Billy McFarland leaving the court after pleading guilty to wire-fraud charges in March. He was sentenced to six years in prison on Thursday.
October 11, 2018
The disgraced organizer of the disastrous Fyre music festival in the Bahamas, an audacious scheme that defrauded investors and left hundreds of ticket buyers stranded on an island, was sentenced on Thursday to six years in prison by a federal judge in Manhattan.
The organizer, Billy McFarland, 26, was also sentenced for running a sham ticket-selling business — but that fraud was run-of-the-mill compared with the Fyre Festival, which had been promoted by A-list social media influencers but imploded just as publicly on Instagram and Twitter. Mr. McFarland had promised an event with luxury accommodations and performances by bands like Blink-182. But the festival never took place, leaving attendees wandering unfinished sites on the island of Great Exuma in the Bahamas.
In March, Mr. McFarland pleaded guilty to two counts of wire fraud after investigators concluded that he had defrauded investors in his company, Fyre Media, as well as a subsidiary that had promoted the music festival, resulting in $24 million in losses.
Then in July, Mr. McFarland pleaded guilty to two more counts of fraud related to another company that he ran while out on bail that sold fake tickets to fashion, music and sports events and was said to have cost at least 30 victims a minimum of about $150,000.
In court on Thursday, Mr. McFarland, wearing brown jail garb and blue sneakers, sat quietly between two lawyers. Dozens of his family members and friends were behind him, crammed elbow to elbow into the gallery’s benches or standing against the courtroom’s rear wall.
“I know that I betrayed the trust of my investors, my customers, my family,” Mr. McFarland said in a lengthy statement before Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald pronounced her sentence. “This is an extremely bitter reality,” he added.
The judge called Mr. McFarland “unique in this court’s memory,” citing the fact that he had committed crimes while out on bail and had lied to federal law enforcement agents about the ticket company’s operations during a voluntary meeting in June.
“The defendant is a serial fraudster and to date his fraud, like a circle, has no end,” she said. “Mr. McFarland has been dishonest most of his life.”
Prosecutors said that the music festival, which was to have taken place in 2017, was the product of an elaborate scheme. The festival’s website identified its location as Fyre Cay, a fictional place that was described as a private island that had once belonged to the drug lord Pablo Escobar.
Actually, Mr. McFarland secured some land on Great Exuma just weeks before the festival and hired workers who scrambled to prepare for the event. But as ticket holders arrived, Mr. McFarland’s plans unraveled and the festival was canceled. He also had a celebrity business partner in Fyre Media, the rapper Ja Rule, who posted on social media that he was “heartbroken” about the chaos. But as the authorities began to look into the failed event, they appeared to focus on Mr. McFarland.
From late 2017 until early 2018, Mr. McFarland also ran a company called NYC VIP Access that sold bogus tickets to events like the Met Gala, Coachella, Burning Man and the Super Bowl. In one case, prosecutors said, two customers flew from Florida to New York for the Grammy Awards, only to be turned away at the door.
In a sentencing memorandum, prosecutors had asked for a prison term of at least 11 years. They called Mr. McFarland “the consummate con artist,” adding: “He betrayed and deceived his investors, customers, and employees while he was living the high life at his luxury apartment, traveling to exclusive locales, staying at luxury hotels, being chauffeured in his Maserati, and entertaining himself and his friends at restaurants, bars, and casinos.”
They also accused Mr. McFarland of lacking remorse, citing a line from a report by a forensic psychiatrist Dr. Andrew Levin, who evaluated the defendant. Regarding the VIP Access operations, Dr. Levin wrote: “He did not feel that what he did was wrong.”
John Nemeth, who said that he had lost his life savings of $180,000 by investing it with Mr. McFarland, read a victim impact statement before the sentencing. He called Mr. McFarland “an extremely skilled and convincing liar” and a forger who had “destroyed trust” and deserved “a long prison term.”
Mr. Nemeth said that he and his wife are both in their late 50s and that the loss of their savings ensured that he will be working well into his 70s.
Defense lawyers had asked that the judge sentence Mr. McFarland to six months’ home confinement or a minimal prison term, saying that he had made a genuine effort to use investors’ money on a flawed business plan, had been responsible for charitable acts and had suffered from untreated mental illness.
They also said that prosecutors had taken a paraphrased remark by Dr. Levin out of context.
Although Mr. McFarland may not have thought he was wrong while running VIP Access, he had come to see things differently, his lawyers wrote, adding: “As Billy has unequivocally acknowledged, that is fraud.”
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