The Con, the Con Artist, and Me


A
T 5:44 P.M.
ON FEB. 23, 2022, my phone lit up with a WhatsApp message from a stranger. “Hello Sean Williams,” he wrote. “I have something for you.”

Seconds later, the stranger sent a link to a Spectrum 1 News interview with a retired LAPD cop and writer named Cheryl Dorsey. Dorsey had penned a biography titled The CONfidence Chronicles, about a “Black criminal genius” named Maverick Miles Nehemiah, who’d swindled the U.S. government out of $20 million via counterfeit savings bonds in the Eighties. Nehemiah hadn’t cashed the bonds himself, Dorsey told the reporter in the interview. Rather, he’d enlisted three women and three men — the “All-American Team,” as he called them — whose skin color wouldn’t raise the eyebrows of racist bank tellers.

Nehemiah had served five years in prison for the scam, Dorsey explained in the clip, and he’d since built a business refurbishing vintage Porsche 928s out of a downtown L.A. hangar. Now, Dorsey explained, Nehemiah was ready to share his tale with the world. “It’s a story of redemption,” she told the reporter.

Seven minutes later, the stranger sent me a third message. “I’ve been very careful in selecting the ‘right’ journalist with this one-of-a-kind true-crime story Sean,” it read. “As I remain, in hope and trust, Maverick Miles Nehemiah.”

Dorsey had already been a go-to police expert for cable-news shows before writing The CONfidence Chronicles, and she had plugged the book via appearances on MSNBC, CNN, and others. But she had failed to secure a contract, and sales of the self-published result had flagged. Maverick wanted a major magazine to cover his story, too.

“I’d be lying,” I wrote him back, “if I said I weren’t interested.”

The following day, Maverick emailed me a PDF copy of Dorsey’s book. The CONfidence Chronicles had all the ingredients of a true-crime classic — even if, on first glance, many of its details read jarringly like fiction. In it, Maverick, the Texas-raised adopted son of a Pueblo Indian pianist mother and Black airman father, channeled increasing disillusionment with America’s history of racism, and failed shots at pro football, into a daredevil scheme to defraud the government — perfecting counterfeit U.S. Treasury bonds, before dispatching his hand-selected All-American Team to cash them, or “walk the paper” as he called it, in banks up and down the country. He decked out his counterfeit runners with flashy clothes and went on trips to the Caribbean. But his own motivations ran deeper. “Maverick believed that this country had then and continues to this day — an agenda to ‘keep Black people down,’” Dorsey wrote. “Maverick went after the government’s money.” He’d aimed to walk $50 million of the bonds. But one of the so-called All-American Team, a hard-drinking Midwesterner he called “Delilah,” had, “because of her greed and betrayal,” wrote Dorsey, hit banks on her own, gotten arrested, and snitched.

I wanted to know much more, and Maverick was happy to oblige, reaching out via text, video, or voice notes — oftentimes while driving in the dead of night, jazz and funk classics playing in the background. That March, I interviewed him for my crime podcast, and by May the exchanges had become, in his words, “our journey.” That spring, Rolling Stone commissioned me to write about Maverick, and I texted him the news. “I always know that positive thoughts bring about positive results,” he replied. “I’m just grateful to you for making this effort.”

In October, the magazine flew me to Atlanta, the city of Maverick’s youth. We spent a week driving around in his gunmetal Porsche Cayenne. Maverick showed me where he lived and went to school — and banks he said he’d hit with his All-Americans. One afternoon, he drove me to a red-brick warehouse on the south side of town where, he claimed, he’d spent almost two years perfecting the art of counterfeiting. His “theme tune,” he told me, was David Bowie’s “Criminal World.” His mantra: “A scared man can’t make any money.”

Maverick could talk for yards, and he ate almost as eagerly. We dined lavishly at high-end restaurants, where he never drank alcohol and began several meals with dessert. He insisted on paying, and on a couple of occasions, I agreed — one of many decisions I’d later regret.

After I settled up for our final steak dinner, at Atlanta’s Ritz-Carlton hotel, Maverick took me to his room and handed me a crisp, cellophane-wrapped bill. It was a red, white, and blue $25 “Bicentennial-design Series E” bond, first issued in 1975 to commemorate the Revolutionary War: the exact bond that, according to The CONfidence Chronicles, Maverick had counterfeited thousands of times for what he euphemistically called the “caper.” “Don’t show this to many people,” he said softly. “It’s just for you.”

Then I returned home to London. Maverick and I communicated daily on WhatsApp. But I struggled to write the story. He said he didn’t have any transcripts from the bond case, claiming the U.S. government had sealed it on security grounds. Contacts had either died, vanished, or refused to speak. “Delilah” was a woman named Ann Morgan in Springfield, Illinois, he told me. But I couldn’t find her either. (I’d later figure out that this name was a slight variation of that of a real woman he dated.) The only All-American Team member I did track down — a former model in L.A. — told me she’d barely been involved, and that she’d met the other team members only twice, at an Atlanta diner.

By February 2023, I was getting desperate, and Rolling Stone assigned me a researcher. On Feb. 28, she emailed me, “Look at this!” It was a 2017 post at RipOffReport, a notice board for people who claim to be victims of scam artists and skulduggery, about “Maverick Mann,” a.k.a. “Maverick Marsalis.” “Every word out his mouth is a lie. He’s a pathological liar whose main goal is to steal you blind,” it read. “The man has no soul.”

My heart skipped. It seemed I’d been taken for a long ride.

I needed to start from the beginning — to figure out the full story of Maverick. The more I dug, the more the saga took shape. He’d presented himself as a righteous Robin Hood figure — a counterfeiter driven by moral outrage over racial injustice to commit victimless crimes. And he’d said he’d gone clean, putting his life of dishonesty behind him for a fresh start. But now, eight months and more than a hundred interviews later, I know this: The cons were not virtuous — and there was seemingly no end to them.

Maverick Miles Nehemiah — or whichever of around 20 names he has gone by — is a prolific con artist. And his mark hasn’t just been the government. His victims are real people: friends, colleagues, and the many women he dated. He has grafted elements of a four-decade-long illicit career — from car theft to romance scams and, yes, a minor forgery racket — into a Frankenstein’s criminal, a Hollywood-esque master counterfeiter ennobled by the injustices of the state.

There was some truth to The CONfidence Chronicles. But it’s a sliver of the larger picture. The real Maverick has targeted dozens if not hundreds of potential victims, from California to Copenhagen, leaving many of them traumatized or financially wrecked. When things get too hot, he retreats, pupates, and emerges again — with another identity, and another wild con. Each time he preys on our desire to seek simple, moral tales in a mangled, messed-up world.

I was no different. I bought into the myth of Maverick Miles, playing a role in his most outrageous plot to date — one that has reached all the way to Hollywood’s rarified summit. But his journey began 40 years ago. Back then, he went by the name Derek. And he had gotten caught up in a very different kind of con.

KERRY ROSS (who requested her name be changed) was almost nine months pregnant, and her boyfriend was acting strange. It was January 1986, six years since she and Derek Andre Kelly met at Morgan State University in Baltimore. Derek, tall and buff, had arrived at MSU from Atlanta on a football scholarship. He was charming, with a deep, Southern drawl and a storyteller’s lilt. He dreamed of having a movie made about his life. “You’re gonna see me on the big screen,” she remembers him telling her.

He seemed like a regular, if eccentric, guy, she tells me. “If he didn’t have such psychopathic tendencies,” she says, “he would be an amazing person.” The couple stayed together after graduation, and in 1984 moved for a few months to Texas, where Derek tried out for the Houston Oilers. But he didn’t make the roster. And Kerry grew tired of manipulative and erratic behavior, and lies that fishtailed from the banal to the bizarre. She remembers that he once checked into a hotel with a towel wrapped around his head, pretending to be a Middle Eastern sheik. Another evening, she says, he returned to their room with a scrap of paper, on which was written the name “Maverick Marsalis,” a birth date and a Social Security number — Kerry couldn’t figure why.

Kerry remembers visiting his family home in west Atlanta, where she met Derek’s mother, Ann Elizabeth Kelly, and saw photos of his late father, Wade, who she was told was a commercial-airline pilot and had died in 1980. The home was just down the street from where, Derek liked to remind people, white residents erected a “Berlin Wall” in 1962 to keep out Black people.

Derek often ghosted Kerry, and she was sure there were other women. She says that as their relationship progressed, Derek’s antics went from the deeply strange to disturbing. One year, Kerry says, he “borrowed” $2,500 from her, and never gave it back. It was her tuition for the semester. “That messed me up,” she says. But she was scared that if she ever spoke out about his strange behavior that he’d make public the nude photos he’d taken of her.

(Maverick has since called my reporting “false” and “reckless.” When sent a detailed list of fact-checking questions, he answered, “I can tell you that almost EVERYTHING of your questions IS WRONG.” He then stalled getting on a call with Rolling Stone’s fact checker, and finally took more drastic measures. But more on that later.)

Derek had a second failed shot at the NFL — this time with the Indianapolis Colts — but by then he’d already fallen back on crime, and he would rack up a series of charges in the mid-Eighties. He told Kerry and another friend that he’d hooked up with a group in Houston importing European cars illegally. “They were some serious people,” a longtime friend and accomplice I will call Leo tells me.

By 1985, Kerry and Derek lived separately. But around the time Kerry got pregnant, she remembers him dropping out of the crew, and moving to Atlanta. Kerry followed him there, hoping a child would convince him to settle down. But, she says, Derek showed up at her door just once during that time — to drop off a box of Pampers, and tell her he was probably going to prison. Kerry went to Maryland and gave birth alone — she remembers Derek telling her he had tried to board a plane to see her but the feds were up on the car-import scam. He told her they arrested him at the airport. A judge sentenced Derek in 1986 to five years’ prison for the unauthorized use of a vehicle, according to court records. In Derek’s telling to his girlfriend, the conviction was related to his illegal-import ring.

She never asked him for child support, and he claimed the boy wasn’t his. “Derek said this baby’s not his?” Kerry recalls Derek’s mother asking her, incredulous, when they met soon after. But in a way — one that only really made sense in Derek’s crazy, confusing world — he wasn’t. Because by the next time Kerry heard from him, Derek was already well on his way to becoming somebody else.

IN 1991, ATLANTA felt like the center of the universe. The Braves and Falcons were enjoying fairy-tale seasons, Atlanta-headquartered CNN’s coverage of the Gulf War had made it a household name in news, and the city had just won the right to host the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. Amanda Morgan hoped some of the city’s stardust might rub off on her. (Remember the name Ann Morgan which Derek gave me early on? Her first name isn’t Ann — but when I finally tracked her down she asked me to use a pseudonym to share her story.) She had moved to Georgia from Gary, Indiana, away from the father of her two-year-old son and her unfulfilling work. When a handsome, athletic local who called himself Kelly Marsalis answered a personal ad she’d placed in the alt-weekly Creative Loafing, Amanda tells me, “it was not love at first sight.” But Kelly showed up in a Land Rover, and he was a smooth talker. And the fact that he neither drank nor took drugs was a relief — especially given Amanda’s own struggles with alcohol. Amanda says it seemed weird when a cop friend told her that Kelly’s real name was Derek — and that she never knew where he lived. She suspected he was hopping around the homes of other women. But he was fun.

After a couple of lunch dates, Amanda says, Kelly let her in on a secret: He had a mole at a credit bureau, and he was making bank forging payroll checks with a crew he sent out to cash them. Amanda says she had “mad computer skills,” and he asked her, “Why don’t you make me some IDs?” She balked. But soon afterward, her work dried up, and she says Kelly offered her $5,000 per ID. She made “several,” she tells me.

In 1992, Amanda got a job at Midway Airlines, and relocated to Springfield, Illinois. Kelly visited for a couple of weeks, and brought with him a stack of counterfeit bonds big enough to fill a couple of shoeboxes. Kelly had sourced the paper and ink from underworld contacts, he said — but he needed somebody to cash them. “I’m quite arrogant,” Amanda says. “I said, ‘I’ll do it.’”

Amanda tells it like this: First, she hit Chicago’s Federal Reserve Bank as Kelly waited in the lot outside. She emerged with almost 10 grand. It was addictive. Monday through Friday, Amanda worked her desk job at Midway, before flying to meet Kelly on weekends to walk paper in a city where he’d mapped out the banks. They’d often hit more than a dozen banks per day.

It wasn’t their only scam. Amanda says Kelly sought out folks selling jewelry and watches, and paid them in person with phony documents — making sure to do so on evenings and weekends, so he’d be long gone before they could verify their authenticity. Amanda remembers traveling from Atlanta to sell a bunch of it to a Florida gold dealer. “He drove, I did the transaction,” she tells me. “I wanna say, $25,000 to $30,000.”

Then one weekend in 1993, Amanda says, she and Kelly pulled up beside a bank west of St. Louis. “Dude,” Amanda warned, “this looks familiar.” Kelly assured her they hadn’t been before. But he was wrong. Amanda was dressed in a white Lillie Rubin suit — hardly a forgettable look in a suburban bank — and the teller recognized her. She says the manager told her to take a seat, went to his office, and picked up the phone. He still had her ID and the bonds.

“You know what?” Amanda remembers telling him. “I left my son in the car. Let me go out and I’ll just grab him, and I’ll be right back in.”

She left the bank and jumped into Kelly’s car. “Let’s get outta here,” she said.

Things unraveled soon after. In 1994, Amanda says, her family’s Gary home was broken into and some of the fake bonds were stolen. Cops later found the bonds while searching another property and traced them back to Amanda. Late that year, Amanda was driving through Gary when an officer spotted her and chased her down. At first she refused to tell authorities who’d worked the scam with her. But after a few weeks, she tells me, “I got a court-appointed attorney who said, ‘You better save your ass, honey, because you’re looking at a lot of years in prison.’

“I was like, ‘You know what? Fuck him,’” she says. “And I flipped.”

*artistic reenactment

Illustration by Butcher Billy

Amanda received a three-year house-arrest sentence and a more than $50,000 fine for possessing counterfeit securities. And officials picked up Kelly in January of that same year in Texas, and charged him with possession of counterfeit bonds. But he wasn’t staring at a 50-year term, as The CONfidence Chronicles claims. In July 1995, an L.A. jury found Derek Andri Kelly — a.k.a. Derek Kelly-Marsalis; a.k.a. Derek Andri Kelly Marsalis — guilty and sentenced him to 15 months in prison (including time served), three years of probation, and a $6,000 fine.

Derek emerged from prison in early 1996, as Atlanta prepared to host the Olympics. Both he and the city would soon require a reinvention. He could barely have timed his second act better. In the mid-Nineties, a new wave of websites like Craigslist, eBay, and Match.com connected folks from all corners of the globe — and skilled manipulators like Derek with millions of potential marks. Gone was the need to steal cars or walk phony bonds. Now, all he needed was a laptop and a modem.

SINCE DISCOVERING DEREK’S true identity I have reached out to well over 200 people, locating around 20 victims of romance scams alone — and I know of several dozen more potential victims I’ve yet to reach. We’ll likely never know exactly how many people Derek has conned.

His playbook, according to women he courted, was simple but highly effective. He’d strike up a fiery digital relationship, pouring romantic grandiloquence over a backing track of jazz or funk. “I’m here to love you, I’m here to care about you,” he purred in a voicemail message to one woman, soon after they’d met. “I need love from you. I need care from you. I need attention.” Many connections remained digital. Others progressed to lunch or dinner, to which Derek invariably arrived in a Cadillac or Porsche, sometimes dressed in his signature suit and cowboy boots. “He’s charming, and he knows how to speak to a woman,” a Danish jazz singer tells me. Another woman, who tells me Derek sent her a photo of him supposedly at the Oscars, says he’s “a renaissance man — and a brilliant man at that.” These women say that soon after the initial wooing, there’d be an illness, tragedy, or business venture that required payment. When the woman obliged, sending over the money, Derek would usually disappear or let the relationship fizzle.

An acquaintance of Derek’s tells me he wanted to connect her to someone named Carmen, with whom she could invest $250,000. “Then all of a sudden Carmen dies of Covid — right before we’re supposed to have this meeting.

“Almost a year later … he’s telling me how he’s just come back from visiting his friend Carmen, and I’m like, ‘Really, the one who died last year?’” the acquaintance adds. “And the look on his face, right after he said the name Carmen: He knew, and he was hoping I wouldn’t catch. And then, of course, I did, and he became a fucking raging asshole, all of a sudden — from suave, debonair, and charming to narcissistic asshole.”

Derek often lived with one or even two women for months at a time, or traveled across state lines to meet girlfriends, according to several women who dated him. But he was controlling; “lying for no reason,” one former partner tells me, “just being vindictive for the sake of it.”

Derek told people he didn’t have any kids. That was a lie, too. Around 2000, Derek — as Kelly — met a medical assistant living in the San Fernando Valley in California I’ll call Rachel (she asked that her real name not be used). She says he moved into her house, racking up huge phone bills, disappearing for days on end, and demanding money for side projects she never fully understood. Rachel got pregnant, but miscarried. Then she got pregnant again, and Derek asked her to get an abortion. Rachel refused, and Derek left during her first trimester.

Rachel filed for child support when their son was six months old. But to date, she says, she’s received a total of $700 and lives on disability. Sometimes Rachel’s now-19-year-old son shows her Derek’s Instagram posts, studded with exotic cars and expensive clothes. “It makes us wonder,” she tells me, “why could you not sell one of those cars and give us some money?

“My son says, ‘Does he ever even ask about me?’” Rachel says. “And unfortunately, no, he doesn’t. But I feel like I got the prince charming, and he’s my kid. He’s smart and crafty like his dad, but he’s got my heart.”

*artistic reenactment

Illustration by Butcher Billy

As years passed, the stories Derek spun about his life grew more elaborate and outlandish. At stages, Derek has claimed to be related to the jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis (Marsalis’ family says they have no relatives by this name), and the ex-fiancé of a Brazilian woman killed in a car wreck (another fact I couldn’t pin down). Derek’s LinkedIn says he’s studied at Harvard Business School, the University of Texas, and the American Film Institute — which I wasn’t able to confirm. He told one former friend he’d built infrastructure for the Atlanta games with “two hammers in his hands … the overtime at the Olympics — that’s how he made his money.” He told another he’d competed at the games. One of the few facts I could confirm was that, via his Colts tryout, Derek is an NFL alum.

Derek’s family and upbringing were reimagined, too. In The CONfidence Chronicles, and in his telling to me, his modest childhood home in Atlanta became a 500-acre ranch between two lakes in Tulia, Texas. (Tulia’s city librarian tells me 500 acres would be “huge,” and that the only lake in the county dried up decades ago.) Wade Kelly is described as “the Colonel,” an Air Force veteran who had served with the Tuskegee Airmen: Derek would later post an image of Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James Jr., America’s first Black four-star general, to social media, claiming him to be Wade. His mom, Ann Elizabeth, became a pianist and Zia Pueblo Indian. Even to his old friends, Derek has changed his life story over and over. “I’ve heard him say [his mom died] about 30 times,” his friend Leo tells me. “I’m like, ‘Man, your mother ain’t dying every month, every year’ … I’m like, ‘What the fuck are you?’”

Throughout the early 2000s, Derek’s romance scams and lies multiplied, fueled by a series of email accounts and dating profiles — oftentimes typing through the night and calling marks in the wee hours — out of an L.A. hangar he would later call, simply, “Base.”

By 2000, it seemed like Derek hit the jackpot, having persuaded a California woman, Jan Slovis, to part with her life savings. But around that time, some of the women began to contact one another about their run-ins with Derek. And a private investigator Slovis talked to contacted Amanda Morgan, who was now traveling for her work as a consultant. “I’m sitting in hotel rooms every evening with nothing else to do, lemme just blog about this cat and put up a Yahoo! Group,” Amanda says.

More than 50 women came forward. Amanda spoke to them all, usually more than once — and compiled their stories at a website called Info About D. Kelly Marsalis. (I would track Amanda down via an archived section of the site.) Most of the blog has been lost over time, but posts remain detailing bounced checks and credit-card fraud. Amanda says roughly 12 women told her they’d been scammed out of cash by Derek. And that two claimed he pressured them into having abortions.

“He’s scammed every woman he’s come into contact with,” Amanda tells me. “Let’s just put him out there as the internet’s biggest con man.” According to an old blog post, some of the women contacted the IRS, then the cops — but, they claimed, nobody was interested. Eventually, a producer at Fox 11 News in L.A. got wind of Derek’s schemes. On Feb. 10, 2003, the station ran a feature warning viewers of the dangers of digital con artists, focusing on a victim of “Derek Kelly ‘Big Daddy’ Marsalis … He was model-pretty, drove fast, expensive cars, and she found him so pretty.”

There on the screen, alongside the names of victims, was Derek’s face, clear as day. When a friend called Rachel to tell her, she cried, “Oh, my God. Kelly is on the news!”

“I thought he was gonna get screwed,” she tells me. “But it didn’t happen.”

AFTER THAT 2003 FOX SEGMENT aired, Derek seemed to tone down the romance scams — though my research suggests he never gave them up altogether. Rather, he refocused his efforts on two other passions: cars and movies. He amassed a formidable collection of vehicles at his L.A. hangar — in particular Porsche 928s, a model he’d loved since his youth. He often modified them garishly and showed them at events across California under any one of a dozen-plus aliases. Rumors swirled on Porsche-owner forums that he’d gotten hold of cars through nefarious means. A British movie producer named Marcus Hutchinson claimed on an online forum that Derek took his Porsche 928 for a test-drive and never came back. Hutchinson even posted a mocked-up wanted poster to his website, with Derek’s face on it. “This person is the thief that stole the car,” it read, “one of the biggest CON-MEN around.” (Derek sued Hutchinson for defamation in 2009, and the case was dismissed.)

In 2007, Ann Elizabeth Kelly died. Around that time, a Porsche fan Derek had met at a show introduced him to a high-flying Hollywood insider I will call Harry Stoffer (he asked not to be named, as well). That summer, Harry visited Derek’s auto shop, and marveled at its contents. “It was impressive,” he tells me. “These Porsches and old cars, all looking real nice.”

Harry loaned Derek $125,000 for his “exotic car business,” with Derek promising to pay it back in monthly installments. Sensing a break in the movie business, Derek also handed Harry a script he’d written called Tucson on Ice, about a group of porn actresses who try to rip off a meth dealer, before being captured and tortured. The script’s characters appeared to be composites of people from Derek’s life — from a car thief named Marcos to a Native American gangster named Dalton Agoyo, whose surname matches that of a Pueblo woman Derek attempted to scam in real life (I wondered if she also may have been the inspiration for his mother’s supposed heritage). It included a scene where one of the women is stripped, shaved, and, below her navel, tattooed:

“Beware the mount of Venus … for it is an evil trap. Not only as a money box for your money but a pit of despair for your passions.”

Derek had already dabbled in the entertainment industry by this point — but each time he got what looked like a break, he couldn’t help but con those who’d given it to him. He’d produced soft-porn videos for Penthouse and other outlets but, according to accusations posted online, bilked on payments to actors. He founded a production company with two other guys, but they bailed after suspicious behavior that one of them says included Derek hiding his vehicles and changing their license plates. “That was a red flag,” says one of the men, director Joseph Guidry. “Something’s going on.” Guidry and the third man dissolved the company soon after Derek hid from cops when an alarm tripped at their building. “I just had to evacuate myself,” Guidry says, “leave that whole situation behind.”

Another time, according to a rock musician I spoke with, a director paid Derek to shoot behind-the-scenes footage of a movie. But instead, Derek shot scenes directly over the director’s shoulder, edited them, and claimed the movie was his. “The producers got really pissed off,” the rock musician tells me. “This was a big deal. And he was like, ‘No, I own the footage.’”

Derek vanished from the rock musician’s life soon after, having failed to pay almost $2,000 in edit-suite fees at her production studio. He was a “bright guy,” she recalls. “I really liked him. So when he skipped out it was like, ‘Wow, really?’ It really pissed me off.”

In hindsight, even given Harry’s status in the movie industry, it’s not surprising that Derek scammed him, too. Harry says that when Derek made excuses for late payments, he got creative, snuck into Derek’s L.A. hangar, and found an eviction notice from Derek’s landlord — despite Derek’s claims he owned the building. Harry then went up to the office Derek kept strictly off-limits. In one corner was a gigantic model railway, complete with scenery and stations. But that wasn’t the weirdest thing. In a small jewelry box, there were fake IDs and passports — “alias stuff,” Harry says. “I said, ‘Wow — this guy is a freaking scam artist. What have I gotten myself into here?’”

Harry contacted the landlord, and the two men found they had similar tales of financial chicanery. “He kept giving me the runaround,” the landlord tells me. “And he was lying in a way that kinda pisses you off — ‘I’ll be there in an hour,’ ‘I’m on the freeway.’… It was that over and over.”

On Sept. 17, 2007, Harry filed a lawsuit against Derek, alleging breach of contract and fraud. Derek was evicted from the hangar, and leased another one across town. He filed for bankruptcy in 2012. Then, in October 2015, Derek reached out to Harry again, via an email with the subject “Coming Clean With You.” “I have often suppressed the level of things that I did in my wild and crazy youth,” wrote Derek. “I’m sharing this most difficult and humble confession with you sir.

“I think you will not only be shocked and amazed, but it will give you a transparency about me that you’ve never had before,” he continued. “As I continue to remain, in hope and trust.”

Harry, the landlord, and others knew Derek during this time as Kelly, or Kellee. The email, however, included two hokey, homemade FBI wanted posters for “Maverick Nehemiah Marsalis,” who was “wanted for a series of counterfeiting and fraudulent white-collar securities crimes against American banks and the U.S. government. Considered highly calculated and extreemly (sic) persuasive.” Attached was a Word document titled “The King of Confidence,” which, in the style of a magazine feature, outlined “the most successful and prolific counterfeiter of US Savings Bonds in US Treasury history,” who succeeded in spite of racism to pass $20 million in fake bonds with a team of six white “All-American[s].” Maverick was encouraged to break his silence, he alleged, after reading about the exploits of Frank Abagnale, the subject of Catch Me If You Can, and foiled forger Frank Bourassa. “I declare,” he concluded, “that I am The Greatest Counterfeiter & Confidence Man of All Time. Bar None.”

I choked on my coffee when Harry forwarded me the message this March. There it was: the bonds caper, the All-American Team. It was a 5,400-word version of the story I recognized from The CONfidence Chronicles — six years before Derek told the tale to Cheryl Dorsey, and seven before Rolling Stone sent me to Atlanta, where he’d revisit the saga to drag me, the magazine, and a Hollywood director, into his most outrageous con yet.

ALL GOOD LEGENDS NEED a paper trail — and Derek began laying the digital foundations for his counterfeiter alter ego in 2019. That year, a website called Voyage LA published an article nearly identical to the 2015 story and told readers to “Meet Maverick Miles.” There was nary a mention of the dating scams or the ripped-off friends and associates. (He did mention the car theft, calling it a “sordid allegation.”) It detailed instead the story he’d seeded since leaving college — the Native American ancestry, the Colonel, the fancy upbringing, the All-American Team, and of course, the $20 million counterfeiting “caper.” It was as if Derek had been flipping the elements of his alter ego’s life story like the panels of a Rubik’s Cube — and in Maverick Miles Nehemiah, they had all slotted, harmoniously, into place.

Two years later, Dorsey wrote The CONfidence Chronicles, and in February 2022, I got that WhatsApp message from Maverick Miles. By then, Derek — as Maverick — had a significant social media footprint, with thousands of Twitter followers and a fan base of about 100,000 on Instagram, where he posted near-daily images and videos of cars, planes, clothing, and portraits of old. Little matter that he reposted the same photo with different stories, or that some of the images were Photoshopped worse than a sixth-grade design project: By last October, when I flew to Atlanta, Derek had reimagined his long list of actual cons with a single, enormous — but exaggerated — one.

Looking back, the lie seems obvious, and I’m embarrassed to admit my own credulity in this article. But from the moment I stepped off the tarmac in Georgia, Derek was smooth and uncoiled, and he oozed Southern charm whether holding open the Cayenne’s passenger door or braking to gift unhoused people $20 bills. Though age has softened his linebacker’s frame — a fact he appears to have acknowledged via a rotating wardrobe of sweatpants and loose-fitting shirts — it is easy to imagine him attracting the attention of women, and he speaks in a baritone as polished as the rims on his prized vehicles.

We spent long days driving from his old house, to Northside High, to where he claimed he’d valeted for Atlanta royalty including Ted Turner. We spoke about music a lot: If I liked an album — the Stones’ Sticky Fingers or Steely Dan’s Aja — Derek would have it blaring when I hopped into the Porsche the following day. He never stumbled or hesitated when describing seminal moments from his life, and punched out righteous polemic like he was standing at the pulpit. “Society in America is rigged,” he says. “Black people are born into a world: ‘It’s not for you. We don’t want you here. You can’t come in here. I don’t want you to drink this water fountain, can’t use this bathroom. We don’t want you at this school.’ All people are trying to do is overcome that.”

As was the case with Derek’s counterfeiting tale, there are truths sprinkled between the lies. He did go to Northside High (hobbies: photography, music, sports; nickname: Mad Dog), and his folks did live a couple of blocks from Atlanta’s “Berlin Wall.” In The CONfidence Chronicles, Maverick stresses his desire to steal only from the U.S. Treasury, invoking the death of George Floyd and the Jan. 6 riots. Racial injustice was a frequent topic of our conversations in Atlanta — which serves to make his real scams, which have victimized many men and women of color, even more unnerving. His con artistry may be vast and spectacular, but having attempted to parse his motivations for the better part of two years, I can’t see beyond a simple cocktail of narcissism and greed.

Each night we ate three courses at an upmarket spot; sometimes lunch, too. Only our final meal — to which, similar to Kelly Ross’ experience of his presenting as a sheik in Houston, Derek wore a yarmulke — did I convince him to let me pay. On one occasion, he drove me to a Neiman Marcus where, he said, he’d kitted out the All-Americans in their high-end clothing, and offered to buy me a Tom Ford suit in homage to them — which I politely declined.

Derek groomed me, much as he had countless others. I enjoyed his company and considered him more than a journalistic subject. He told me he’d discovered me in late 2021 through a feature I’d co-written about a New York art forger, and we discussed the piece at length. When I told Derek last summer that my partner and I were expecting our first child, he messaged back in moments. “Just wow!” he wrote. “I’m sending up prayers.” Just as he did with his romance-scam victims, he mentioned my name almost constantly, and flattered my modest professional achievements.

Moreover, Derek appeared to understand a key component of modern journalism. As newsrooms shutter and streaming services thrive, magazine writers increasingly look to the sums TV and movie production companies will pay to option our stories. This secondary income has turned a generation of freelancers into Captain Ahabs, desperately seeking stories that translate from the page to the screen. Derek baited the possibility of a movie deal almost from the very beginning of our relationship, and I fell for his lies hook and line. His magnetism was disorienting — and at times blinding. As he threatened to go elsewhere with the story, I emailed him an early draft, before I knew who he really was. Journalists are never supposed to share stories with sources before publication — a practice I knew better than to flout. But he didn’t feel like just any source; it seemed like we were on the same side. Partners, even. And that was a dire mistake.

“He sought you out,” Leo would later tell me, chillingly. “He’s really good about that.”

When I discovered Derek’s true identity, I was mad with rage — not least because I had a baby on the way, and publishing his grandiose tale could’ve sunk my career. Once the breadth of his deceptions became half-clear, I thought I saw his guises everywhere. I spent days trying to reach a Washington state printworks named Maverick Label, convinced it was him, and chased dead-end leads on a financial website named MaverickPayments. I followed dozens of red herrings. Then I read back through the PDF of The CONfidence Chronicles for clues. That’s when I found “The List.”

Tucked toward the back of the file, Derek had named more than a hundred people who’d “bent over backwards to help me on my life’s journey.” Rachel, Kerry, Amanda, Leo, everybody — they were all there. If inviting a journalist into his world was ballsy, presenting this list as “soldiers who were 100% loyal to me” was off the chart. Lewis Hyde, author of the seminal con-artist book Trickster Makes This World, doesn’t think it’s a misstep. “Many confidence men believe their story,” he tells me. “There could even be a kind of desperation to it, because if the story falls apart, what do they have left? So acknowledging his marks — it demands the bluff to be called.”

When I struggled to find additional sources, Derek put up Leo and “Fantasia,” a former team member, for me to interview. When I discovered the truth, I confronted them both. Fantasia confessed immediately. Her name is Tonya Manley, a former model living in Southern California whom Derek first met in Atlanta circa the Nineties. She’d starred in a couple of his titillating movies years later. “Rolling Stone’s gonna do an article on me,” she recalls him telling her. “And some of it’s gonna be on the paper trail that I did years ago. And I just wanted you to be in it.”

When she pushed back, he told her, “Just be nonchalant.”

As time dragged, and my spreadsheet of sources swelled to almost 200 people, Derek dangled another carrot. Monty Ross, a filmmaker best known for his work alongside Spike Lee on hits including She’s Gotta Have It and Do the Right Thing, was in talks to make the Maverick Nehemiah movie — and Derek wanted me to write the script.

When, days later, I discovered Derek’s true identity, I assumed that Derek had enlisted somebody from his past to act as Ross. Derek arranged a three-way call soon after that, and I asked Ross if he’d video-call me afterward. I was surprised when he agreed, and shocked when, moments after hanging up with Derek, I redialed and there was the real Monty Ross speaking to me from his dining room with his unmistakably laconic voice and salt-and-pepper beard.

Derek and Ross had been talking for months, he tells me. Not only that, but Ross had drafted a script for the movie adaptation of The CONfidence Chronicles. He was knocked almost speechless when I told him Derek had been playing us both. “He’s been trying to get everybody to hurry up with making the script, playing us off against each other,” Ross says, piecing together the scam in real time. “I never thought you would call to say this.”

By then I had already spoken with more than 50 people, peeling back the layers of Derek’s life like an onion. I saved for last those he was either currently scamming or in league with. That included Cheryl Dorsey. Her autobiography, Black and Blue, exposed the discrimination she’d experienced as an LAPD sergeant, for which she’d received a sizable civil settlement. She had since pivoted to TV, appearing on the news to discuss race and policing in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Surely, I thought for months — she had to be in on it.

Because of that, I wait until March to tell her what I know. When I get her on the phone, it becomes clear within moments that he was using her to launder his reputation. “This is really blowing me away,” she tells me. “I’m speechless. How do I unring this bell?”

Derek first slid into Dorsey’s Instagram DMs — as Maverick — on Nov. 30, 2020. “I’d be honored to have the REAL opportunity to befriend and know you as a Human Being,” he wrote, before adding a link to the Voyage LA piece. They seemed to have so much in common. “I am adopted,” she tells me. “He told me he’s adopted. I had a husband who was killed in a car accident. He told me he had a fiancée who was killed in a car accident.” Eventually, Dorsey tells me, her “friendly interrogation” of Maverick paid off, and he allowed her to commit his counterfeiting tale to print. The names Derek and Kelly cropped up in her research, and she was nervous for her reputation. But Dorsey assumed he’d switched names for a “fresh start,” she tells me. She didn’t reach out to members of the All-American Team, or ask for any more contacts. “I wasn’t doing any deep dives,” she says. “I was really just trusting in my own intuition.”

The pandemic prevented them from meeting in person, but Dorsey and Derek texted all day, every day. One time they spoke on the phone for 17 hours straight. She called it a situationship. It felt like love. “He was grooming me,” she tells me.

Lockdowns lifted, and the pair met in real life. In August 2021, he suggested an apartment closer to him in L.A., and she moved there weeks later. Right around then, Derek began complaining that he couldn’t pay rent on his new hangar. He knew about her recent settlement and “he was trying to get me to, he was calling it, invest in him,” she tells me. He wanted $100,000. She loaned him $8,000.

“How do I get my $8,000 back?” she asks me. Shortly after we spoke that first time, Dorsey called a friend. “I told her, ‘Girl — I got my own Dirty John.’”

The CONfidence Chronicles published in October 2021. Dorsey used her TV connections to plug it on air. “Oh, my God, honey, you’re gonna have me do a good old Southern-boy yee-haw,” he voice-messaged her the following March, after she appeared on MSNBC. “‘The greatest crime story never told’ — What the actual fuck! Excuse my French, but that is really, really special, honey. I’m so proud of you, I’m so excited, so thrilled about how everything is coming together.

“And believe me when I tell you,” he added — “we’re gonna get us a movie deal. We’re gonna get us the deal we’ve been looking for. I promise you this.”

I suspected Dorsey and I hadn’t been the only ones in media to get on board with the story, and I was right: In February last year, Jeff Singer, an L.A.-based TV and podcast producer, read Dorsey’s book. “I said, ‘Wow — if half of that is true, I can easily sell it as a movie or a TV show,’” he says. Singer signed an option contract with Dorsey, but he tore it up when he came across the same RipOffReport posts that derailed this article. When Singer confronted him, Derek said, “‘Anyone could say that about you — and then you’d have to fight it regardless of whether it was true.’ And I’m like, ‘Is this guy threatening me?’

“I said to Cheryl, ‘Have you fact-checked this book?’” he says. “And she said, ‘No.’ She pointed to the [Voyage LA] article. I felt bad for her.… I don’t want her credibility to be ruined — an ex-law-enforcement officer who got conned by a master criminal.”

As winter turned to spring and my article still hadn’t published, Derek stepped up his attempts to hurry the story along. He told me an L.A. Times reporter wanted the story, but wouldn’t say who. Incredibly, until this May, Derek still didn’t seem to know I was onto him. Then I spoke to his friend Leo, and conveyed my suspicions about Maverick’s story. Days later, Derek deleted his WhatsApp and several of his social media profiles.

The closer we got to the publication date for this story, the stranger things got.

Somebody claiming to be Derek’s former PA called me, saying she could disprove some of the RipOffReport posts about him. She wouldn’t do that, however, until she could verify with my editor, via email, that I was writing the article. After I shared the address, Rolling Stone received a 2,400-word “cease & desist” email from Derek as Maverick Miles Nehemiah, forwarded by somebody claiming to be his attorney. In the letter, Derek alleged, among other things, that I had “harassed,” “stalked,” and “slandered” him to friends and family; conducted “journalistic criminality with malicious vindictive and damaging intent,” and had shared private information with Rachel, whom he described as a “bitter, deranged, mentally unstable and desperate ex-girlfriend.” He also characterized me as a “rogue Journalist, a self confessed (to me) former Heroin drug addict, who does not have a scintilla of journalistic integrity.” (I mentioned to Derek in Atlanta that I had once tried the drug many years ago.) Derek threatened to release humiliating recordings of me should his demand for the story to be spiked not be met. Beyond unflattering sounds of me eating burgers, I had no idea what that kompromat may be.

And in August, Leo did a 180 in emails to Rolling Stone’s fact checker. “I guess you’re aware that Sean did some real dirty work on me,” Leo wrote. “Sean double-crossed me and had some bad motives to call me like that and saying some very ugly things about Maverick, about how he was going to blindside him with this story and ruin his life and put him in jail and personally ruin the man … I could tell he had it in for Maverick, like he was jealous and hating on the man. So I just played along with his vendetta game and acted like I would go along with it.”

When I interviewed Leo in the spring, he’d offered to record conversations with Maverick for me. My editor told me it was a bad idea — which I told Leo. But in his email to the fact checker, he twisted the story, saying I’d asked him to record his friend. And that I’d offered him money if he helped me — which isn’t true.

Then, 48 hours before the story was set to go to the printers, I found out the lengths to which Derek would go. He sent me a copy of a defamation lawsuit he claimed he’s filed against me, Monty Ross, my editor, and Rolling Stone’s lawyer — for $100 million. (Since this story went to press, the lawsuit was filed.)

The lawsuit claims I “made numerous false and damaging statements about the Plaintiff.”

“Nehemiah spent extensive amounts of time together with Williams over the course of approximately one week in Atlanta, Georgia at his own expense chauffeuring him around town, detailing the different aspects of the historical criminality, and aiding him in having sufficient material that he needed to write the story that he had secured the commission from Rolling Stone magazine,” it read. It claimed my actions were “malicious,” including “the spreading of salacious rumors, half truths and lies,” and that by reporting I’d caused “severe emotional distress” — not to mention that the story would “destroy the contractual relationships that Nehemiah had with Monty Ross for a Hollywood movie deal.” When I discovered the monetary gain to be made from Ross’ script, Derek alleges, I persuaded Ross to partner with me instead — a lie. The lawsuit also confirmed my suspicion that Leo had in April reached out to Derek about my questions of his real identity. And it includes Leo’s false claims about my asking him to record their conversations and offer to pay him.

At other times in my life, I might’ve been stunned by a nine-figure lawsuit. But after two years of dealing with Derek, nothing he does surprises me.

PEOPLE TARGETED BY SCAMMERS like Derek are often perceived as desperate or overly credulous. According to the Department of Justice, only 14 percent of financial-fraud victims in 2017 reported incidents to police. I share the embarrassment of those who fell for Derek’s charms. He conned us with the promise of a good story, and beyond that, a far more elemental craving: connection.

I’m one of the lucky ones, though. I was incredibly fortunate to have Rolling Stone’s researcher flag that post that led to my unraveling of the real story. But a director who spent months producing a documentary about Derek’s car collection hasn’t been paid what he says Derek owes him — and likely never will. I have a particular sympathy for Rachel, whom Derek had gotten pregnant, then ghosted and taunted online. Nobody took her seriously at the time, she tells me. “You feel like you’re a crazy woman.” She’s worried what will happen when Derek reads this story, too — she doesn’t know “what he is doing or what type of people he is dealing with.”

Rachel has a tough time trusting people, and flips out when she catches her son — Derek’s son — lying to her. She doesn’t date, she tells me, and she’s still in therapy. “I’m exhausted.… Even speaking to you is very scary for me, because it’s like, ‘Oh, is this gonna come out making me look like the crazy woman?’”

But, she adds, “I’m not. I have been raising a kid by myself, and I have an amazing son. And I worked very hard and I established myself. I don’t have a lot of money, but I’m OK.

“The person who is crazy is this man.”

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