Not so long ago, Rebecca Roth would wake up in her 3,500-square-foot home in Lake Oswego and begin her work as a consultant for the Oregon Central Credit Union.
For the past 13 months, she's awakened in a jail near Guadalajara and, with her limited Spanish, struggled to convince Mexican authorities that she is innocent.
On her first night in custody, Roth slept on a concrete floor.
For three weeks, the 48-year-old woman with a round, soft face, narrow, wide-set eyes and severe asthma slept in the prison infirmary with the lights on to keep cockroaches from crawling across her body in the middle of the night, she said by collect call from prison last week.
Now Roth shares a six-bed cell with 11 women and one 10-month-old baby girl named Lupita. Two of the women have been charged with murder. The cell itself is one-quarter the size of Roth's bedroom in Oregon, she says.
The Puente Grande women's penitentiary is a long way from Lake Oswego.
"My head feels like mush," Roth said amid the sounds of other prisoners' chatter rising and falling behind her like a roaring roller coaster. "I'm trying to figure out what to do to defend myself, and everything I do—it doesn't work. It's a real horrible situation."
Roth has languished in this Mexican women's prison one hour from Guadalajara in Central Mexico since February 2006.
She has not been convicted of any crime.
She has been charged with operaciones con recursos de procedencia ilicita and violación a la ley federal contra la delincuencia organizada—operating with illicitly obtained money and violating federal law against organized crime—in connection with an international Ponzi scheme.
A Ponzi scheme operates much like a pyramid scheme, except it's run by a central individual or organization rather than a hierarchy of investors responsible for recruiting new ones.
But this wasn't just any Ponzi scheme.
Tri-West Investment Club operated out of the basement of a 15,000-square-foot mansion overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The Canadian leader of the scam, Alyn Richard Waage, is said to have defrauded 13,000 people of at least $53 million. From prison, Roth insists she had no role in the scam at all, although she briefly worked for Waage as an assistant at the time that he was ripping people off.
Roth says she had no idea what was happening or that it was illegal. But Mexican authorities have been holding her for more than a year with evidence that she received a $50,000 deposit from Waage's bank account. Roth says she used that money to pay Waage's bills and that the rest of the money she received from him was her salary.
"I'm not convicted of anything; I'm just waiting," Roth says. "They keep telling me just to be patient.... It's just so confusing."
Nearly five years separate Roth's arrest on Feb. 13, 2006, from her alleged crime.
Her life in Mexico goes back even further—to 1998, the year Roth moved to Puerto Vallarta to escape the Pacific Northwest climate that aggravated her asthma. Divorced and the mother of two young boys at the time, she eventually bought a store in Puerto Vallarta and began selling ceramics.
Sometime in December 2000, Roth met Waage, who was married to one of her regular customers, Michelle Higgins.
Roth describes Waage as short, eccentric and flamboyantly wealthy. And on the first day they met, Waage persuaded Roth she ought to work for him, saying Roth's boutique was a losing proposition. He then asked Roth to name a salary, which she did: $4,000 a month. Just as quickly, Waage agreed.
Roth wasn't terribly concerned that Waage was vague about the details of his work. He did tell Roth he was one of only 25 people in the world to have a job like his, and that it was quite lucrative. "You need to come along and do this," she now recalls Waage telling her.
Roth took the job that day and in January 2001 reported to work at Waage's office in the basement of his house, according to Mexican authorities. Called Castillo Cristina, the $2.2 million home had a vanishing-edge pool overlooking the ocean, floor-to-ceiling windows, three stories, five bedrooms and a spiraling staircase with a wrought-iron handrail. Despite this ostentation, Roth describes her duties as mundane. She says she did everything from arranging travel accommodations for Waage's other employees to making dinner reservations to paying bills.
Roth says Waage, who tended to wear slippers instead of shoes and often worked in the middle of the night, spent his money generously. To celebrate one co-worker's birthday, Waage flew several of his employees on a Learjet about 200 miles away to Guadalajara for a shopping trip.
There were late-night dinners, too, and trips on Waage's yacht. Also, shortly after starting to work for him, Roth was permitted to live in one of Waage's other homes, Casa Tatiana, with her rat terrier named Obi-Wan.
"A couple of times I thought it was too good to be true," Roth says. It was.
In April 2001, Waage was arrested stepping off a Learjet in Puerto Vallarta. He was carrying $4.5 million in cash. He was extradited to the U.S. in 2002 and pleaded guilty in 2003. In 2005, he was sentenced to 10 years in a North Carolina federal prison on charges of mail fraud and money laundering. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Waage was guilty of running one of the largest Internet-based Ponzi schemes in U.S. history. Investors, who were solicited over the Internet, thought Waage was investing their money in bank securities that would more than double their money each year, when in reality, he was using their funds to pay earlier investors and line his own pockets.
Darlene and Rich Manning of Stayton, Ore., southeast of Salem, invested $10,000 in the scheme on St. Patrick's Day six years ago at the suggestion of a friend, one of those early investors who had received returns. The Mannings—like thousands of other victims—have yet to recover a dime.
Nearly one year after Waage was sentenced, Roth—who had long since gone back to running her boutique—was arrested Feb. 13, 2006.
After charging her with using illicitly obtained funds and participating in organized crime, Mexican authorities tossed her in jail at the Puente Grande women's penitentiary, five hours east of Puerto Vallarta. Family members argue that if Roth really were guilty, she would've been charged in the U.S. along with Waage. If convicted of the federal charges in Mexico, Roth could face as many as 20 additional years in prison, according to her Mexican attorney, Ernesto Flores Díaz de León.
The Mexican judicial process differs from the U.S. system in myriad ways. Of all those differences, though, the most significant one is that Roth must prove her innocence without the right to a trial by a jury of her peers.
"Judges enjoy the total authority to determine…whether the detained person is or is not responsible, "Roth's lawyer said in Spanish from Guadalajara.
But Roth's case has not yet reached the stage where a judge reviews the evidence, due to the case's complexity and the vagaries of Mexico's bureaucracy, her lawyer says. For example, authorities in Mexico are waiting for a federal judge in the United States to interrogate Waage in North Carolina. The purpose is to get an official statement from Waage declaring that Roth was not part of his inner circle, that she did not know the origin of his money and that she used the money he gave her for legal purposes.
"We will have to demonstrate that these deposits that he gave Rebecca is money that Rebecca used legally," her lawyer said. "We have to demonstrate Rebecca's innocence instead of the system proving she is responsible."
Roth's family has remained quiet about Roth's incarceration for more than a year, in part because they hoped it would end but also because they feared Mexican authorities would retaliate against Roth.
Roth's mother, Hilda Dimmick, who lives in Athena, Ore., near Pendleton, has already spent $20,000 from her savings on lawyers in Mexico for Roth. But the family's optimism teeters on exasperation these days.
"It doesn't make any sense by any stretch of the imagination," says sister Barbara Roth, who also lived in Lake Oswego in the 1990s. "We're dealing with a corrupt, corrupt system, and I don't know why they're persecuting my sister."
Family members say Roth simply did not know the details of what was happening inside the Tri-West operation.
"My sister would never do anything illegal unless someone pulled the wool over her eyes," says Ron Roth, Rebecca's older brother in Walla Walla, Wash. "She's a pretty straight gal."
Even Roth's former co-worker Roger Harrison, who fled the scene after Waage was arrested, defends Roth. Harrison went on to write a novel, The Wanted and the Unwanted, about his experience working for Tri-West, and the fictionalized account includes a quick-witted character—named Roxanne with a lap dog named Yoda—based on Roth.
The U.S. Consulate in Guadalajara is permitted only to give Roth lists of available lawyers and monitor her health and safety.
Andy Millar of Milton-Freewater, Ore., is a friend of Hilda Dimmick and Roth, and because he is a lawyer he volunteered to visit Roth in prison in June 2006. "We're concerned about Rebecca; they don't play fair down there, and we're worried about retribution," Millar says.
Roth is about to celebrate her birthday for the second time in prison. She attends sewing classes, paints and is working to improve her Spanish. Her case is receiving renewed attention in Canada right now because another employee of Waage, a Canadian woman named Brenda Martin who is also in prison with Roth on related charges, has inspired one legislator in her home country to discuss her case in the House of Commons.
The two women will be contestants in a "Queen of the Prison" beauty competition on March 22. The competition is exclusively for female prisoners over 36, women who are considered at the prison to be in their tercera edad, or "third age," although the term is usually reserved for senior citizens. The entire crew has choreographed a routine to "New York, New York," Roth says. At 5-foot-4, Roth is the tallest dancer in the routine, a small detail that makes Roth laugh.
She signed up for the competition because participating allows her to stay outside for an extra hour after evening roll call.
"It's a real experience," Roth says of her time in prison. "If I knew for sure that the proof we have submitted will be looked at and analyzed the way it should be, I would know that I would be getting out when this is all done."