Celebrity scam artist arrested in N.O.

The man with platinum-blond hair blew onto Bourbon Street this summer, talking fast and pushing business cards on anyone who would take them. He wore diamond earrings and gold chains, said he intended to buy a $2 million house and pitched a reality TV show called “Bourbon Street.”

He frequented French Quarter gay bars and claimed to be a tycoon with an investment firm headquartered in Switzerland. He would introduce himself to the city, he promised, with a grand, glittering party he called “Indulge,” scheduled for the night of Oct. 24 at the Eiffel Society on St. Charles Avenue.

There would be red carpets and seductive costumes; photographers and bottle service. VIP tickets went on sale for $125.

People took note of the mysterious out-of-towner, with opulent plans and a backstory that seemed too good to be true, with his age and his origins obscured by thick makeup and plastic surgery.

Some found him alluring. Others thought him absurd.

But they got tickets in droves to his masquerade ball — until his past caught up with him, just in time for the gala.

His real name is Michael Manos. In New Orleans, he went by his 15th alias: Michael Morgan.

The media, years ago, dubbed him “the glam scammer.”

“It’s quite a story,” said Darren McCulley, a Dallas private investigator who has tracked Manos for four years. “I know what he’s done, I know what he’s capable of, and he’ll do it again.”

In cities across the country, Manos has thrown fantastic parties with faux celebrities and top-shelf tequila sponsors. He ingratiates himself in gay communities, fakes a European accent, and often has claimed to be the disavowed gay son of a Greek millionaire, though he actually grew up middle-class in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Along the way, he’s taken thousands of dollars from socialites and the well-heeled, who were easily blinded by his glitter and glamour. He duped actress Jane Fonda. He sold tickets to a “chic” fundraiser in honor of Sen. John McCain, who later said he’d never heard of him.

Those caught in his web never learned until it was too late, until he’d skipped town and left them with a stack of bounced checks and unpaid bills.

Manos is a bank robber, a one-time male escort on Capitol Hill, and the target of more than one cross-country manhunt.

He is also a convicted kidnapper who helped keep a man locked in the trunk of a car for four days. For that, he spent more than a decade in a New York prison.

And now he’s behind bars again, this time in Louisiana.

Unmasked in New Orleans

His masquerade unraveled quickly in New Orleans.

“We were conned into this,” Eiffel Society manager Roger Ivens said, after he learned of the scam Wednesday.

Other sponsors and party-goers slowly discovered the same.

The idea for the party was born in the bars of the French Quarter. Months ago, in July, Manos met a man named Ryan Exsterstein, who’d just quit his job as a waiter and, with his boyfriend, Chris Picou, formed a company called Royale Productions, aimed at event promotions for nonprofits and charities.

Manos told the men he could show them how to create a successful entertainment business. They agreed, and the trio hatched a plan to throw the masquerade ball.

But within weeks, Morgan picked up and left town without warning. When he returned in early September, he claimed that both his sister and his dog had died and he had run from a stormy relationship. They forgave him.

“We gave him a shot,” Exsterstein said. “We gave him a chance, one that I regret obviously, but this is New Orleans, and second chances are not uncommon.”

Royale Productions got back to work under its new mentor, Manos. It wasn’t long before Manos said he needed Exsterstein’s Social Security number — for business purposes, he said.

Exsterstein talked to a lawyer friend and declined to hand it over.

Exsterstein now knows that he should have known better than continue his business arrangement with Manos, and he tacitly admits he and his friends were sized up and chosen as targets.

“He was someone who is so good at making you believe that your dream is coming true,” Exsterstein said. “It’s easy to fall into that trap. He delivers it through verbiage, not action. It’s complete manipulation.”

Meanwhile, Manos worked the scene for sponsors for the ball.

He walked into Carl Mack’s shop on Dauphine Street promising, once again, as in a half-dozen cities before, that he was planning a splendid, star-studded party. He needed entertainment, he said, and Mack’s company represents New Orleans performers: dancers, musicians, clowns, acrobats, and the like.

Mack was skeptical.

“He was a fast-talking, highfalutin’ promoter type,” Mack said. “It was so over the top.”

Phantom companies

Manos, or Morgan as he called himself, described himself as a man far too sophisticated to be the person standing across from Mack.

His alleged company, called M2 Trust, was headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, according to its website. It had offices listed in famous buildings on Park Avenue in New York, in Los Angeles, in Miami and on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. It also had an address in New Orleans, at Place St. Charles in the Central Business District. The New Orleans Advocate found no M2 Trust or Michael Morgan listed among the tenants at that address.

The company’s website says it is some sort of investment enterprise, though it only cobbles together professional-sounding jargon and remains vague on its specific intent.

“The M2 Trust continually stays active in implementing new projects that strive to change the world in some fashion or another and still bring in healthy profits to further its goals,” the website reads. “With these projects, the possibilities are endless in what they may actually manifest in the world.”

The site lists four sister companies that are “designed to create vast amounts of wealth during their perpetual duration.” One is described as an adult film production company, another a “worldwide record label.”

None of the companies appears to actually exist. None has a website, phone number, address or is registered with the Louisiana secretary of state.

But Mack, at first blush, thought Manos was offering him a chance to donate to a good cause, and he agreed: He was going to provide entertainers for several hours, at a cost that totaled in the thousands.

Other local businesses signed on, too. Manos arranged for makeup and hair designers for his fashion show, as well as for paintings to auction and gifts to give away.

Fliers for the Indulge party circulated in French Quarter gay bars, with a photo of a woman in a tutu, chains and a metallic gold costume. It directed people to Manos’ website to buy tickets.

The party was billed on the website Gay New Orleans as a “magical night of giving and glamour at The Hottest Halloween Party New Orleans has ever seen.”

Manos declared that he would share the proceeds with Covenant House, a nonprofit that works to rescue the city’s street children.

Richard Arnold, the charity’s director of development, first met Manos a few weeks ago, when Manos told him he was planning a masquerade ball to raise money for a local charity. Manos told him that he thought Covenant House would be a good fit as the beneficiary.

Manos immediately copped to a checkered past, Arnold said, but described it as the story of a troubled youth with bouts of homelessness. Arnold googled the name he gave, “Michael Morgan,” and saw nothing that raised alarms.

“We are always grateful when someone comes to us and gives us an opportunity to help our kids,” he said.

The ruse unravels

The ruse went well for several weeks.

But days before the party, Mack got a call from a friend, a French Quarter landlord who rented an apartment to a man named Michael Morgan.

The landlord, who spoke to The New Orleans Advocate on the condition of anonymity, had seen Mack’s name listed as a sponsor for the event, and he wanted to warn Mack about the sort of person he was dealing with.

He said that the man named Morgan had rented an apartment on Royal Street from him in mid-September. Morgan asked to pay his rent by the week — a request the property manager thought odd. But Morgan seemed nice and responsible, so the landlord rented him the one-bedroom furnished apartment, just next to the R Bar, for $500 per week.

For two weeks, he paid with checks written from a bank account in another person’s name.

His third rent check bounced. Check No. 4 did too. Check No. 5 followed suit.

The landlord tried to contact Morgan without success. He stopped by and knocked. There was no answer.

He used his master key to unlock the door. The apartment was empty. Morgan had moved out, without the neighbors noticing, though evidently in a hurry: A pile of his clothes still sat wet in the washing machine and a stack of his mail remained in the slot. There was otherwise no trace that he’d ever been there.

He never responded to the landlord’s request to return the key.

Days later, the man known as Morgan stopped by Mack’s shop on Dauphine Street.

“You’re probably going to hear some bad things about me,” Mack recalls him saying. “I wanted to come talk to you, let you know I have a past. I’m trying to be good and do the right thing.”

He made the same disclaimer to others who’d signed on to sponsor his show. He told them all he was being targeted by vengeful business competitors bent on sabotaging his success.

But over the next several days, Mack and much of the rest of the French Quarter scene learned exactly what that past entailed.

Rip Naquin, the publisher of Ambush Mag, a French Quarter-based LGBT entertainment magazine, had heard from a friend in Dallas that the man calling himself Michael Morgan was actually Michael Manos, a well-known con artist who had endeared himself to Texas socialites, duped them out of thousands of dollars, then disappeared when they began to put the pieces together.

Naquin began circulating news articles about Manos’ escapades in Dallas among his subscribers in New Orleans. He titled his email “Charity Alert!”

One reader rushed into Mack’s shop and asked to return a costume he’d rented for the masquerade ball. He’d learned, he said, that the promoter was a con man.

Mack opted to pull back on his contributions to this week’s event, sending just two performers for two hours for a couple of hundreds dollars’ worth of work, compared with the thousands he’s pledged.

Alphagraphics, a printing company, also rescinded its sponsorship.

“It’s just a good thing that it came out before the event, or we would be taken for more than we were,” said E.J. Lara, Alphagraphics’ president, noting his company is now out only a couple of hundred dollars for fliers it printed.

And with that, Manos’ red-carpet charade began to crumble.

“I heard what’s going on, and I could just die,” said the owner of one business named as a sponsor, a few hours before the party was scheduled to begin Thursday night. She asked that she not be named because it would be too embarrassing, and demanded that the party remove her product from the hall.

Familiar pattern

Manos’ local party plans were nearly identical to the exploits that caused him to flee Dallas in 2009 and race across the country to San Francisco.

In New Orleans, he reportedly claimed to be the grandson of banking mogul J.P. Morgan. He consulted with a real estate agent about buying a house and gave his ideal price tag at $2 million. He had loud phone conversations, easy to overhear, in which he purported to transfer millions from one account to another.

He said he was preparing to launch a skin care line, which he called “Fierce.” He also scheduled a casting call for his reality show, called “Bourbon Street,” with the subtitle, “What happens in the street, stays in the street.”

“Currently in preproduction, this show stars founder Michael Morgan as the pivotal character who moves to New Orleans and follows his adventures as he works and plays on Bourbon Street,” the announcement reads. “An hour-long fun-filled and dramatic show packed with all of all of the nightlife, debauchery, fashion and fun found on Bourbon Street.”

But in Texas, he told a more incredible story still: He introduced himself as Mladen “Mordan” Stefanov, a Greek “trust fund baby” with a fashion magazine and reality TV show called “Bella Boyz,” according to reports in the Dallas Morning News, which has been chronicling his misadventures ever since.

Stefanov lived in the penthouse of a ritzy apartment building. He hosted charity events and schmoozed his way to the heights of Dallas society, the newspaper reported. Then he befriended the owners of a restaurant and used their credit cards to run up some $87,000 in debt.

Manos fled, but not before he stiffed a private investigator whom he’d hired as a bodyguard to buttress his image as a jet-setting playboy.

The private investigator, McCulley, tracked him to San Francisco and alerted federal authorities.

He was caught with 30 credit cards in fake names, $10,000 cash and someone else’s Bulgarian driver’s license, the Dallas Morning News reported.

As he was sent back to New York to serve time for violating his parole, his story then began to unravel.

In 1988, Manos helped another man abduct his roommate, shove him in the trunk of a car and keep him there for four days, all the while using the victim’s ATM to withdraw money from his account, according to news reports. They eventually set him free in a restaurant parking lot. Manos was sentenced to 15 years.

When he got out in 2004, Manos was put on lifetime parole in New York, a supervised captive within the boundaries of the state. But he soon began his glamorous fraud in cities across the country, thousands of miles past the state line he was forbidden to cross.

A most-wanted poster from New York lists 10 aliases he’s been known to use: Michael Anthony Martin, Brooke Carrington III, Alexis Vanderbilt, Dain Alexander Manos, Dain Alexander Vanderbilt, Michael Alexander, Martin Carrington, Michael Dain, Michael Vanderbilt and Mladen “Mordan” Stefanov.

In New York City, he used the name Michael de Medici and plugged a reality show called “Pop Life,” according to news reports.

In Atlanta, he called himself Christian Michael de Medici, a wealthy real estate tycoon who started a house-flipping company, then fled when the bottom fell out. Authorities described it as a vast enterprise of mortgage fraud. He even ensnared actress Jane Fonda: He donated a house he didn’t actually own to her charity, posed with her on red carpets, then left her charity with the foreclosure notice, according to news reports.

“The ruse runs for awhile,” McCulley said. “But it can only run for so long before people start wondering where their money is. Then off he goes.”

The party went on

Manos was eventually returned to Dallas, where he pleaded guilty to felony theft for the $87,000 in credit card charges. He was released from jail in July 2011, the Dallas newspaper reported.

Just a month later, he resurfaced with a new, brazen endeavor: On Capitol Hill, he registered a lobbying firm that claimed ties to major companies, and promoted a party in honor of Sen. John McCain, the Dallas Morning News reported. McCain said he’d never heard of him, and demanded he stop advertising the “chic” gathering.

He was arrested there, once again, for violating his New York parole.

Manos was most recently released from New York’s Rikers Island prison on March 28 of this year.

He immediately absconded.

McCulley next caught wind of him in New Orleans.

Hunting him, for McCulley, has become a public service: “I’m just trying to save some people some grief and heartache and money.”

McCulley didn’t want to spook his target in New Orleans. If the pressure got too hot, he knew, Manos would flee, as he had from so many cities before.

But once Ambush Mag sent its alert email, word of his past spread quickly through the Quarter.

On Wednesday, U.S. marshals arrested him on outstanding warrants for defying both his probation in Dallas and his parole in New York State. They caught up with him at a warehouse in Kenner, as he picked up the red carpet for the party. He was booked into Jefferson Parish Correctional Center. Both Texas and New York said they intend to extradite him.

By Thursday, his Facebook page was deleted and parts of his M2 Trust website were deactivated. His cellphone number, with a Washington, D.C., area code, was routed straight to voicemail.

Deputy U.S. Marshal Brian Fair said Manos told the marshals he was in town working for an entertainment production company. He said he was hosting a party Thursday night that might struggle without him, and handed them an invitation to the masquerade ball.

The show went on without him.

The Eiffel Society and Exsterstein learned of Manos’ arrest Wednesday night.

Both had already invested in the party, and they scrambled to keep it afloat so the hundreds who had bought tickets to a costume ball would still have one to attend. Exsterstein also worried that a failed party, coupled with his association with a notorious con man, would prove disastrous for his fledgling business.

Dance music pulsed from the venue Thursday night.