Sunday 18 August 2019

Dressed to deceive: how I foiled the fake heiress

Rachel DeLoache Williams's life was turned upside down when she fell under the spell of Russian trickster Anna Delvey. She tells Donal Lynch how she kept her sanity through the ordeal

Living a lie .... Anna Delvey (born Anna Sorokin) was jailed after she tricked the socialites of New York by pretending to be an uber- wealthy German heiress
Living a lie .... Anna Delvey (born Anna Sorokin) was jailed after she tricked the socialites of New York by pretending to be an uber- wealthy German heiress
Anna Delvey was jailed after she tricked the socialites of New York by pretending to be an uber- wealthy German heiress at events such as this fashion show in Manhattan
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

The trial of Anna Delvey electrified New York like no other this decade. It was high fashion meets high finance - Sex and the City with a dash of Catch Me If You Can.

Delvey (born Anna Sorokin) was accused of stealing millions of dollars from banks and hotels in New York City, as well as submitting fraudulent documents to banks and investment banking firms.

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She had pretended to be an uber-wealthy German heiress with a trust fund of $35m in order to gain access to elite New York City institutions and she had fooled a lot of the people a lot of the time.

Friends and acquaintances had fallen under her spell as Delvey tapped into their aspirations. But now, thanks to something as surprisingly prosaic as an unpaid hotel bill, she had come to the attention of the police and was on trial.

Anna Delvey was jailed after she tricked the socialites of New York by pretending to be an uber- wealthy German heiress at events such as this fashion show in Manhattan
Anna Delvey was jailed after she tricked the socialites of New York by pretending to be an uber- wealthy German heiress at events such as this fashion show in Manhattan

She rose to the moment beautifully, treating jurors and press to a fashion show which veered from what Vanity Fair called "baby doll innocence" to festival chic.

An Instagram account called @AnnaDelveycourtlooks sprung up and it emerged that a stylist who'd dressed Courtney Love was "working with" Anna during the trial.

When the trial concluded in May, and Anna got up to 12 years in prison for her various scams, the assembled press were left wondering how Delvey would style her orange jumpsuit, and, more to the point, how someone with so little guile had managed to fool so many savvy New Yorkers.

One of those scam victims was Rachel DeLoache Williams, a 28-year-old photo editor at Vanity Fair, who testified against Anna.

DeLoache Williams was used to dealing with wealthy, flighty individuals, something which may have inured her to Anna's mercurial nature, but even now she has trouble putting her finger on why she didn't see that something was amiss.

"I don't want to be too tough on myself but I need to be honest with myself as well," she begins, in a phone interview from New York City. "As much fun as I was having and as great as my career was, I was also going through a very transitional time in my late twenties; a lot of my friends were getting married and having babies and moving out of New York. I was lonely. I was lucky when I was growing up to be surrounded by a lot of supportive people and so I was quite trusting but then it worked against me at a certain point, because I wasn't seeing what was in front of me, just who she really was."

The pair had been introduced in 2016 at a restaurant in Manhattan's West Village. As soon as Anna appeared, so did the bucket of Champagne. Rachel recalls Anna as having "a cherubic face, oversize blue eyes and pouty lips".

Besides being independently wealthy, Anna had worked as an intern for Purple magazine in Paris and was an Instagram queen - she had more than 40,000 social media followers.

She told Rachel that she planned to lease the historic Church Missions House, a building on Park Avenue, to house a night lounge, bar, art galleries, studio space, restaurants, and a members-only club.

"That might sound a bit far fetched now, but you have to understand in my line of work I meet a lot of ambitious, creative, wealthy people, with big dreams," Rachel explains. "My enthusiasm sort of outweighed my scepticism."

There was also a lot of corroborating evidence that Anna was as wealthy as she seemed. Rachel learned that her new friend was living in a suite at the five-star Standard hotel on Manhattan's High Line.

As a visiting citizen, she had to leave the country periodically, to ensure her visa was in order. The two women saw each other every few weeks. Rachel would visit Anna in her suite and from there they would travel to personal training sessions, and lavish lunches and dinners - all paid for by Anna.

The young German woman regaled her new American friend with tales of her meetings with property mogul Andre Balazs and the notorious pharmaceutical investor, Martin Skreli. Rachel was impressed that Anna knew enough about high finance to navigate her way through the hedge fund world and saw Anna as a "fashion girl/pharma bro hybrid trapped in a Botticelli body".

Despite her generosity and connections, there was, Rachel understood, something a little "off" about Anna. She seemed abrupt and rude, demanding that her music be played in cabs and acting petulant when her every need was not attended to by hotel staff and others. She also had a charisma which seemed to draw powerful people toward her.

"It was elusive," Rachel recalls. "My inability to put my finger on it was why I stayed with her for so long. If you took a lot of her behaviour and isolated it on paper it sounded kind of despicable, but when she was actually doing the things in front of you she added a mischievous grin and just seemed able to break through these systems we have, like manners or etiquette. She was charming in her rebellion until you realised how far it went."

It went all the way to Morocco. In May 2017 Anna invited Rachel to join her in a jaunt fit for a Kardashian. A week at a six-star villa outside Marrakesh, complete with infinity pool.

In hindsight there were some signs - Anna left it until the day they were due to travel to actually confirm she could travel and at the airport her card mysteriously stopped working. Rachel put these glitches down to Anna's eccentric nature - Rachel ended up having to put the flights on her own American Express card - and the two women continued on to their opulent destination.

The villa did not disappoint. For $7,000 a night the women enjoyed a vast living space with courtyard, a private butler and dinners to the dreamy rhythms of live Moroccan music.

They ventured outside after a few days because, Rachel says, Anna wanted to buy a pile of spices for an Instagram photo and she also wanted to get some Moroccan kaftans.

On the little shopping spree, Anna offered to buy a dress for Rachel. The only problem was that when she went to pay, her credit card was declined.

"Did you tell your banks that you were travelling?" Rachel asked. No Anna replied. Out of embarrassment and loyalty Rachel agreed to pick up the tab for the clothes and for dinner.

More embarrassment awaited however. The following day, as the women made their way through the lobby of the hotel, two employees accosted them. They insisted that a functioning card was needed for a block on the reservation's balance only, not to be charged for the final bill, which could be settled later.

First Anna, and then the men, pressured Rachel to put down her credit card for that block while Anna sorted out the situation with her bank.

"I was stuck," Rachel recalls. "At that point I had a few hundred dollars in my checking account. I had no alternate transportation from the hotel. I wanted to go home. And most importantly, I was told that my card would not be charged."

The final amount, Rachel would see from her statement, was nearly $70,000 - more than she made in a year.

After they returned to New York relations were cordial if a little more distant, but Rachel did not receive the wire as promised. Instead an endless and "Kafkaesque" game of email and text tag unfolded, with Anna variously blaming her accountants, bankers and "work emergencies" for the failure of the money to land in Rachel's account.

"That was actually the worst bit of all," Rachel tells me. "The money was bad but the back and forth and the excuses were absolutely crippling, the finding out that someone I thought I knew was completely fraudulent, stringing me along and lying to me."

And yet if Anna was merely a hard bitten fraudster, why would she have gone to such lengths to continually soothe and mollify Rachel; why not simply cut loose?

Belatedly Rachel began to suspect that Anna might have had some mental health issues. "Not being a healthcare professional I was wary of putting a label on her. I did see some of her behaviour and think it was odd. It took a long time before I could connect that with something like sociopathy or a narcissistic personality disorder. Even if I had thought of those things, I had never encountered anything like that."

As the weeks turned into months and Anna's emails and texts petered out it became clearer that Rachel was unlikely to ever see the money again. She threatened Anna with going to the police and eventually did just that. They told her that there was a jurisdictional issue to do with the events having unfolded in Morocco. "The officer told me that I could start a GoFundMe page to try to get the money back, or that I could take the civil court route," Rachel recalls. "It all seemed hopeless. I just went outside and cried on the street."

Still somehow, the charade continued and was given added momentum after Anna surprisingly sent through $5,000 to Rachel via PayPal. But there was still a huge outstanding debt and Rachel lived in terror of losing her apartment.

The trainer, whom Rachel and Anna knew, offered to arrange a meeting at which Anna would be confronted about her game playing. Anna agreed to the meeting at a restaurant on the west side of Manhattan, but she sat through all remonstrations and raised voices and maintained an implacable calm.

By then, however, the net was beginning to close around her. An article had appeared in the New York Post detailing how she had skipped out on a hotel bill and calling her a "wannabe socialite".

Rachel saw it and emailed the New York County District Attorney's Office, linking to an article about Anna: "I wrote that I think this girl is a con artist," Rachel recalls. "a short time later, my cell phone rang. I picked up the phone, and the voice on the other end simply said, 'we think you are right'."

At the grand-jury hearing, Anna was indicted on six felony charges and one misdemeanour charge.

At the eventual trial, last April, it emerged that Anna is in fact a Russian national who grew up in a small town outside Moscow, where her father was a truck driver; the family had moved to Germany when Anna was 16, but she never quite mastered the German language.

Rachel was called as a witness in the trial, and tearfully gave testimony of how she had been taken in.

She watched aghast as Anna's attorney, Todd Spodek, referenced Frank Sinatra in his opening and closing statements to the jurors.

Spodek depicted Delvey as a successful, self-made entrepreneur in the age of social media. "Sinatra made a brand new start of it in New York, as did Ms Sorokin," he said.

The jury was not convinced and convicted Anna on multiple counts of grand larceny, theft of services and scamming.

Her thefts totalled almost $275,000.

On May 9, Sorokin was given a sentence of four to 12 years in state prison, fined $24,000, and ordered to pay restitution of about $200,000; she may also face deportation to Germany when she is released.

As for Rachel, she has been able to make what she calls "lemonade out of lemons".

She successfully disputed some of the payments that were made through her credit card for the Morocco trip and while she was still left out of pocket for some $15,000, the rights to her story will soon be adapted by HBO, with Lena Denham in the director's chair.

She has repaid her own debts to the people who helped her out when she was waiting for the money from Anna and she has regained a sense of equilibrium.

"I suffered a bit with depression as it was all going on," she recalls.

"But I've come out the other side and definitely changed as a person.

" I don't think about her in prison. I don't know what I would say to her now. What would there possibly be left to say?"

My Friend Anna by Rachel DeLoache Williams is published by Quercus, priced €18.OO

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