In March 2015, an elite group of adventurers boarded the Ortelius, an ice-strengthened cruise ship bound for Bouvet Island. The 29-day journey was long and arduous: Considered by some measurements the remotest landmass on the planet, the Norwegian territory lies in the middle of the south Atlantic Ocean, a forlorn speck between Antarctica and the bottom tip of South Africa.
As they sailed through the miles of icy waters, the ship’s 60-plus passengers traded the monotony of sea for mingling. Among them was William Baekeland, a young and unassuming outsider, who cut an intriguing figure. An inveterate travel expert at 22 years old, with a scrawny build and neatly combed hair, he looked more like a high-school student than an explorer. Shockingly, though, his knowledge of world geography was immense – he’d claimed to have already visited most of the 193 countries recognized by the United Nations. The other explorers onboard the ship – seasoned members of the Travelers’ Century Club, the Most Traveled People, and other exclusive societies – perked up in the company of the curious stranger.
Despite spending thousands of dollars to be there, the passengers were roughing it in cramped cabins cluttered with beds and luggage, while Baekeland stayed alone in a private room. In the Ortelius’ dining hall, he commanded attention, dropping obscure bits of geographical knowledge as the ship lumbered south. He asserted himself as a travel fixer, the kind of guru who could coordinate trips to the most far-flung countries, territories, islands and atolls that seemingly no one could access.
Baekeland didn’t immediately reveal it, but later claimed to have grown up wealthy, sailing around the world and attending prestigious schools. The Baekeland name was assumedly the source of that excess, as a cursory Google search revealed an association with great wealth stretching back generations.
According to people onboard the ship, he later said that his great-grandfather was Leo Hendrik Baekeland, a Belgian immigrant and chemist famous for inventing the precursor to modern plastic in 1907. The elder Baekeland’s invention, Bakelite – a chemical compound made of carbolic acid and formaldehyde – unwittingly paved the way for the birth of Twentieth-century consumerism and, in many ways, the modern world.
Everything about the young traveler betrayed an extreme wealth. “Absolutely we had the impression…[William] was never going to work again in his life,” says Ortelius passenger Bob Bonifas. Fellow traveler Harry Mitsidis had a similar impression onboard the ship. Baekeland’s single cabin “made us believe his story,” he said during an interview on the podcast Counting Countries. “When you appear on a ship of this type and have a single cabin, no one’s going to start questioning, ‘Where did you get the money for this?'”
By the time the journey to Bouvet ended in a circumnavigation of the island, the adventurers were wooed by the young man’s prowess and charm. They later resolved to continue traveling together. By that November, the explorers were trusting Baekeland with facilitating travel arrangements for their own expeditions, wiring him thousands of dollars to navigate the bureaucratic maze of paperwork to obtain visas, charter private planes and haggle with foreign governments.
Despite being a relative newcomer to the insular world of extreme travel – a competitive subculture of people who journey to some of the most obscure and treacherous corners of the globe, often at great monetary cost – Baekeland earned an astonishing amount of trust from the group in a matter of days.
As Mitsidis puts it, Baekeland’s demeanor was convincing enough to gain entry into the travel group’s inner circle. The young explorer was in some respects too peculiar not to be authentic. Baekeland seemed like “a throwback to [David] Livingstone,” Mitsidis tells Rolling Stone, referring to the famous Victorian adventurer. “The old-style explorer with a hat.”
Given all his eccentricities and expertise, how could he not have grown up with a bottomless family coffer to finance his jet-setting lifestyle? Mitsidis remembers Baekeland well three years after their encounter on the Ortelius.
“I’ve never met such a good liar,” he says.
Jesse Simon Gordon was born in Sutton Coldfield, an affluent suburb of Birmingham, England, in 1993. Verifiable details concerning his upbringing are sparse, but according to interviews with extreme travelers who knew him, Gordon’s life has taken a shocking turn over the past few years. From at least 2015 to 2017, his critics say, he gave the illusion of a well-heeled, globetrotting adventurer, offering to orchestrate travel to the kind of inaccessible domains that humans rarely go, for a price. But when it came time to deliver on his promises, he disappeared.
Gordon legally changed his name to William Baekeland in 2014, according to a close personal friend of his named Josh Radcliffe who spoke to Rolling Stone on his behalf. While sources in the extreme travel world suspect Baekeland had a humble upbringing – records suggest his parent’s home is in a working-class area of Birmingham, England – Radcliffe says his friend hails “from one of the most affluent enclaves in England outside of London.”
Radcliffe says the allegations against his friend “have been blown out of all proportion to the reality.” He blames Baekeland’s “creditors” for losing faith in a well-intentioned but failed business strategy.
Writing in an email, he admits that Baekeland is indebted to several people, but claims his friend isn’t guilty of purposeful fraud: “The truth is that [Baekeland] got himself into a financial mess as a result of insufficient capital in his business and some poorly planned trips,” he says. Moreover, Radcliffe asserts that Baekeland did follow through on most of the trips that he promised. His financial travails weren’t part of a planned grifting, but rather borne of “a fledgling business hitting hard times,” he says. Radcliffe, for his part, stopped responding to emails shortly before the publication of this story.
Harry Mitsidis claims the story isn’t so simple.
After spearheading an amateur investigation, in which he spoke with a number of travelers who’ve done business with Baekeland, Mitsidis estimates the young man pocketed around $835,000 from roughly 20 people. According to interviews Rolling Stone conducted with Mitsids and two other sources, the young man successfully carried out at least two trips, but there were nine more that they paid for either in part or in full but – because of decisions made by either the travelers or Baekeland – didn’t come to pass. They claim they’re owed money by Baekeland for these trips.
These sources say Baekeland has yet to make good on reimbursements for the trips that they didn’t go on. They confirm that legal action is being pursued in multiple countries, but many victims aren’t hopeful of ever getting their money back.
“Nobody’s ever going to see five cents out of this,” says Bonifas. “The only thing we want do with him is make him suffer.”
When William Baekeland appeared on the Ortelius in March 2015, he’d already cultivated a persuasive backstory – one that made sense for a peripatetic aristocrat who didn’t say much about his family. In a sense, using the Baekeland name was genius. The family owes its fame to the creation of Bakelite, but also a litany of scandals, from infidelity and incest to murder. Baekeland ostensibly used their sordid past and present-day obscurity to create his subterfuge.
After Leo Baekeland’s invention helped spur the growth of countless consumer products, the family lived as nomadic gentry in New York, London, Spain and France. In 1939, Leo sold the Bakelite Corporation to the chemical giant Union Carbide, solidifying his family’s fortune. However, Leo’s grandson Brooks managed to dash the family’s unilateral image of success.
Brooks married the model Barbara Daly in 1942, and the couple quickly became prominent socialites who, up until the 1960s, hosted Manhattan soirees and traveled extensively. They had one child, a boy named Tony, who grew up surrounded by opulence, but always in close proximity to his parent’s toxic marriage.
The Baekeland family drama was chronicled in the 1985 book Savage Grace, a scrupulously reported exposé that drew on interviews with the family’s closest friends. According to Hugh Karraker, a Baekeland family descendant, the book was “a major embarrassment to everyone in the family.” He confirms that all of the unsavory assertions in the book are accurate, to the best of his knowledge, and says the publication of Savage Grace caused the family to further retreat from public life.
In addition to shedding light on the family’s grandiose lifestyle, Savage Grace chronicles how Brooks cheated on his wife, and eventually left the family for a much younger woman. Tony lived with his mother, who suffered from bouts of alcoholism and depression, while he explored sexual encounters with men. Barbara, uncomfortable with her son’s forays into homosexual relationships, attempted to “save” him through her own seduction. The family’s ultimate undoing occurred in 1972, when Tony murdered his mother with a kitchen knife in their London apartment. When the cops responded to the scene, they reportedly found Tony placing an order for Chinese food.
After spending seven years at Broadmoor, a high-security psychiatric ward in England, Tony went back to New York to live with his grandmother. Less than a month after arriving, he attempted to murder her, again with a knife. Tony was sent to Rikers Island, where he died by suicide, suffocating himself with a plastic bag.
William Baekeland ostensibly absorbed this backstory and simply told travelers that he didn’t enjoy talking much about his personal life. Writing about Baekeland in his Nomad Mania newsletter, Mitsidis explained that “William had said that there is no information about the family because they pay Google to delete the results.”
Radcliffe says that the 2014 name change occurred after Jesse Gordon experienced a “particularly bitter and unusual family estrangement.” He claims his friend chose the Baekeland name because he is, in fact, a “distant, collateral relation of a Baekeland.” Karraker, for his part, says he has never heard of a William Baekaland or a Jesse Gordon.
Regardless of the conflicting narratives, it helped that Baekeland was someone who peddled a story so riddled with visceral detail that it was hard to refute. In 2013, he began interning remotely at The Best Traveled, a website founded by Harry Mitsidis. According to his resume he gave the site, Baekeland had studied at an array of prestigious schools, including the Harrodian in London, Institut Le Rosey in Switzerland and the International School of Monaco. Astonishingly, he also claimed to have studied at Kim Il-Sung University in North Korea, which would have made him one of the only westerners to ever study in the rogue, authoritarian state. Mitsidis recalls never seeing him in jeans or a T-shirt during their travels together, only country club attire. His voice was as delicate and refined as a cartoon butler’s.
When he was interviewed by travel writer Ric Gazarian on Counting Countries, Baekeland said he grew up in a family of explorers. “We went on safaris quite a lot, we went to east Africa, Namibia, Ethiopia…we also went to the Congo,” he said. (Rolling Stone tried contacting Baekeland’s family via telephone, but the listed number was disconnected.) He also boasted about his itinerant lifestyle in the TBT newsletter in 2016, saying that he had recently traveled on the “Kapitan Khlebnikov icebreaker doing the Northeastern passage from Anadyr to Svalbard.” (Quark Expeditions, the company that runs journeys on the Kapitan Khlebnikov, didn’t reply to multiple email requests for comment.) He also said he’d chartered a “Britten-Norman Islander airplane” to Sable Island in Nova Scotia, Canada, where he “saw groups of horses running through the water at the shoreline.”
Gazarian, who kept a casual correspondence with Baekeland, explains how the young explorer would occasionally send dispatches from his trips abroad. “He was this amazing creative writer,” says Gazarian, recalling an email Baekeland once sent him about extreme violence in South Sudan. Gazarian, for his part, says he has no way of knowing whether Baekeland’s dispatches contained falsehoods, or if they portrayed his experiences accurately. His exploits certainly were believable, even in hindsight, given how they were documented on social media.
Baekeland was fond of promoting his exploits on the Internet. His Instagram account, active from January to May 2017, depicts a prolific world explorer’s life. In one shot, Baekeland stands ready to board a helicopter at Tilicho Lake, Nepal. In another, he’s standing among villagers in Darfur, explorer’s hat adorning his slim, grinning face. There’s pictures of first class cabins, a helicopter ride over the Swiss Alps and a luxurious hotel in Havana – even trotting horses with a caption saying they were in Nova Scotia. His affinity for digital bragging was documented on other platforms; on Twitter, he was posting as @SimonBaekeland as early as 2013, conversing frequently with other users about travel.
Despite all the hype surrounding Baekeland, one man had long harbored suspicions that the young heir was actually Jesse Gordon, the kid supposedly from Birmingham.
Mike Kendall first noticed something wasn’t right in 2011, when Gordon emailed him out of the blue, offering a luxury catamaran voyage from the Maldives to the Chagos Archipelago. Described in a brochure as “a unique adventure sailing trip to one of the most pristine ocean environments in the world,” the adventure cost $5,000 for a single spot, payable directly to the young man’s personal bank account.
“He contacted me,” Kendall says. “I don’t know where he got my email at all.”
Kendall declined the overtures, but became curious about this unknown traveler, and began researching Gordon’s travels. After sleuthing around his online footprint, Kendall says he noticed Gordon was using the same picture on Linkedin that someone named William Simon Baekeland was using on The Best Traveled.
Baekeland “was making friends with as many people as he possibly could in the travel community,” Kendall tells me over a washy Skype connection. “He seemed to be going everywhere all the time.” But despite “openly calling him a fraud on Twitter,” there was little Kendall could do.
In December 2013, Kendall contacted Mitsidis, founder of The Best Traveled, in an effort to expose Baekeland. Mitsidis was shocked to hear the accusation that someone was using an alias on his website, especially because Baekeland was still interning remotely for TBT at the time.
“At the time this incident seemed of minor importance,” Mitsidis tells me. “I dropped [Baekeland] as an intern and stated even on the TBT newsletter we were no longer working or associated with him.”
But despite getting fired from his internship, Baekeland was boarding the Ortelius a little over a year later, meeting Mitsidis in person for the first time.
After the journey, Mike Kendall’s early warnings were largely cast aside as a misguided vendetta. “I felt I’d been a bit of an internet troll against a kid who just wanted a little bit of anonymity,” Kendall says.
If you bought into the story, Baekeland was going to make history as one of the world’s most accomplished explorers, bringing everyone he knew along for the ride. Only now his reputation is far different.
“My main purpose is I don’t want to see anybody else scammed by this sonofabitch,” Bob Bonifas says over the phone, his voice growing testy as he recounts his experiences with Baekeland. Bonifas is a world traveler and corporate CEO who says he’s owed roughly $40,000 for trips arranged by Baekeland that never materialized.
As Bonifas walks me through his dealings with Baekeland, it becomes clear just how angry some of the young man’s alleged victims are. The vitriol isn’t entirely the result of missing money – Bonifas is a wealthy man, and tells me that the cash isn’t necessarily what’s keeping him up at night. It’s the overwhelming simplicity of the alleged con that goads him. The entire caper was predicated upon simple wire transfers, he says, all of which were willfully forked over to Baekeland’s checking account under the assumption that he could engineer trips to isolated hinterlands like Rockall and Johnston Atoll.
“The issue is being cheated,” Bonifas says. “It’s the insult.”
The only place Bonifas did reach via Baekeland was Palmyra Atoll, a pristine and unvarnished research station located in the remote Northern Line Islands, about 1,000 miles south of Hawaii. Baekeland coordinated the charter flight for six people, which would have cost under $5,000 per person, according to Bonifas. He claims the travel group was only on Palmyra for a few hours, but says he was charged $12,500 for the trip, and that Baekeland implored him and others to make a $10,000 donation to the Nature Conservancy, a non-profit that conducts scientific research on the atoll, as a gesture of goodwill. In an email to Bonifas, Baekeland claimed his family were regular donors to the charity, who had “giving arrangements with the owners of the island, for ongoing conservation work.”
Bonifas was quick to indulge the offer, replying back: “I have no problem with the $10,000 donation or the cost of the trip…Get me confirmed.”
Though the trip went through, the $10,000 donation never made it to the Conservancy, a source from the organization tells Rolling Stone. Baekeland claimed his bank confused Palmyra Atoll with the ISIS stronghold of Palmyra, Syria, and impounded the funds. (The bank declined to comment.)
Dominique Laurent, a French national who spent the majority of his career working in the oil industry, met Baekeland on the Bouvet expedition and went on a trip organized by the young man to the Central African Republic. But he claims he’s owed $60,000 for trips to Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and other journeys that have been canceled.
Because of their fierce individualism and competitiveness, some extreme travelers can become easy marks.. “William played to the ego, and there’s a lot of ego out there,” says Terry Last, a traveler who went on the expedition to Palmyra. Extreme travelers are often vying against each other for various accolades, trying to chart more of the Earth’s yardage faster than their counterparts.
According to Last, part of Baekeland’s ploy was marking up the cost for journeys. Travelers don’t often study the granular detail involved with commissioning a private jet to an isolated desert island. “[William] learned very quickly that’s what a lot of travelers are like; They just pay up to get it out of the way to visit the place,” says Last. “A lot of the big travelers are very, very wealthy. They don’t have so much spare time but they have plenty of cash. William was clever enough and shrewd enough to tap into that market.”
The size of the traversable world varies according to different travel societies. While the UN slices the globe into 193 member nations that form its legislative body, independent travel organizations make their own rules. The Travelers’ Century Club counts 327 countries and territories worldwide, whereas the Most Traveled People lists a prodigious 871 landmasses scattered throughout the planet.
Gazarian recalls Baekeland wanting to become the youngest person to visit every UN-recognized country. He learned through others in the travel community that Baekeland was planning a culmination party when he finally finished. “His last country was going to be Serbia, and at one point he was going to rent out an entire resort and fly in 100 journalists to mark the completion of his journey,” Gazarian says.
Before that could happen, though, future travel plans booked through Baekeland began to fall apart. Months after promoting trips to a variety of places, such as the Desventuradas Islands off the coast of Chile, Baekeland wrote that he was experiencing a number of personal tragedies. According to Mitsidis, Baekeland claimed in his late 2016 newsletter that his sisters, Muguette and Ariadne, had both passed away from illness and suicide, respectively, within two months of each other. Then, while on a trip to Antarctica in February 2017, Baekeland said that his father died. Mitsidis wrote about it in his Nomad Mania newsletter, saying “the other passengers on the ship, including some of his closest friends from the traveler community, try to comfort him as best they can in this hour of crisis.”
When the news broke, everyone rallied around Baekeland. “My heart broke for the guy,” says Gazarian. “That’s an immense amount of tragedy for someone to live through in such a short period of time.”
Despite the tragedy, Baekeland was pressing on. He was earning a kind of respect for his commitment to travel in the face of so much familial hardship. The ruse was again bolstered by his incredible knack for creating a storyline: Mitsidis later said that Baekeland claimed his mother flew a teddy bear first class to one of his sister’s funerals. The ceremony for his sister Muguette supposedly took place at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Westchester County, New York, Mitsidis said, next to the grave of the family patriarch, Leo Hendrik Baekeland. An employee of the cemetery says no one with her name is buried there.
Later that year, at the apex of all of Baekeland’s suffering, Mitsidis again heard from Mike Kendall on Facebook. Kendall, who had been following the young traveler for years, said he couldn’t “reconcile [Baekeland’s] willingness to organize and arrange tours with his lack of a social media profile and the use of aliases and nom de plumes.”
In their exchange, Mitsidis defended Baekeland. “William is absolutely legit,” he wrote. “He is a multi-millionaire and charters planes to go to incredible places. Nobody will be able to compete with him once he’s done. I was put in an awful position due to your intervention back then but luckily I have been forgiven.”
But soon after, Baekeland disappeared. Last October, he failed to show up to a trip in the Sudan. Shortly afterward, travelers received an email from Baekeland’s assistant, David Russell, claiming the young heir was in the hospital, suffering from a debilitating illness. Forthcoming trips organized by Baekeland – a total of six stretching from late 2017 to 2019 – were canceled. No one had heard of Russell before; Mitsids suspects the missive had been sent by Baekeland himself, an attempt to bide time as a mountain of debts to the various travelers began to swell.
Confused by Baekeland’s sudden disappearance, Mitsidis started to take Mike Kendall seriously. According to Mitsidis, public records showed Jesse Gordon’s birthdate matched the one on Baekeland’s passport, which he had seen while organizing trips. Searching further, he found public records for one of Jesse Gordon’s prior companies, which was registered to an address in Birmingham. From there, he found Gordon’s parents, and used their names to find the birth records of Gordon’s two sisters.
In a stroke of luck, one of Gordon’s sisters had a public Facebook profile, complete with a photo of her family, including her brother.
Blindsided and aghast at his findings, Mitsidis went back to the Facebook message from Kendall. “I want to send you a message,” he wrote. “It’s about your suspicions 4 years ago… you may, just may, have been right all along.”
Last November, in an email to various people who were familiar with Baekeland, Mitsids described the revelations as the group’s “day of apocalypse.”
“Everything you think you know about William Baekeland is bullshit,” he wrote.
After he confronted Baekeland about his alleged forged identity over email, Mitsidis received a reply from Radcliffe, who claimed to be Baekeland’s personal confidant and business partner in a new venture called Atlas Travel and Expeditions LLC. Since then, Radcliffe has acted as a liaison between Baekeland and those who say he owes them money.
Radcliffe says Baekeland’s alleged victims are greatly exaggerating their cases.
“In essence, Harry, by releasing ‘Apocalypse Now,’ caused a run on the bank and destroyed trust in William,” Radcliffe says. “I understand, to an extent, what Harry did but I think with hindsight it worsened the financial outlook for the creditors considerably.”
Radcliffe admits that Baekeland should harbor some of the blame for the issue. When the news broke, Radcliffe wrote an email to Baekeland’s various accusers, acknowledging their outrage. “I will probably never really understand why [Baekeland] did this, why he took a skill and viable business organizing trips and ruined it for the sake of ego and greed.”
But now he likens the travelers to a melodramatic mob.
Referencing negative posts Dominique Laurent wrote on TripAdvisor, Radcliffe calls him “a particularly irascible and unreasonable Frenchman.” He disputes many of Laurent’s claims of being ripped off, arguing that he only paid deposits for trips and not the full amount. Radcliffe also says he’s offered to carry out some of Baekeland’s canceled trips, but all travelers have declined.
Many of Baekeland’s aggrieved former travel companions have filed complaints against him in several countries across Europe, although most have received little indication that law enforcement is moving quickly to bring charges.
Laurent, who filed a complaint with authorities in France, Ireland and the United Kingdom, says the process “looks very slow.” Bob Bonifas is hopeful of recovering his damages in Ireland, since Baekeland’s bank accounts were located there. The Irish Garda declined to comment for this story, but Bonifas suspects “it has taken some action in freezing William’s bank account and line of credit.”
The City of London Police confirmed two reports about Baekeland have been received by Action Fraud, the UK’s cybercrime and fraud reporting agency. The claims are “currently being assessed,” per a spokesperson.
Radcliffe and Baekeland incorporated Atlas Travel and Expeditions last July. In November of last year, the same month that allegations of his grifting emerged, Baekeland was removed from the company’s list of shareholders.
Radcliffe maintains that Atlas Travel is a credible organization, and that Baekeland is no longer involved at all. The company hasn’t carried out any trips as of yet, but Radcliffe says it has received significant interest from travelers in Japan.
Despite Baekeland’s removal, Bonifas is sure Atlas Travel is nothing but a conduit for more of the same. “They’ve set this second company up to be bulletproof” in what Bonifas calls a “scam.” Atlas Travel’s website, which promises scheduled tours and “bespoke travel” to distant hinterlands across the globe, comes riddled with byzantine fine print and a long-winded terms and conditions section hammered out over 17 bullet points.
Currently, it’s open for business.