The Hipster Grifter

The Hipster Grifter

Kari Ferrell.
Kari Ferrell. DAISY JOHNSON/

It’s likely that when Kari Ferrell walked into the Vice magazine offices in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, last month to interview for an administrative assistant job, they thought they’d hit the jackpot. Ms. Ferrell—petite, 22 years old, of Korean heritage—had a huge tattoo of a phoenix across her chest and a cute pixie haircut. She was talkative, funny, charming, adorable. She had a tattoo on her back that read “I Love Beards.” She told them she’d been working for the New York office of the concert promotion company GoldenVoice, which puts on huge rock festivals like Coachella near Palm Springs, Calif., and that she’d moved to New York from Utah just a few months earlier. They hired her on the spot.

Sign Up For Our Daily Newsletter

By clicking submit, you agree to our <a rel="noreferrer" href="">terms of service</a> and acknowledge we may use your information to send you emails, product samples, and promotions on this website and other properties. You can opt out anytime.

See all of our newsletters

A few days later, one of Ms. Ferrell’s new colleagues came by her desk. “I said, ‘Excuse me, miss, is [her boss] downstairs?’” the 29-year-old told The Observer. “She thought that was very polite that I said, ‘Excuse me, miss,’ and after that she started talking to me, instant-messaging me. She asked if I was from the South. I told her no. It escalated from there.”

Within the space of a half-hour, Ms. Ferrell was peppering him with questions about his sexual history—how many women he’d slept with and so on. “She was coming on to me, and I was super into it for the first part of it,” he said. “I realized I could have fun after work—but then I was like, ‘Let me check this girl out.’”  He Googled her. Up popped a photo of his flirtatious new co-worker on the Salt Lake City Police Department’s Most Wanted list, wanted on five different warrants, including passing $60,000 in bad checks, forgery and retail theft.

“Long story short”

Soon after arriving in New York last August, Kari Ferrell moved into a tiny room on Bergen Street on the Crown Heights–Prospect Heights border. She made friends quickly—mostly guys, though there were always one or two girls in her orbit. (For this article, Ms. Ferrell did not respond to emails or a voice mail left on her last known cell phone number.) She met Bobby, a 23-year-old Rutgers student, at a GirlTalk concert in Manhattan in October. It seemed like the two of them were the only ones old enough to drink, Bobby recalled. They started talking, and, “long story short, I go home with her. The next morning we exchange emails. It turns out that night she stole my cell phone—but it was done in such a way that it wasn’t until months later that I realized: I didn’t lose my phone that night, she took it.”

Bobby started making the trip from New Brunswick, N.J., to Brooklyn every weekend. She told him she worked for GoldenVoice and gave him one of her business cards. She had an ATM card, Bobby recalled, but it never seemed to work; she could only get cash out of it, not use it as a debit card, and, she told him, it only worked at this one bodega near her apartment. So she would borrow money and promise to pay it back.

Soon she told him she was afraid she was pregnant. “She told me she took six tests—three were positive, three were negative,” Bobby said. “I told her to go to a gynecologist, get a real pregnancy test, and we’ll move forward from there.” She stopped bringing it up.

When Bobby had been seeing Ms. Ferrell for about six weeks, one of her friends told him that Ms. Ferrell was dying of cancer. When he confronted her, Bobby said she told him “the sob story—‘I’m estranged from my parents, I don’t know who my birth parents are, my adoptive parents are abusive.’ It never occurred to me that it would be odd that someone who’s dying of cancer, who has three months to live, would just move from Salt Lake City to Brooklyn.”

Bobby talked it over with some friends. “Basically, the consensus was to stick around because you like this girl, but don’t get too attached, because she’s going to be dead in three months,” Bobby said. Over the next several weeks, he said, they had “some very depressing conversations about how she didn’t want to die. My parents are doctors, and I’ve seen patients come in who are in their last stage of life. She was saying, ‘I don’t want to go through that, I’m going to take my own life.’”

Ms. Ferrell seemed healthy outwardly, but one day Bobby got a text message saying that she’d coughed up blood and was in the hospital.

“The doctors were treating her as if something was going wrong,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘Oh, great, here it comes, this is going to be the beginning of the end.’ The doctors at Bellevue said, ‘There’s something wrong with your appendix, it’s a little inflamed. But, good news, we couldn’t find any cancer in your lungs!’”

According to Bobby, Ms. Ferrell dismissed this diagnosis, saying that her cancer was the kind of thing that could show up on a scan one day and disappear the next.

The weekend before Christmas, Bobby and Ms. Ferrell went to a party. “She was dancing, smoking pot. I thought it was really strange that if she was dying of lung cancer, she’d be smoking pot.” Bobby went back to Rutgers and the night before he left for winter break, Ms. Ferrell called, threatening to kill herself. The next day, she called while he was at dinner with his parents. “She’s really weak, doesn’t want to talk, says, ‘I’ll call you later,’ and hangs up,” he said. “I’m just thrilled she’s alive. A couple hours later, I talk to her and she’s really depressed—she says it’ll never end, there’s no point. She’s being really mysterious and vague.” Finally she told him she had a psychotic ex-boyfriend, a criminal mastermind who could break into any cell phone. He had been stalking her in Utah, she said; he broke into her house and stole money. She said when she logged into her instant messenger, it said she was already logged in; she was panicked it was the crazy ex.

Bobby told some friends of his the whole story and they seemed incredulous, so he Googled her and found the wanted poster. “After I realized the whole thing was bullshit, she continued to send me texts,” he said “She texted me on Christmas to tell me that she loved me. As soon as I realized who she really was, I stopped contacting her.”

But Bobby wasn’t Ms. Ferrell’s only prospect. A month earlier, at the end of November at a dance party at the bar Happy Ending on the Lower East Side, she met a 28-year-old named Joe, who was living in Greenpoint. He was celebrating his birthday and invited Ms. Ferrell to a party he was having the next night. “She told me she was working for the company that does Coachella—GoldenVoice,” Joe said. “She would furnish all these details about having to run errands, go to meetings. One night she said she was sleeping in the office because she had so much work.” She also told Joe and his friends that she was working on a book for Vice—a coffee table book of photographs of men with beards posing next to her “I Love Beards” tattoo.

“She has this thing with guys where she talks about sex really upfront and kind of puts people off balance,” said Joe. (It was also around November that a guy named Troy was at Union Pool, the Williamsburg bar, when the bartender passed him a note from another customer. It read, “I want to give you a hand job with my mouth,” and was signed “Korean Abdul-Jabbar.” It was, according to Troy, from Ms. Ferrell. Another time, a patron at Fabiane’s, the café on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, said Ms. Ferrell passed him a note which read: “I want you to throw a hot dog down my hall.”)

Ms. Ferrell became close friends with Joe’s roommate Erica Koch, 26, who works at the cafe Brooklyn Label in Greenpoint. “She told me she had cancer,” said Ms. Koch. “Then later she told me she was terminally ill with cancer. She said she had just been diagnosed when she got to New York and she was taking chemo pills. You can’t question someone who says she has cancer! One day she came out of my roommate’s room coughing, and she had blood on her hand.”

At Brooklyn Label one day in December, a friend of Erica’s, a 30-year-old librarian who lives in Greenpoint, was writing Christmas cards when Ms. Ferrell approached him. They talked for a while and ended up going to a movie. Later she told him she had cancer. “She seemed completely fine—she seemed healthy,” said the librarian. “I said, ‘That’s horrible,’ but I didn’t feel like it was a terminal thing. Two days later, she said she got a call from her doctors and had only a couple months to live.”

A few days later, the librarian recalled, Ms. Ferrell said she was tired and might want to go to the emergency room. “She had claimed she needed to go to Sloan-Kettering—she said that’s why she came to New York, to go to that hospital. But she said she couldn’t go to Sloan-Kettering when she had complications. At the emergency room, the doctors couldn’t find her information…She gave them her Social Security number and they couldn’t find any records at Sloan-Kettering. I figured this was one of these administrative things where they couldn’t find her information.”

Soon the librarian realized that something wasn’t right, and Googled her. “Finally I just sent her an email saying that I knew, and I wasn’t going to hang out with her anymore, and then I told all the friends I had met through her the same story. They basically cut off contact with her.”

In January at an HBO party, Ms. Ferrell met a 24-year-old writer who lives in Williamsburg. By this point, she had moved to Throop Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant because, she told him, the building she’d been living in previously got condemned. The writer felt immediately drawn into Ms. Ferrell’s orbit; they ended up hanging out about four times a week. “She acts very warm and super-interested in what people have to say,” he recalled. “And she has lots of offers for things. She’s really into music and knows a lot about music. She’ll say, ‘I work at GoldenVoice, I can get you into that show. Anything you want to go to, I can get you on the list.’ We’d go and would end up not being on the list, but somehow we’d end up getting in—she’d just wink at the door guy and we’d get inside. Almost everyone who’s a dude, she’s really super sexually aggressive with—I’ve seen her send text messages to these guys that are really, really explicit, just to lure these dudes in. I guess these guys see that and say, ‘She’s attractive, she’s really aggressive, I’m into that.’ Even with girls, she would meet my friends and be really nice and warm and say she could get them into places—we would go out dancing and have a great time. She always got everyone’s phone number and email and followed up with them.”

In March, Ms. Ferrell got offered the job at Vice. “We had these long conversations about whether she should leave GoldenVoice and go to Vice or not,” said the writer. “This is one of the things that disturbs me more than anything else—we talked for 30 minutes about whether she should change jobs or not. We had an engaging conversation about something that was completely a fantasy.”

On March 22—right after Ms. Ferrell had been fired from Vice, her cover having been blown thanks to the co-worker’s Googling—the  writer and Ms. Ferrell got dinner and were hanging out at his apartment with his roommates. “She goes to the bathroom and says, ‘I just coughed up some blood.’ She had told me she had lung cancer, but I just thought she was sort of irresponsible or quasi in remission. Or over-embellishing the story a bit and that’s why she wasn’t seeking treatment.” Later that night, she texted the writer to say she was at Bellevue—but texted his roommate to say she was at N.Y.U. Medical Center.

“I was like, ‘That’s weird, maybe she got transferred,’” said the writer. “Monday evening I go to see her and she’s at N.Y.U. in the ER, and it seems like she’s been there a long time. I go with her to neuro—she’s saying she can’t see out of her left eye and she has really intense lower-left-quadrant pain. She’s not saying anything about coughing up blood. She’s saying they did a gastroendoscopy, and maybe she has a tumor and it’s throwing clots and she’s bleeding. I almost went to medical school—it wasn’t the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard.”

The next night he went over to the house of a girl who, he said, “was four degrees removed from Kari, and someone said something out loud about Kari being in the hospital. This girl wasn’t going to tell me—but I kind of had a suspicion. I relayed a bunch of stuff and the girl said, ‘Girl does not have cancer. Girl rips dudes off for six grand and flees bail.’ This girl’s roommate works for the company that owns GoldenVoice, and she was like, ‘There’s no GoldenVoice office in New York.’” (GoldenVoice’s parent company, AEG Live, has an office in New York that handles local shows; calls to AEG’s human resources department were not returned.)

A couple months later, meanwhile, the librarian got a call from Mount Sinai hospital; Ms. Ferrell had listed him as an emergency contact. “They said, ‘Do you have any information about her? Can you tell her she owes us money?’”

“I was in denial”

Four and a half years ago, Kari Ferrell was just another 17-year-old girl hanging out in Salt Lake City’s straight-edge scene. She lived with her dad—her parents were divorced, and her mom had remarried and moved to Arizona—and spent a lot of time on MySpace. That was where she met Casey Hansen, now 24. “She just kind of messaged me out of nowhere, commenting on my profile picture,” Mr. Hansen said. “It was of Santa Claus holding a sign that said, ‘I don’t exist.’” The two started dating.

She told Mr. Hansen she was 18 and had graduated from high school that year. Her driver’s license said she was 17, though, and Ms. Ferrell’s parents even told him how old she was. “She just said there was something weird with her birth certificate, since she’d been adopted from South Korea,” Mr. Hansen said. He believed her. “She held on to this thing about her age, for no real valid reason, for like two years. I feel like that was a harbinger of things to come.”

Around New Year’s 2005, she moved to Arizona to live with her mom, but moved back to Salt Lake City three months later. That April she moved in with some straight-edge kids in Salt Lake City. Within a week, Mr. Hansen said, she told him she was getting text messages from phone numbers she didn’t recognize. She told him they said things like, “I’m going to rape you to death.” She told her roommates she thought she knew who it was, a local kid. She told Mr. Hansen that she and her roommates went to the kid’s family’s house and slashed tires and broke windows.

“In retrospect, she was sending herself the text messages somehow,” Mr. Hansen said. “She wanted the validation that people cared about her, I’m assuming.”

That summer Ms. Ferrell moved in with Mr. Hansen because the kids in the straight-edge house weren’t paying rent and they all got evicted. She was working at a kennel that would later file a civil judgment against her for $1,201; she dropped her dog off at the kennel so she could live with Mr. Hansen. “She turned into my sugar momma in a way. She had all this mysterious money,” he said. “She didn’t really want me to go to work. It was a really pathetic time in my life.” She soon got a notice from a bank saying that someone had tried to cash a check of hers, and she called the fraud unit of the local police department and accused one of her former roommates of doing it.

One night after they’d had sex, she accused Mr. Hansen of cheating on her. “I came downstairs and she was sitting over her phone, crying,” he said. “She said someone had pictures of me with my ex-girlfriend. I never had had a girlfriend before, let alone, how did someone have pictures of me?” A couple weeks later, Mr. Hansen went to Los Angeles with his band; Ms. Ferrell and some of her friends tagged along. She accused a guy of hitting on her and Mr. Hansen said, he “almost knocked his teeth out.”*

In the fall, she told Mr. Hansen that she was finally able to access the money that she hadn’t been able to get to because of the previous fraud on her checking account. “She started depositing all these checks into my account, literally depositing $300, $500, $1,100 at a time,” he said “They keep giving me money whenever I wanted to withdraw. She kept saying she couldn’t use her ATM card, telling me, ‘You cash these checks and give me the money.’ One day I hand them a check for $1,200 and I asked the teller, ‘Are these good? I assume they are, because you guys just keep giving me money and you’re a bank, but can you just check on this?’ And he tells me they’re good.” This went on for about a week and a half, for a total of $10,600, before the bank belatedly realized the checks were written from an account that wasn’t even open.

“I was in denial,” said Mr. Hansen. “She’d always make up something to prolong it.” Mr. Hansen tried to break up with her. She told him she had cancer. She told him she was being stalked again. “I go back to her house and bring a metal bat and I carry a knife and Mace, and I become a security agent,” he said. “She keeps getting these weird texts.” They started having sex again. He went on tour in February 2006, and the night of his 21st birthday, she texted him to say she was pregnant. A few nights later, she called to say she was going to commit suicide.

In October she got a new roommate, a friend she’d known for several years, and, according to Mr. Hansen, scammed him out of $3,000. Later, Mr. Hansen somehow thought it would be a good idea for him to buy a used car, a Volkswagen Jetta, for Ms. Ferrell to make the payments on. It was a five-year loan at 20 percent interest. She made two payments on the car. Mr. Hansen ended up filing for bankruptcy.

The day after Ms. Ferrell turned 21, in February 2008, she went to jail in Salt Lake City for three months. When she got out, she started dating a guy named Brian MaWhinney; she’d met him because she’d dated his roommate.

I asked Mr. MaWhinney if he knew about Ms. Ferrell’s jail time and her propensity for check fraud. “I looked past it,” he said. “She said she was helping out her boyfriend and that she got out of jail early because he stepped in and said, ‘Here I am, this is my thing.’ I don’t think that was true.” Her mother and stepfather came to visit; she owed them thousands of dollars that, she told Mr. MaWhinney, she’d sent to them via Western Union. Hadn’t they gotten the money? (When contacted by The Observer, Ms. Ferrell’s stepfather refused to comment.) Western Union called in the cops, and Ms. Ferrell spent another 48 hours in jail; the bail was $5,000, and since she only had $500 in her wallet, Mr. MaWhinney posted the rest.

“When she was dating me,” Mr. MaWhinney said, “she said she worked for GoldenVoice and 24tix”—another concert organizing company. “Later, we found out she never worked for 24tix and I don’t think she worked for GoldenVoice. I don’t think she had a job the whole time I was dating her. She always used cash. I don’t think she had a bank account. She said she had these jobs because while she was at the University of Utah, she majored in music and started to intern at these jobs and then got hired on. I found out later she never even graduated from high school.”

 In July of last year, Ms. Ferrell told Mr. MaWhinney that she was going to take him and his friends to Chicago for the Pitchfork Music Festival. “We all got work off, and packed and got ready—we were going to leave on a Friday morning,” he said. “She called and said she got a call from her boss saying it had been delayed. She kept calling, saying it had kept being delayed, and then finally we didn’t go.”

In August 2008, Ms. Ferrell moved to New York, telling Mr. MaWhinney that GoldenVoice was letting her transfer to its New York office. She also told him she had a court date in Salt Lake City in December, at which point he would get back the money he’d posted for her bail. She never showed up.

The week that Ms. Ferrell was actually gainfully employed was a busy one, according to a Vice employee who worked somewhat directly with her: “We found out she had been calling up clubs saying she wanted to be on the list, was from Vice and was going to review the show. Weird, right? But not that insane for a young kid to do. Then we got a package from HBO with Flight of the Conchords DVDs that she had requested for review. O.K., so she’s kind of abusing her role to get swag and fucking with people we work with—not cool.” Then, the staffer said, Vice found out that she had “booked a table at The Box for ‘the surprise birthday party for the publisher of Vice.’ In the correspondence she had been all, ‘I’m emailing you from my personal email because we are having server issues, don’t contact the publisher, it’s a surprise.’”

The Salt Lake City Police Department remains very, very interested in finding Ms. Ferrell. According to a police spokesperson, if Ms. Ferrell is indeed in New York—or Philadelphia, where several of her friends told me she visited often and talked frequently of moving to—the police are powerless to extradite her without an extradition order from the Salt Lake City District Attorney’s office.

“I called over to the DA and spoke to my contact over there,” the police spokesperson, Sergeant Fred Ross, told me. “I’m just waiting for the prosecutor who’s actually assigned her cases.” If she’s picked up in New York, two officers from Salt Lake will fly out to pick her up and bring her back to face charges. (UPDATE: The Salt Lake City Police Department now has an extradition order for Ms. Ferrell. Anyone with information on her whereabouts can call Mr. Ross at 801-799-3366.) Sergeant Ross also drew my attention to his department’s use of YouTube in pursuit of Ms. Ferrell:

“What I find so strange is that she uses her real name,” Bobby, the 23-year-old Rutgers student, said. “I was thinking she’s just a really good liar. She goes after people who are very trusting, and exploits that. She really had me going—my first instinct is not to Google someone when I meet them.”

*This story has been modified from its original version.

The Hipster Grifter