Counterfeit Saudi Prince
Counterfeit Saudi Prince
My name is Khalid,” he tells me, and I want to believe him. After all, he has traveled the world as royalty—the son of the king of Saudi Arabia, no less. Leading international investors know him as His Royal Highness Khalid bin al-Saud. He moved in an entourage of Rolls-Royces and Ferraris, his every whim tended to by uniformed housekeepers and armed bodyguards. A suave British-born C.E.O. handled his business affairs, and a well-connected international banker marketed his investment deals to a select few, leaving him to live a life of astonishing excess.
Ever since he was a boy, he had been pitted against his royal brothers in an expensive game—to see who could “outdo the other one” in spending, he liked to say. Khalid was surely winning. He was in negotiations to purchase 30 percent of the famed Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach for $440 million, and he was selling early access to what promised to be the biggest I.P.O. in history: the initial public offering of Aramco, the Saudi oil giant. Until last June, when the Saudi government shelved the plan, the I.P.O. was expected to be worth more than $2 trillion.
Khalid could regularly be overheard talking on his phone with the likes of Bill Gates and Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. “I’m sick and tired of Trump calling me and inviting me to the White House!” he often complained. He kept in touch with his father, the Saudi king, on FaceTime, and, if you were lucky, he would let you listen in. But the prince’s favorite companion was Foxy, his beloved Chihuahua, whom he draped in diamonds and designer dog clothes and toted around in a $2,690 Louis Vuitton dog carrier. He stuffed other Louis Vuitton bags with stacks of $100 bills, tossing the money from his jewel-encrusted fingers, one sporting a nine-carat diamond, to those who tended to his needs—flashes of benevolence from an academic genius whose LinkedIn page lists his law studies at Harvard, his master’s in business administration from the University of Southern California, and his top marks at Institut Le Rosey, the elite Swiss boarding school attended by Rockefellers and Rothschilds.
He lived in a penthouse on Fisher Island, the super-wealthy enclave that sprawls across 216 acres south of Miami. But he spent much of his life on his yacht and private jet, which he chronicled religiously on his Instagram account, Princedubai_07. There were pictures of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the fabulously wealthy grandson of the first Saudi king, whose major stakes in U.S. companies alone include Citigroup and Twitter. (“Uncle,” Khalid posted beside one photo.) “My new yacht,” he said in Instagram videos from his travels, “my plane,” and “my Ferrari.” There were endless posts of pieces of jewelry from his vast collection. “Birthday gifts from the fam,” he wrote alongside twin diamond watches draped over $10,000 bundles of cash. His star-struck followers couldn’t get enough. “Ohhh, lawdddd!” groaned one.
I had spent weeks tracing Khalid’s incredible trail before his e-mail arrived. “As you might know, my story is not what it looks like,” he wrote. “There is so much to tell and so much that needs to come to the light.”
He would tell his story exclusively to me, he promised, if I left out certain parts. Like so many of his offers, it was one that promised a wealth of opportunity, in return for very little. In the end, though, I decided to decline. Because Khalid wasn’t writing me from his yacht, or his penthouse on Fisher Island, or his father’s palace in Dubai, but from a cell at the Federal Detention Center in Miami, where he awaits trial on charges of fraud, traveling on a fake passport, impersonating a foreign official, and identity theft.
His true identity, which was revealed after his arrest at J.F.K. airport last November, isn’t Prince Khalid of Saudi Arabia, but Anthony Enrique Gignac, a Colombian orphan adopted by an American couple and transported to Michigan when he was six years old. Embarking on a life of crime and deception that spanned 30 years, he became an “epic con artist” for whom “no scheme is out of reach,” according to a U.S. attorney. His most recent scam involved allegedly duping 26 international investors out of $8 million, while simultaneously attempting to con Miami billionaire Jeffrey Soffer, the ex-husband of supermodel Elle Macpherson, into taking him on as a partner in the Fontainebleau hotel. Gignac initially pleaded guilty to both schemes—only to reverse himself at a hearing in July, where his attorney successfully argued for a trial by jury.
“Mr. Gignac is very upset about the way this investigation was handled,” his attorney told the judge. Suddenly, without permission to address the court, Gignac leapt up in his drab prison garb and unleashed a string of accusations about perceived injustices against him. “I have also been a victim,” he later wrote me. But watching him in court that day, I recalled what someone who knew him in Miami had said.
“You mean the fake prince of Fisher Island?” the man told me. “To play the role he played so well for so long, he had to believe the lie. He actually believes he is Khalid, the prince of Saudi Arabia. I was sucked into absolute mayhem. He dangled such a carrot. Even though you knew he was full of shit, the carrot was so big, and there was a 2.2 percent chance that there was some truth in his asinine lies, that you kept going. He was so talented, and pulled off so much shit, I don’t even know where to begin.”
Gignac, claiming to have legally changed his name to that of a real Saudi prince, Khalid bin al-Saud, started off with small-time grifting. “Prince of Fraud,” the Los Angeles Times dubbed him in 1991, when he “stiffed the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel for $3,488 in room and food charges during a four-day binge in July. He racked up $7,500 in limousine bills burning up the freeways from Torrance to Malibu on excursions that lasted until dawn. He talked Rodeo Drive shopkeepers out of a set of Louis Vuitton luggage and a rare coin collection, only to leave the hotel in handcuffs despite repeated promises that his father, the prince, would make good on his debts.” Employees of the famed Wilshire Boulevard hotel addressed him as “Your Highness.” He was 21.
A year later, after serving a brief stint in jail, the freshly crowned prince moved into the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco. Using an American Express card under the name of “Khalid bin al-Saud,” he bilked the hotel out of an extended stay. After serving 53 days in jail, he fled the city, failing to report to his probation officer. Flying to the idyllic Halekulani Hotel in Honolulu for the Christmas holidays, he conned an unsuspecting couple into writing him a check for $8,500—“for a share in an oil field in Saudi Arabia which didn’t exist,” according to court documents. Convincing another couple, Gilbert and Irene Goetz, that he had “reasons to fear for his life,” he duped them into paying his $20,912.20 resort tab—a scam that, 25 years later, still seems to sting.
“I don’t want to talk to you!” Gilbert Goetz tells me when I call, before slamming down the phone.
In July 1993, Prince Khalid checked into the Walt Disney World Grand Floridian Beach Resort in Orlando, where he ran up more than $14,000 in fraudulent credit-card charges. He pleaded guilty, was given probation, and once again vanished. A month later, he turned up at the Grand Bay Hotel, in Coconut Grove, where, on December 30, after a credit-card shopping spree, he invited two men up to his suite to party.
These were no princes. They beat and robbed him, according to The Miami Herald, and the police were called. Again, Gignac disappeared, this time to Chicago, where he was finally arrested and extradited to Florida for swindling the Grand Bay out of $27,000 and the local Saks Fifth Avenue of $51,175. Charged with fraud and grand theft, he was sentenced to 616 days.
Being locked up, however, did nothing to deter Gignac’s creative impulses. Before his trial even started, while he was sitting in jail, he began contacting lawyers as Khalid bin al-Saud. One of those who rose to the bait was Oscar Rodríguez, a Miami attorney. “He said he was a member of the Saudi family, and they were going to get him bail, and his father was going to pay for my services,” Rodríguez recalls. Sensing a business opportunity, the attorney enlisted two bail bondsmen, Tom O’Connell and Francisco Marty, to post a $46,000 bond to spring the prince from jail.
“Oscar was just mesmerized,” recalls O’Connell. “He thought he was going to be the attorney for the whole kingdom.”
“Bullshit,” says Rodríguez. “But he did say when the Saudis got in trouble, I could be the lawyer to take care of them.”
Two of O’Connell’s bondsmen picked up the prince from jail and drove him back to their office, where they waited for the money from his family. But the hours passed, and the funds never arrived. “Listen, Prince, the money’s not coming,” Rodríguez told him. “We gotta put you back in jail.”
But on the way back to the detention center, the prince came up with another idea. “There’s an American Express office,” he told the bondsmen. “Can you stop there?”
He entered the office in tears, claiming he’d been mugged, his credit cards stolen. He said his father, the king, would be “most upset,” The Miami Herald later reported.
American Express agreed to issue a replacement card if he could correctly answer a security question: “What were your last two purchases?” Gignac, miraculously, was able to verify the last two purchases on the card belonging to the real Prince Khalid—one in California, one in France. “Fearful of offending Gignac if he truly was actually a prince, American Express issued him a Platinum card the next day,” the Herald reported. The card had a $200 million line of credit.
Gignac immediately booked two limos and embarked on a shopping spree, his bondsmen in tow. Heading to a jeweler on Miracle Mile in Coral Gables, he bought two Rolex watches, along with a bracelet covered in emeralds and diamonds. The bill came to $22,120.
Next, accompanied by O’Connell’s bondsmen, Gignac flew home to Michigan.
“He bought out the entire first-class cabin of a Delta flight,” O’Connell recalls. “Because a prince can’t sit on a plane with anyone else.” Gignac visited a university, where he promised to donate $1 million in exchange for a scholarship for a friend. Afterwards he turned around and headed back to Miami. “He flew up and back in one day,” O’Connell says. “We thought, He is the prince!”
Then a call came from the American Express fraud department. “They told us, ‘He’s not the prince! He’s committing credit-card fraud right now!’” says O’Connell. “We called Oscar and said, ‘He’s not the prince! And he’s gonna boogie!’”
Rodríquez was stunned. “He’s on a plane to New York with my wife and my daughter!” he replied.
Rodríguez’s wife was taking their daughter to school in New York City. The prince had upgraded them to first class, and booked an entire floor of the Four Seasons Hotel. Rodríguez immediately phoned his wife and said, “Make sure he stays in the room!”
The lawyer, accompanied by O’Connell and Marty, jumped on the next flight to New York. There, they headed to the Four Seasons, where they entered Gignac’s suite and ordered him to surrender.
“I’m calling the embassy!” the prince protested. “I’m not going back to Miami!”
“You’re right, you’re not going to Miami,” O’Connell replied. “You’re going out the fucking window.” Picking up Gignac, he threw him across the room. The prince hit the wall and landed in a heap. “He came down and said, ‘I’ll go to Miami,’” O’Connell recalls.
But the prince didn’t give up. At La Guardia, while O’Connell was booking three seats to Miami, Gignac spotted three airport police officers. “I’m Prince Khalid bin al-Saud!” he shouted. “I’ve been kidnapped!” Pointing at O’Connell he screamed, “He has a gun!”
“The cops came out of the woodwork, and I have a shotgun against my head because they think I’ve kidnapped a prince,” O’Connell recalls. The prince was still yelling: “If there are any of my loyal subjects here, please call the embassy and CNN!”
After O’Connell showed the police his paperwork, the cops dispersed. Rather than risk another incident, the bondsmen rented a car for the 24-hour drive to Miami. As an added precaution, they threw Gignac in the trunk of the car. “We rested along the way and took him out of the trunk,” O’Connell says. “That is when he told us he wasn’t a prince. He gave us his real name, where he was born, everything.”
Gignac even revealed how he had managed to answer the security question at American Express. “He told us that the two Rolexes he bought after we bailed him out went to his two inside people at American Express, who gave him the answers to the question,” O’Connell says. “We drove him back to jail in Miami and got our bond back.”
Back in jail, Gignac kept right on going. One day in the summer of 1994, officials at Syracuse University were contacted by Prince Khalid bin al-Saud of Saudi Arabia. His Royal Highness stated his intention to donate $45 million to the university. His only stipulation was that the university kindly wire a portion of the taxes for the donation—$16,000—to his account in East Lansing, Michigan. “Syracuse did in fact wire this money,” wrote an assistant U.S. attorney.
The bank account, it turned out, had been opened by Gignac’s younger brother, with whom he had recently been re-united. Both men were convicted, and the prince was sentenced to 46 months for wire fraud. An additional 37 months were added to his sentence when he lit his cell on fire and covered the floor with shampoo, hoping to trip up the guards and make his escape.
In 1996, again from his jail cell, Gignac enlisted another attorney in Miami—this time to help him get what he claimed he was owed by his “uncle,” the powerful Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. When I call the lawyer, who asked not to be identified, he emits a groaning response that I would become accustomed to hearing upon mention of Gignac’s name.
“Oh, God,” he moans. “I seem to be afflicted by him. He is a serious embarrassment to me. He could convince you that he was a green toad instead of a human being.”
To verify his identity, Gignac told the attorney to call Santa Monica College. According to what appears to be a college transcript, Khalid bin al-Saud attended the college in 1992, earning a 4.0 G.P.A. in human biology and macro-economics. (The college, citing privacy rules, declines to discuss student records.) “A campus policeman told me people would bring him to school in a limousine and pick him up,” recalls the lawyer.
One day, the prince asked the lawyer to drive to the Miami airport and pick up a famous attorney who was arriving that afternoon to discuss his case: none other than Johnnie Cochran, by then renowned for his defense of O. J. Simpson. Cochran and his partner, Carl Douglas, headed straight to the jail to meet with the prince. “They debriefed Khalid for two hours,” says the lawyer. “Everything was consistent. He didn’t miss a beat.”
Cochran was impressed, but did not take the prince’s case. “There were real questions about authenticity,” Douglas recalls. But the Miami attorney, who received his law degree from Yale, was undeterred. I show him a notarized letter he wrote to Prince Alwaleed dated February 4, 1997. Signed by his imprisoned client, it demanded that Alwaleed “execute all titles” to eight properties that “Prince Khalid” claimed had been promised to him, including an apartment in Trump Tower and $34 million in Palm Beach real estate.
The attorney stares at the letter. “I feel like a damn fool for ever listening to this guy!” he says. “I had Khalid Derangement Syndrome. I cross-examine liars for a living, and I could not trip him up. It was outrageous on its face. But so is everything about the Saudi family. He wasn’t dealing with fringe people—he was dealing with Alwaleed!”
Did you ever hear back from Alwaleed? I ask.
“Of course not,” he says.
Released in the early 2000s, Gignac returned to his mother’s home in Michigan. “We took him to dinner at the only restaurant we had here in Eaton Rapids, full of rednecks and their families, and he comes in wearing a white fur coat and driving a white Cadillac,” recalls Lisa Whitehead. (Gignac’s mother died in 2008.) “He had acrylic nails and all this gold around his neck and silk shirts, very flamboyant and feminine—an everybody-look-at-me-type guy.”
One night, the family went to see Catch Me If You Can, the 2002 film starring Leonardo DiCaprio as master con artist Frank Abagnale. The prince was not impressed. “He said, ‘I’m so much better than that guy,’” recalls Whitehead.
Gignac hired Whitehead’s 17-year-old daughter, Jessica, as his “personal assistant.” Everywhere they went, people went out of their way to help the prince. A car-rental agency gave him two Cadillacs without asking for a credit card. He dined without checks; shopped without bills—all thanks to what Gignac called his royal “boo,” implying that a Saudi prince was picking up the tab. “He said he was a kept man,” Jessica says, “and was well taken care of.”
At one point, after Gignac skipped out on a local hotel, he asked Jessica to go to his room to pick up his belongings. She found cash hidden under the mattress, jewelry wrapped in towels, and several Western Union transfers for around $10,000 each. They came, she says, from Saudi Arabia.
After a stop in Atlanta, where he scammed a local doctor out of $5,000 while saying he was in town to buy the Atlanta Falcons, Gignac’s run seemed to come to an end. Back in Troy, Michigan, on January 3, 2003, he was arrested in his white Cadillac outside a shopping mall for impersonating a diplomat. He had charged $11,300 at Saks Fifth Avenue to what he claimed was his “family account,” which actually belonged to the real Saudi princess Fadwa al-Saud. He also charged $17,691 to the account of the real Prince Khalid at Neiman Marcus, where he threatened employees for not showing proper respect to a royal.
“You cannot do this!” Gignac said as police handcuffed him in the parking lot. “You must call the embassy!”
The State Department dispatched Ed Seitz, a celebrated agent with the Diplomatic Security Services, to interview the prince in jail. In his statement, Gignac said that he “had been the lover” of a Saudi prince and “another member of the Saudi family,” and had received “hush money” not to disclose the affairs. He insisted that he had been officially adopted by Prince Alwaleed, issued a “Saudi Diplomatic Passport” by the Saudi Embassy, and given a $480 million trust fund to live off while he negotiated a “lump-sum settlement” with the royal family. He also claimed that the Saudis had used him as a “mule” to traffic money to terrorists.
A federal agent searched State Department databases and found “no record of the SUBJECT.” And while there is a “true Khalid Al Saud,” the agent added, he has no connection to Gignac, who assumed the name “to defraud the Royal Family of Saudi Arabia.” The real Prince Khalid faxed a notarized letter to Neiman Marcus, stating “upon oath” that he did not know Gignac and had not authorized him to charge to his account.
While he was in jail awaiting trial, Gignac tried again. Mailing a letter to Citibank, he demanded that $3.9 million from a real prince’s trust fund be wired to him. On October 12, 2006, he pleaded guilty to attempted bank fraud and impersonating a foreign diplomat. He was sentenced to 77 months in federal prison.
By the time he was released, in December 2011, Gignac was ready to up his game. Violating the terms of his probation, he headed to Florida, long a paradise for outlaws and deadbeats. With his ambition growing, he wasn’t content with merely bilking luxury hotels—he attempted to buy them. Clad in Louis Vuitton, draped in diamonds, and boasting of a Beverly Hills address, he went to the legendary Cheeca Lodge & Spa in the Florida Keys and offered $200 million for the 27-acre resort. But the hotel’s director of security didn’t buy his act, and Gignac soon found himself back in a Michigan court.
This time, though, prosecutors had new evidence against him: the F.B.I. had seized a big black binder containing all of Gignac’s “documents”—hundreds of notarized letters and faxes and legal correspondence and requests for wire transfers that served as proof of his long, if one-sided, interactions with the Saudi royals. The binder was his secret weapon—a cache of official-looking paperwork, punctuated with impressive seals and stamps, that he could draw on over and over to create the appearance of legitimacy. “When someone who is not familiar with this defendant looks at the documents,” a prosecutor said in a 2012 court hearing, “it appears as if things are, you know, sort of in order. It is sort of a con that he plays on the courts, on the system, on agents, on everyone.” The documents—many flagged “attorney/client privilege”—were merely the work of a “defendant who is a confidence man, and has been throughout his entire life.”
In the end, Gignac was sentenced to another year in prison. After the hearing, he asked the court to return his black binder to him.
Gignac had not only mastered the art of the con, he had given it his own unique spin. In a stroke of genius, he combined the classic tricks of old-school grifters—stealing a famous name, striking an elaborate pose—with the look-at-me obsessions of the social-media age. “Look at my Instagram to see whom I have been involved with,” he wrote me from jail, as if to say: How could it be a lie if I’m posting it? He turned his ethnicity into an asset, capitalizing on the fact that many white Americans can’t distinguish between a Hispanic and an Arab—especially if they’re blinded by plenty of bling. And like many con men before him, Gignac understood the nearly universal appeal of royalty: even the rich and powerful, it seems, can’t resist a crown. “If you’re trolling for big fish, the idea that standing behind you is the royal family of Saudi Arabia, people with access to billions and billions of dollars—that resonates,” says a Miami businessman who watched the prince in action. “It gives you credibility. It all adds up.”
But to take his con to the next level, Gignac needed something he lacked: access to the super-rich. He sought someone with connections and class—a front man who could open doors to those with the real money. He found him in Carl Marden Williamson, a 51-year-old British asset manager who was working out of his home in a small town in North Carolina.
Born in the suburbs of London to a working-class family, Williamson arrived in America in his 20s and married a North Carolina girl he’d met while in the British Royal Navy. Handsome and charming, Williamson offered Gignac a veneer of legitimacy: he had no police record, experience in law and finance, a British accent that sounded positively royal, and a vast network of international connections. “Carl had a Rolodex that was probably thousands of people,” says his wife, Denise.
Like Gignac, Williamson specialized in impressing people with the names and titles of his far-flung contacts. Some were legit. “He claimed that he knew everybody under the sun,” recalls Dalal bint Saud bin Abdulaziz, a real Saudi princess who spoke with Williamson several times by phone. “Last I heard he was with somebody who was portraying himself to be a prince.” But others were bogus. “He was a master global networker,” says a former colleague. “His line of bullshit would change depending on the person he was talking to. If you didn’t have a connection, he would be like, ‘Yeah, I know the guy. Let me go ahead and call them.’ It was frickin’ amazing.” Then one day, in 2015, Williamson met a man whose talent for bullshit matched his own. “He was called by this guy who claimed to be a Saudi prince,” says Denise. Gignac showed Williamson his bank statement, which indicated that he had $600 million in his account. “There was definitely, early on, the promise of great wealth, which excited Carl,” says Denise. “It seemed like he was talking to the guy every 20 minutes, from the time he woke up until he went to bed.”
Even though he had no contract and no salary, Williamson agreed to set up an investment company for the prince, one that would be open only to a select and privileged few: Marden Williamson International L.L.C. The company announced its opening on LinkedIn on July 26, 2015, its logo a distinctive crown, its headquarters on Park Avenue in New York and the Silver Tower in Dubai. (Denise believes both were nothing but mailing addresses.) His Royal Highness himself apparently wrote the announcement, which was riddled with grammatical errors. It opened by praising Allah, and introduced Williamson as a “great man who is loyal and honest and understands the People of Our region.”
Williamson also began to back up Gignac’s lies. He vouched that he had known the prince and his family for 20 years. He purchased diplomatic license plates for the prince’s Ferrari and Rolls-Royce on eBay. And he introduced the prince to an investment banker in London who specializes in connecting high-net-worth individuals with investment opportunities. At the prince’s request, she demonstrated her devotion by lending him $150,000.
“I was fooled,” says the investment banker, who is suing the prince’s company for fraud. “It was a big, big, big scam.”
The banker opened major doors for the prince. Before long, 26 investors were eagerly wiring a total of $7,957,252 through various shell companies to Marden Williamson International. In return, they thought they were getting in on a “friends and family” pre-offering of the pending I.P.O. for Aramco, the Saudi oil company. By enlisting the aid of investment bankers in two countries, Gignac had graduated from mere grifting to what an expert in white-collar fraud calls “a very complex and professional crime that would have fooled most people—even most successful businesspeople.”
One of the investors was Godefridus “Frits” Vranken, a respected Dutch tax lawyer known as a master of mergers and acquisitions. According to someone who observed the deal-making, Vranken met with Williamson in Dubai and London and on Fisher Island. Williamson produced statements showing that the prince had $2 billion in the bank, and said he owned $600 million in property, including the palatial new Four Seasons Hotel at the Surf Club in Miami. Vranken lent Gignac a total of $4.9 million—“to earn the prince’s trust,” according to the observer—and the money was later “rolled over” into the Aramco I.P.O. Vranken was also required to show that he “held the prince in high esteem” by presenting him with Rolex watches and other extravagant gifts.
In September 2017, Vranken traveled to New York to meet the prince. At the meeting, he was introduced as the “Swiss C.E.O.” of Marden Williamson International. The prince told Vranken he was partnering with Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg to build a new Four Seasons in Manhattan. During one meeting, “His Highness” took what seemed to be copious notes, which turned out to be as phony as the I.P.O. “Scribbles,” says someone who saw them. “Like a little kid’s.”
“Frits is a successful businessman who was swindled by Gignac’s complex, convoluted, and sinister fraud,” says his attorney Michael Hantman. “Frits provided full cooperation to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which hopefully will lead to Gignac’s conviction. We hope he will never again cheat so many good people.”
It isn’t difficult to track what the prince did with the money provided by Vranken and his other investors. “Gettin that chicken,” Gignac posted on his Instagram account, beside a briefcase packed with bundles of cash.
The Aramco I.P.O. wasn’t the only game that Gignac was running. In early 2017, after he finished the terms of his parole in Michigan, he headed back to Miami. As is customary for royalty, he was preceded by his emissary, Williamson, who told real-estate agents that His Royal Highness, Prince Khalid, was interested in moving to Fisher Island, one of America’s wealthiest and most exclusive communities, an oasis whose residents have included Oprah Winfrey, Boris Becker, and Julia Roberts. “He said the prince, the son of the king of Saudi Arabia, had just undergone gastric-bypass surgery and wanted to be on Fisher for some privacy,” recalls one local.
The slimmed-down prince arrived for a tour of the island, cradling his beloved Foxy, and looked at high-rise condos going for $20 million and up. “I’ve been in the biz 25 years, but he was Top 10 over-the-top, flamboyant, all the bells and whistles,” says Don Pingaro, a local real-estate agent. “He had the royal name, the seal, the bodyguards, the jewelry, the entourage, the business manager. He was looking for the best of the best.”
The prince quickly found his dream condo. “This is my palace!” Looking the owner in the eye, he vowed, “I will have $21 million transferred to you by morning.”
The money never came. But the long con had begun. Gignac enlisted Perla Lichi, a prestigious interior designer who has worked on Middle Eastern palaces, to decorate his new home. He was accompanied everywhere by an entourage of handsome bodyguards—low-level security guys hired from shopping malls and outfitted in suits, fake diplomatic badges, and guns. And he played the rich-prince cliché to the hilt. “Every single building you’d drive by he’d say, ‘Oh, my father owns that,’” says a friend of the prince. “He’d just spend, spend, spend, dumping out cash from Louis Vuitton duffel bags and tipping hundred-dollar bills to everyone: building managers, employees, handymen. He acted like he wanted privacy, but he wanted everybody talking about him. I live in a city of bullshit, but this guy’s bullshit was through the roof.”
Gignac seemed to be re-enacting the pattern that had started as a child: the more alone he felt, the more his lies increased. Unable to come up with the money to buy the colossal condos he crowed about, he rented a three-bedroom penthouse on Fisher Island for around $15,000 a month, and filled it with store-bought furniture. His phony entourage did nothing to ease the pain he felt. Lichi, his designer, shows me the flurry of texts he sent her. “I feel so alone at times, Perla,” reads one. “It hurts.”
In his isolation, Gignac set his sights on one of the biggest marks of his career: Jeffrey Soffer, the dashing prince of Miami, whose family’s real-estate dynasty is worth an estimated $4.2 billion. “There’s a larger-than-life quality” to Soffer, read a profile in Ocean Drive magazine. “Maybe it’s because Forbes estimates his net worth at $1 billion, or because he turned the Fontainebleau Miami Beach into one of the hottest hotels in the world. Or maybe it’s because he looks like John F. Kennedy Jr. and he’s married to supermodel Elle Macpherson. Whatever the reason, the 47-year-old Soffer, although soft-spoken, exudes power.”
Soffer already possessed what the fake prince only pretended to have: a mega-yacht, a fleet of private jets, and three palatial residences. But the Fontainebleau, the crown jewel of his empire, had struggled with debt for years. So on March 24, 2017, when a call came from a London-based investment banker who said she represented Prince Khalid bin al-Saud, Soffer wanted to believe. The prince, the banker said, wanted to buy a sizable percentage of the Fontainebleau—and overpay by what some say was as much as $140 million. “Jeff thought he found a sucker to buy in for a crazy valuation,” says one insider. “But he ended up the one being swindled.” (Soffer did not respond to requests for comment.)
In May, the prince, who told Soffer that he was “a direct line to the throne,” roared up in grand style at the Fontainebleau with Carl Williamson, his British investment banker, his entourage of bodyguards, and Foxy. He drove a 2016 Ferrari California whose license plates bore the word DIPLOMAT and an insignia associated with U.S. diplomatic plates. With a Visa card bearing the prince’s name, he paid for rooms and incidentals, both for himself and for his associates. Soon he was telling everyone that he was doing a deal with his “good friend” Jeffrey Soffer. “The con was happening from the moment they met,” says a source close to the situation.
The negotiations stretched into August, when the prince invited Soffer and his business associates to Fisher Island. They were given a tour of his garage, filled with Rolls-Royces and Ferraris. In his penthouse, with the name SULTAN on the doorbell, they were shown an “ornate box,” according to court documents, which contained a letter “purportedly from the Bank of Dubai, guaranteeing the availability of $600 million.”
But before he agreed to invest in the Fontainebleau, the prince demanded that Soffer show his respect through material offerings. “He indicated that one of the customs of his country was the exchange of very lavish gifts during the negotiation process,” says the source. So Soffer presented him with a Cartier bracelet worth $50,000, followed by expensive artwork. All told, he gave the prince a total of $150,000 in gifts.
Gignac tried to play the short con to rack up as many gifts as he could. “You know the long con isn’t going to fly, unless he comes up with a couple hundred million,” says the source. “So it was: How long can I string this guy along until he figures it out?”
To continue the discussions, Soffer flew the prince to Aspen on his private jet. On the flight, the prince worked his Gucci-encased iPhone, posting a split-second video of Soffer on Instagram. In Aspen, he stayed at the St. Regis hotel and visited Soffer’s sprawling home, once owned by the real Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia and currently on the market for $29.5 million. But Soffer’s team was starting to have doubts about the prince, spurred by some financial red flags that had come up during their background checks.
Then, over dinner one night with the Soffer family at one of Aspen’s hottest restaurants, the prince made a fatal mistake. For his appetizer, he ordered prosciutto.
If the prince had actually read the Koran, he would surely have known one of its verses most familiar to the faithful: “Forbidden to you are: dead meat, blood, the flesh of swine, and that on which hath been invoked the name of other than Allah.”
The Soffers immediately knew something was wrong: What kind of Muslim eats pork? The Fontainebleau’s security team began investigating the prince, discovering “key information that this person isn’t what he claims to be,” according to the source. The State Department was notified, and federal agents planned a raid on the prince’s Fisher Island penthouse, only to be thwarted by Hurricane Irma.
In October of last year, Williamson and the prince left the country on a business trip. Gignac used someone else’s passport. The videos he sent to his designer, Perla Lichi, showed lavish dinners in Paris and excursions to Hong Kong and London. In one video, the prince rides a camel along the beach in Dubai. “Traded in my Ferrari,” he jokes.
What the prince wasn’t able to record was his arrival at J.F.K. airport on November 19. After he presented his false passport, federal agents advised him that he was under arrest, seizing cash and items he was carrying worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“I’m a diplomat with diplomatic status!” Gignac pleaded, still in full prince pose. When that produced no result, he added, “I have national-security information you would be interested in hearing.” In January, Gignac is scheduled to go on trial in Miami, where he will attempt to convince a jury to once again set him free.
They came for Carl Williamson just before Christmas, at 6:30 A.M. on December 14. Williamson was in the kitchen of his North Carolina home, along with one of his twin boys, when eight federal agents stormed through the unlocked doors, guns raised. “My son came downstairs having to hold his arms up,” says Denise Williamson.
The agents interrogated Williamson for six hours and searched his home office. When they finally left, Denise asked her husband if he had known the prince was a fake. “I didn’t know,” Williamson insisted. She believes that he, too, was conned by the prince. But the feds had already collected enough evidence to indict Williamson as a co-conspirator in the I.P.O. scheme.
That night, at dinner, Williamson told his wife, “I don’t want anything to eat. I’m going to bed, and I’ll see you in the morning.” Then, around 7:30 P.M., he strung up a rope and tried to hang himself. He died from his injuries two days later. He left behind a short suicide note, saying that he was sorry.
At one point during the raid, Denise recalls, the agents showed her the search warrant. Looking it over, she saw a name she didn’t recognize.
“Who is Anthony Gignac?” she asked.
Counterfeit Saudi Prince
Counterfeit Saudi Prince