A little while back, I stumbled on a news story about Mitchell Gross, a Georgia man who was recently indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of wire fraud and money laundering for allegedly luring a woman into investing millions of dollars in a phony company.
Authorities said Gross began a romantic relationship with a woman identified in court documents as “R.J.” They met on a site around June 2006 and [he] told her he made a lot of money by investing with a broker named “Michael Johnson” who was employed by “The Merrill Company,” the records show.
“R.J.” called the broker to talk over the investments, but it was actually Gross speaking in a disguised voice on the other line, prosecutors said. “R.J.” wired close to $3 million to an account she believed belong[ed] to the company but actually did not exist, prosecutors said. Gross concealed the scheme by sending her phony tax forms and account statements, they added.
Then investigators said they discovered he was using the woman’s funds to repay an ex-girlfriend, identified as “J.S.” She was duped into investing $1.4 million with the phony firm, prosecutors said.
The US Attorney’s Office’s press release is here.
What interested me about this incident: Mitchell Gross is an author. Under the name Mitchell Graham, he published a fantasy trilogy with HarperCollins, as well as mystery novels with Tor and Forge. What interested me even more: Writer Beware has a file on him.
In November 2001, I received an email from Gross, who said he was afraid he’d been rooked by one of the scam literary agents featured in the Case Studies section of the Writer Beware website. The agent, he claimed, had taken money from him to enter his fantasy manuscript in a literary contest; he’d later been told he’d won the contest plus a substantial cash prize, but had never received a check. He was especially worried because he’d gotten nice blurbs from several well-known authors as part of the contest, and had used those blurbs in submitting his manuscript to major publishers. He now feared the blurbs, along with the contest, weren’t legit.
I responded, giving Gross a capsule version of the large amount of data we’d gathered on the scammer, and asking for documentation to add to my files. But Gross, who had initially been very friendly and forthright, suddenly turned cagy, telling me he wanted to consult with his attorney before providing any material or any more specifics.
OK, I thought. Scam victims don’t always want to share everything at the outset; hopefully Gross would change his mind. We emailed back and forth a few more times–and then, all at once, good news: Gross and his attorney had confirmed with one of the sponsors, “the trustees from Merrill Lynch,” that the contest was real and he had really won it! Yippee! Oh, and by the way, would I please share Tad Williams’ email address (I’d interviewed Williams a few months earlier) so he could confirm directly that Williams had really been a contest judge, and that the blurb he’d gotten from Williams was genuine?
At this point, my scamdar started pinging. Merrill Lynch? Not exactly known for running literary contests. And why, after all the emails Gross and I had exchanged, did I still have so little concrete information? Gross hadn’t even told me the name of the contest. Had the whole thing been an elaborate windup to get access to Tad Williams?
I wrote back, referring Gross to Mr. Williams’ website, and asking again for the name of the contest, the names of the other judges, and documentation of his experience. I wasn’t entirely surprised when I didn’t hear back. In fact, I never heard from Gross again.
I did hear of him, though. In March 2002, I spied an announcement in Locus magazine, which covers the world of speculative fiction (the announcement doesn’t survive online, but it’s memorialized in Locus’s March 2002 Table of Contents). The grand prize in the prestigious third annual Delmont-Ross Writing Contest, sponsored by the Delmont-Ross Foundation, Merrill Lynch Trustees, and Borders Books, had been awarded to Mitchell Gross, writing as Mitchell Graham, for his fantasy novel The Fifth Ring, which had subsequently been picked up by major SF/fantasy publisher Eos in a three-book deal. Gross, described as “a practicing trial lawyer and neuropsychologist, a former member of the men’s US Olympic Fencing Team,” reportedly received “the highest scores in the contest’s history” from a ten-member jury panel headed by renowned SF writer Ben Bova.
Hmmm, I thought. Really? I knew the book deal was real–it had been announced in December–but given my previous contacts with Gross, the rest sounded kind of fishy, especially when a websearch on the Delmont-Ross Writing Contest turned up nothing but the announcement mentioning Gross. For a contest in its third year, especially a “prestigious” one, you’d think there’d be rather more Web presence. Nevertheless, various press releases confirmed the award (here’s an example, which survives only as HTML, but if you scroll down you can see the text), so I didn’t follow up.
A few months later, Writer Beware got a flurry of of questions about Delmont-Ross from writers who’d seen publicity materials for Gross’s book, or had read some of the interviews he was doing to promote himself (in which, by the way, he provided conflicting details about the contest). This time, Ann and I decided to investigate.
We snail mailed requests for information to Delmont-Ross (with SASEs), using the street address in the Locus announcement. Both came back marked as undeliverable. We then got in touch with Delmont-Ross’s purported sponsors, Borders and Merrill Lynch, where our contacts could find no record of any corporate relationship with or sponsorship of the contest. We even wrote to the US Fencing Association, which sent us the names of the members of the Men’s US Olympic Fencing Teams for 1984 and 1988, the years Gross claimed to have participated. By now, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that Gross’s name wasn’t on either roster. (Gross is an accomplished competitive fencer, though. That much is true.)
The final nail in Delmont-Ross’s coffin came from Ben Bova himself. Mr. Bova told us that he had indeed been hired as a contest judge–the only one, so far as he was aware. He was a bit surprised to discover that there was also only one finalist, but went ahead and did as he was asked–to read the manuscript and judge if it was fit to win. He said yes, and–hey presto–The Fifth Ring got the prize.
So there was never any such thing as the Delmont-Ross Writing Contest. Gross made the whole thing up in order to promote his debut novel. (We have a hunch that his later, similarly detailed claim of a film deal with Stephen Spielberg was an equally fictitious effort to promote his subsequent books.)
I think he probably made up the story about his encounter with the scammer, too; he wanted to con me in some way, or maybe just pick my brain (he asked me a lot of questions about publishing) and knew he could get to me by pretending to have been scammed. Bad move. Gross went to extraordinary lengths to give his fake contest a gloss of authenticity, and it probably would have held up to casual scrutiny–but it couldn’t withstand close investigation, which it might not have received if Gross hadn’t written to me. As a result, an Alert about Delmont-Ross was posted on the Writer Beware website in late 2003 (the Alert was removed several years ago, after Gross stopped mentioning the contest in his publicity materials, but you can still see it here).
Interestingly enough, “The Merrill Company” (the phony company Gross is accused of using to steal money) existed well before 2006, when Gross allegedly met the victim he is accused of defrauding. The 2002 press release about Delmont-Ross linked in above provided an address and phone number for “Merrill Lynch Trust Department,” one of the contest’s supposed sponsors–but when I called the number as part of Ann’s and my investigation, the woman who answered told me that I’d reached “The Merrill Company,” not Merrill Lynch, and hung up on me when I tried to find out more. Checking business records, I was entirely unsurprised to discover that The Merrill Company was a business registered in January 2002 by Mitchell Gross in Cobb County, Georgia.
A tangled web indeed.
According to the US Attorney’s Office’s press release, Gross has been charged with seven counts of wire fraud and seven counts of money laundering, each of which carries a maximum possible sentences of 10-20 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines.
EDITED 2/23/12 TO ADD: On Feb. 21 in an Atlanta court, Gross pleaded guilty to wire fraud and money-laundering charges, as well as an additional scam, in which he posed as a lawyer and took millions in legal fees from a couple who believed he was representing them in a real estate lawsuit. He’ll be sentenced in May.