The president of a modeling agency who was accused of preying on children by falsely promising to make them stars was sentenced to five years in prison Friday after victims of his alleged scam told a judge about how they were duped.
James Muniz, 45, of Smithtown, received the sentence after pleading guilty in May to grand larceny, conspiracy and scheme to defraud charges. As part of a deal with prosecutors, he was sentenced to 2 1/2 and 5 years behind bars. In addition to the prison sentence, the court also ordered $236,000 in civil judgments against him and ordered his companies to fork over $10,000.
Four victims came to court Friday, telling the judge about the financial hardships they endured after signing modeling contracts with Muniz’s company. Delora Castro’s 20-year-old daughter was approached in the Queens Center Mall by two women who told her she was beautiful and could be a model, the Forest Hills mom said. She dished out $6,345 after she was promised an 8-year contract to model back-to-school clothing for Michael Kors and Macy’s. “She was embarrassed, she was hurt, she cried,” Castro said of her daughter. “I’m just hoping that he’s learned a lesson.”
Muniz, who ran New Faces Development Center and Model Talent Development Corp., admitted he scammed clients out of hundreds of thousands of dollars by promising their children modeling and acting jobs that didn’t exist, prosecutors said. He told the state attorney general’s office he was working with three women – Michelle Alperin-Smith, 43, of Nesconset; Jennifer Diaz-Domenech, 31, of Brooklyn; and Jennifer Santiago, 26, of Brooklyn – who he said helped him commit the crimes, prosecutors have said. All three have been criminally charged, have pleaded not guilty and the cases against them are still pending. Muniz has not agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in those cases, his lawyer said.
Muniz’s lawyer, Josh Ketover, said his client has acknowledged responsibility. “He’s looking forward to moving on with his life,” the defense lawyer said. “He’s acknowledged responsibility and just wants to pay his debt and move on.”
Prosecutors say the scam ran from January 2011 to November 2012, when New Faces employees would approach adults with children and unaccompanied teens in the Roosevelt Field and Queens Center malls, telling him they had modeling potential. Some of the clients would then sign multi-year agreements after being told their children were going to be featured in advertisements for major retail stores. The victims were allegedly told that they needed to pay between $500 and $5,000 immediately or they would lose the modeling job.
Muniz was supposed to surrender to face criminal charges in September 2013, but fled to Florida and was apprehended by district attorney’s investigators. Prosecutors said he was charged following a five-month investigation, during which about 100 people came forward to say they were victims of the scam. Muniz declined to comment as he was led out of the courthouse in handcuffs Friday afternoon.