A Colombian-born man posing as a wealthy Saudi prince traveled the globe swindling millions from investors somehow dazzled by his spiel.
When Anthony Gignac set his sights on Miami, he targeted super-rich real estate developer Jeffrey Soffer of Turnberry Associates. At first, Soffer fell for the con man's pitch to buy an interest in one of his hotels, even lavishing $50,000 in luxury gifts on the "sultan," according to sources familiar with a federal investigation.
Gignac, using the alias "Sultan Bin Khalid Al-Saud," pretended he wanted to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the landmark Fontainebleau resort hotel on Miami Beach, which had been renovated and expanded by Turnberry at a whopping $1 billion cost.
"Believing that Gignac was royalty and a Saudi Arabian diplomat, with the means to purchase the hotel, the [developer] expressed interest in the deal," according to a criminal complaint, which did not mention the hotel or Soffer by name.
But over the course of negotiations last summer — including a business meeting between Gignac and Soffer in Aspen — the billionaire developer wised up, had his security team check out Gignac and reported his suspicions that he might be an impostor to the feds. The 47-year-old Gignac, locked up in a Miami detention center since November, is now awaiting sentencing next month after pleading guilty to impersonating a foreign government official, identity theft and fraud.
Soffer, whose family developed the Aventura Mall and Turnberry Isle resort, could not be reached. His office said he could not respond to a request for comment from the Miami Herald because he was traveling during the Fourth of July holiday week.
Gignac's lawyer, Ayana Harris with the federal public defender's office, could not be reached, and the U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment.
The original indictment charging Gignac and a business partner does not mention Turnberry Associates by name, only by the company initials "T.A.," nor does it identify Soffer. But several sources say Soffer is among Gignac's 26 victims worldwide from whom he stole a total of $8 million between 2015 and 2017. Soffer only lost the $50,000 that he spent on gifts for Gignac before he figured out he was probably a con artist, according to court documents and sources.
Gignac, who was adopted by a Michigan family as a boy, grew up to become an international swindler. Despite prior brushes with the law, he lived large in South Florida. With millions in stolen money, he bought up Ferraris, Rolls Royces, Rolex watches, Cartier jewelry and a two-bedroom condo on exclusive Fisher Island on Biscayne Bay.
Gignac showed off his extravagant lifestyle on an Instagram account dubbed "Prince Dubai," careful to never show his face but occasionally posting photos of generic-looking Arab royalty. The page features dozens of images and videos of his jewelry, including diamond-encrusted Rolex watches, along with gourmet dinners, trips on private jets, rides in exotics cars, luxury shopping trips and VIP treatment at concerts and theme parks.
The page also shows an affinity for his pet chihuahua, Foxy, who wears his own blinged-out collar, travels in a leather bag and gets hand-fed pasta. "Nothing but the best for Foxy," he said in one post as he dangled spaghetti in the dog's mouth.
According to his plea deal in late May, Gignac and his partner created a fraudulent investment company, Marden Williams International, in 2015 for purportedly legitimate business opportunities around the world.
In sales pitches, Gignac and his band of co-conspirators represented that he was a member of the Saudi Royal family and had exclusive business deals — including a private offering in a Saudi Arabian company, prosecutor Trinity Jordan said. One investment victim from Switzerland sank $5 million into that deal.
Then in March 2017, Gignac targeted new prey in Miami. He again pretended to be a member of the Saudi Royal family with $600 million in a bank account as he went shopping for a Miami hotel. One of Gignac's representatives approached Soffer and other executives at Turnberry to make a huge investment of $440 million in the Fontainebleau, claiming he was a Saudi prince, according to a criminal complaint by the Diplomatic Security Service. The sultan purportedly wanted to buy a 30 percent interest in the resort hotel.
Two months later, his business partner, Carl Marden Williamson, introduced Gignac to Soffer and other executives at Turnberry as "Saudi Crown Prince Khalid bin Al-Saud." That May, Gignac booked a room at the Fontainebleau, using a credit card with a variation of the prince's name.
During his stay at the iconic Miami Beach hotel, Gignac tooled around in a 2016 Ferrari California. The luxury Italian sports car featured license plates that contained the words "diplomat" and the insignia associated with official U.S. diplomatic plates. He had purchased the fake plates on eBay.
Last August, Gignac continued to woo Soffer in his scheme to buy an interest in the hotel, inviting him to his Fisher Island penthouse apartment. The word "sultan" was on the front-door nameplate. During the visit, Gignac displayed an ornate box containing a letter purportedly from the Bank of Dubai, guaranteeing the availability of $600 million for the hotel investment deal. Gignac also showed off two of his luxury cars in the garage, both with purported diplomatic license plates.
In mid-August, Gignac flew with Soffer on his private jet to Aspen to discuss the hotel purchase. Soffer gave him an expensive gift — a Cartier bracelet worth tens of thousands of dollars — after one of Gignac's representatives demanded the gesture "because the honor of the sultan had been questioned," according to the indictment and one source. The circumstances of the slight to his integrity were not clear.
During the trip to Aspen, Gignac continued his masquerade as he kept saying he was required to check in with the State Department every few hours.
After they returned from Aspen, Gignac drove Soffer home in his Ferrari California.
"When [the developer] complained that Gignac was driving recklessly, Gignac responded that nothing would happen if he was pulled over because he had diplomatic immunity," according to the criminal complaint.
Over the course of events, Soffer "became increasingly wary of Gignac." One reason for the developer's suspicions: Gignac happily wolfed down bacon and pork products during meals, which as a devout Muslim prince should have been against his religion, according to a source with knowledge of the case.
Soffer asked the Fontainebleau hotel's private security team to investigate Gignac, leading to the discovery that his claim as a Saudi sultan was bogus and he was trying to leverage that status "to secure larges sums of money as well as various other material benefits," the criminal complaint says.
With his suspicions confirmed, Soffer tipped off the feds, setting off an investigation. Federal investigators reviewed Fisher Island's video footage of Gignac's diplomatic license plates on his Ferrari California and confirmed they were fake.
Gignac got busted in November when he flew from London to New York on a passport with another person's name. His arrest sent investigators with a search warrant to Gignac's Fisher Island residence. Inside, investigators with the Diplomatic Security Service found various business cards with Gignac's aliases and titles, such as "His Royal Highness," "Prince" and "Sultan."
Investigators also discovered fraudulent diplomatic license plates, a phony diplomatic security badge, unauthorized credit cards, thousands of dollars in cash, and financial documents in the name of a member of the Saudi Royal family.
The initial charges filed against Gignac's partner, Williamson, were dismissed in March because he died earlier this year.
Miami Herald staff writer David Ovalle contributed to this story.