On 22 June 2015, Xavier Justo, a 48-year-old retired Swiss banker, walked towards the front door of his brand new boutique hotel on Koh Samui, a tropical Thai island. He had spent the past three years building the luxurious white-stone complex of chalets and apartments overlooking the shimmering sea and was almost ready to open for business. All he needed was a licence.
Justo had arrived in Thailand four years earlier, having fled the drab world of finance in London. In 2011, he and his girlfriend Laura toured the country on a motorbike and, two years later, they got married on a secluded beach. The couple eventually settled down in Koh Samui, a tourist hotspot, just an hour’s flight south of Bangkok. After trying out a couple of entrepreneurial ventures, Justo eventually decided that he would go into the hotel business. He bought a plot with an imposing house and began building: adding a gym, villas and a tennis court.
That June afternoon, he was expecting a visit from the tourism authorities to sign off on the paperwork. Instead, a squad of armed Thai police burst through the unlocked door, bundling Justo to the ground. The officers tied their plastic cuffs so tightly around Justo’s wrists that he bled on the dark tiled floor. The police quickly moved into his office, ripping out the computers and emptying the filing cabinets.
After two days in a ramshackle local jail, Justo was flown to Bangkok and paraded before the media, in a press conference befitting a mafia kingpin. Still wearing shorts and flip-flops, he was flanked by four commandos holding machine guns, while a quartet of senior Royal Thai Police officers briefed the assembled reporters on the charges against him.
Justo was charged with an attempt to blackmail his former employer, a little-known London-based oil-services company named PetroSaudi. But behind this seemingly mundane charge lay a much bigger story.
The Department of Justice has been assisting the Malaysian government in tracking and recovering stolen funds spent in the United States. Some $4.5 billion was pilfered in all, Britain’s The Guardian reports.
Along with film producer Riza Aziz (the stepson of Prime Minister Najib Razak) and several other individuals, Jho Low is accused of spending misappropriated Malaysian government funds on “properties, business ventures, yachts, parties, artwork, clothing, jewelry and other luxuries” in the United States.
Court documents filed in New York last year described Low as playing a “central role in both disbursing and personally receiving” the stolen money.
Their business ventures included bankrolling the 2013 movie The Wolf of Wall Street via Aziz’s production company, Red Granite, with money funneled through Goldman Sachs. A biopic about boiler-room boss Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, cost $100 million to make and brought in $392 million globally. Last year, the Department of Justice moved to seize the rights to the Oscar-nominated film and recover royalties and proceeds from the film.
DiCaprio has already turned over a Picasso painting worth $3.2 million that he received as a birthday gift from Low as well as a Jean-Michel Basquiat collage valued at $9 million, both of which were listed in the June court filing. A spokesman for the actor also told Fortune that the actor returned another gift, an Oscar won by Marlon Brando, that he’d received from Red Granite.
The government also seized the rights to two other films produced by the company, 2014’s Dumb and Dumber To and 2015’s Daddy’s Home.