Tuesday, July 1, 2014

'The Lost Supreme' and a Classic Hollywood Con Part 2

On the other hand, I assumed lots of producers were trying to interest Brody in their films, so I wasn't suspicious when delays with Blondie clashed with other commitments on Brody's part and, according to Spencer, he had to leave the film. In keeping with the script's John-Boy characterization of me, Jon Heder, the actor who'd broken out after his lead performance in Napoleon Dynamite, was, said Spencer, hired to replace Brody.

This was annoying, but Spencer boosted my self-esteem by agreeing to allow me to play Motown Executive Michael Roshkind in the film. Although Roshkind had been convicted of tax evasion, he was a forceful and dynamic executive. And the thought of my face actually appearing in a movie based on my book acted on my nervous system like a large dose of a major illegal drug.

Meanwhile, I got a whiff of what Hollywood life might be like: two attractive women who wanted parts in Blondie approached me, and one of them sent a revealing photo of herself.

Then the bad stuff began.

First, Evans quit, calling Spencer a "fraud" without going into specifics. When I asked Spencer about this, she said that it was because she'd told Evans she would hire her only if Evans agreed to attend acting classes. According to Spencer, Evans did not fulfill her part of this bargain and was therefore dumped. But Spencer told me not to worry, since Jurnee Smollett, a fine actress perhaps best known for her role in the film Eve's Bayou, had been selected to replace Faith. (Later on, actress Terry Dexter was selected to replace Smollett, Spencer said.) Meanwhile, other actors were being constantly added to play other roles in the film, including Billy Dee Williams, who, Spencer said, had been chosen to play Rev. C.L. Franklin, Aretha Franklin's father.

Soon after that, Spencer fired Martha Coolidge. Coolidge was shocked. In an e-mail to me, Coolidge wrote, "I am no longer directing this movie. I have no explanation..." Spencer soon calmed my fears by telling me that Todd Turner, who'd been assistant director on Remember the Titans, among other films, had been hired as Coolidge's replacement.

Then an Ohio woman messaged me via Facebook to say she'd been visited by Spencer and other fundraisers for the movie. They had told her about my book and the film project, and convinced her and two of her girlfriends to invest some money in the filming. Although Spencer and the others had promised that the money would be returned with interest, they had not done so. When I asked this woman to call me, she told me that she and her friends had loaned Spencer and her associates $3,000 for 14 days, after which the lenders were to receive $6,000 in return. This certainly sounded suspicious. I was upset when the woman told me she was a single mother of two with a third on the way. But I should probably be more ashamed than I am to say that I disregarded the whole incident. What did I know about how movie producers raise money?

To my relief, the project continued. Spencer told me that the exterior filming in Detroit had already been completed and that the interior filming would soon begin shortly at Tyler Perry's studio complex in Atlanta. Vastly adding to my excitement, she told me that I would be hired as a consultant for the movie in addition to working on it as an actor.

As the production's start date approached —  a date which coincided with when my publishers and I were due to receive $15,000 — I began to receive appropriate documents, including a detailed 24-day shooting schedule. Spencer also informed me that she'd turned over all the necessary documentation to the attorney for the investors and had secured sufficient insurance to cover the filming.

On the eve of filming, Spencer asked me by e-mail where I wanted my check sent and said she'd also soon be sending me an airline ticket for my trip from New York to Atlanta so I could begin my consulting stint. Soon after that conversation, she gave me a definite date for the beginning of filming that, unfortunately, conflicted with a trip out of the country I needed to make for family reasons. I asked her if I could be a few days late to the filming and she said not only that it would cause no problem, but that she'd send me the airline tickets and the check so they'd be waiting at my apartment when I returned.

I made the trip, returned to New York and searched eagerly through my accumulated mail for the tickets and check. Neither had arrived. I called Spencer and left a message, but my call was not returned. I called the next day and left another message. Nothing.

Then I found out why. Federal marshals had arrested Spencer, whose real name was Jami McCoy and whose hometown was Humble, Texas, for jumping bail in Texas in 2009. She'd been due in Federal District Court in Houston to be sentenced to Federal prison after pleading guilty in September of that year to conspiracy, aggravated identity theft and bank fraud to the tune of $300,000. Her guilty plea had followed four days of trial.

Spencer had been applying for bank loans in the names of other people by conning personal information out of her marks, mixing her own contact information with the stolen info and then paying bank insiders to make sure the loans, which officially went to her victims, actually went to her. Later, Michelle Chapman, Ballard's daughter, told me that during the final stages of Spencer's con, Spencer kept asking her for her bank account number so that she could wire her money.  

While Spencer was waiting to be sentenced, two of her associates were sent away for five and seven years each in the Federal slammer. Apparently shocked by these sentences, Spencer asked the judge to give her two weeks prior to her own sentencing to tidy up her affairs. She then went on the lam, traveled to Georgia, found a place to live and called me. Why she chose my book for her deluxe treatment remains a mystery. 
It was amazing that McCoy/Spencer, who had obviously changed her name to avoid instant detection, made the stupid mistake of allowing her photograph to be taken, printed and broadcast in the course of publicizing her movie project. Is this what you would do if you were hiding from Federal authorities?

It certainly was recognition that Spencer had to fear, and it was recognition that finally brought her down. According to a U.S. Prosecutor Investigator, while she was lying to me, she was also lying to someone in Cobb County, Georgia, by posing as a concert promoter. Another woman in Georgia who knew about this became suspicious of Spencer, noticed her facial resemblance to a bank fraudster the Feds were looking for and alerted the appropriate authorities.

The Federal marshals who re-arrested Spencer returned her to Houston, where she was sentenced to four years and three months in the federal penitentiary, a term she is now serving. She saved herself from a longer sentence by cooperating with authorities on yet another fraud with which she had been involved.

I know what you're thinking. How did Spencer lure seasoned movie industry professionals into her web?  Coolidge told me recently that the only reason she had become involved with the project in the first place was because "it came to me through a friend of mine." That friend was Aleta Chappelle, a casting director who has worked on 17 legitimate films, including The Godfather: Part III. Chappelle told me that she herself was sucked into weeks of unpaid labor on the Blondie film after Spencer and a fairly prominent Hollywood figure, who she preferred not to name, asked her to join them on the project. The aforementioned figure left the film after a few weeks. Chappell believed that the person in question eventually realized that Spencer was a fraud, but for some reason didn't tell anyone else.  "It's unfortunate ," said Chappel, "that people don't warn other people when they think something is not on the up-and-up."
Chappelle added, however, that it's not unusual for film figures to work for weeks for nothing. "It always takes a while for the studio to pay you," she said, adding that casting directors especially are often asked to work for free for some time because "studios don't green-light a film until the actors are attached." She also said, however, that as far as she knew, none of the other professionals on the Blondie project were paid at any time. Chappelle believes that the hopeful nature of many movie industry professionals adds to their particular vulnerability. "In our business," she said, "we're all dreamers, we're all artists and we have an emotional involvement in what we're doing." She added that, "when someone comes along and says they believe in your project" you want to work with them. (Faith Evans did not return my phone call seeking her comments on the project.)

But why didn't I, an experienced journalist who had worked as an investigative reporter in Michigan and Georgia (and later as a state investigator) smell something wrong? In retrospect, I should have dropped out of the project after Evans called Spencer a fraud and the Ohio woman told me she and her friends were scammed out of $3,000. But I hoped against hope that the project would produce a movie. I also knew that whether it did or not, media gossip about one of my books being filmed would hardly hurt my writing career It was the investors who lost money, while providing me with free publicity, although I was not paid a single penny for my participation in what I thought was a legitimate film project.

The whole scam didn't even embarrass me that much. I was merely a mid-level investigator and writer-on-the-make entangled unknowingly in a scheme masterminded by a pro. As author Luc Sante wrote in his introduction to the 1999 edition of David Maurer's seminal study on confidence men and their scams, The Big Con, "The best con artists possess a combination of superior intelligence, broad general knowledge, acting ability, resourcefulness, physical vigor and improvisational skills that would have propelled them to the top of any profession." He could certainly have been describing Spencer on the rise.

With Spencer now in prison, however, my movie ambitions have joined her there. The filming didn't start, the show didn't go on and the ghost of Florence Ballard did not reappear. Most of the other people who innocently or otherwise had become entangled in Spencer's coils floated off to other projects. Since writing about Ballard, I've written and published a bio of Mary Wells and I'm working on a bio of Rick James. 
Most significantly, however, although the contract my publisher and I signed with Spencer is null and void, the controversy seems to have scared off anyone who might have been interested in taking out another movie option on The Lost Supreme. But I'll keep dreaming.