Fyre Festival founder Billy McFarland was sentenced to six years in prison Thursday for multiple counts of fraud, including the failed festival in the Bahamas last year where the 26-year-old lured hundreds of millennials with the help of celebrity investors like Ja Rule and Instagram celebrities like Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid.
“The remorse I feel is crushing,” McFarland said in the New York federal court, wearing a khaki prison jumpsuit and glasses before a packed courtroom of his family and victims. “I've lived every day with the weight of knowing that I literally destroyed the lives of my friends and family.”
McFarland said “I’m sorry” multiple times during his sentencing hearing and begged U.S. District Court Judge Naomi Buchwald for leniency as his sister and mother wept and his father held his head in his hands. McFarland said he had faced violence in prison since his July arrest, and that “the best way to be sorry is through my future actions.”
McFarland’s legal team had also asked the court for leniency, saying in early October that McFarland had been diagnosed with untreated bipolar disorder, preventing him from knowing right from wrong.
But Buchwald was unmoved. “It is my conclusion based on all the submissions that the defendant is a serial fraudster and that to date his fraud, like a circle, has no ending," she said, adding that even if he's bipolar that does not excuse his behavior.
She said she also took into account that he had lied to investors before, during, and after the failed Fyre Festival, countering the narrative that the April 2017 weekend was just a failed business venture and that McFarland had acted in good faith. “This was not a good idea gone bad; the bad intent was long withstanding,” she said.
Yet in the end, the sentence was not as harsh as it could have been. Buchwald had the freedom to go as high as 20 years for convictions on three counts of wire fraud, one count of bank fraud, and one count of lying to investigators.
Instead, she allowed sentences for multiple counts of fraud to be served concurrently, meaning he got six years in prison and three years of supervised release. He was also ordered to forfeit $26,182,386, though it's unclear how much of that, if any, he currently has.
Victims of McFarland’s scams also gave their stories. Joe Nemeth, an investor in McFarland’s schemes, which included Fyre Festival, a luxury benefits club called Magnises, and a ticket scheme NYC VIP Access, said McFarland had “financially ruined my and my wife’s life.”
“It took me 20 years of saving my lunch money to save $180,000,” he said. He and his wife, both in their late 50s, will now not be able to retire. “I hope the justice system has the last laugh at Mr. McFarland,” he said.
It was a dramatic ending for McFarland, who had originally faced four to eight years behind bars for lying to investors in the Fyre Festival after he pleaded guilty to two counts of wire fraud in March.
But that deal came before he was arrested for a second time, in June, after prosecutors determined he had spent his time out on bail targeting Fyre Festival attendees with a new ticket-selling scam he called “NYC VIP Access.”
Through the ticket scheme, McFarland purported to offer people access to high-profile events like the Met Gala, the Grammys, and the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, when in fact he had no tickets or access to offer. Prosecutors say that in addition to the more than $26 million he stole from Fyre investors and contractors, McFarland also scammed at least $150,000 from unwitting NYC VIP Access clients.
In court filings, McFarland’s attorneys claimed he had launched the ticket scam to reimburse the investors in the Fyre Festival, something prosecutors strongly disputed, pointing out that McFarland reinvested the bulk of the $150,000 into the sham business and kept about $20,000 for himself.
“For the past five years, the defendant has been the consummate con artist. The defendant’s actions reveal a profoundly greedy, self-absorbed man focused exclusively on himself,” prosecutors said, in a filing. “Whenever he needed more money, he lied to investors to get it. Whenever he wanted more money, he gave it to himself from business accounts. Whenever one scheme began to falter, he hatched a newer and more elaborate one.”
It’s not the only recent court loss from McFarland, who was sued by two festival attendees who obtained a $5 million judgment against him in July. McFarland is also the subject of a multimillion- dollar class action lawsuit, filed by ticket holders, that is still winding its way through the courts.
Cover: Billy McFarland, the promoter of the failed Fyre Festival in the Bahamas, leaves federal court after pleading guilty to wire fraud charges, Tuesday, March 6, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)