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Fyre Festival Felon Billy McFarland Says Prison Pal-Turned-Investor Is Trying to Extort Him

todayDecember 19, 2022 1

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Most people probably didn’t even realize that Billy McFarland, founder of the failed Fyre Festival was out of prison until he popped up on TikTok Oct. 24, with a video showing an old pirate-style map taped to a whiteboard. He was hyping a new project that he claimed would be “a little crazier and a whole lot bigger than anything I’ve ever tried before.” Full details would follow in November, he said, as he pulled off the map to reveal a phone number, “but this time, everyone’s invited.”  

It’s been over four years since McFarland’s planned Fyre Festival on Great Exuma in the Bahamas imploded, leaving concertgoers with soggy sandwiches and emergency tents instead of Blink-182 and luxury accommodations. A year later, he was perp-walked into Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center after being arrested for selling tickets he didn’t have to events like the Grammy Awards and the Met Gala, while out on bail awaiting sentencing for fraud charges after stealing $26 million from investors in Fyre Fest.  

McFarland tells Billboard in an exclusive interview that his new idea will help him pay back the $26 million the judge in the Fyre Festival case ordered him to reimburse those investors. He says he came up with the idea during a tough stretch in solitary confinement, where he was sent after the prison warden realized that he had recorded a podcast while locked up.  

“Ninety percent of the ideas that I had in there were for pure survival,” says McFarland. “If I wasn’t brainstorming this project, I would have gone crazy — it’s hell.” 

His idea, which he first shared with his longtime girlfriend Anastasia Eremenko, a Russian-born model featured in the documentary Fyre Fraud, was to start smaller, by talking small groups of people into traveling to Great Exuma — then get bigger. So, he started posting videos and appeared on Good Morning America and the Full Send podcast talking up “PYRT” — pronounced “pirate” — which he described as a luxury Bahamas resort property, clothing line and digital metaverse that would kick off with a global treasure hunt. The prize, he said, was a private island in the Bahamas. 

In October, before he posted the first TikTok video, he had even invited potential investors to sit in on a call with a regional Bahamian official, who assured McFarland he was welcome back on the island, according to Peter Vincer, the producer of the Dumpster Fyre podcast, which told McFarland’s story.  

But, it won’t be that easy. On Nov. 14, Bahamas Acting Prime Minister Chester Cooper released a statement that the government would not approve any event affiliated with him. “He is considered to be a fugitive,” the statement read. “Anyone knowing of his whereabouts should report same to the RBPF” — the Royal Bahamas Police Force.  

Until then, McFarland assumed the bigger problem would be getting permission from his probation officer to leave the Southern District of New York. “That was personally super tough,” McFarland says about his Bahamas ban. The reality is that I owe a lot of workers money for their work on the festival, and they need to get paid back. And I just don’t have the money right now.” 

That wasn’t his only problem. By the time he posted his first TikTok video, McFarland had fallen into a financial dispute with the lead investor in PYRT, who he met in Elkton Federal Correction Institute in Ohio, and the investor’s young business partner, Eric Bratcher, an alienated McFarland fan, now says his main goal in life is to “be known as the person who brought down Billy McFarland.” 

Bratcher’s beef with McFarland is personal. He says he put his life on hold to help McFarland publish his memoir and launch PYRT, a project that Bratcher believes could have been successful had it not been for repeated misrepresentations by McFarland about its finances. (McFarland said he was always forthright about the PYRT’s money situation.) 

Bratcher had invested with a businessman — identified by The Daily Beast as John Taylor — who put $640,000 into PYRT, mostly with wire transfers and checks made out to McFarland’s longtime friend and partner in PYRT, Michael Falb. Taylor, a private investor who served four years in prison for sex trafficking a 15-year-old prostitute, helped capitalize McFarland’s business without a contract or formal agreement. 

Months after Taylor made that investment, McFarland kicked Taylor out of PYRT, which Taylor had been managing as one of three partners. Taylor says he was fired after he started to raise questions about how money was being spent, but McFarland tells Billboard that he fired Taylor because he had lied to him about the details of his conviction.  

Bratcher was also let go because of his connection to Taylor. And since Bratcher had been hired to transcribe some of McFarland’s notes from prison to turn into a memoir that McFarland said he had a publishing deal for, he threatened to auction off the notes if McFarland didn’t pay him $75,000 to $150,000 for the work he had done. McFarland says he never told Bratcher he had a publishing deal in place. 

A little more than a week before McFarland appeared on TikTok, he offered to buy out Taylor from the company in a deal that would have repaid his $640,000 investment, plus an additional $360,000 over the next six months. (Taylor says that he considered his investment in PYRT to be a loan collateralized against the $2 million book deal that McFarland allegedly told him he had made.)  

Taylor didn’t believe that McFarland would be able to pay him back, so he countered that he wanted his money back in a week, plus an additional $5 million over the next two years, according to emails provided to Billboard. McFarland’s attorneys rejected this offer on Oct. 31, despite threats from Taylor and Bratcher to tell the FBI and the U.S. Probation and Parole Office that McFarland had misappropriated Taylor’s investment. After McFarland’s attorneys rejected Taylor and Bratcher’s offer, Bratcher tells Billboard that he and Taylor did go to the FBI.  

Amid all of this, McFarland is still planning PYRT. “One of the things I should have done early on is cut out all of the jail people from my life,” McFarland says. He’s still pushing forward, despite this fight, his ban from the Bahamas, or the issues involved in raising investment after a fraud conviction. After all, he owes his $26 million under the terms of his sentence, and how else could he possibly raise it? 

McFarland was able to garner more than $26 million for Fyre Festival because he offered potential partners more than just a return on investment. Most ventures show plenty of potential on paper. McFarland’s also offered something that potential investors couldn’t buy: status.  

“People will give you money if you can give them access to something they don’t have,” McFarland wrote in a draft of his memoir, which Bratcher showed to Billboard. (He does not have a book deal.) So, to raise money for the Fyre Festival, he created a sizzle reel with video of Ja Rule and IMG models in swimwear on jet skis, and showed potential investors pictures of the island where Fyre would take place. When that wasn’t enough, according to an SEC complaint, McFarland resorted to forgery.  

Among the documents McFarland created for investors was a false revenue report which showed that Fyre Media, the festival’s parent company, had generated $34 million (actual revenue: $1.5 million); a fake brokerage statement showing McFarland owned $2.56 million worth of Facebook shares (real holdings: $1,599 in shares) and a fabricated email from a private bank saying McFarland had been approved for a $3 million personal loan. McFarland created enough fake documents to be convicted of criminal fraud, defined under U.S. law as “intentional deception to benefit yourself or someone else.” He was ultimately sentenced to six years in prison and served four and a half years in five different facilities.

McFarland started serving his time in Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center, a squalid prison where billionaire sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein was found hanging from his lower bunk in 2019. After his sentencing, McFarland was moved to Otisville Federal Correctional Institute in New York, a minimum-security camp for white collar criminals that operates on the honor system and has also housed Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino and Donald Trump confidants Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen. There, McFarland was caught with a digital recording device, thrown in solitary confinement for three months and shipped off to Elkton Federal Correction Institute in Lisbon, Ohio. 

In Elkton, McFarland met Taylor, now 49, who loved scuba diving and had battled cocaine and alcohol addictions for most of his life. Despite being two decades apart in age, Taylor and McFarland became close behind bars, where they would talk business and discuss their mutual interest in startups. After Taylor was granted early release in April 2020, the men promised to stay in touch. 

Six months later, Taylor was ready to be part of McFarland’s first redemption project — the Dumpster Fyre podcast, produced by publicist and media executive Peter Vincer with Notorious LLC. The concept for the show was to document McFarland’s life in the general population of Elkton as prison officials dealt with a brutal COVID-19 outbreak that killed nine inmates. Prison officials had no idea McFarland was recording episodes of Dumpster Fyre from the prison phone until a trailer for the show aired. Hours after airing, McFarland was again hauled off to solitary confinement for a six-month bid, the hardest time he says he served behind bars. 

“It’s fucking awful,” says McFarland, adding that he lost track of time, as hours, days and later weeks ran into one another. “As soon as you lose hope, you go crazy.” 

It was in solitary confinement that McFarland first came up with the idea for PYRT, a fantastical island getaway in the Bahamas that would be part hotel and part digital universe, linked together through VID/R technology that would allow digital visitors and real-life resort guests to interact. 

To generate awareness, PYRT would begin with a major stunt — the crash of a twin engine prop plane on the pristine beaches of Norman’s Cay (“…Aviation experts will be engaged to adhere to environmental and local regulations,” McFarland wrote in the draft of his memoir.) The crash would then kick off a global treasure hunt that would end where it began, in the Bahamas where the crashed plane would be converted into a diver’s reef, not far from a luxury hotel that would serve as PYRT headquarters. 

McFarland continued to work on PYRT once he was released from solitary confinement in April 2021, then came up with an investor deck, which he sent to Taylor. When McFarland was released, Taylor was one of the first people to show up at the halfway house McFarland moved to, and he eventually gave McFarland and his business partner, Falb, a total of $640,000 — about $590,000 in wire transfers to Falb, about $40,000 through a debit card, and about $10,000 in cash. Bank records show that Taylor transferred $8,000 to $10,000 a month into a bank account and that McFarland was withdrawing money from the account at an ATM near his apartment. 

McFarland says Taylor knew how he was spending the money and only shut down the account after the two had a falling out. It’s unclear why Taylor — who has a background in lending and originated and financed more than $100 million in international loans, according to his company’s website — would hand over so much money without any paperwork. 

Whatever arrangements McFarland makes to pay back Taylor, he already owes $26 million to his former investors, and he says he has already found some ways to make money — recording videos for the app Cameo, signing a trading card deal and working on a TV project. But he still believes that PYRT represents his best bet for paying back his victims and moving forward with his life. 

Eventually, that is. “I’d be stupid to say I could pay the money back in seven years or some set amount of time,” McFarland says. “Unless I win the business lottery, that’s just not realistic.”  

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