Colombian designer to the stars pleads guilty to smuggling luxury handbags to Miami, NY

A celebrated Colombian designer accused of shipping luxury handbags made of exotic reptile skins to the United States has pleaded guilty to a smuggling indictment rather than make a plea deal because her defense lawyer says U.S. prosecutors would not agree with her version of the evidence.

Nancy Teresa Gonzalez de Barberi, who sold her bags for more than $2,000 each to the likes of Britney Spears, Salma Hayek and Victoria Beckham, will argue at her sentencing in February that the merchandise her company sent to high-end New York retailers was made with skins from farm-raised reptiles such as caiman and python, not from protected wildlife species — contrary to the prosecutors’ view of the evidence.

Gonzalez, 70, who pleaded guilty Friday in Miami federal court to conspiracy and smuggling charges, will present her side of the case before U.S. District Judge Robert Scola in the hope of obtaining a sentence below the federal guideline range of five years in prison.

“Nancy Gonzalez pleaded guilty directly to her judge rather than negotiate with prosecutors,” defense attorney Sam Rabin said Monday. “They took the equivalent of an elephant gun to a mosquito when a fly swatter would have sufficed.

“Her crime was not obtaining the proper paperwork for some samples so she could meet deadlines to get her goods to buyer’s shows” in New York, Rabin said. “All of the purses that were sold in retail stores were properly documented. Less than 1% of her purses were imported without documentation.”

At her plea hearing in Miami federal court, prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Justice Department disagreed, saying Gonzalez illegally imported merchandise made with the skins of endangered caiman and python species by using couriers to carry hundreds of her handbags without proper permits or declarations through international airports in Miami and New York, citing the indictment filed in South Florida.

Handbag designer Nancy Gonzalez is pictured in 2008 autographing one of her bags at the Neiman Marcus store in Bal Harbour. The Colombian designer was in town to show her latest collection.
Handbag designer Nancy Gonzalez is pictured in 2008 autographing one of her bags at the Neiman Marcus store in Bal Harbour. The Colombian designer was in town to show her latest collection.

In the indictment, prosecutors present a very different picture of the designer and her handbag business, whose products go by the brand name “Nancy Gonzalez.” She is charged along with her New York-based company, Gzuniga Ltd., and two employees who worked for her Colombian manufacturing firm. Diego Mauricio Rodriguez Giraldo, who remains in custody, pleaded not guilty. He is is scheduled to change that plea to guilty at a hearing set for Nov. 28. Another defendant, John Camilo Aguilar Jarmillo, is at large.

The indictment accuses Gonzalez, her U.S. firm, Gzuniga, and the other two defendants of soliciting friends, relatives and employees of her manufacturing company in Colombia to act as couriers and transport hundreds of designer handbags on themselves or in their luggage while traveling on passenger airlines to Miami International Airport and John F. Kennedy International Airport between February 2016 and April 2019.

Another one of Gonzalez’s employees, Paola Soto, played a central role as a courier, according to prosecutors. She pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy and smuggling charges and received an initial prison sentence of 2 1/2 years under a plea agreement with prosecutors Tom Watts-FitzGerald and R.J. Powers. But her punishment was reduced to about nine months after she cooperated as a witness against Gonzalez and the other defendants.

Another employee, Eric Schneider, general manager of the Gzuniga showroom in Manhattan, also pleaded guilty last year to a misdemeanor charge and awaits sentencing as he cooperates with prosecutors. He’s been convicted of “knowingly” selling about 1,000 caiman-skin designer handbags and clutches that were made from endangered species and illegally imported from Colombia.

“Once the designer handbags were smuggled into the United States, they were delivered or shipped to the Gzuniga showroom in Manhattan, New York, where they were put on display for high-end retailers to view and purchase for re-sale in their stores,” says a news release issued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami. “The average retail price for these ‘Nancy Gonzalez’ brand handbags was over $2,000.”

The Colombian’s creative purses were sold at Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus and other upscale department stores. They were also clutched by characters on HBO’s hit series, “Sex in the City,” set in the very New York borough, Manhattan, where Gonzalez made her first big splash.

Gonzalez was arrested in her native country and spent months behind bars before her extradition from Colombia to the United States in September. She was granted a $750,000 bond by a magistrate judge in Miami federal court under a joint recommendation by her defense attorney and federal prosecutors. Gonzalez, who initially pleaded not guilty, changed her plea to guilty on Friday before Judge Scola. Her former company also pleaded guilty and faces fines up to $500,000.

“The actions taken by the government resulted in Ms. Gonzalez being unnecessarily incarcerated in Colombia with drug dealers and terrorists for more than one year while awaiting extradition to the United States, being put out of business and her hundreds of employees becoming unemployed,” Rabin told the Miami Herald.