Billy McFarland, the man behind the doomed Fyre Festival in 2017, was partially made a free man when he was released early from prison and transferred this week to a halfway house in Brooklyn, New York.
The 30-year-old still had another 14 months to serve on his six-year sentence for wire fraud after he duped investors out of $26 million over the disastrous festival that ended up serving pathetic cheese sandwiches to ticket holders while they were effectively stranded in The Bahamas.
One such investor is John Nemeth, who works as a director of a construction company in New York and says he lost $180,000 of his life savings by trusting McFarland. Nemeth tells Rolling Stone that it was “a joke” to learn that the failed entrepreneur was sprung out of prison early.
“The man should be in jail for the rest of his life; he ruined my life,” he says. “I’m never gonna recoup that money. He stole it. He has no business being out of jail. That’s what happens when you are born from rich parents and you can afford the best lawyers, but you can’t pay back the people that you’ve robbed.”
McFarland’s six-year sentence was already considered relatively light, as he was facing up to 40 years after pleading guilty to two counts of wire fraud, not to mention the extra time he faced for swindling $150,000 from customers in a separate ticket scam he had launched while he was out on bail.
“We know how the judicial system works,” shrugs one ticket holder who was involved in one of the lawsuits against McFarland. (The person requested anonymity.) “You have the right attorney, or you have somebody that knows somebody, and it’s the reason he gets six years instead of 20. I don’t know why he got a shorter sentence, but I definitely think it should have been more than six.”
After being bounced around five different facilities since 2018, McFarland is expected to stay at a halfway house until August, according to records provided to Rolling Stone by the Bureau of Prisons.
The biggest question now is if McFarland will be able to repay the millions of dollars in restitution that he owes the 100 investors who sunk more than $27.4 million in his various ill-fated businesses. Moreso, how does the convicted serial entrepreneur plan on making such a large sum of money with such a tarnished reputation?
According to his lawyer, Jason Russo, McFarland is already hatching potential plans on how to “generate income,” putting together a team of professionals who will “brainstorm and come up with ideas in entertainment and other avenues.” “His sole priority and focus is how he can make these people whole and get their money back for them,” Russo said in a statement. “That’s what he’s been focusing on.”
Nemeth is skeptical of McFarland launching another business venture. “I hope that nobody invests in him,” he says, before adding, “but I hope that I get my money back.”
Andy King is a bit more optimistic. The event planner got roped into trying to save the festival in the eleventh hour and became an instant meme after his appearance in the Netflix documentary Fyre. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he called McFarland a “bright kid” but someone who needs to focus on “doing good instead of doing bad.”
“I haven’t been to prison and hopefully I never will go, but you do hear many different stories of how prison can change people drastically,” he says. “Maybe I’m hoping that’s the case, that he’s more of a changed person.
“It’s fascinating; what do you do in Billy’s situation?,” King adds. “How do you handle extreme failure? Where do you go from here? He’s had some time, obviously, to really think about how he is actually trying to pay back the $26 million. What’s he going to do to create a clean slate? And is there a life after prison where he can create a positive legacy?”
“He has good ideas,” the ticket holder adds. “I’ll give him that. He understands marketing and getting the attention of the demographic … I mean, he’s gonna try something … [but] can he actually just set something up, a new app for whatever and follow through and just do it correctly?”
“The man should be in jail for the rest of his life; he ruined my life. I’m never gonna recoup that money” – Fyre investor John Nemeth
McFarland did try to get a jump on his next business venture while behind bars. When COVID-19 was spreading quickly across prisons in spring of 2020, McFarland launched Project-315, a non-profit venture aimed at helping prisoners reach their families and loved ones from behind bars by spotting inmates the $3.15 for a 15-minute call home. (As of publication of this article, the site is no longer active.)
In October 2020, McFarland began another side hustle, this time starting a podcast called Dumpster Fyre. “At long last, the uncensored, complete story of Fyre Festival. With Billy McFarland. And many others,” read the description. But after eight episodes, the plan was derailed when McFarland was put in solitary confinement for 90 days for his involvement in the short-lived podcast.
It’s proof McFarland didn’t exactly have a spotless record in prison, although the Bureau of Prisons credited McFarland’s early release to The First Step Act, a reform law passed in 2018 aimed that allows inmates to earn “good time credit,” according to the agency’s website.
Prior to his stint in solitary confinement for the secret podcast, McFarland was busted for a “significant disciplinary action” in 2019, according to Air Mail, when New York prison officials found he had smuggled in a recording device that was hidden inside a pen. He was reportedly given 40 days in solitary confinement for the infraction.
“What do you do in Billy’s situation? How do you handle extreme failure?” – Fyre event planner Andy King
While McFarland’s attorney says he’s focused on paying back his victims, the government has already shown signs of doubting his commitment to making amends, according to Air Mail.
The entrepreneur had been approached by both Netflix and Hulu to appear in their rivaling documentaries about the shitshow of a festival when McFarland allegedly tried to hustle Netflix director Chris Smith out of $250,000 to be interviewed for the project. When Smith turned him down, McFarland countered for $125,000.
McFarland eventually went with Hulu, whose co-director Jenner Furst said McFarland was paid much less than $250,000. But none of the money McFarland earned from participating in the documentary ever found its way to his victims, Air Mail reported.
And some 277 ticket holders who thought they finally came to an end of their legal battle with Fyre Festival organizers last year when they reached a $2 million settlement agreement, later learned their expected $7,200 payout would actually be closer to $280. The festival’s bankruptcy trustee told a New York court that payout would have to be drastically reduced because it only had $78,000 in its coffers after setting aside a remaining $1.1 million for accountants and legal costs.
It doesn’t bode well for winners of a separate $5 million suit, or the hundreds of investors who are collectively out $26 million. And that’s just those in the United States. Some small businesses in Great Exuma were nearly financially decimated by the burden they took upon to help pull off Frye Festival, only to be left in the lurch.
Maryann Rolle, the owner of Exuma Point Bar and Grill, spent more than $50,000 of her own savings to continue feeding the stranded concertgoers, leaving her credit score in tatters. “Just take it away and let me start a new beginning … it really pains me when I have to talk about it,” she told The Guardian in 2019.
Rolle was eventually able to recoup all of her costs, thanks to a GoFundMe that raised more than $240,000, later saying she was able to give away half of that money to other hurting businesses and charities.
King also says he’s been involved in paying back small businesses in Exuma, noting the reason why he even agreed to participate in the Netflix documentary was to “drive awareness and to drive funds to the local Bahamians.”
“I’m proud of that,” he says. “Are there still people who are out money? I’m sure, absolutely. But as much as I could do, I did. It wasn’t my responsibility — I was brought in to try to help save a music festival, I never got paid anything. But at the end of the day, what do you want your legacy to be?”
As for McFarland, there’s a long road ahead. “Will he be able to regain credibility, I just don’t know,” King adds. “I just think you certainly haven’t heard the last of Billy McFarland. He’s out; he’s back. I’m looking forward to speaking with him and to hear what his plans are. How he’s going to raise this money and what he’s thinking. And hopefully, how he’s going to change his legacy. And done right, it’ll help me too.”