Joshua Macciello appeared on ESPN Radio on Jan. 5 to announce his intention to buy the Dodgers. He was an unknown but, as he explained to hosts Steve Mason and John Ireland, he had completed some real estate deals and mineral transactions that put him in position to buy the team in the upcoming bankruptcy auction.
On air, Macciello came off as a regular guy with big money and big plans for the team. With a thick Brooklyn accent and a no-nonsense demeanor, he said he would surround himself with the best minds in the sports business. He'd already had dinner with Dodger legend Tommy Lasorda. Because he was a fan, he would be a hands-on owner.
"My plan is to win the bid first, and then win the World Series immediately following," Macciello said.
Mason and Ireland have been broadcasting together for 16 years, and their show is the highest-rated sports program in their market. In the world of L.A. sports, their opinions mean a lot. And they were high on Josh Macciello. When he said he would sign first baseman Prince Fielder, Mason nearly jumped out of his chair.
"That's the right answer!" he said. "That's what fans want to hear!"
The hosts noted, however, that Macciello was an underdog because he lacked connections within the clubby world of professional baseball.
"Am I a long shot?" Macciello asked. "Yes, and there's no other place that I'd like to be. I'm the Rocky Balboa."
Some listeners who called in were skeptical. How come no one had heard of this guy before? But Mason and Ireland stood firm. Ireland said he had seen an appraisal for one of Macciello's gold mines. It was worth $20 billion.
"It's not a hoax," Mason said. "Believe me, this guy doesn't get on the air without passing a vetting process. We're not gonna risk our reputations."
After his debut, Macciello talked to a dozen more TV stations and radio and print reporters. He answered skeptical comments online. He showed up at a softball game organized by Dodger bloggers, where he went 5-for-7, with two doubles and a triple, and hustled to make a diving catch in the outfield.
"Everybody's worried about me being Frank McCourt," he said later. "Frank McCourt's not laying his body out."
After their initial report, Mason and Ireland did a follow-up interview with Ramona Shelburne, an ESPN reporter who spent five weeks checking into Macciello's background. The verdict: He's the real deal.
"At the end of the day, it's just a great story," Shelburne told them. "This guy, I honestly think, is just a guy who came into a lot of money and thinks it might be cool [to own the team]. There's something endearing about that."
They took some calls. Lance in San Diego, a Dodger fan since the age of 8, was sold.
"He's aggressive like Steinbrenner, young like Cuban. ... He's got my vote, dawg. ... I love him."
"I think a lot of fans are buying what he's selling," Ireland concluded.
Frank McCourt has owned the Dodgers since 2004. His tenure has been a disaster. After spending two years disgracing himself in divorce court, McCourt filed for bankruptcy in June. Last year, the fans boycotted. The team played mediocre baseball against a backdrop of empty seats. Under duress, McCourt agreed to sell the team last fall.
At this point, Dodger fans are desperate to be told two things: That the McCourt era is over, and that the team will win again. Unfortunately, nobody can say those things.
McCourt seems to have every intention of hanging on to the Dodger Stadium parking lots. That would force the new owner into an awkward partnership with the most hated man in Los Angeles.
As for winning, no one can make any promises about that, either — at least not while the bankruptcy sale is pending. The auction is a secret process, and the bidders making a play for the team have signed nondisclosure agreements. Though there have been plenty of leaks, no one is permitted to speak directly to the fans.
No one, except Josh Macciello.
Because, as it turns out, Macciello was never a real contender for the team. He is, instead, a fraud. Despite what he's told reporter after reporter, and despite what those journalists have dutifully repeated, he does not have billions of dollars. He does not have rights to any gold mines. He is, instead, a convicted drug dealer and a huckster who has used his talents to persuade many people — not just journalists — to place their confidence in him. In his wake he has left a string of abandoned projects and broken promises.
The Dodger play is his boldest stunt so far. And, judged strictly as a bid for attention, it was a fantastic success. Reporters and fans ate up the tale of the regular guy who wanted to buy the team. Never mind the gaping holes in that narrative: At the end of the day, it was a great story.
Macciello is such a charismatic force that people continue to believe in him, even when confronted with evidence of his deceit. Provided with some of that information, his publicist, Cindy Rakowitz, continues to stand up for him. "I really do believe he has the money somewhere, somehow, some way," she says. "I want to believe."
And it's not just Rakowitz. The story was remarkably easy to pitch.
"There are a lot of reporters who wanted to believe he was going forward with this," she says. "The L.A. press wants the Dodgers issue to be resolved. From a PR/marketing standpoint, Josh filled that void."
L.A. Weekly's interaction with Macciello begins with an email from Rakowitz's firm, offering an interview with "the potential new owner of the L.A. Dodgers." The pitch describes Macciello as "the coolest 36-year-old billionaire you will EVER meet!!!"
An interview is arranged at Macciello's home in Studio City. The five-bedroom house has a brick facade, inset with two-story white columns. It has been appraised at $1.5 million.
A doughy young man in glasses and a Dodgers windbreaker answers the door and introduces himself as Eric. He says he is Macciello's assistant.
Nothing about the interior of the house, however, says "billionaire." The furnishings are modest and awkwardly arranged. Asked for a restroom, Eric points to a shabby half-bath next to the entryway. On the counter by the sink are two books: What Is My Pee Telling Me? and What Is Your Poo Telling You?
Macciello comes downstairs, wearing ripped white jeans and a black T-shirt. He has a long, scraggly beard and a receding hairline. On his right bicep is an elaborate tattoo of a Joshua tree alongside a New York Yankees cap. He says he's planning to get a Dodgers cap added on there somewhere.
He's planning to do a lot of things. He has restless energy and an eagerness to win people over, to get them to buy into his dreams.
One thing Macciello plans to do, he says, is buy a new house in Bel-Air. (This one's a rental.) Once he buys the Dodgers — he has recently disclosed he is offering $2.2 billion — he intends to keep general manager Ned Colletti and manager Don Mattingly around for a year, to give them another chance. By this time, Prince Fielder has signed a nine-year deal with the Tigers for $214 million. Macciello says he would have passed.
"I would have given him three years, $60 million," he says.
The financing for Macciello's bid appears to be a work in progress. Sitting at a long, dark wood dining room table, he explains that he is no longer using the gold mines, which he has touted in previous interviews. Instead, he has partnered with two gentlemen — Myung Ho Lee and Fred Furrow — who will put up the equity for the deal. They will take a 49 percent stake in the team, and Macciello will keep 51 percent.
But Macciello makes it clear he is not using the gold to secure his 51 percent stake in the bid. So what is backing it?
"There is no backing of the 51 percent," he says. "I can't get into the deal too much. The profit sharing will be in their favor."
Asked why these two guys would agree to buy Macciello a baseball team, he has a ready answer: "They saw my business plan. All these up-front costs I'm paying for."
Macciello tells Eric to retrieve some other documentation. Eric produces a packet that includes a single-page "proof of funds," which purports to show that $10 billion is sitting in an account at HSBC in Hong Kong, under the name of Myung Ho Lee.
Macciello says he's been having some trouble getting the Blackstone Group, the investment firm handling the Dodger sale, to accept that. So they are in the process of transferring the money to an American bank. There's been a delay, however, because of Chinese New Year.
"Everything shuts down for Year of the Dragon," Macciello says.
The packet also includes the trio's $2.2 billion bid and a curriculum vitae for Myung Ho Lee, including his phone number. But when the Weekly begins to copy down that number, Macciello grabs the notebook and vigorously crosses it out.
"We're not using that right now," he says, a little edge in his voice. "I don't want you disturbing Myung Ho."
Instead, he suggests emailing his other backer, Fred Furrow, who runs a company called Full Circle Energy. Macciello says he is doing big things with water and renewable power.
Fred Furrow wants to save the world by zapping sewage with a plasma beam. The 63-year-old entrepreneur has been working for the last dozen years on several energy technologies, each of which he believes is revolutionary. But the one he is most excited about involves generating clean, renewable electricity from garbage and human waste.
It's still in the conceptual stage. But Furrow is convinced that the idea will revolutionize the energy industry and make him "an instant multibillionaire."
"The technologies we have are kind of overwhelming," he says over the phone from his home in Clovis, just outside Fresno. "It's Einstein and Edison times 1,000. Full Circle Energy could be the first trillion-dollar company."
Furrow grew up in Santa Maria. After college he started a white-water rafting business on the Kings River. He had five sons, and wound up working a more stable job in commercial real estate in Fresno. But he never lost his entrepreneurial drive.
He formed a company with a partner, and in 2006, they were selected to be part of the Water and Energy Technology Incubator at Fresno State. The program supports small businesses as they attempt to bring new technologies to market.
"Like most of the other entrepreneurs, they're very visionary," says Travis Sheridan, who supervised Full Circle's work at the incubator. "They want to create something that solves all of the problems. One of our jobs was to get them focused on what is your core product."
Full Circle struggled to find investors. "Sometimes Fred would get in his own way," Sheridan says.
He remembers Furrow talking about a number of investors who were on hook. But it was always a " 'the check is in the mail' kind of thing," Sheridan recalls. Full Circle left the Fresno State program after two years, unable to secure financing.
Full Circle also needed access to a river of sewage, so Furrow shopped the idea to several cities in the Central Valley. His pitch: Give me your waste, and I will change the world.
"It's a lightning bolt–in-a-can approach," says Patrick Wiemiller, Fresno's public works director, who spent a lot of time investigating the idea.
Wiemiller says he was open to the plan if Furrow could find financing but the city would not invest. "I'm not sure it's economic. A lot of things you say, 'Wow, that makes sense.' But if the economics aren't there, they aren't there."
The Central California city of Tulare (population: 59,000) entered into a negotiating agreement with Full Circle in 2008. City officials were upbeat about the idea but hired an outside consultant to check it out. The consultant's report was fairly damning, finding "no firm commitments of personnel, intellectual property or financial resources."
"Virtually all technical and developmental information seems dependent on a key new-hire and his access to the owners of the technology, who are located in Russia," the consultants wrote. "Existing commercial examples DO NOT EXIST."
The agreement lapsed, and Tulare is no longer involved.
Furrow is wary of getting into some of these details. He says he would much prefer to remain "under the radar." He is worried about competition, especially from the likes of established enterprises such as Pacific Gas & Electric and Waste Management, whose business models he intends to radically disrupt.
"We don't want to end up in one of their landfills," he says.
But Furrow says he has finally landed a big investor: South Korea–based Myung Ho Lee, who has committed to put $10 billion into his technologies in the very near future. He says he expected to have received some of the money already, but Lee recently came down with a potassium deficiency, which put him in the hospital for a week.
Furrow explains that the opportunity to buy the Dodgers came about quite recently through a friend who knew Macciello, and knew that Macciello was looking for financing. Furrow had always thought he might want to own a baseball team someday, and he was about to become an instant multibillionaire. The timing was perfect.
They got in touch by phone and Skype, and hit it off. Furrow told Macciello that he had proof that Myung Ho Lee had $10 billion in an account in Hong Kong. Could they use that to buy the team? When Macciello said yes, they were in business.
"We can show the cash when the cash is needed, in April. That's not gonna be a problem," Furrow says. "We're not really looking at the Dodgers deal as a true business deal. Even if it loses money, I'm gonna need the write-off for everything else we got going."
Macciello's parents divorced when he was young. His father is Josh Cruze, an actor and singer who grew up in New York in a Puerto Rican household that rooted for the Yankees and Roger Maris. Cruze, now 62, got his acting break in Tracers, a stage play about the Vietnam War, and over the years, he's had small parts in TV shows such as 24 and The Unit. More recently, he says, he's been devoting himself to his music group, the Banditos de Amor.
His relationship with his son has been sporadic at best: Cruze says young Josh grew up in New York and played baseball in high school in Tampa. His athletic career ended with a shoulder injury in community college. As for the rest, he's a bit hazy.
"We don't talk a lot," he says.
Macciello came out to L.A. about 15 years ago to attend Valley College. In 2002, he says he was working for Yellow Pages Advertising, when he was pulled over and arrested for drug possession. Court records show that he pleaded no contest to a felony count of possessing 3,000 Vicodin tablets for sale. He was placed on probation. The charging documents also allege that Macciello sold more than 14 grams of heroin, and possessed 62 tablets of codeine.
Macciello contends that he was driving someone else's car and was illegally searched. He also denies ever touching heroin.
According to his bio, Macciello broke into the entertainment industry by working as a showroom manager at the Improv comedy club and as a talent scout for a reality show called But Can They Sing? From there, he says, he went to work for movie producers Arnold Rifkin and Christopher Eberts.
Rifkin and Eberts had a troubled partnership that dissolved in a flurry of litigation. Both are now in bankruptcy, and both are being sued by investors who claim they were defrauded. Jeff Elliott, a self-published author from Normal, Ill., alleges that Eberts swindled him out of $600,000 by claiming he would use the money to make a movie out of Elliott's book Rebounding From Death's Door. The movie never got made, and the suit is pending.
None of the lawyers involved in those lawsuits has heard of Macciello, although one of them, Brent Gray, who represents Jeff Elliott, says he'd be leery of any connection. "The association between him and Eberts would raise red flags with me," Gray says.
Rifkin did not return calls seeking comment. Eberts could not be located.
Macciello also struck up a relationship with George Zakk, a movie producer who has worked with Vin Diesel. According to Zakk, Macciello tried to raise money for several projects, but "nothing came to fruition."
"He was very aggressive, and a big dreamer," Zakk says. "And I mean that in a positive sense."
Through that connection, Macciello says he came into contact with screenwriter Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct). Macciello established his own film company, which bought an Eszterhas script titled Charisma.
Viktor Kakavas, a partner in the company, says they paid $250,000 for the script. Macciello persuaded a Colorado wealth manager, Don Scott, to put up the bulk of the investment, which Scott verifies. "We invested a lot more than that," he says. The film has not been produced.
Macciello also sought to raise money for a film called Walkaway Joe. That film — which Macciello lists on his bio — never got off the ground, either. The screenwriter, Michael Milillo, says their association was brief and they parted with no hard feelings.
Others on the project had a more jaundiced view.
"I've talked to dozens of jack-offs who say they have money," says Zachary Matz, one of the film's producers. "My read on Macciello, from hearing the stories, is that he never closed. He talked the game, but he never got the elements in place."
Kakavas says his partnership with Macciello ended when Macciello began devoting more and more of his time to gold deals.
"We didn't actually really produce anything," Kakavas says.
Don Scott, who seems to have a lot invested in Macciello's success, is convinced that he has the money to buy the Dodgers. But when asked why none of that money has been put to work making their $15 million movie, he pauses.
"I guess I can't give an answer to that question," he says. "I think Josh is really not focused on the movies at this minute."
Nobody else involved in Macciello's film career knows quite what to make of the Dodger bid. Macciello's father says he learned about it by reading his son's interviews.
"He knows a lot of people in this town," Cruze says. "He can pull together resources. Whether it's true or not — that I cannot tell you."
When Macciello first began touting his interest in the Dodgers, he used a multibillion-dollar gold appraisal to establish his credibility with reporters. By the time of the interview at his house, he was no longer providing it.
"I don't have to show that no more," Macciello says.
The author of the document is Chuck Adkins, a veteran appraiser in Portland, Ore. Reached by phone, he says he does all sorts of appraisals — mostly on homes and commercial buildings — but, he says, he does not specialize in mineral rights. Adkins says he was asked, a couple of years ago, to analyze some gold claims in Arizona, which led to the brief report. He does not consider his report to be an "appraisal." It was just research.
Oddly, Adkins says he doesn't know Macciello. He says he did the report for a company called Golden Oasis.
Asked if his report could be taken as evidence of sufficient wealth to acquire a sports franchise, Adkins says, "It sounds squirrelly to me.
"If they want to find out what it's really worth, they should do an appraisal," he adds.
A search for Golden Oasis turns up a Canadian concern that folded a few years ago and was consolidated into another mining company. Nobody at that company knows anything about Macciello or the Dodgers.
A few hours after the L.A. Weekly called Adkins — and Adkins denied knowing Macciello — the Weekly received an email from Macciello.
"The appraisal company we used says you have called three times today and are getting very upset," he wrote. "These mines are confidential and are not in any way being used for the Dodger deal. I gave you a face-to-face interview a couple of weeks ago and explained that the mines were off-limits and none of your concern.
"If you continue to contact parties I specifically told you were not to be contacted, I will have no other choice but to take legal actions."
In a follow-up phone call, Macciello reiterates that the mines are out of the picture. "I don't own gold no more. I sold it off," he says. "By going and ruffling feathers and talking about gold — that's not your interest."
It turns out Macciello has good reason to back off the gold claims.
A few days later, Adkins is confronted with the fact that he had been less than candid about his relationship with Macciello. That prompts him to open up. And what he says demolishes Macciello's claims of gold-mine riches.
First off, there are no mines. The gold is in the ground. Adkins was tasked with determining whether it would be profitable to try to extract it. Asked again about Macciello's assertions that there are "mines" worth "billions of dollars," Adkins says. "That's totally bogus as far as I know."
"This guy sounds like a real flimflam artist," he adds.
Adkins also supplies the name of the person who hired him to do the appraisal.
Sterling Griffiths is in his 70s, and lives in Portland. In 2005, the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services ordered Griffiths to cease and desist from promoting a multilevel marketing scheme. The outfit, called the Redwood Trust, purported to offer "humanitarian grants" to participants. Griffiths is now "managing partner" of Golden Oasis, an entity that consists of himself and a friend.
Reached at his home, Griffiths is extremely reluctant to talk about gold claims.
"I don't want to raise any red flags," he says. "I do not trust the government. They're trying to make us all slaves."
He does not want to talk about Macciello, either, although mention of his name draws a strong reaction.
"He's been ceased and dismissed!" he says. "We're through with him! We have nothing to do with him! He does not have our gold claims. He does not have nothing to do with us anymore."
Griffiths said he acquired the claims about eight or nine years ago. With the price of gold reaching new heights, he has begun to investigate whether it would be feasible to extract the gold from black sand. The project would require a lot of up-front capital, which he does not have, so he has been looking for financing.
He says he heard about Macciello through a broker. Macciello said he could help raise money.
"He never came through," Griffiths says.
Macciello apparently has been using the report Griffiths commissioned to pitch investors. But Griffiths is adamant that Macciello has no right to his claims.
Even if he did, it's not at all clear what the claims are actually worth.
"If you could get 100 percent of that, it's up in the billions of dollars," he says. "But how much you can get out, nobody knows."
Macciello ordered the Weekly to cease contact on Monday, Feb. 27, copying his attorney, Todd Bonder, on the email. In a phone conversation with the Weekly, Bonder explains that he has been hired to facilitate Macciello's bid for the Dodgers.
"All the indications are that it is legitimate," Bonder says. "Josh seems to me to be a man of means. ... Ultimately, it comes down to put up or shut up at the end of the day."
Bonder says he's quite confident that Furrow and Myung Ho Lee will arrange to transfer the $2.2 billion to an American bank account by the end of the week. He is so certain, in fact, that he accepts a bet. If the money doesn't materialize by Friday, he will owe the Weekly $5.
Myung Ho Lee has a colorful background. He is not on the Forbes list of Korean billionaires, but a quick Google search shows that he used to manage Michael Jackson's financial affairs before the two had a falling-out in 2001. Lee made a number of headline-grabbing allegations against the pop star, including that he hired witch doctors and paid hush money to his ex-wife. Jackson's lawyers claimed that Lee stole millions from Jackson. Lee filed a $12 million lawsuit against the singer, which was resolved in an out-of-court settlement in 2003.
Lee re-emerged in March 2011, in a press release from a company called Colorado Rare Earths Inc. According to the release, Lee's company — Union Financial and Investment Corp. — had agreed to partner with the company to provide precious minerals to Korean companies. But the press contact on the release tells the Weekly the deal never went through.
With Myung Ho Lee now Macciello's last possible source of billions for the Dodger purchase, and the clock ticking away on the promised money transfer, the Weekly attempted to reach him.
The phone number that Macciello scratched out does not work. It begins with an 822 area code, which does not exist. After some research, it becomes clear that 82 is the country code.
An assistant answers the phone in Korean but switches effortlessly to English and gives Lee's cell number.
Reached on that number, Lee says he's in a meeting. Asked if he's involved in the Dodger deal, he says, "I'm not at liberty to confirm or deny that at the moment."
Are you a billionaire?
"Far from that," he says. "I would not characterize myself in that fashion. Talk to Fred about this, please."
An hour later, Macciello sends another email. The subject is "cease and desist."
"[Y]ou came to my home to get information out of me, and I told you then that Myung Ho Lee was not to be bothered and you chose to ignore me," Macciello writes. "This is my final warning [sic] if I hear from any of my partners, colleagues or anybody involved that you are asking about me I will be forced to sue you for damages."
Another email arrives an hour later from Fred Furrow, also with the subject "cease and desist."
"We are no longer a player," Furrow writes. "Your call to Myung Ho Lee has caused us to totally drop out with Josh. ... Any mention of our names in any future article will force us to take legal action."
On Thursday afternoon, attorney Todd Bonder calls the Weekly back.
"It looks like I'm probably gonna owe you the $5," he says.
Days after Fred Furrow's "cease and desist" email, he has calmed down enough to give his explanation for why the deal went south.
"Myung Ho and I got caught up in the fantasy of thinking we were gonna be part owners of the Dodgers," Furrow says. "We didn't think it through at all."
After Lee heard from a reporter, Furrow says, "He called me and blew up.
"That money in Hong Kong was not allocated for the Dodgers," Furrow continues. "If our investors found out we were using that money for the Dodger deal, we could lose $100 billion in international revenue."
He says he has informed Macciello that the deal is off.
"Josh is devastated," he says.
In a final interview, Macciello is despondent and combative. He is dropping out of the deal, and he blames L.A. Weekly.
"I have nothing. My whole financing got pulled. I have no means, nothing," he says. "I'm the Roy Hobbs of this deal. I came out of nowhere. Then an L.A. Weekly reporter ruined that. ... We're starting to put a case together. You cost me $2.2 billion."
Asked about his film career, he concedes that he never produced a movie. But he insists he has gold claims, although he again declines to offer proof. Informed that the appraiser has called him a liar, he says, "If the gold guy said that, God bless him."
So why, if Macciello never had the money to buy the Dodgers, did he make such a push to get publicity? There are at least three possibilities.
The first is that Macciello genuinely believed that somehow he would be able to find the money. This is Macciello's explanation.
"I thought I was gonna own the Dodgers," he says. "I thought I was using that to introduce myself."
The second is that it was a publicity stunt. Macciello has batted that allegation away, saying he wouldn't have sunk money into the bid if he were just looking for attention. "That's stupid," he told the L.A. Daily News, in a favorable story that ran in early February. "I'm not looking to be a Kardashian."
The third explanation is that Macciello's profession is raising money from gullible investors. Any extra bit of credibility — such as all the favorable press clippings now posted on his company website — makes it easier to close the next deal, whatever it turns out to be.
Macciello flatly rejects that explanation.
"I honestly didn't even think of that," he protests. "I don't have anything that I'm promoting to where your angle makes sense."
Macciello says he doesn't much care which explanation the Weekly goes with.
"Nothing you can write can make people not like me," he says. "I'm a likable guy."
But a few minutes after hanging up, he calls back.
"So what do you think of me?" he asks. "Are you leaning toward you don't believe me?" Given an affirmative answer, he says, "Someday I'm going to make you think differently."
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Why is it such a problem that one person might hold a negative view?
"My father left when I was a kid," he says. "Maybe it's need issues."
Well, it's a heck of a story.
"I'll let you write it when we make the movie," he says.