A fraudster posed as well-known Hollywood personalities to dupe more than 300 victims out of $1 million into offering non-existent jobs in the film industry, a court has heard.
Hargobind Tahilramani, 42 – dubbed the ‘Con Queen of Hollywood’ – allegedly claimed to be executives, including producers working for The Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan, during a seven-year scam.
He is also accused of impersonating 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 a victim, Westminster Magistrates’ Court has heard.
Hargobind Tahilramani, 42, was allegedly the ‘mastermind’ of a plot to defraud more than 300 victims out of over $1 million between 2013 and August 2020
Tahilramani is accused of impersonating Rupert Murdoch’s ex-wife Wendi Deng
Tahilramani allegedly claimed 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 reportedly convinced to travel to Indonesia at their own expense for non-existent projects before being billed exorbitant expenses, which were never reimbursed.
Among those impersonated by the “catfish” were Star Wars producer Kathleen Kennedy, former Sony film executive Amy Pascal and ex-Paramount boss Sherry Lansing, it is said.
Tahilramani reportedly 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 at a £60-a-night aparthotel in Manchester, where he allegedly claimed to be a “writer for Netflix”.
When asked if he understood, Tahilramani, who has been based in the UK since 2016, replied: “Yes, the scam”, the court heard.
He is fighting his extradition to the United States where he faces eight charges, including conspiracy to commit wire fraud, two counts of wire fraud – each carrying a maximum sentence of 20 years jail time – and five counts of aggravated impersonation, which carries a maximum sentence. two years each.
Joel Smith, representing the United States, said Wednesday that Tahilramani was the “mastermind” of a plot to defraud more than 300 victims out of more than $1 million between 2013 and August 2020.
“The defendants allegedly pretend to be well-known entertainment industry executives or their representatives and promise the victims non-existent jobs in the film industry in Indonesia,” he said.
“Victims based in the United States were persuaded to travel to Indonesia at their own expense, and once there were persuaded to pay a multitude of fees or expenses, again out of their own pockets.”
Mr Smith said victims would be asked to pay for the cost of the driver, photography fees or ‘permits’ and would be reimbursed when they returned to the United States.
He continued to contact them by phone and text, while his accomplices posed as drivers, tour operators and money collectors, he said.
“The sums spent by the victim were received by the defendant himself and were never reimbursed,” he said.
“At its heart, this is an old-fashioned advance fee fraud.”
Mr Smith told the court how New York screenwriter Gregory Mandarano was robbed after he submitted a script to a website called ‘TheChinaFilmGroup.com’.
Tahilramani allegedly impersonated film producer Megan Ellison (left) and her mother, Barbara Boothe (right) during his seven-year scam
“The defendant, impersonating 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, about ten times the average cost in Indonesia.”
“In Indonesia, Mr. Mandarano and his writing partner attended a meeting in Jakarta with the accused, who was posing as ‘Anand Sippy’, Vice President of Development of the China Film Group.
“The defendant told Mr. Mandarano that he would have to rewrite his screenplay.
“Over the next three months, Mr. Mandarano and his writing partner visited Indonesia four times, each trip lasting several weeks.
“Towards the end of this associate, Mr. Mandarano, as a result of pressure from the defendant, ‘bought out’ his writing associate.”
“Mr. Mandarano left $80,000 out of his own 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 was offering a non-existent $5,000-a-day job to monitor film sets in Indonesia.
‘[Casey] Gray worked in the security industry. A colleague told him about an opportunity to work with Jean Pritzker. In fact, the opportunity was non-existent.
“On July 12, 2017, the defendant emailed Mr. Grey, who was in America at the time, posing as Mrs. Pritzker.”
The email contained a non-disclosure agreement, which Mr Smith said 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, while claiming to be Mrs. Pritzker, offered sexual favors to Mr. Gray and attempted to get him to send recordings of himself.”
Freelance photographer Will Strathman received an email from Tahilramani posing as Hollywood executive Ms Pascal and was persuaded to travel to Indonesia to direct a Netflix travel series, the court heard.
He is said to have paid almost £40,000 in fictitious expenses during 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 promising film roles which would require an advance.
Los Angeles-based Dan Considine received a text message in May 2020 allegedly from Thomas Hayslip – a producer working with Nolan, known for films such as Inception and Tenet.
Court heard he spoke to Tahilramani, who posed as another producer, ‘Dana Walden’, who persuaded Mr Considine to send in audition tapes and pay around $7,000 for videos martial arts training, with the goal of landing 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 who currently do not face any charges in the United States, including some victims based in the United Kingdom, but they do not currently face any charges in the United States. United.”
Tahilramani appeared via video link from Wandsworth prison, wearing a blue shirt, and used his pseudonym 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 after final closing arguments on November 7.
Private investigation firm K2 Integrity, which worked with law enforcement during the investigation, previously described Tahilramani, who is represented by Ben Cooper KC, as the “funny queen of Hollywood.”
The extradition hearing continues.