It was the kind of night Mordan Stefanov lived for: red-carpet treatment, limos, high fashion and free-flowing drinks—an A-list of moneyed guests, society and business types, and the poseurs who needed to be seen at the hottest party in town.
The January 8 celebration would mark the pinnacle of all he had accomplished in the four short glamorous months since he arrived in Dallas. It was billed as the grand reopening of the Uptown restaurant Bella, which had been remodeled and bore the brand of Stefanov's own flamboyant design—the sort of place where a jet-setting European party lover like himself would feel at home. Partygoers would have a chance to meet the "stars" of his new Dallas-based reality show, Bella Boyz, featuring Robert "Peach" Petrie and Anthony "Tony" Porcaro, co-owners of the restaurant, as well as Mordan Stefanov himself. They would be treated to the premiere of the promotional trailer for the series, which was being produced by Stefanov's production company, SFR Television ("The World's First Online Television Network with Original Programming"), which was part of his global media empire, SFR International. Another of his subsidiaries, SFR magazine, would be debuting its spring issue to guests.
Working the crowd with his bursts of "I love everybody" enthusiasm uttered with hints of a European accent, Stefanov himself could have been the night's main entertainment. He wore a sweater, scarf and vest—all the finest Alexander McQueen couture—with David Yurman jewelry as cameras caught his every prowl. He made certain photographers snapped him with only the best dressed, the most interesting of his hundreds of guests, only the few who could hold their own beside him in the frame. He was slightly built with an orange-blonde hair weave unlike any color in nature, swooping down across his forehead. He could have been 30 or 40, but who could tell? He seemed to make a point of keeping people guessing.
Inside this world, the night belonged to Stefanov. The name of his new media conglomerate, SFR—"Society Fashion Report"—lit up the walls, and screens around the room flashed highlights from the dozen parties he'd thrown in the last two months in Dallas: celebrity appearances, mostly by actor Billy Zane, and auctions for children's charities. And these same screens played the Bella Boyz trailer, as the voiced-over montage announced "television's hottest new reality series." "Two successful business owners...One magazine publisher—Mordan, the deal breaker...It's Entourage meets Hell's Kitchen...The money. One restaurant. The Nightlife. The Brotherhood. The Power....Hang with the 'Boyz,' Spring 2010."
Turns out, the "Boyz" couldn't hang together that long.
As his guests drank up the production, they were unaware of the darker drama unfolding around them. Mordan Stefanov was not who he appeared. He was Michael Manos, a convicted felon, a fugitive from justice, a parole violator who had, for the last five years, fled from New York to Atlanta to Dallas under a series of fake identities.
Manos knew that his time here had come to an end. And so did four other people at the party, employees who wondered why they could find hardly any trace of him on the Internet, why he seemed to be a man with no history.
It took time and ingenuity to connect the dots, but they soon learned about Manos' shadowy past: his alleged real-estate and charity scams, a violent kidnapping, late-night romps in the White House and others who'd been trying for years to send him back to prison. He had risked the same unmasking in Atlanta and New York, and like before, he ran.
A 10-day manhunt followed, ending with Manos' arrest in a San Francisco hotel room. With law enforcement in at least four states—Texas, Georgia, New York and California—competing to prosecute him first, he was extradited to New York, the state that maintained jurisdiction over his parole.
He would be skewered in the local press, condemned as a con artist who had used multiple aliases to hide his true identity, a "glam scammer" who defrauded the gay community, the rich and famous, by gaining their confidence with the glow of his phony celebrity. He would milk their generosity with appeals to local charities, and draw on their vanity with his seemingly glamorous life. But from a jailhouse phone interview in Poughkeepsie, New York, over the course of several days in March, Manos paints a different picture of his many selves. He would argue, first of all, that his celebrity was real, cultivated during his seminal years in the nation's top party scenes. As Manos sees it, his only crime was jumping parole so he could seek a new life, to pursue his big ambitions of wealth, glamour and fame unshackled to his past mistakes.
"I did everything right, I gave to charity, I was a good, productive member of society," he says. "They chased me down and made everybody in Dallas think that I was America's Most Wanted. I mean, what'd I do? I failed to report to parole."
In Michael Manos' world, silence may be the most dangerous thing of all, permitting a crack in the façade, the space where doubt and reality leak in. With Manos talking, though, his world is the shining little fiefdom where you want to be, a pristine semi-reality of glitter and booze and all the right answers.
"He'd just go a thousand miles a minute and by the time it was over you wouldn't know which way was up," says Evan Batt, a liquor distributor he worked with in Dallas.
"I didn't even know what his real name was," recalls Trina Rose, a production designer he worked with in New York. "I was just in this tornado of feeling screwed over."
From city to city, details changed, except for this: at the middle of all the turning was Manos.
Even today, locked up without the couture, the Botox or his expensive hairpiece, Manos plays the victim in his own life story, the target of a years-long personal vendetta on the part of a cousin and an ex-boyfriend. Convincingly, he offers excuses for bad behavior, providing long-winded, difficult-to-corroborate answers, a mixture of facts, opinions and celebrity encounters that find him in just the right places at just the right times.
He was born in 1963 in Poughkeepsie, along the Hudson River two hours north of New York City. Manos' mother was a college administrator, and he came from a middle-class family.
In a back story he frequently told in recent years, Manos' father was a rich Greek philanthropist who'd left him a trust fund for his education, but otherwise disowned him when he learned his son was gay. According to Manos' 67-year-old mother, Elizabeth Martin, while the man's family was Greek, the rest was pure invention, and his father died years ago.
Manos grew up as Michael Martin, believing his stepdad—whom he describes as the stereotype of a gruff New Yorker, someone who would beat him—was his real father. Manos' Catholic grade school was no escape: he was picked on for being smaller than other kids and struggled with his schoolwork. His mother says he was diagnosed as dyslexic and hyperactive, and even before he knew he was gay, he just didn't fit in. "He would act out, try and fit in different places, and it just didn't work."
When Manos was 15, his uncle Jimmy snuck him into a New York City nightclub. Suddenly, Manos says, he glimpsed a world where he could fit in: disco lights, all-night music, Donna Summer and Cher.
Poughkeepsie couldn't compete, and Manos began running away for weeks at a time, off to New York City, Florida and California. "He'd live in this fantasy world," his mother says. At age 16, he left Poughkeepsie for good.
Manos spent his nights at Club A, the Ice Palace, or the Underground—"When it was really the Underground," he says—partying with Prince and Madonna, Keith Haring and Andy Warhol. "In Poughkeepsie, New York, I couldn't be me. I was always considered a freak," Manos says. "All of a sudden, I was going to events at the Plaza—when the Plaza was really the Plaza."
As high as he shot into the glittery world of drag queens and party lights, he dug himself into the darker side of the after-hours life, too. His first prison stint stemmed from a conviction—sealed today because he was 17—for a bank robbery. He says he was roped into the crime by a drag queen named Chicky. He was still a scrawny kid, just turned 18, when he went to prison. After a few months behind bars, he was back in the party life he'd known. In L.A., he says, he attended a cookout at Elizabeth Taylor's Bel Air estate, with Debbie Reynolds and Shirley MacLaine. There were parties with Prince, Michael Jackson and Michael J. Fox. His name-dropping from those years seems endless.
He landed in Washington D.C., where he says he parlayed his personal relationships into jobs running high-dollar escort services. Under the name Jason Michael Manos, he appears in a 1989 Washington Times story connecting Republican insiders to a blackmailing ring of gay escort services. The story accuses Manos of charging thousands of dollars on a Labor Department official's credit card; Manos says there was no fraud because the man consented to all the charges. It's a time he revels in recalling, "running through the halls of the White House" in the Reagan years—accompanied by powerful friends in the Senate with whom he says he is still close.
A former john named Doug Hezlep recalls meeting Manos in the mid-'80s—he was going by the name Jason Wentworth and cruising around in a red Nissan Z car. In an angry letter to her son in January 2008, Elizabeth Martin says Manos "robbed several guys in Washington, D.C.," and today, Hezlep says he was one of them. By Hezlep's account, Manos told him he was deep in debt, and Hezlep loaned him $30,000 that Manos repaid months later with bounced checks. Manos denies ever getting the loan. "He was in love with me, and he sent me packages in prison," which might explain why Hezlep would be willing to join Manos in Dallas 20 years later.
Bouncing from coast to coast, Manos says he led a double life of extravagant parties and petty crime, relapsing into "stupid little things" in the pits of his manic depression. At a social-services office in New York in 1988, he recognized Robert Wooley from a stint in the Westchester County Jail years before. In a letter to the Observer from prison, Wooley says he was struggling to support his heroin habit, and they teamed up to make some quick money, stealing checks from Wooley's housemate and depositing them in Manos' bank account. They'd counted on the money transferring well before their mark could notice, but Wooley got antsy after a few days, when the money still hadn't gone through. In the early morning of May 16, 1988, Wooley surprised his sleeping housemate, and according to the prosecution, beat him with a baseball bat, stuffed him into the trunk of his car and drove to Yonkers, where Manos was living.
Wooley kept the man in the trunk for four days, meeting up with Manos at diners and delis to strategize. With the roommate's ATM card, they withdrew money from his account. Wooley finally let the man go in a Red Lobster parking lot, and returned to a friend's apartment, getting high and waiting for the police. Manos says he caught a friend's private plane and flew to L.A, becoming ensconced in a Hollywood scene as glamorous as he'd ever known.
Though on the run, he spent nearly a year in L.A., beginning his first event-planning business and becoming close to Bertha Joffrion, a celebrity stylist who did Donna Summer's hair. On one careless trip to visit friends in New York, though, Manos went to Albany, and was arrested in his hotel. Convicted for being an accomplice to the kidnapping, and for robbery, grand larceny and possession of stolen property, he was handed a 15-to-life sentence.
From the day his sentence began in 1989, Manos says his life became a hellish nightmare. Shuttled around the New York prison system, he claims he was repeatedly beaten and raped, though he was allowed in 1993 to marry Joffrion in a Buffalo prison during one of her visits. That relationship didn't stop him from attempting suicide in 1997. The attempt stemmed in part, he would later claim in a 2003 lawsuit, from the prison's failure to protect him when he turned informant against inmates and guards.
In 2004, weeks before he was paroled, Manos says he was crushed to learn that Joffrion had died of a stroke. "I was desolate when I got out. She was my best friend. I could run down the street in high heels and panties and she wouldn't have cared."
On the outside, Manos says he became convinced that prison officials would retaliate against him for his lawsuit and revoke his parole. Before he could give his deposition, Manos fled. His attorney in the suit, Joel Walter, still sounds frustrated by his client's actions. "Running off from parole is the dumbest thing you're gonna do," he says. "Sooner or later, they're gonna catch you."
Miami & Houston
A fugitive, Manos says he crossed the Atlantic on his rich European boyfriend's private plane, landing on private airstrips where he wouldn't need a passport. He spent time with friends in Miami, where he saw a hotel named Medici, and the name stuck with him. He liked the sound of the name, rich and European, and took it as his own. "I had to create an identity. And it wasn't an identity created to scam people, but once you tell one lie, the lie gets bigger," he says.
In mid-2005 Christian Michael de Medici arrived in Houston, where he began throwing parties and movie premieres at gay clubs around town. One day Manos picked out a black lab puppy from a litter that belonged to an acquaintance. He named the dog Mimi, and the two were seldom apart.
Manos met a skinny 20-year-old named Jamal Alexander behind the counter at a Wells Fargo one day, and handed him a flyer to his next party. The two hit it off, and two months later Alexander left his parents' home in Sugar Land to live with Manos. While the two traveled and lived together for more than two years, their relationship did not end well. Today, each accuses the other of drug abuse, cheating and prostitution—and serial lying.
In October Manos moved to Los Angeles, and Alexander drove with Mimi to meet him on the coast. Manos was looking for the right place to establish himself and settled on Atlanta, but not before living a few weeks in Chicago. Alexander recalls leaving Chicago in a hurry. There wasn't even time to pack up their apartment.
It was boom time in Atlanta's real estate market, a first-rate sandbox for house-flippers making a run at big money. For someone long on ambition but short on cash, experience and scruples, this was the place to be. Manos arrived in early 2006 with a five-year plan, he says, determined to build an honest cash base to support the lifestyle he'd enjoyed before prison. Manos says he had an idea for a turnkey real estate operation, buying up neglected homes in up-and-coming neighborhoods, renovating them, and renting them back out. He named his company CDM International, and grew it with bank loans and cash from small-time investors who bankrolled renovations on individual homes.
Even if he hadn't assumed the phony identity of Christian Michael de Medici, as a convicted felon on the run, there was no way he could apply for bank loans or file the paperwork to start a business. For that, he enlisted the help of Robert Vaughn, an acquaintance who bought into the business plan and put his name on the company records.
"[Manos] did a good job of not representing himself as an owner or a principal in the company," recalls Scott Reed, then-CEO of Republic Bank, which loaned CDM money. An audit commissioned by CDM months before its collapse painted a rosy picture of the company books. At the end of 2007 CDM supposedly held real-estate assets of $13.2 million against $9.6 million in debt, and had $2.5 million in revenue across its rental, construction and media businesses. Reed says banks aren't making loans today like they did for Manos and CDM. "People were flipping houses, they were not getting proper appraisals. Atlanta's been a hotbed of mortgage fraud."
This was the de Medici that Sona Chambers remembers blowing into her office one day: a seemingly accomplished business owner decked out in jewelry and furs, attended by a limo and a bodyguard. At the time, Chambers worked at the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention, a prominent Atlanta charity founded by Jane Fonda. Manos helped sponsor events with G-CAPP even though Chambers had reservations about him. A background check, however, turned up nothing.
Manos threw a lavish party and donated $21,000 to sponsor three girls in the G-CAPP program. After his appearance at a 70th birthday party for Jane Fonda, society magazines ran with news of Manos' birthday present to Fonda: a house in a high-risk neighborhood, for use in a G-CAPP program. Chambers remained suspicious of Manos, contacting law enforcement to check up on his real identity. In the end, though, Manos made good on his donations. "I mean, it was unfathomable to me that we got money," Chambers says.
Manos hadn't been in touch with his mother since he jumped parole, but now that he was established in Atlanta he invited her to visit, and she says she couldn't believe what her son had made of himself. When he didn't take a limo, he drove one of three Mercedes leased under the company name. She accompanied him to a Monte Carlo-themed benefit he threw for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and he showed her some of his nearly 40 properties. But in what would prove to be a fateful decision, he invited his cousin, Tracy Bayone, to move from Poughkeepsie to Atlanta and work for him at CDM. Manos says he paid his cousin's rent, paid her son's private-school tuition and bought them both cars.
But at least two former employees charge that the business was rife with fraud. One of them was Andrea Radermacher, then a CDM events planner, who says that Manos offered her the opportunity to invest $35,000 to rehab a CDM house, but that only $15,000 was ever spent. Radermacher maintains that CDM pocketed the rest. Manos also offered her the chance to invest in CDM directly: She gave him $225,000, her family's life savings, and in exchange, he agreed to pay her each month $6,500 plus a generous rate of interest and return the balance at the end of 12 months. "That went on for about five months when he paid me that, and then that's when he disappeared," she says.
Manos began having problems with Bayone, who wasn't pulling her weight, he says, and he grew tired of covering her bills. He fired her from CDM, and she retaliated by threatening to report his fugitive status to the police. Former employees say it was clear in the last few months of 2007 that CDM had serious money troubles. Undaunted, Manos threw a grand opening party on March 9 for the new hair salon he partly owned, and a few days later, he was gone.
Manos effectively pulled the plug on CDM, changing his e-mail addresses and phone number to avoid all contact, and leaving Vaughn on the hook. Employees quit receiving paychecks and tenants who'd been paying rent to CDM were turned out of their houses when the banks foreclosed. Vaughn, the only one whose name was ever on the CDM paperwork, declared bankruptcy in April.
Radermacher and other CDM employees alerted banks and law enforcement when Manos dropped out of sight. "It's destroyed us," Radermacher says. "I could never figure out why, being such a flamboyant person, how much he loved being the center of attention, how nobody could ever find him."
New York City
Even though a wanted man, Manos felt little compunction about returning to New York regularly from Atlanta, living in Trump Tower and working to expand CDM's holdings. Even after losing his real-estate company, Manos maintained a busy social schedule, turning his attention to event planning and looking for a struggling nightclub to take over.
Hugo de Freitas says he met de Medici through a friend in April 2008, and got to know him because they frequented the same clubs. Late one night, de Freitas says, he called the friend—who was out with Manos—with an idea for a reality show. The show would feature a few regular guys working and partying hard in New York, and a rich European trust-fund baby living a life of leisure in New York and trying to break into the scene. "Every single idea I had," de Freitas says, "he grabbed it and ran away with it."
Manos moved quickly with the idea, assembling a small production crew by July for a show he'd call Pop Life: The Adventures of a de Medici. The production assistant he hired was Trina Rose, a recent New School graduate who was well known in New York's gay nightlife. Rose says Manos made it easy to get excited about the project.
"He was the CEO of CDM Trust, of CDM International, which was also Worldwide Events and Marketing and films and movies and productions and everything. The business card was 16 lines," Rose says. "Everything was always over the top."
After amassing around 50 hours of footage, Manos announced in October that MTV wanted to pick up the show. "He made me get in contact with the head of MTV programming," Rose says. "Once the guy said 'Yeah, send over your stuff,' to de Medici it was, 'All right, we're good.' That was often what he did...Everything's happening simultaneously and there's no fruit. It's all talk."
Rose says Manos hired her for just $35 a day, and never paid her. She filed a $500 suit against him and won when Christian Michael de Medici failed to appear at a court hearing. Rose says she wasn't the only one cheated out of the pay, but she and the crew fed off Manos' enthusiasm. "Even if what he's saying is a lie, there's something that overrides that. You know he believes it himself," Rose says. "I've thought about this so much. It's not that he wanted to be famous ...He wanted the experience of being perceived as famous."
Manos still claims the network's interest in Pop Life was real. The show is about a European trust-fund baby seeking to spread his wealth around, and make the world a better place while reveling in the city's nightlife and shopping around a reality television show he's hoping to produce. It's a tangle of semi-scripted meta-reality, like MTV's The Hills taken to a new dimension; a reality show based on the flamboyant alter ego he had invented to avoid capture, capitalizing on the make-believe de Medici back story.
For the premiere of the Pop Life pilot on September 25, 2008, Manos staged a huge party at Mansion (now M2 Ultralounge): a fashion show, a fundraiser for the Susan G. Komen Foundation, and the last big event Manos planned before leaving New York. In a red-carpet interview outside the event (which Pop Life's cameras were also shooting for the show), Manos gushed about his show's big message: "We are changing lives, we are having fun, we are being debaucherous." Asked to describe the show, Manos offers, "My show Pop Life follows my life, which is inspired by real events, and you have to figure out what's real and what's not." Then he looks directly at the camera, holding his gaze for a beat too long, as if daring the audience to separate the real in his life from the fake. "Is it live or is it Memorex, ladies and gentlemen?"
Manos' uncle Jimmy, the man who took Manos to his first nightclub, had come to see the Pop Life premiere, but was suffering from lung cancer, says Manos. Three weeks later he was in a coma. By then, Manos' cousin Tracy figured out that Michael had returned to New York. While his family rallied to support his uncle at his hospital bedside, Manos says he feared being arrested if he returned. Jimmy died on January 25, 2009, and Manos fled, leaving his grieving family and his reality show behind.
It's no surprise that Manos would flee to Dallas—not the real Dallas of commerce and can-do entrepreneurs, but the TV series Dallas, the fake, beyond-the-pale '80s product full of audacious wealth, scheming men and glamorous women. Manos admits the TV show put the city on his radar.
From past visits, he knew the Ashton, a swanky Uptown apartment building, and in August 2009, he negotiated a one-year lease on a 17th-floor apartment with the first three months free. In October he moved to the 21st-floor penthouse, a more appropriate place for his parties, and he sublet the apartment downstairs. According to a complaint later filed with Dallas police, his lease agreement is one of the few documents Manos signed under one of his pseudonyms.
Armed with a new five-year plan, he went to work creating a fashion/news/entertainment media company he named SFR, and a new persona he adopted, based on an international driver's license from Bulgaria with the name Mordan Stefanov.
Even though he had yet to publish a single issue of SFR's magazine, he parlayed his role as publisher of SFR into an invitation to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra's annual VIP fundraiser. Trailed by the photographer he'd hired for the night, Manos made new contacts. "He showed up late, but he tried to be in all the pictures with the famous people at the very beginning," recalls the photographer Brett Vander. "I've been to these things with the millionaires and the famous people, but this was the billionaires' club. Within 10 minutes, it was Perot, the Meyersons, and Hunt."
Women accustomed to these staid fundraising affairs were putty in the hands of a seasoned club cruiser like Manos. "I was amazed seeing how people reacted to him—he really drew these society women out," Vander says.
Manos found a close friend in Abbe Mandel, who runs a high-profile promotional business called the Luxury Gift Envelope, and who drove Manos to Southfork Ranch so he could see the Dallas mansion up close. "He was like nobody I'd ever met. He just was funny to me, I just got a little kick out of him," says Mandel who learned early on about his fake identity. "When I found out that he didn't report to his parole, it didn't even faze me. A lot of people have back stories. We never know."
Others he worked with weren't as taken by him. "Did I think his name was Mordan? Hell no. Come on," says Sean McGinty, who chauffeured Manos and other business partners around Dallas a few times. "He was good with the B.S., man, but most promoters are."
Manos prepared to launch SFR with an elaborate gala and charity auction, and he moved hurriedly to line up vendors and partners for the event. "He established himself pretty quick once he'd gotten in through someone's contacts," says Darren McCulley, the bodyguard Manos hired. "He doesn't push. He lets people get involved just enough," McCulley says. "Once he got in two or three deep into someone's contacts, it was like he's in."
Evan Batt with Russian Standard Vodka, the liquor brand that often sponsored Manos' parties, says he did well with Manos' first events, even if he didn't buy everything Manos promised about the global potential of his business. "It was unbelievable, his dedication to his fantasy. He clearly knew what he was doing," Batt says. And for those who were taken in by Manos, Batt says, "This guy was so non-Dallas, they thought it was going to be big and wanted to latch on, and couldn't see through his phoniness."
The night's theme on the October 30 "Monte Carlo de Casino" gala was a reboot of the theme party in Atlanta. Actor Billy Zane was there to speak about the charity tie-ins, and Manos enlisted the long-legged Croatian-born model Jasmina Hdagha to interview arrivals on the red carpet at the Ashton.
The Monte Carlo party was a fundraiser for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Children's Medical Center and Vogel Alcove, a homeless children's non-profit. Manos told Children's they'd get $75,000 from the event, says development director Lori Waggoner, but the night's total was $4,045 from the charity auction. Make-A-Wish took in about $3,000 from three auction items, says Vice President of Development and Services Billie Milner—a fourth auction item, she says, "was not legitimate," and they returned the money. Vogel Alcove collected $2,000 in direct donations that night, plus a $1,000 check that was to cover their cut of the bar tab.
The Monte Carlo party set off a flurry of other parties in rapid succession. Manos threw three parties from November 19 to 21, including a fundraiser at the Ilume, a charity dinner at Bella and a party at Petropolitan. "You can't have a damn red carpet event every Friday night," McGinty—who provided the red carpet for the Monte Carlo party—recalls telling Manos. "It has to have some luster. What makes it special if you have one every night?"
Manos was a workaholic and expected his staff to keep up. SFR's three employees worked long hours in a cramped Oak Lawn office, editing video and toiling away at what he tried to convince them would become the SFR media empire.
His video producer for SFR Television, Elizabeth Thome, recalls she wasn't enthusiastic about the product she first encountered. "The Web sites, they all looked like crap. It was just shit put together," she says. SFR's board of directors included one "R. Murdoch," and SFR's corporate headquarters, according to its Web site, was at a Rome address near the Spanish Steps. "His first magazine was crap," Thome says. "The pictures are pixilated. I mean, he spelled Miley Cyrus' name wrong."
If Manos needed a copy editor, he needed a business partner even more. He found Doug Hezlep, his ex-john from D.C., on Facebook, and after recounting his path to success—and sharing a photo of himself alongside Jane Fonda—Manos enlisted Hezlep's help with SFR.
Hezlep lived with his parents in Southern California, and had settled into a sales job he didn't like. So he couldn't say no when Manos offered him the editor's job at SFR, especially when Manos set him up with his own apartment at the Ilume, in Oak Lawn. Hezlep says he and Manos had planned to file together their partnership's assumed-name certificate at the county clerk's office, but Manos no-showed and asked Hezlep to sign the paperwork, which he did. "I'm really surprised that I was not able to find some of this stuff to be odd, to the point that it raised red flags," Hezlep says.
Manos began to use Bella as his go-to venue, teaming up with owners Petrie and Porcaro to start an event-planning business. "This guy came in for a consulting gig one day, sat in the corner booth and just really never left," recalls Will Larsen, a short-order cook in Bella's kitchen at the time. Under its former executive chef, Christopher Short, Bella had drawn critical praise, but since Short's departure, Bella was part nightclub and part Italian restaurant, a place in search of an identity. Manos stepped in to help the restaurant reinvent itself, including remodeling the floors and walls. (Petrie maintains Manos did no remodeling work.)
As he prepared to debut the new restaurant along with his new show, Bella Boyz, Manos and Thome's relationship grew strained. "He yelled at me all the time, he never appreciated all I did for him," she says. Thome remembers venting to her friend Josh Ek—who'd done contract work for Manos—"'Who the hell is he? Where did he come from? How come he has no friends?' I just started going off, and Josh was like, 'Well, do you want me to dig anything up on him?' And I was like, 'Yeah, actually I do.'"
After the New Year's Eve masquerade ball he threw in a tent in Bella's parking lot, Manos began preparing for an even bigger occasion—the reopening of the restaurant and the debut of Bella Boyz.
Manos thought that Thome and Ek had looked at his hard drive, which would have led them to the Facebook page his estranged boyfriend Jamal Alexander had created called "Stop Michael de Medici," detailing the kidnapping and other lurid stories about him. Manos says he hired a private investigator, confirming through phone records that Thome and Ek had been in touch with his cousin and Alexander. He hesitated to run from Dallas with the party so close, so he stuck around for the big event on Friday night—but on Sunday afternoon he cut out.
On January 13 Manos returned to Dallas to gather his belongings, and met Hezlep to discuss restarting SFR in San Francisco or L.A, where there were greater opportunities, he said. Besides, with his cousin, Thome and Ek on his trail, they had to leave right away.
Thome says that Manos began sending her threatening texts. "He kept telling me that he was in town, that he was watching me, that he was pulling my phone records," she says. Word circulated among Manos' business partners that he'd left Dallas, and McCulley, who is also a private investigator, began piecing together details of Manos' unseemly past.
As McCulley recalls it, the night of Manos' arrest played out in high Hollywood drama. Thome had been in touch with Hezlep's parents, and learned he was in a San Francisco hotel with his friend Mike. Thome passed the details along to McCulley, who says he immediately began looking up hotels online. McCulley phoned several, asking if anyone had checked in with a black lab that night, and after confirming that the Sheraton Fisherman's Wharf had a guest named Doug Hezlep, he warned the hotel manager that he had a guest who was running from the law.
In the hotel room a half hour later, Hezlep opened the door to six U.S. Marshals and a corrections official, who entered the room and handcuffed the pair but shortly released Hezlep. Although the marshals had shut Mimi out on the balcony, where she barked as they searched the room, Manos convinced them to let her in. He kissed her goodbye as they led him away.
On January 22 The Dallas Morning News broke the story that con artist Michael Manos had been caught in San Francisco after trying to steal from celebrities and charities in Dallas. Petrie filed a complaint against Manos for $70,000 in unauthorized charges to his credit card, though he now says he's settled the issue with American Express and is not interested in pressing charges. Rumors swirled across Alexander's Facebook page, where Manos' business partners in Dallas, Atlanta and New York united to share stories and wonder how much they should believe. Ek and Thome were among those posting updates on the Facebook page, detailing what drove Manos out of Dallas.
Manos maintains the stories about him are all overblown, the product of his cousin and Alexander feeding speculation about his true identity. Now that he's been caught, he says, "I gained my freedom and my life back."
Still, the law may not be done with Michael Manos. Dallas police detectives may still pursue credit-card abuse charges based on Petrie's complaint, plus a felony charge arising from his use of a false name on the Ashton rental form. In San Francisco, where impersonation charges were brought against Manos, then dropped, the DA's office says they still could pick up charges if they're able to find the real Mordan Stefanov. In Atlanta, perhaps most seriously, ongoing investigations into CDM International's finances could spoil Manos' plans to live free under his real name. If the authorities want to question Manos now, they know where to find him. He currently resides in the Dutchess County jail, back home in Poughkeepsie.
He's working on a book, he says, and has an agent shopping it around. "Think Jackie Collins with a mixture of reality," he says. Manos says he finished the first chapter about getting arrested in San Francisco, the night of his parole hearing. And for busting parole, which sparked the cross-country cons, aliases and a fugitive life of glamour, Manos received only a 12-month sentence.
He awaits a move upstate where he'll spend the rest of 2010 in prison, but is already making plans for the parties he'll throw once he gets out. Mordan Stefanov may be finished in Dallas, but Michael Manos says he is looking forward to returning and picking up where he left off.
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