Anthony Gignac spent much of his adult life pretending to be a Saudi prince, worming his way into free stays at ritzy hotels, pilfering luxury goods from high-fashion department stores, and even suckering a major university into wiring him $16,000. Yet, on March 4, 2014, the then-43-year-old Colombian native told federal Judge George Caram Steeh that his days impersonating Khalid bin Al-Saud were behind him.
“I have changed,” Gignac told the Detroit courtroom, according to a hearing transcript. “I was not a threat to the community, your Honor.... I have history, yes. I have made a lot of horrible mistakes. The worst mistake that I've ever made was going to prison and not being there for my mother when she died. I promised my mother that I would never, ever come back to prison for a new crime.”
A chubby man with a bowl cut and dark, expressive eyes, Gignac had been released from prison in 2012 after pleading guilty half-a-decade earlier to impersonating a foreign diplomat and bank fraud. Now he was on the hook for violating his probation by taking a mid-February trip to the Florida Keys without notifying his probation officer.
Gignac insisted he traveled to the Keys to alleviate his depression and visit his brother, his only living relative. However, federal prosecutor Saima Mohsin told Steeh that Gignac was up to his old tricks again, scouting for fresh victims to rip off.
“He's down there meeting with people, representing himself to be someone that he is not, engaging in meetings all with the goal of negotiating some sort of fraudulent agreement to purchase real estate costing hundreds of millions of dollars,” Moshin said, later adding, “He needs to be incarcerated. From our point of view, less from a punishment standpoint, but really to prevent him from engaging in additional fraud and victimizing more people.”
Turns out, the prospect of screwing people over in sunny South Florida was too enticing for Gignac to resist—even after spending another 12 months in federal prison for the probation violation.
Four years later, the career con-artist is currently awaiting sentencing in Miami after pleading guilty to impersonating a foreign government official, identity theft and fraud, as the Washington Post reported. This time, Gignac was popped for hoodwinking the owners of a Miami Beach hotel into lavishing him with expensive material goods and benefits, as well as defrauding almost $8 million from 26 victims around the globe, according to a federal criminal complaint and indictment. Among many other trappings of an absurd lifestyle, Gignac drove a Ferrari with fake diplomatic plates and had the nameplate "Sultan" on his island home's door.
For big-league scammers like Gignac, South Florida has long served as an ideal base of operations. Others who have pulled off spectacular con jobs down here include Jimmy Sabatino, a Staten Island swindler whose most recent caper sent him to a supermax prison lockup. Another brazen con artist to call Miami home: Haider Zafar, who falsely portrayed himself as the member of a wealthy and influential Pakistani family that owned hotels, textile plants and oil businesses to investors in the Magic City. Among his victims were then-Miami Heat players Mike Miller, James Jones and Rashad Lewis, who were ripped off for a combined $7.5 million.
For Gignac, Sabatino, Zafar, and other criminals like them, South Florida is the place where you can fake your way past the velvet ropes into the upper echelons of business and high society by showing off flashes of luxurious living.
“Miami doesn’t have the due-diligence culture like Wall Street and New York,” said Roben Farzad, author of Hotel Scarface, a tome about the decadence and characters of The Mutiny Hotel in Miami during the Cocaine Cowboys era. “If you are a developer and someone is offering you cash with no mortgage or no documentation involved, you are very happy to take that cash. Miami is the hot-money capital of the world.”
The laissez-faire environment makes South Florida especially fertile territory to prey on local impresarios and dignitaries who, in turn, make a living off suckers who speculate on real estate.
“If you are a huckster or a shyster, this is a great place to pull off the jiujitsu of conning people who think they can con dumb foreigners into coughing up their money,” Farzad explained. “It is kind of beautiful in its symmetry.”
In Gignac's case, he scored free gifts from the Miami Beach hotel owners by initially convincing them that he was Saudi royalty and wanted to invest $440 million to become part-owner of their property. According to the Miami Herald, the victims included members of the Soffer family, who own the world-famous Fontainebleau Miami Beach hotel. The paper reported his marks realized Gignac probably wasn't legit when at least one witnessed the fake sultan eat bacon.
The Sunshine state’s reputation for making scoundrels of all stripes feel at home isn’t just the stuff of a few high-profile cases, either. In 2016 and 2017, Florida essentially won the crown for scam capital of America: Both years, the state was ranked first and second, respectively, for fraud and identity theft complaints by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). On average, Florida generated 993 fraud complaints per 100,000 residents, the report stated.
Florida, and the Keys specifically, allows anyone to blend in without arousing suspicion because locals don’t really see newcomers with a skeptical eye, according to Annette Robertson, an underwater photographer based in Key West who said she experienced Gignac’s con job firsthand. “You can come to the Keys and no one looks at you twice if you don’t fit in the norm,” she told me. “There is no norm here. I call it the Island of Misfits.”
Robertson was among the Keys businesspeople Gignac met back in 2014, according to his own testimony from the probation-violation hearing that year. In an interview, she recalling meeting Gignac in Detroit with her boyfriend, marine-life artist Wyland. “He said he was a sultan and gave us the whole nine yards,” Robertson recalled. “He was wearing a nine-karat diamond ring and told us that he wanted to build resorts with us.”
For nearly two months, Robertson and Wyland spent time with Gignac, viewing three properties he claimed he was interested in buying, including the exclusive Cheeca Lodge and Spa in Islamorada. “He was incredible as a con artist,” Robertson said. “The general manager for the Cheeca Lodge had worked in Palm Springs, California, and had known certain sheiks. When the GM brought up their names, [Gignac] would know everything about them. He had done his research.”
Still, Robertson did notice some oddities along the way. For instance, she recalled bringing a painting Wyland had made to a house Gignac claimed was owned by his brother. Robertson estimated the Wyland painting would probably fetch $30,000 in an art gallery, yet the work's new home wasn’t quite right. “There was no original art in that house, just a bunch of crap,” she said. “And even though he claimed to be a sheik, he would give me hugs and shake Wyland’s hand. A sheik would never do that. To touch you is beneath them. He would just explain it away and say, 'I don’t get caught up with all that.'"
But Robertson and Wyland didn't find out about Gignac’s true identity—and his criminal past—until an associate googled his adopted name. The last she heard, in 2014, Gignac had been picked up by federal agents in the Keys. She was unaware of his more recent scheme to work over Miami Beach hotel owners.
“That does not surprise me,” she said.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.