Former national athlete David Bunevacz is facing up to 40 years in prison in the U.S. after he pleaded guilty to fraud in relation to a $37 million (P2 billion) scam that defrauded investors in cannabis vaping.
Bunevacz's case came on the heels of other elaborate grifters, who, years after getting caught, ended up as the real life inspirations behind some of the moment's streaming phenomena—take Anna Sorokin, the fake heiress who inspired Netflix's Inventing Anna after swindling New York's elite, and Elizabeth Holmes, the fallen Silicon Valley girl boss who inspired Hulu's The Dropout.
One minute scammers outrage us, the next, they have their own TV show. Is Bunevacz's scam wild enough for big-budget streaming giants to also invest in him?
As U.S. magazine Rolling Stone reported, the 53-year-old Filipino-American over the course of more than a decade went to elaborate lengths to dupe investors into funding his fake cannabis vaping business.
As noted in the report, he did this by "lying about his business connections, forging bank statements and legal settlements, laundering money through shell companies, and concealing prior legal troubles".
Authorities said he then used the money to support a lavish lifestyle of owning cars, horses, luxury goods (including but not limited to diamond earrings, a Rolex, and Hermes bags). He also reportedly gambled away more than $8 million at casinos, and spent more than $200,000 (Over P11 Million) for his daughter's sweet sixteen birthday party.
Prior to his guilty plea, Bunevacz was also facing related charges of money laundering and identity theft but thanks to the plea deal, the U.S. Attorney’s Office will move to dismiss those charges, (although the judge may consider the dismissed charges when establishing sentencing guidelines, the report said). He is set to be sentenced on Nov. 21 this year.
Can his story sell?
A 2021 report by Parrot Analytics, a media-tracking company, said that the documentary genre had become the fastest-growing segment of the streaming industry, and in particular, true crime trumps all subgenres.
There are plenty of reasons why people are fascinated by it, the most common of them is that it serves as an escape from the monotony of daily life. The genre reached a tipping point in 2020, when people found themselves stuck in their homes due to the pandemic with not much to do.
"Audiences tend to react to messages that affect them directly. Analyzing fear and anxiety that result from media consumption, people usually worry about how an event could also happen to them as media are generally perceived to be reflecting reality," media scholar Danilo Arao earlier told reportr of Filipinos' renewed interest in the murders of Eileen Sarmenta and Allan Gomes in 2020, as it was the subject of serialized true crime podcast "Super Evil".
For scammers stories in particular, there's the element of the widened rich and poor divide that became more apparent during the health crisis.
"Add to that continued economic disparity and political divide and the time has never been better for an exploration of how the rich and fake have been able to profit off the pain of others," writer Christine Lopez said on IndieWire.
Shows don't necessarily want to glorify these characters’ crimes, Lopez said, noting how instead, they aim to present exploits as over-the-top to show how the 1% lives.
"There’s a large amount of schadenfreude that comes from watching their inevitable downfall, particularly in a landscape where justice so often seems to evade the rich and powerful," she added.
A 'peripatetic grifter'?
Media reports have noted how Bunevacz's P2 billion-peso scheme wasn't his first, having been described as a “peripatetic grifter" by authorities.
Around 2007, Bunevacz and his wife, former Filipino actress Jessica Rodriguez, fled the Philippines in haste for allegedly defrauding the cosmetic surgery clinic he helped run.
During the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Bunevacz landed in U.S. headlines for taking part in an alleged ticket sales scheme, in which the owner of a ticket-selling operation claimed that he paid Bunevacz $3 million for 17,000 tickets that never came.
This resulted in a court case that was eventually resolved through a $325,000 settlement. Federal authorities in 2022 would later claim Bunevacz had created a fake copy of the settlement so he could dupe potential investors into believing that the lawsuit was resolved in his favor.
Come 2016, Bunevacz was hit with a nine-count felony complaint charging him with three counts each of grand theft, unlawful securities sales, and securities fraud by the Los Angeles County District Attorney.
He was said to have entered a “no contest” plea to two of the securities sales counts and was sentenced to 360 days in jail, three years of probation, and 300 hours of community service.
"Authorities allege it was while he was on probation for these state securities offenses that he committed most of the crimes alleged in April’s federal complaint," Rolling Stone's report added.
Warning of the pitfalls of the public's fascination with con artists and fraudsters, a former U.S. FBI agent explained in a BBC News report what makes criminals high on the public's agenda.
"The public sometimes admires their ability to use nothing but their charm in order to persuade people - especially in this country, where we like wealth and success," Jerri Williams said.
Williams noted how the depiction of con artists in films and the media can be "problematic", when they aren't portrayed as the criminals they really are.
In addition to this appeal, there's also this perception that scammers are "non-violent" criminals, Dr. Tim Holmes, a lecturer in criminology at Bangor University, told BBC.
"There's still the idea that they're a Robin Hood figure, not a criminal," he said, adding how in general, "con artists don't look threatening".
So, can Bunevacz land himself his own show? We leave you with this comment we saw on Esquire Philippines' report.