PALMETTO — One day last July, a tall, trim man in his mid-30s boarded a plane in Tampa, flew to Houston and checked into a hotel.
There, he was given a copy of the ACT college entrance exam. Guided by a handwriting sample from a California high school student, he took the test in the student's name.
The score: 35 out of a perfect 36. The payment to the test-taker: $10,000.
On July 18, a year after that trip to Texas, Mark Edward Riddell is scheduled to be sentenced for his role in the biggest college admissions scandal in U.S. history. Federal prosecutors say Riddell, a Harvard graduate and employee of IMG Academy in Bradenton, was paid to take entrance exams or to correct answers for the children of rich parents eager to get their offspring into top-flight schools. The mastermind of the scheme, William “Rick” Singer, also bribed coaches at several colleges to grease students' entry.
Riddell, Singer and some of the coaches and parents, including Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman, have pleaded guilty. Other defendants, including actor Lori Loughlin of Full House, are fighting the charges against them.
The 36-year-old Riddell, fired by IMG as its director of test preparation, faces years behind bars. Through his attorney, he said he is "profoundly sorry'' for the grief and damage he has caused:
"I understand how my actions contribute to a loss of trust in the college admissions process.''
His brief statement left many questions unanswered: How did he meet Rick Singer? Why did he get involved? And how did he keep a full-time job while flying around the country to take tests for other people's kids?
In a scandal heightened by the aura of celebrity, Riddell has retreated into the background and a comparatively mundane life. He is the father of an infant and the husband of a research analyst at investment bank Raymond James. There's a $152,800 mortgage on their 1,500-square-foot house in a new-ish subdivision in Palmetto.
But if not on a Hollywood scale, Riddell has moved comfortably in elite circles — at Harvard, among the scions of corporate titans and real estate tycoons. At IMG, among parents who pay nearly $70,000-a-year tuition for kids bent on becoming golf or tennis stars. At private clubs, among the social set of his own well-to-do parents.
Riddell, 6'3'', stands out in another way.
Said Andrew Lelling, U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts: "He's just a really smart guy.''
• • •
Riddell was born in 1982 in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., an upscale community north of Detroit. Within a few years, Mark, sister Cynthia, mother Julie and father Jefferson had moved to Sarasota, a favorite destination of Michiganders looking for warmer climes.
The elder Riddell, a lawyer, started a real estate-based practice and settled his family south of downtown Sarasota in Oyster Bay Estates. An online realty site describes it as a "lush tropical neighborhood bordering Sarasota Bay and home to one of city's most venerable private clubs, the Field Club.''
As a kid, Riddell became infatuated with tennis, he told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in 2004. He rode his bike to the Field Club to swat balls and later hitched rides with his parents for coaching at IMG, where tennis greats Boris Becker and Andre Agassi had trained. At 16, Riddell played in a national competition in Michigan and was part of the 1999 Sarasota High School state championship team.
After graduation in 2000, most of his teammates went off to schools in Florida. Riddell, a member of the National Honor Society, headed to Harvard. He lived in Eliot House, whose residents have included actor Rashida Jones, composer Leonard Bernstein and the late Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. In his junior year, as he juggled pre-med courses with tennis, the Harvard Crimson named him "Athlete of the Week'' for winning a key singles match against Brown that guaranteed Harvard an automatic bid into the 2003 NCAA Tournament.
In 2004, Riddell's senior year, the team came to Florida to play a match at IMG. He mused to a reporter on the challenges of being a scholar-athlete.
"For me, this year has been most difficult,'' he said. "I honestly skip practice frequently so I can study. Except for tennis, that is about all I do.'' He said he no longer planned to be a doctor; he intended to give professional tennis a try.
Riddell returned home after graduating. By then, the family name was well known in Manatee and Sarasota counties.
Jefferson Riddell's law firm had grown to include offices in Venice and Lakewood Ranch; daughter Cynthia was a partner. The Riddells had sold their house in Oyster Bay and moved north of downtown Sarasota to Whitfield Estates, near the Ringling Museum of Art and Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. They lived in a 4,200-square-foot home overlooking Sarasota Bay.
Julie Riddell, who managed Riddell Title & Escrow, boasted impressive social and civic credentials: Trustee of the New College Foundation. Sustaining member of the Sarasota Junior League. Member of the Sarasota Orchestra Association. She was a presence on the society pages. In an item about the Mistletoe Ball, the Social Detective noted that Riddell, a past chair of the fund-raising event, wore a diamond-and-pearl necklace and a "knockout Craig Signer dress that showed some serious cleavage.''
"Don't worry,'' she assured the writer, "I'm taped up.''
In 2006, her son joined the staff of IMG. Started by tennis coach Nick Bollettieri in 1978 and acquired by the IMG sports and entertainment company a decade later, it touts itself as "the world's most unique international boarding school.'' Students from around the world come to the 500-plus acre campus where they combine academic instruction with coaching in tennis, golf, football and other sports. Thousands of amateur and professional athletes also train and compete at IMG. Last fall, the academy opened a striking new hotel, the 150-room Legacy, with a restaurant and wellness spa.
Riddell was a college counselor for IMG in 2008 when a police officer clocked him doing 94 mph on Longboat Key early one morning. Pulled over, he claimed he hadn't had "a drop to drink'' but the officer noted glassy eyes, slurred speech and a strong odor of alcohol.
"I'm not going to answer any questions,'' he said, according to the officer's report. He also refused to take a blood-alcohol test. After he pleaded no contest to DUI in February 2009, a judge revoked his license for six months.
Riddell was still on probation, records show, when he started the next chapter in his life. He got married.
Sandrina Mayela was born in Romania, with an economics degree from a university there. After coming to the United States, she wed a man named Indrek Raud and moved with him to Florida. They worked for an asset management and commodities trading firm. She also wrote articles for the Bull, an Australian financial newsletter.
In 2009, Mayela filed for divorce. Raud deeded over his interest in a small house they owned in Port Charlotte and moved to Cambodia, where he started a resort.
On Jan. 15, 2010, a month after her divorce was finalized, Mayela married Riddell, three years her junior. She seemed to ease smoothly into her new life. She posed for photos at Saks Fifth Avenue with a friend and at the Harvard Club of Sarasota with her new husband. Smiling broadly and sporting wide-brimmed hats, she and mother-in-law Julie Riddell were among the guests at the Pique Nique Sur La Baie luncheon and fashion show, an annual fundraiser for the New College library.
Mayela was also advancing professionally. After receiving her charter as a Certified Financial Analyst, she went to work for PwC, formerly known as PricewaterhouseCoopers, and then for Raymond James.
• • •
In 2011, prosecutors say, Riddell joined Singer in scamming the college admissions system.
Singer, who lived in Newport Beach, Calif., owned a for-profit college counseling and preparation business. He also served as CEO of the nonprofit Key Worldwide Foundation, which ostensibly had been set up to provide educational opportunities for underprivileged kids.
According to court documents, Singer and Riddell conspired to help Singer's clients by boosting their children's scores on college entrance exams. Singer would bribe test administrators to let Riddell take the exam in place of the students or to replace student answers with his own. Singer funneled payments through his foundation, with administrators typically getting $5,000 and Riddell $10,000. In exchange for Singer's services, parents made a "charitable'' donation to the foundation.
Riddell continued to work for IMG, where he became director of college entrance exam preparation. A profile on the academy's web site, since removed, said he helped "thousands'' of students get into schools like Stanford, Duke and Columbia.
At the same time, records indicate, the Riddells seemed to consider the idea of starting their own company. Sandrina Riddell registered the domain name "RiddellCollegePrep.com,'' according to a site that collects registration data. In 2014, her husband and a man named Igor Palanski, who had a relative who studied at IMG, incorporated Prometheus International Education. The company apparently never got off the ground; it became inactive in 2016.
By then, the Riddells were living in a new, three-bedroom house in north Sarasota. They paid that off and had a house built in Palmetto closer to the Sunshine Skyway, allowing for an easier commute to Sandrina's job in St. Petersburg.
Riddell's illicit test-taking went on through February of this year. The charges against him, though, highlighted one particular exam last summer.
"Parent 1,'' whose son attended high school in the Los Angeles area, agreed to donate $50,000 to one of Singer's charitable accounts. The son would go to Houston to take the ACT exam, and Singer would use part of the money to bribe the test administrator to allow Riddell to correct the answers.
The student fell ill and couldn't travel. The parent provided Singer with an example of the son's handwriting, which Singer sent on to Riddell so he could imitate it when taking the test. After finishing, Riddell called Singer and predicted the score. The test administrator then Fed-exed the exam to ACT for scoring.
The score was exactly what Riddell said it would be.
• • •
On March 12, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Boston dropped a bombshell — at least 50 people, including famous actors, prominent business people and a top fashion designer, had been involved in a years-long scheme to fraudulently inflate exam scores and bribe college officials.
Singer, who collected a total of $25 million, already had agreed to plead guilty to multiple charges. Riddell pleaded to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering. In his brief statement, he said he had never bribed anyone, and Lelling, the U.S. Attorney, agreed that he didn't have inside information about the correct test answers.
"He was just smart enough to get a near-perfect score on demand or to calibrate the score,'' Lelling said.
IMG, which wasn't implicated in the scandal, immediately suspended its employee. "We have no reason to believe this alleged misconduct extends beyond Mr. Riddell, nor do we believe that these actions have any direct relation to the Academy, students, parents or staff,'' IMG said in a statement.
Riddell recently dropped his original attorney and is now represented by Philadelphia lawyer Antonio Pozos, a former federal prosecutor who got his undergraduate degree from Harvard the same year Riddell did. As a first-time offender, Riddell is likely to receive a far shorter sentence than the 20-year term each charge carries. The U.S. Attorney's office, though, wants him to forfeit "any property, real or personal,'' obtained with proceeds traceable to his crimes. That includes $238,449 in cash.
None of Riddell's family members responded to requests for interviews for this story. The publisher of Sarasota Scene magazine, Julie Milton, said there has been little buzz in social circles about the scandal.
Sarasota is getting bigger and Riddell's parents, whom she calls "lovely'' and "highly regarded,'' aren't as active socially as they were several years ago.
"There are so many people in this town who do so much and really deserve the limelight, so when things like this happen, people tend to just shut it out,'' Milton said.
Lawyer Hagen Brody, who played tennis with Riddell at Sarasota High and is now a city commissioner, said Riddell remains a friend. Brody called him "an all-around nice guy'' who is well liked in the city's close-knit tennis community.
"I don't think anyone is personally hateful of Mark,'' he said. "They understand he made poor choices and will take responsibility. I think everybody wants to see him land back on his feet.''
So the big question remains: Why did such a nice, "really smart guy'' get involved in such a scheme? The total amount of money he purportedly made over seven years is less than what some parents paid Singer to get their kids into college.
At 2:30 on a recent Monday afternoon, most people in his neighborhood were at work. Riddell was at home. From behind a closed door, he said he didn't want to talk.
Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
Notable players in the college admission scandal
• William Rick Singer, 58. A resident of Newport Beach, Calif., Singer bribed college coaches and test administrators to help the children of his wealthy clients get into Yale, Stanford and other top schools. Singer funneled payments from parents through a nonprofit foundation he set up. After pleading guilty, he was seen swimming several times at St. Petersburg's North Shore pool.
• Mark Riddell, 36. Riddell was director of college entrance test preparation at IMG Academy, a boarding school and sports training facility in Brandenton. Singer typically paid him $10,000 to take college entrance exams in the place of students or to correct their answers. IMG fired him.
• Felicity Huffman, 56. A star of the TV show Desperate Housewives, Huffman made a $15,000 donation to Singer's foundation for a person (presumably Riddell) to take the SAT in place of her daughter. She pleaded guilty and likely faces less than a year in prison. Her husband, actor William Macy, was not charged.
• Lori Loughlin, 54. Best known for her roles in Full House and Fuller House, Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, allegedly paid $500,000 to Singer's foundation in an effort to get the University of Southern California admissions committee to believe that their two daughters would join the school's women's rowing team if admitted. In fact, neither daughter had ever trained in the sport and they had no plans to start. Loughlin and Giannulli have pleaded not guilty.
• Gordon Ernst. Prosecutors say Ernest, while head coach of men's and women's tennis at Georgetown University, accepted $2.7 million in bribes to admit at least 12 students as tennis recruits. Ernst allegedly was sent fraudulently obtained test scores and fraudulent tennis credentials that he then forwarded to an admissions officer with the comment, “Potential spot.” He has pleaded not guilty.