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“I Want to Make This as Right as I Can”: A Shot at Redemption and the Finale of ‘The Wedding Scammer’

After a climactic showdown at Charleston Lane, Justin starts a series of conversations with Carl in which he tries to get some real answers

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The following is a slightly modified excerpt from “Fool Me Twice,” the finale of the Wedding Scammer podcast. For seven episodes, host Justin Sayles tracked a conman who he encountered seven years ago. After many twists and turns, adventures tracing the scammer through various aliases, and a climactic showdown involving a wire, Justin has arrived at the end of his journey: a series of phone calls with the scammer himself where Justin tries to get some answers. The entire series is now bingeable—and meant to be consumed as a seven-part series. Listen on Spotify, Apple, or wherever you get your shows.

In March 2023, finally goes live again.

But instead of blog posts or advertisements or anything resembling the original vision, there’s something else on it: a message to the former employees of this ill-fated media venture.

This comes almost exactly seven years after Carl Butcho shut down Newsaratti, without paying the 100-plus employees and freelancers he hired for the website that he wanted to be “like The Huffington Post, but better.” Here’s some quick background for anyone who is not familiar with the broader story of The Wedding Scammer: After running Newsaratti and then vanishing into thin air, Carl Butcho went on to conduct a series of complicated schemes, first in L.A. (which you can hear about in Episode 2) and then in the Bay Area (which we cover in Episode 3).

He also took on a series of fakes names: first Michael Esposito in L.A., then Lawrence Tonner and Mark White in Northern California, and more recently, Lance Miller in Texas, where he currently lives and owns the wedding venue Charleston Lane in Willis and the catering company Caviar & Banana, which operates in Houston and Austin. (You can hear about that in Episode 5.)

That last stop is where I was finally able to find him. And it’s where I paid him a visit, wearing a wire and letting him know that I’d been tracking him for years. (That’s our Episode 6, which is a tense one.) I showed up at Charleston Lane in a Stetson this past January, looking for answers to questions like: Why has he skipped out on lawsuits and labor judgments against him in California? Why do so many people say he ripped them off? And what exactly went wrong with Newsaratti?

In that visit and our subsequent conversations, he’s denied much wrongdoing. “A lot of the names that you’ve given to me are people who didn’t accept accountability for their part of it either,” he tells me. And while he did admit to messing up the Newsaratti situation—though not because of malice, but rather because of his struggles with drugs and alcohol—I didn’t expect him to try to make good on that debt. After all, there are hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of default civil and labor judgments against his various aliases in California. And he’s told me he’ll never pay them.

But if I’m to believe the 230-word statement on the new, he’s promising he’ll make good on this debt. Seven years later.

The note to former employees is unsigned, but it sure reads like it was written by Carl Butcho—by the man who once went by Michael Esposito. It says, “I truly apologize for any difficulties this has brought to you. I wish I was in a better place with my mental health and addictions when I knew you all in 2016. There are no excuses here today and in an effort of true recovery I want to make this as right as I can.”

The note’s followed by a form for people to submit their names, Newsaratti titles, and how much they were owed. Plus, a promise that Carl and his “trusted associates” would review everything, and that he’d begin getting payments out at the end of the month. It also says the goal is to have all the money out within six to eight months.

I speak to Carl next on March 11. It’s our fourth recorded phone call, and one of the main topics: his pledge to repay Newsaratti employees.

“I know that the day that I had text you about the Newsaratti thing, I was a little bit loopy that day, so I was able to go and get back,” he says. “I’ve already been pulling off a little bit of profit and reserves so I can pay a good chunk of stuff out and I’ve been trying to figure out a way to like, you know, to best do that.”

He tells me he’s been putting aside money to make good on his old debts. He tells me later over text that he plans to post it in the old Newsaratti Facebook groups. Ironically, these are the same Facebook groups once dedicated to tracking him—the ones that jump-started my reporting on him. Basically, he was willing to kick a hornet’s nest that had laid dormant for years.

Except Carl never does that. He doesn’t post on Facebook, he never sends anything out to the old employee email list. I guess he just expected people to randomly visit, seven years later, and stumble across the note.

But even though he never shares it, I certainly do. Facebook, old email threads, group texts. I send it to old colleagues at Newsaratti. I even send it to people who never worked at Newsaratti. Like the wedding couples who sued him, and employees with labor judgments against him.

All people who haven’t had access to Carl in a long time. I figure they deserve a shot at getting what they are owed, too.

I get a mix of reactions. Some people submit right away. Others are just amused that the name Newsaratti is back in their lives. But still others—they’re skeptical about giving Carl their info. One text I get in that vein: “I have no interest in anything but seeing him in cuffs. I’m hesitant to remind this dude I exist.” (Carl would later tell me: “That’s a ridiculous statement. I’ve never hurt anyone … physically.”)

Like that last person, I also don’t submit my info for what he owes me. Thirty-five hundred bucks is a lot of money, but it’s never what this podcast was about. Though if I can get a few of my old coworkers from Newsaratti paid, that’s a good result.

And that doesn’t seem like a pipe dream. Because, as of this recording, Carl’s paid Amie Savell back a lot of what he owes her: What used to be a more than $26,000 debt now sits at under two grand.

Months later, as Carl is running up against his self-imposed deadline to make good, I check in with somebody you may remember from Episode 1, to see how it played out for him. The guy who hired me at Newsaratti. Matt Gerlach, the 6-foot-5 teddy bear in the cabbie hat.

“I was very skeptical of getting anything out of filling it out, even though I did, just because $8,500 is a lot of money to me,” Gerlach says.

Matt was the general manager at Newsaratti. He worked there for almost two months and helped build the place. Yet as we sit here at the end of 2023, he hasn’t seen a dime or heard a word from Carl Butcho. “No response whatsoever,” Gerlach says.

The same thing happens to the other people I’ve spoken to. They submitted everything Carl asked for and heard nothing back. I had been cautiously optimistic something would happen. But: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice … you know how the saying goes.

It’s been about two years since Matt and I sat down for our first recorded interview for this show. A lot has changed since—for both of us. So I want to know whether time has changed his perspective on the Newsaratti experience. Matt tells me still has regrets.

“When I was in the moment then, I mean, I failed myself,” Gerlach says. “I had the inclination to just drop it and go somewhere else because I was like, maybe this is a scam or whatever, but I would always justify it and maybe he’s just incompetent.”

Matt says the experience doesn’t define him, but it has stuck with him.

“The biggest hit to the emotional state or my psyche would be my confidence in moving forward in the world,” Gerlach says. “I don’t trust anything anyone says anymore. And then, whenever I get any step further in my career or anything like that, I’m questioning every step like who’s on the level and who’s not, instead of just going about my day and being productive like a normal person.”

I’ve spoken to others who’ve shared similar thoughts—that their time in Carl’s orbit left them less trusting. More cynical.

That lack of trust also pops up when we talk about one of the central mysteries of this podcast: What did Carl want out of Newsaratti?

Again, it’s not like he asked us for money. Just lots and lots of unpaid work. But the fact he did it under a fake name, telling a fake backstory—the fact he didn’t pay us, or even his rent at the WeWork—to me, Newsaratti was clearly a scam. Just a … confusing one.

“Honestly, I think he thought he could build a start-up and then sell it before he got found out to be a fraud,” Gerlach says. “I don’t think he could have possibly pulled that off, but I think he thought that he could pull it off.”

People have other theories, too. Maybe he wanted to generate ad revenue and get away without paying anyone. Maybe he just wanted our social security numbers, and they’re sitting on his Google Drive next to all the documents that he’s promised to send me but hasn’t.

All I can say is: When I’ve asked Carl about his intentions with Newsaratti, he denies all of this. He keeps going back to his original pitch. That he wanted to create a voice for the voiceless. Be an independent, unbiased news source. He says, “Why does it have to be so divided? Why can’t you just report a story?”

And it’s almost scarier to me if he actually believed Newsaratti was a legitimate operation. That would mean that one man with a fake name—a person with no media experience who had already been convicted of felony grand larceny—believed he could create a news empire, with no capital and no real plan. It would mean that one man’s delusion greatly impacted dozens of people’s lives. Made them go weeks or months without getting paid. Had them leave stable jobs for a promise of a great salary that never existed.

So what if Matt was right about one thing in his original assessment of Carl Butcho: That he was just incompetent.

This is what gets me—and gets Matt—the most.

“I think he has a distorted view of the real world and reality,” Gerlach says. “Even in his day-to-day life, I think his perception of reality is off. Like, he’s hurt so many people and it’s so much worse than physical pain.”

It’s like Carl said to me last winter: People never forget how you make them feel.

But why would you promise to pay all these people back, and then not keep that promise? Why would you go out of your way to start the cycle all over again?

“Fool Me Twice” is out now. This excerpt has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. Listen to The Wedding Scammer on Spotify, Apple, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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