsung and is not a member of Samsung's Lee family."

Of all the striking things about meeting Lee, the greatest surprise is the thick, affected British accent she's using today. "This whole 'I was trying to create an identity' – I don't know who in their right mind wants to create an identity as a drug traaahnsport mule," she says, as she recalls the courtroom strategy presented by her lawyers, who she tells me were "bumblefuck incompetents." "So let's nix that."

At federal prison in Dublin, California, wearing regulation blues that match her colored contact lenses, Lisette Lee would like to set a thing or two straight. But getting a straight answer out of Lee is difficult. Leaning forward in her chair, her heavily made-up eyes staring unwaveringly into my own, she's a slippery talker with a gift for open-ended answers, lending themselves to misinterpretation in ways that burnish her mythology. Like when she's sifting through a stack of photos she's brought as proof of her modeling career – speaking vaguely of "fashion houses," a "campaign" and an "ad-vert-isment" for a Korean cosmetics company – and I interrupt to ask about one picture.

"That was actually for a promo," Lee says.

A promo for ...

We look at each other for a beat.

"You know, a promo for – my portfolio." She looks momentarily deflated.

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