These men received 505-year prison sentences each. Now their cases are under new scrutiny

From left, Juan Carlos Seresi, Vahe Andonian and Nazareth Andonian.

(CNN)On an August afternoon in 1991, a federal judge in California sent an unmistakable message in the "war on drugs" when he sentenced four men convicted of laundering cocaine cartel cash to more than 500 years each in prison.

None of the men had previous criminal records. Nor were they convicted of direct involvement in the massive cocaine distribution ring at the center of the case.
The sentences by US District Court Judge William D. Keller were considered harsh even back then and represent the sort of draconian punishment that has since been widely condemned amid a national conversation around justice reform.
    For decades, the men sentenced by Keller that afternoon seemed destined to die in prison, just as the judge predicted they would.
    Then last year, they got what appeared to be an extraordinary reprieve:
    Federal prosecutors, who had been investigating defense claims of undisclosed special treatment given to a key government witness by FBI agents, recommended that the men's convictions be overturned "in the interests of justice" and that they be released from prison right away.
    All that stood between the four men and their freedom was the blessing of another federal judge. That seemed likely given that prosecutors had taken the highly unusual step of siding with the defense in seeking to have the convictions thrown out.
    But US District Court Judge Stephen V. Wilson, a former prosecutor himself who once worked under Keller in the US Attorney's Office in Los Angeles, was not inclined to simply "rubber stamp" the request.
    Wilson had questions, and his search for answers was going to take time.


    In the eyes of prosecutors in the early 1990s, brothers Nazareth and Vahe Andonian, Raul Vivas, and Juan Carlos Seresi may not have personally committed any acts of violence or handled any kilos of cocaine, but their activities enabled those who did. The more than $300 million the men helped launder, the logic went, kept the cartels in business.
    Even before trial, Judge Keller, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, made his disdain for such crimes known.
    "I intend to deter forevermore anybody doing anything like this," he said at a pretrial hearing.
    At trial, defense attorneys depicted their clients as legitimate businessmen whose participation in any sort of money laundering scheme was unwitting. They acknowledged the men had been involved in massive financial transactions through their precious metal and money exchange companies, but denied they had any knowledge that their activities involved money derived from illicit sources. The Andonian brothers and Vivas were already successful business owners before the alleged crimes began, according to court records. Seresi worked for Vivas.
    A family portrait of Vahe Andonian prior to his imprisonment.
    The trial lasted eight months, and the jury was out for another 28 days. The panel could not reach a verdict on drug conspiracy charges against the men, resulting in a hung jury on those charges. But they were each convicted of multiple counts of money laundering and conspiracy.
    At sentencing, Keller made good on his earlier comment about deterrence. He detailed how he put together a string of consecutive terms intended to put the men away not just for one lifetime, but many.
    The judge alluded to the apparent finality of the sentences when he temporarily balked at ordering any sort of customary post-release supervision.
    "It just flies in the face of common sense," Keller said. "I don't anticipate there is going to be any release."
    On top of the prison terms, Vivas was fined $7.6 million and the Andonians $1.7 million each. Seresi, in a nod to what Keller acknowledged was his "rather modest means," was spared a fine.