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Originally published Friday, October 26, 2012 at 11:48 AM

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Medical bill led authorities to Mastros, official says

U.S. law-enforcement officials didn’t pinpoint where Michael and Linda Mastro were hiding until recently, U.S. Marshal says.

Seattle Times business reporter

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Fugitives Michael R. and Linda Mastro evaded law-enforcement officials until just a week or two before they were arrested Wednesday, the U.S. marshal for Western Washington says.

"We knew they were in Europe," Mark Ericks said. "Europe's a big place."

Only in the past 30 days did the Marshals Service and FBI get good leads on the whereabouts of the former Seattle real-estate magnate and his wife, Ericks said in a telephone interview Friday.

French police arrested the Mastros at the FBI's request at an apartment they had been renting in the town of Doussard, near Lake Annecy in the French Alps, after 16 months on the lam. They intend to resist extradition, according to their Seattle attorney.

Julien Duhamel, a judicial police chief in Annecy, told The Associated Press on Friday that the arrests were made possible when the FBI told French authorities Michael Mastro had sought reimbursement from his U.S. insurance provider for medical care he received in France.

"That led us to an address that was no longer valid but was still pretty recent," he said. "After investigating in the neighborhood, we were able to pretty easily find their current address."

Regional state prosecutor Patrice Guigon said the Mastros will remain in custody at least until a judge rules Nov. 7 on their French lawyer's request for their provisional release.

U.S. authorities have 60 days in which to present a formal extradition request. Guigon said the couple had not met yet with American consular officials.

They are being held in a detention facility in the southeastern city of Lyon, said Thomas Terrier, the French attorney representing the couple.

The Mastros are charged with 43 counts of bankruptcy fraud and money laundering stemming from the collapse of Michael Mastro's extensive real-estate empire and subsequent involuntary bankruptcy.

They disappeared in late June 2011 after failing to comply with a bankruptcy judge's order that they to turn over two giant diamond rings valued at $1.4 million.

But the judge didn't issue a warrant for their arrest until more than a month later, on July 29. That's when the Marshals Service began looking for them, assigning a deputy to the case full-time, Ericks said.

"They were moving very fast," he said, "and we were playing catch-up."

Marshals just missed apprehending the Mastros in Toronto, he said, then tracked them to a location in Europe.

But at the time there were no criminal charges against the couple. The bankruptcy judge's arrest warrant was for contempt of court, a civil violation.

Civil offenses generally aren't subject to extradition, and Ericks said marshals didn't have authority to take the Mastros into custody in the European country, which he declined to name.

So, he said, marshals approached the FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office in Seattle about filing criminal charges. They had opened a criminal investigation of Michael Mastro more than two years earlier.

Court records unsealed this week show a criminal complaint charging the Mastros with six counts of bankruptcy fraud was filed Aug. 5, 2011. The FBI assumed the lead in the search then, Ericks said, but by the time a new arrest warrant had been issued, the Mastros had moved and authorities had lost them.

Within the past 30 days "a couple" of sources approached marshals with information about two possible locations for the Mastros, Ericks said. Marshals refined that information and took it to the FBI.

He wouldn't identify the sources, or say what kind of information they offered.

Guigon said the couple had been living in France at least since September 2011, and he couldn't explain why it took so long for them to be tracked down.

Ericks said the couple had moved around Europe, but declined to say where.

A French newspaper reported Thursday that the Mastros had rented the Doussard apartment in their own name. Ericks said he had no information on that.

The Mastros' capture was inevitable, he said: "It wasn't a matter of if. It was a matter of when."

Duhamel, the judicial police chief in Annecy, said unspecified jewelry was part of an inventory of valuable belongings that police seized when the couple was arrested. He said the Mastros were "not very cooperative" with officers during the arrest, had used a postal address different from their current home and appeared to have "thought they were safe" from being apprehended.

Terrier, their French lawyer, insisted, however, that they were "not on the lam" or in hiding, and were "totally surprised" when police came for them.

The Mastros were shaken after being taken into custody, and Linda Mastro was "in a total state of shock," Terrier said, insisting the couple did not know U.S. authorities were looking for then.

Police also said they learned of three addresses for the Mastros in the Lake Annecy area. They lived in the town of Veyrier du Lac before moving to a more modest apartment in Doussard — possibly for financial reasons, Guigon said.

James Frush, Michael Mastro's Seattle attorney, said he has learned since the couple's arrest that after their disappearance the Mastros were in regular contact with a number of friends and family members in Seattle.

Several indicated Michael Mastro didn't seem to take his circumstances seriously, Frush said, and wondered if a serious head injury Mastro suffered in a fall in February 2011 at his rented house in Palm Desert, Calif., had affected him.

Those concerns have been exacerbated by reports the Mastros lived openly in France, and that they seemed surprised by their arrests, the attorney said.

"His mental competency is going to be an issue going forward," Frush said of his client.

Mastro, now 87, was a prolific real-estate developer and lender for decades. But his highly leveraged enterprise collapsed when the economy tanked, borrowers stopped paying him, the value of his holdings plummeted, and he couldn't pay his own lenders.

Three bank lenders pushed him into one of the largest bankruptcies in Washington's history in July 2009. Mastro's debts to unsecured creditors have been estimated at $250 million, and the court-appointed bankruptcy trustee has said those creditors are unlikely to get back more than a few pennies on the dollar.

Material from The Associated Press in Paris is included in this report. Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or epryne@seattletimes.com

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