A fraudster impersonated well-known Hollywood figures to dupe more than 300 victims out of $1 million by offering non-existent work in the film business, a court has heard.
Hargobind Tahilramani, 42 – dubbed the ‘con Queen of Hollywood’ – allegedly pretended to be executives, including producers working for The Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan, during a seven-year scam.
He is also accused of posing as American film producer Megan Ellison, her mother Barbara Boothe, and executive Amy Pascal in phone calls, emails and text messages.
While impersonating billionaire Jean Pritzker, Tahilramani even offered ‘sexual favors’ to one victim, Westminster Magistrates’ Court heard.
Hargobind Tahilramani, 42, is alleged to have been the ‘mastermind’ of a conspiracy to defraud more than 300 victims out of more than $1 million between 2013 and August 2020
Tahilramani is accused of impersonating Rupert Murdoch’s former wife Wendi Deng
Tahilramani allegedly pretended to be executives, including producers working for The Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan (pictured)
US-based entertainment industry professionals, including actors, screenwriters and photographers, were allegedly convinced to travel to Indonesia at their own expense for non-existent projects before being charged exorbitant expenses, which were never repaid.
Among those aped by the ‘catfish’ were Star Wars producer Kathleen Kennedy, former Sony movie chief Amy Pascal, and ex-Paramount boss Sherry Lansing, it is said.
Tahilramani allegedly spoke in a high-pitched voice to impersonate Rupert Murdoch’s ex-wife Wendi Deng while luring creatives into his scheme.
He was arrested following a year-long FBI investigation on November 25, 2020 in a £60-a-night Aparthotel in Manchester, where he had allegedly claimed to be a ‘writer for Netflix’.
When asked if he understood, Tahilramani, who has been based in the UK since 2016, replied: ‘Yeah, the scam,’ the court heard.
He is fighting extradition to the US where he faces eight charges, including conspiracy to commit wire fraud, two counts of wire fraud – which each carry a maximum sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment – and five counts of aggravated identity theft, carrying a maximum penalty or two years each.
Joel Smith, representing the US, said on Wednesday that Tahilramani was the ‘mastermind’ of a conspiracy to defraud more than 300 victims out of more than $1 million between 2013 and August 2020.
‘The defendant would pretend to be well-known entertainment industry executives or their representatives and promised victims non-existent work in the film industry in Indonesia,’ he said.
‘US-based victims were persuaded to travel to Indonesia at their own expense, and once there were persuaded to pay a raft of fees or expenses, again from their own pocket.’
Mr Smith said victims would be asked to pay for the cost of the driver, photography fees or ‘permits’ and told they would be reimbursed upon return to the US.
He continued to contact them by phone and text message, while his co-conspirators posed as drivers, tour operators and money collectors, he explained.
‘The monies spent by the victim were received by the defendant himself and never paid back,’ he said.
‘At its heart, this is an old-fashioned advanced fees fraud.’
Mr Smith told the court how New York-based screenwriter Gregory Mandarano was fleeced after he submitted a script to a website named ‘TheChinaFilmGroup.com’.
Tahilramani is alleged to have impersonated film producer Megan Ellison (left) and her mother, Barbara Boothe (right) during his seven-year scam
‘The defendant, posing under a false identity, persuaded Mr Mandarano and his writing partner to travel to Indonesia to pitch the script at their own expense.
‘Once there Mr Mandarano was charged $900 per day for a driver, roughly ten times the average cost in Indonesia.’
‘In Indonesia, Mr Mandarano and his writing partner attended a meeting in Jakarta with the defendant, who was pretending to be ‘Anand Sippy’, Vice-President of Development of the China Film Group.
‘The defendant told Mr Mandarano that he would need to rewrite his script.
‘Over the next three months, Mr Mandarano and his writing partner traveled to Indonesia on four occasions, each trip lasting a number of weeks.
‘Towards the end of this partner Mr Mandarano, following pressure from the defendant ‘bought out’ his writing partner.’
‘Mr Mandarano was left $80,000 out of pocket, $40,000 of which he paid in cash.’
Mr Smith said another victim Casey Grey, who worked in the security industry, was allegedly duped by Tahilramani posing as film producer Ms Pritzker, who offered a non-existent $5,000-a-day job surveying film sets in Indonesia.
‘[Casey] Gray worked in the security industry. He was told by a colleague about an opportunity working with Jean Pritzker. In fact, the opportunity was non-existent.
‘On 12 July 2017, the defendant emailed Mr Grey, who was in America at the time, pretending to be Ms Pritzker.’
The email contained a non-disclosure agreement, which Mr Smith pointed out could be an aggravating feature.
‘Mr Gray was offered a non-existent job surveying film sets in Indonesia. He was told he would be paid $5,000 a day.
‘The defendant, whilst pretending to be Ms Pritzker, offered sexual favors to Mr Grey, and tried to get him to send recordings of himself.’
Freelance photographer Will Strathman was emailed by Tahilramani pretending to be Hollywood executive Ms Pascal and was persuaded to travel to Indonesia to direct a Netflix travel series, the court heard.
He allegedly paid nearly £40,000 in fictional expenses over three trips between October and November 2017.
Mr Smith said the scam was adapted when travel restrictions were introduced due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with actors falsely promised film roles which would require an advance.
Dan Considine, based in Los Angeles, received a text message in May 2020 purportedly from Thomas Hayslip – a producer working with Nolan, who is known for films including Inception and Tenet.
The court heard he spoke to Tahilramani, who was posing as another producer, ‘Dana Walden’, who persuaded Mr Considine to send audition tapes and pay around $7,000 for martial arts training videos, in a bid to land a role in a Nolan movie.
Mr Smith told the court: ‘Mr Considine never received any videos and the audition was a sham.
‘There are a large number of victims not currently subject to the US indictment, including some UK-based victims but they are not currently the subject of any US prosecution.’
Tahilramani appeared by video link from Wandsworth prison, wearing a blue shirt, and used his alias Gobind Lal Tahil when asked to confirm his name and date of birth.
Chief Magistrate Paul Goldspring will hear evidence over the next two weeks before making a decision on his extradition following final legal arguments on November 7.
Private investigation firm K2 Integrity, which worked with law enforcement agencies during the investigation, has previously described Tahilramani, who is represented by Ben Cooper KC, as the ‘con queen of Hollywood’.
The extradition hearing continues.