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Billy McFarland, Organizer of Disastrous Fyre Festival, Arrested on Wire Fraud Charges

Variety logo Variety 7/1/2017 Paula Parisi
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Billy McFarland, organizer of the disastrous Fyre Festival that fell far short of its promises of  luxury accommodations, has been arrested by the F.B.I. on charges of wire fraud, according to the United States Dept. of Justice. The U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York revealed that McFarland was taken into custody today (June 30) in New York City and is expected to be presented before a judge on Saturday (July 1).

Said acting Manhattan U.S. Attorney Joon Kim: “As alleged, William McFarland promised a ‘life changing’ music festival but in actuality delivered a disaster. McFarland allegedly presented fake documents to induce investors to put over a million dollars into his company and the fiasco called the Fyre Festival. Thanks to the investigative efforts of the FBI, McFarland will now have to answer for his crimes.”

A charge of wire fraud can carry a sentence of up to 20 years.

Earlier this year, McFarland and his company attempted to stage a festival on an island in the Bahamas, scheduled for the weekends of April 28 and May 5, that has become a metaphor for disastrous planning and hubris. Would-be concertgoers arrived on the island expecting what had been advertised: a luxury festival featuring Blink-182, Migos, Major Lazer, Disclosure and others on an island purportedly formerly owned by Pablo Escobar (who actually never owned an island in the Bahamas). Instead, attendees who had been promised luxury accommodation and meals prepared by celebrity chefs found flimsy tents, boxed lunches and near-total disorganization — and long waits for flights to return to the mainland after airlines began refusing to fly would-be concertgoers to the overcrowded island of Exumas. The concert was postponed before it even began. It was, one production professional briefly associated with the festival told Variety, “incompetence on an almost inconceivable scale” (for more details, read Variety’s interviews with former production personnel).

Now that McFarland has been arrested, it is possible he could be looking at time in prison. For that to happen, a federal prosecutor will have to convince a grand jury to indict based on evidence of criminal intent — which means not just poor business judgment, but an intentional plan to defraud ticketholders.

In the announcement of McFarland’s arrest, it is alleged that from 2016 McFarland, “perpetrated a scheme to defraud, inducing at least two individuals to invest approximately $1.2 million dollars in Fyre Media and an associated entity based on misrepresentations about Fyre Media’s revenue and income.” The 25-year-old promoter is accused of providing “materially false information” about his finances, including at least one investor who was given “an altered stock ownership statement” that purported to show McFarland “he owned shares of a specific stock worth over $2.5 million, when in reality he owned shares of that stock valued at less than $1,500.”

At last count there were 11 civil lawsuits pending against McFarland and Fyre Media, including six class-actions and five private suits involving investors, vendors and individuals. The civil and criminal investigations will proceed in tandem, sharing evidence and resources.

The distinction comes down to this: If convicted of civil fraud, defendants are ordered to pay money; a criminal fraud conviction would bring a very real possibility of time in federal prison.

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