Shohei Ohtani’s former interpreter charged in gambling scandal

Federal prosecutors have charged Ippei Mizuhara, the since-fired interpreter for Shohei Ohtani, with stealing more than $16 million from the Dodgers superstar to pay debts with an allegedly illegal bookmaker.

The U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California, E. Martin Estrada, announced the charge Thursday at a news conference in downtown Los Angeles.

“Mr. Ohtani is considered a victim in this case,” Estrada said.

He said that Mizuhara impersonated Ohtani in conversations with bank officials, placed thousands of wagers and deposited winnings in a bank account the interpreter controlled.

“Mr. Mizuhara did all this to feed his insatiable appetite for illegal sports gambling,” Estrada said.

Mizuhara faces a single count of bank fraud.

Michael Freedman, an L.A.-based criminal defense attorney, confirmed he represents Mizuhara, but has declined further comment. Mizuhara, a Diamond Bar High School graduate who has been a fixture at Ohtani’s side since his first season with the Angels in 2018, did not respond to messages.

The charge is the latest twist in a saga that has transfixed the baseball world since The Times broke the story on March 20. The newspaper reported that Ohtani’s name had surfaced in the federal investigation of Mathew Bowyer, an allegedly illegal bookmaker who lives in Orange County. Ohtani’s representatives accused Mizuhara of committing “massive theft” of the ballplayer’s money to place bets with Bowyer’s organization.

Bowyer, whose San Juan Capistrano home was raided by federal agents in October, has not been charged with a crime.

The saga spilled into public view after several days of shifting accounts behind the scenes about the episode. The Times first requested comment from Ohtani’s agent, Nez Balelo, on March 15, then Matthew Hiltzik, a New York-based crisis public relations manager, contacted the newspaper a day later on behalf of the ballplayer. The publicist eventually said Ohtani had no comment.

While the Dodgers prepared to open their season against the San Diego Padres in Seoul, ESPN later reported, an Ohtani spokesman told the outlet that the money came from Ohtani to cover Mizuhara’s gambling debts. ESPN conducted a lengthy interview with Mizuhara on March 19 that was arranged by the spokesman. Mizuhara claimed Ohtani had paid his gambling debts.

The spokesman soon disavowed the account, according to ESPN, and replaced it with the allegation that Mizuhara stole the money through wire transfers.

Near the end of the Dodgers’ season-opening win over the Padres in a game that started at 3 a.m. Pacific time on March 20, a television camera captured Ohtani and Mizuhara laughing in the dugout.

Before the clubhouse opened to the media after the game, several Dodger executives addressed the team along with Mizuhara. According to multiple people with knowledge of the meeting, the interpreter said he had a gambling problem and Ohtani paid off his debts last year.

In comments made during a news conference in L.A. several days later, Ohtani described in Japanese what happened after the clubhouse meeting: “We returned to the hotel and Ippei spoke to me for the first time and that’s when I learned he had a huge debt. That’s when he told me he accessed my bank account and made payments to a bookmaker. I thought that was strange, so I called my representatives.”

The West Hollywood law firm representing Ohtani, Berk Brettler, issued the “massive theft” statement” and said, “we are turning the matter over to the authorities.” The Dodgers quickly fired Mizuhara.

Two days later, Major League Baseball announced an investigation. The league’s rules prohibit “any player, umpire, or Club or League official or employee” from betting on the game or making illegal bets on other sports.

During the news conference March 25, Ohtani alleged that Mizuhara kept him in the dark about the media inquiries: “Ippei didn’t tell me such reporting was taking place. … Ippei told everyone, including my agent, that I made payments not on behalf of Ippei, but on behalf of another friend.” Ohtani said it was a “complete lie” that he paid Mizuhara’s gambling debts and denied betting on sports.

“I myself have never bet on anything or bet for anyone on a sporting event, or asked someone to bet for me, and I’ve never asked anyone to send money to a bookmaker from my bank account,” Ohtani said.

He added: “The conclusion is that he was lying to everyone, including everyone around me.”

Ohtani’s unparalleled excellence as a hitter and pitcher transformed him into an international icon and led to a 10-year, $700-million free-agent contract with the Dodgers in December. The deal is the largest in baseball history, though most of the money is deferred until after the contract ends.

But the last few weeks have thrust Ohtani into the middle of a global storm that has nothing to do with baseball.

“Honestly, I don’t think shock is the right word,” he said last month. “I’ve spent the last week in something beyond that, which I can’t express in words.”

Times staff writers Matt Hamilton and Adam Elmahrek contributed to this report.

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