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From past visits, he knew the Ashton, a swanky apartment building. In August 2009, he negotiated a one-year lease on a 17th-floor apartment with the first three months free. In October, he moved to the 21st-floor penthouse, a more appropriate place for his parties, and sublet the other apartment. According to a complaint later filed with police, his lease agreement for the first apartment was one of the few documents Manos signed under one of his pseudonyms.
Armed with a new five-year plan, Manos went to work creating a fashion, news, and entertainment media company he named SFR, and a new persona he adopted, based on an international driver's license he had acquired from a Bulgarian man in the name of Mordan Stefanov.
Even though Manos had yet to publish a single issue of his company's magazine, he parlayed his role as its publisher into an invitation to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra's annual VIP fundraiser. Trailed by a photographer he'd hired for the night, Manos made new contacts. "He showed up late, but he tried to be in all the pictures with the famous people at the very beginning," the photographer, Brett Vander, recalls. "I've been to these things with the millionaires and the famous people, but this was the billionaires' club."
Women accustomed to more staid fundraising affairs were putty in the hands of a seasoned cruiser like Manos. "I was amazed seeing how people reacted to him — he really drew these society women out," Vander says.
Manos found a close friend in Abbe Mandel, who runs a high-profile promotional business and who drove Manos to Southfork Ranch so he could see the Dallas mansion up close. "He was like nobody I'd ever met. He just was funny to me; I just got a little kick out of him," says Mandel, who learned early on about his new friend's fake identity. "When I found out that he didn't report to his parole, it didn't even faze me. A lot of people have backstories. We never know."
Others who worked with Manos weren't as taken by him. "Did I think his name was Mordan? Hell, no. Come on," says Sean McGinty, who chauffeured Manos and other business partners around Dallas a few times. "He was good with the B.S., man, but most promoters are."
Manos prepared to launch SFR with an elaborate gala and charity auction, and moved quickly to line up vendors and partners. "He established himself pretty quick once he'd gotten in through someone's contacts," says Darren McCulley, the bodyguard Manos hired. "He doesn't push. He lets people get involved just enough. Once he got in two or three deep into someone's contacts, it was like he's in."
Liquor distributor Batt, whose company sponsored Manos' parties, says he did well with Manos' first events, even if he didn't buy everything Manos promised about the global potential of his business. "It was unbelievable, his dedication to his fantasy," Batt says. "He clearly knew what he was doing." And for those who were taken in, Batt says, "This guy was so non-Dallas, they thought it was going to be big and wanted to latch on, and couldn't see through his phoniness."
The Oct. 30 Monte Carlo de Casino party was a reboot of the Atlanta event. Actor Billy Zane was there to speak about the charity tie-ins, and Manos enlisted the Croatian-born model Jasmina Hdagha to interview arrivals on the red carpet at the Ashton.
The party was a fundraiser for the Make-a-Wish Foundation, Children's Medical Center, and Vogel Alcove, a homeless children's nonprofit. Manos told Children's they'd get $75,000 from the event, development director Lori Waggoner says, but the night's total was $4,045 from the charity auction. Make-a-Wish took in about $3,000 from three auction items, says vice president of development and services Billie Milner — a fourth item, she says, "was not legitimate," and they returned the money. Vogel Alcove collected $2,000 in direct donations, plus a $1,000 check that was to cover its cut of the bar tab that night.
The party set off a flurry of others in rapid succession. Manos threw three more between Nov. 19 and 21."You can't have a damn red carpet event every Friday night," McGinty — who provided the red carpet for the Monte Carlo party — recalls telling him. "It has to have some luster. What makes it special if you have one every night?"
Manos was a workaholic, and expected his staff to keep up. SFR's three employees worked long hours in a cramped office, editing video and toiling away at what he tried to convince them would become a media empire.
His video producer, Elizabeth Thome, recalls she wasn't enthusiastic about what she first saw. "The Web sites, they all looked like crap. It was just shit put together," she says. The board of directors included one "R. Murdoch," and its corporate headquarters, according to its Web site, was at a Rome address near the Spanish Steps. "His first magazine was crap. ... The pictures are pixelated. I mean, he spelled Miley Cyrus' name wrong."
If Manos needed a copy editor, he needed a business partner even more. He found Hezlep, his ex-john from D.C., on Facebook, and after recounting his path to success — and sharing a photo of himself alongside Fonda — Manos enlisted his help.