THE FAKE HEIRESS OF BEVERLY HILLS and the girl she duped
How did a wholesome, small-town girl become an unwitting pawn to a delusional criminal? HELEN ALEXANDER unravels a tale of Hollywood dreams gone horribly wrong…
‘PUT YOUR HANDS in the air and get out of the vehicle.’ The cry rang out across the deserted Ohio runway. But even as Lisette Lee stepped out to face a phalanx of armed o cers, she looked every inch the heiress. Following closely behind her was her friend and assistant, Meili Cady. The pair were cu ed, while a dog sni ed through their luggage. When the dog found its target – 2 0kg of marijuana smuggled in from LA on the private jet still idling on the tarmac behind them – the women were led to a police car.
In 2009, the friendship took a new turn when Lisette hooked up with a street-level drug dealer called David Garrett. She told Meili that she needed her to accompany her on a private plane as her assistant. For Meili, the job and the money was a godsend. She would be paid $1 500 (about R18 000) a trip, said Lisette. Meili assumed the job was related to Lisette’s father’s casino business. ‘I wasn’t doing it to buy a Mercedes,’ she says. ‘I just wanted to pay my phone bill.’
On her second smuggling trip, after glimpsing cash in one of the suitcases, Meili realised that the trips weren’t as innocent as they seemed. But, she says, ‘I embraced the feeling of being part of something daring.’ On one trip, when she smelled marijuana wafting through the private jet, Meili realised what they were smuggling. Her hands shook as it dawned on her: ‘Oh God, I’m a drug tra cker.’
‘I saw no way of backing out. I didn’t imagine I’d have the team’s blessing if I’d tried to politely excuse myself from the operation and assure them their secret was safe.’ Besides, Lisette had talked of a hitman and Meili was scared to think about what her friend was capable of. ‘Before I knew it, I was lying to every person in my life,’ she says. Then their worlds fell apart.
The day before the bust, Meili and Lisette blazed through a typical night, snorting two grams of cocaine between them. On the jet Meili felt nauseous, but worse was to come. Agents at the airport had a tip-o that somebody could be bringing in drugs. When they saw Lisette, Meili and two men struggling with 13 heavy suitcases, the agents gured the women were either models – or that they’d found their smugglers. They swooped just as the convoy was approaching the airport exit. Meili faced a possible 40-year jail sentence, but with a skilful lawyer, 20 character references and a willingness to share all she knew, she was sentenced to one month in prison, a year of house arrest and three years’ probation. Her parents paid for the lawyer.
Today, while still devastated about the hurt she caused her family, she feels she’s paid her dues. ‘It was a huge lesson in life that you have to be responsible for your own decisions,’ she says. ‘Lisette is very persuasive. However, she did not force me into anything. No one had a gun to my head.’ Lisette, meanwhile, plea-bargained her sentence down to six years. Still in prison, she has disputed Meili’s version of events and insists that she was a victim, too. David threatened her until she co-operated, she has claimed, adding that her upbringing as an heiress did not equip her to handle the situation.
In a statement to the press, Samsung insists Lisette ‘is not an heiress’ of the company. Lisette was born out of wedlock to Corine Lee, daughter of the late Samsung founder. Lisette’s father is Yoshi Morita, a Japanese casino mogul. Lisette’s mother’s family disapproved of the union and sent her to live with family friends in Los Angeles. E ectively, she was banished to a life of feckless debauchery: her family had continued to send her money.
As for Meili, she says that her life has taken a good turn. She wants to continue writing, has joined a new acting agency and is auditioning again. She has not spoken to Lisette since they were arrested. And yet she still admits to a hint of nostalgia. ‘I dream Lisette and I are friends again,’ she says. ‘I think some damaged part of me misses her.’
Even then, Lisette refused to give up the lies and the pretence. ‘This is humiliating,’ she told bemused o cers. ‘I don’t know what my family is going to do when they nd out. You know Samsung That’s my family.’
That night, in June 2010, the two women – Meili, a real-estate agent’s daughter, and Lisette, a charismatic woman who described herself as the ‘Korean Paris Hilton’ – were arrested for their part in a drugsmuggling operation. Today, Lisette remains in prison, while Meili has written a book about their story.
Meili’s story is as old as Hollywood: small-town girl moves to Tinseltown to make it big. A year later, she was broke. But mostly she was lonely: ‘I felt the absence of any close friendships in my new city. I was at my most vulnerable when I met Lisette.’
Lisette Lee was 24, but claimed to be older, when Meili met her through a friend in 2006. Lisette was, Meili recalls, ‘one of the most charming people I’ve ever met’. Lisette claimed that her mother was a member of the family that controls the Korean electronics giant Samsung, and that her Japanese father ran casinos. Meili was mesmerised and within weeks, their bond was set in concrete. ‘We never stopped talking. It was like a girlie childhood sleepover, only with a lot more vodka.’ And, eventually, cocaine, which Lisette insisted would help Meili lose weight. ‘I’d been a “good girl” my entire life and it had never gotten me very far,’ says Meili. ‘It felt good to be a little bad for once.’
But Lisette’s behaviour became more erratic: one day she’d treat Meili like a cherished best friend, the next she’d ignore calls and texts. ‘Looking back, I can see she was a sociopath,’ Meili says now. ‘But at the time I was captivated by her.’
Lisette and Meili when
they were BFFs; Meili today, posing
for selfies; Lisette Lee after
her arrest CLOCKWISE FROM RIGHT