By Rick Riozza

Many of you loyal readers are aware that every once in a while, I get autobiographical and write about one of my personal scenarios of the past that are somewhat wine related. This account is a real doozy and it occurred really early on in my law practice career.

It all started when I was working in administration at Irvine University School of Law, where I was awaiting the results of having taken the bar exam. One morning a large Samoan gentlemen came into my office, introduced himself as Mr. Tino, and began to explain his presence.

He was representing five Samoan college students who were interested in attending the law school. He was inquiring if the school had any special programs for international students, and if so, if there were any prospective scholarships to consider.


(And by way—he also informed me that he was the Crown Prince of Western Samoa, that his father was the King of Western Samoa. Further, I learned that Mr. Tino was the founder and Grandmaster in the self-defense art of Limalama. More on that later.)

Now I did not particularly know of any such scholarship programs readily available, but given the circumstances and knowing that the “minority affairs” were big in the current college circles, I assured Mr. Tino that I would personally take on the task—I mean who would say “no” to this man.

A few weeks later, Mr. Tino personally returned to thank me, as two of his protégés were accepted at the school. He was so grateful; and even said that though he had a large law firm in Orange County representing him on business matters, that he would look me up once I started to practice law. I smiled and thanked him for the consideration.

Probably a year into my practice, Mr. Tino did indeed come to my office. Truthfully, I had forgotten about our prior endeavor, but I was so glad to see him. Mr. Tino was quick to speak and said he wanted to hire me to travel with him to Mexico City for a business matter. I told my secretary to clear my calendar immediately.

During our flight, I got to know Mr. Tino better and was to find out that he was not only royalty, but was quite well-known in Hollywood, Las Vegas, and in Hawaii. In Hollywood, as a Grandmaster, he taught the likes of Elvis Presley, Chuck Norris, and others in self-defense moves for the movies. He also knew Bruce Lee, and knew the truth of what happened to Lee surrounding what the media reported as a “mysterious death”.

When it came to Las Vegas, Mr. Tino did a lot of martial art shows and became very chummy with the hotel & casino owners and families; and in Hawaii, his Polynesian royalty held sway as back in those days, the Samoan presence was quite dominant. Mr. Tino also did some—let’s say “community work” for Vegas. Those in the know, call it the “juice business”, and we’re not talking about pineapple.

For you readers whose interest is peaked, I urge you to Google “Limalama” where one will find a quick bio on Mr. Tino’s most interesting life.

Also, during our flight—I received my assignment. It sounded like a movie caper—and, as you will see, it played out as one. As we landed at Benito Juarez International Airport, there was not too small a crowd already waiting for us! Mr. Tino forgot to tell me that he was an Honorary Colonel in the Mexican Army.

Right off the plane, we were whooshed away in a black limousine following police cars with sirens blaring as we sped through the city to the Sheraton Maria Isabel Hotel, situated close to the famed Zona Rosa. While Mr. Tino was used to all this fanfare, to me, it felt as though we were rock stars!

Greeting us at the hotel was a contingent of government and military attachés. Mr. Tino knew them all and everyone was quite friendly. One particular young Mexican Treasury agent was named Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Andrés insisted that we call him by his first name and that he and his team would be by our sides for the next week. His aids at the time actually told me that Andrés was being groomed politically and that he would one day become the President of Mexico. Okay.

You see, I had come into the picture only in the final moments of a huge international business affair. For over six years Mr. Tino and his business confidant had nurtured a private deal where 4 billion “underground” dollars was being transferred/loaned to the government of Mexico from the government of Yugoslavia through Swiss banks in Zurich. The “brokerage fee” for such an arrangement was staggeringly in the millions! And back in the late 70s, 4 billion dollars was the largest number I’d ever heard of!

Regrettably, the Swiss banker involved, a Dr. Hiebert, attempted to abscond with most of the loan fees by setting up his own deal at the last moment. Yeah—it got quite messy. Dr. Hiebert, however, did not realize the contacts Mr. Tino had!

During the week, matters were quite intense; but we were able to relax & enjoy a party every evening. And I guess this is the “wine” connection to our story: When we ordered a case of 1970 & 1975 Lafite Rothschild to our suite, they actually delivered six cases of the stuff! Talk about a wine tasting party to end the intrigue.

I guess things go as planned: Some forty years later, Andrés López Obrador did become the 65th President of Mexico in 2018. ¡Salud!