By Erin Sherbert
By Howard Cole
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By Leif Haven
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Hezlep was living with his parents in Southern California, and had settled into a sales job he didn't like. So he couldn't say no when Manos offered him the editor's job at SFR, especially when Manos set him up with his own apartment.
Hezlep says he and Manos had planned to file together for a joint business partnership at the county clerk's office, but Manos didn't show and asked Hezlep to sign the paperwork, which he did. "I'm really surprised that I was not able to find some of this stuff to be odd, to the point that it raised red flags," Hezlep says.
Manos began to use Dallas restaurant Bella as his go-to venue, teaming up with the owners to start an event-planning business. "This guy came in for a consulting gig one day, sat in the corner booth, and just really never left," recalls Will Larsen, then a short-order cook in Bella's kitchen.
As Manos prepared to debut his new show about the restaurant, Bella Boyz, his and Thome's relationship grew strained. "He yelled at me all the time. He never appreciated all I did for him," she says. She remembers venting to her friend Josh Ek, who'd done contract work for Manos. "'Who the hell is he? Where did he come from? How come he has no friends?' I just started going off, and Josh was like, 'Well, do you want me to dig anything up on him?' And I was like, 'Yeah, actually, I do.'"
It was the kind of night Mordan Stefanov lived for: red-carpet treatment, limos, high fashion, and free-flowing drinks — an A-list of moneyed guests, society and business types, and the poseurs who needed to be seen at the hottest party in town.
The Jan. 8 celebration would mark the pinnacle of all he had accomplished in the four short months since he arrived in Dallas. It was billed as the grand reopening of Bella, which had been remodeled and bore the brand of Stefanov's own flamboyant design — the sort of place where a jet-setting European party lover like himself would feel at home. Attendees would have a chance to meet the "stars" of his new Dallas-based reality show, Bella Boyz, featuring Robert "Peach" Petrie and Anthony "Tony" Porcaro, co-owners of the restaurant, as well as Stefanov himself. They would be treated to the premiere of the promotional trailer for the series, which was being produced by Stefanov's SFR Television ("The World's First Online Television Network with Original Programming"), which was part of his global media empire, SFR International. Another of his subsidiaries, SFR magazine, would be debuting its spring issue to guests.
Working the crowd with his bursts of "I love everybody" enthusiasm uttered with hints of a European accent, Manos himself could have been the night's main entertainment. He wore a sweater, scarf, and vest — all Alexander McQueen — with David Yurman jewelry as cameras caught his every prowl. He ensured that photographers snapped him with only the best-dressed and the most interesting of his hundreds of guests, only the few who could hold their own beside him in the frame. He had an orange-blonde hair weave, unlike any color in nature, swooping down across his forehead. He could have been 30 or 40, but who could tell? He seemed to make a point of keeping people guessing.
Inside this world, the night belonged to Manos. The name of his media conglomerate, SFR — Society Fashion Report — lit up the walls, and screens around the room flashed highlights from the dozen parties he'd thrown over the last two months in Dallas: celebrity appearances, mostly by Zane, and auctions for children's charities. The same screens played the Bella Boyz trailer as the voice-over montage announced "television's hottest new reality series." "Two successful business owners ... One magazine publisher — Mordan, the deal breaker. ... It's Entourage meets Hell's Kitchen. ... The money. One restaurant. The Nightlife. The Brotherhood. The Power. ... Hang with the Boyz, Spring 2010."
Turns out, the "Boyz" couldn't hang together that long.
As his guests drank in the production, they were unaware of the darker drama unfolding around them. Mordan Stefanov was not who he appeared. He was Michael Manos, convicted felon and fugitive from justice, a parole violator who had, for the last five years, fled from New York to Atlanta to Dallas under a series of fake identities.
Manos knew that his time in Dallas had come to an end. And so did four other people at the party, employees who wondered why they could find hardly any trace of him on the Internet, why he seemed to be a man with no history.
After the New Year's Eve masquerade ball he threw in a tent in Bella's parking lot, Manos began preparing for the debut of Bella Boyz.
Manos thought Thome and Ek had looked at his hard drive, which would have led them to the Facebook page his estranged friend Alexander had created, "Stop Michael de Medici," detailing the kidnapping and other lurid stories. Manos says he hired a private investigator, confirming through phone records that Thome and Ek had been in touch with Bayone and Alexander. He hesitated to run from Dallas with the party so close, so he stuck around for the big event on Friday night — but on Sunday afternoon, he cut out.