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April 9, 2015

The Strange and Twisted Tale of Peter Senese, Serial Con Man

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

On March 31, 2014, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York and the New York field office of the FBI announced charges against Peter Thomas Senese, founder and director of the I CARE Foundation, which billed itself as a group combating the crime of parental child abduction. From the press release:

Since at least 2013, SENESE allegedly defrauded parents whose children were victims of international abduction by falsely representing that he, working with the worldwide resources of I CARE, could rescue their children and return to them to the United States in exchange for money for his purported rescue operation expenses.

Senese allegedly conned over $50,000 from one parent of a lost child, and is charged with one count of wire fraud (the criminal complaint can be seen here). He was arrested and arraigned March 31. He's currently free on bail.

Okay--but what, you may be wondering, is Peter Senese doing on Writer Beware? Well, before he started preying on desperate parents, he ran an elaborate literary scam.

I first heard of Senese in 2007, when I began to get questions about a project called Bookbeat--a supposedly  in-development TV show featuring books and authors. Despite a cheesy-looking website full of ungrammatical text, Bookbeat purported to be affiliated with major players in the entertainment industry. No staff were named on the website, but a fairly easy-to-trace trail led to Senese, who claimed to head the impressively-titled Orion Entertainment Group, and to have authored a bestselling blockbuster novel called Cloning Christ.

All of this, of course, was much less than it appeared. Orion Entertainment was not (as its plagiarized logo suggested) in any way connected with defunct production company Orion Pictures, but was Senese's own venture. The execrably-written Cloning Christ was also a self-venture, though the name Senese gave his publishing company--Orion Publishing & Media, so close to the name of the real, UK-based Orion Publishing--certainly seemed designed to suggest otherwise.

I blogged about Bookbeat...and immediately began hearing from people who'd had encounters with Senese. Individuals told me that they'd auditioned in 2005 and 2006 for Bookbeat jobs that never happened (names dropped included Laurence Fishburn, who supposedly would serve as host), were hired to provide services for Bookbeat (for instance, a line of sportswear with Bookbeat logos) and were never compensated, were promised Bookbeat prizes and publishing contracts that never materialized, and were paid for Bookbeat-related services with checks that bounced. Here's a typical story, one of the few that still remains online (Senese was skilled at getting negative info about himself removed from the Internet).

It was becoming clear to me that Senese was more than just the creator of a literary scam: he was a prolific and habitual con artist--and a pretty effective one, too, at least in the initial stages. Nearly everyone I communicated with told me how charismatic, warm, and convincing they found him at first. It was only after they'd been involved with him for a while that the illusion began to thin, eroded by those never-arriving payments and bounced checks, along with missed appointments, mysterious postponements, and claims that were just too grandiose to believe or not quite consistent enough to ring true. When things got hot, Senese would do a bunk. One of his often-used excuses was his son, Tyler, whom he claimed had been abducted by his ex-wife and taken overseas (in reality, Senese and his wife shared custody of Tyler, and though she did take him to New Zealand at one point, it was with court permission). Tyler would suddenly need rescue, or there would be new information, and Senese would have to rush off to deal with it.

As I've mentioned, Senese was good at getting negative information about himself redacted. He got wind of my post soon after I put it online, and went to court to obtain an order for its removal (a scan of the order can be seen here). The order was contingent on personal service, which he wasn't able to accomplish (he attempted service via my publisher, which sensibly refused to accept). Nevertheless, Blogger yanked the post without an attempt to investigate, and I wasn't able to get them to reinstate it. Luckily, I was able to preserve a copy of the post, along with the 96 comments it accumulated, many from Senese's victims (and some--anonymously--from Senese). You can see it here.

Though my post was gone, a call for contact I'd put out on a thread about Senese on the Done Deal Pro message boards remained. As a result, over the years that followed I received a steady trickle of contacts and questions from people who'd encountered Senese. Here's the gist of what I heard and learned:
  • In 1997 in Suffolk County, NY, Senese was sentenced to five years' probation on one count of felony grand larceny for posing as a health care venture capitalist. (I spoke with the arresting officer.)
  • In California in 1998, Senese was sentenced to 9 months in jail and 3 years' probation on one count of burglary with intent to commit grand larceny, for writing bad checks. (I've confirmed this via news articles like the one reproduced here.)
  • In 2003, following the release of Cloning Christ, Senese contacted Christian booksellers across the country to set up signings. He told the booksellers that his novel was about to be made into a major motion picture starring Viggo Mortensen and John Malkovich, and promised that the stars would attend the signings. Senese then failed to show up for the signings, leaving booksellers stuck with large quantities of unsalable, unreturnable books. This scheme was the focus of an article in a 2004 issue of Christian Retailing magazine; though I've been unable to obtain a copy, I've corresponded with one of the booksellers Senese conned.
  • Around 2008, I started hearing from people who'd met Senese in his guise as a child advocate, or through his I CARE Foundation (I CARE's website is gone, but here's a cached version) and had become suspicious enough to do a websearch on him. On the other hand, Senese was convincing enough to attract the support of reputable professionals, and in 2010 got legit public attention as a child advocate when he appeared as a witness in support of a Florida Senate bill to combat parental child abduction. That appearance also attracted some less welcome attention--namely, a long article in the Tampa Bay Times that detailed his checkered history. Like my blog post, the article gathered scores of comments, many from disillusioned parents.
  • I've also heard from: a national literacy organization to which Senese gave an elaborate presentation about Bookbeat; a woman to whom he offered a job on a project supposedly connected with the Vatican Archives; a producer he met at a party in LA and tried to involve in an unnamed film project; a writer whom he solicited to write a comedy script for him; a group of friends whom he wined and dined and then stuck with the $700 bill; a costume designer he solicited to work for his Orion Entertainment production company; an actress who contacted him as a result of a casting call, but got suspicious when she met him; an Italian production services company he was in talks to hire for a movie of Cloning Christ; an Italian filmmaker who was approached by a friend on Senese's behalf for the same (nonexistent) project; a man to whom Senese promised a production assistant position if the man would move to LA (names dropped included Johnny Depp); people from whom he solicited donations for a movie of another of his books, Chasing the Cyclone; staff at hotels where he claimed to be planning to conduct events, and more. All these individuals and organizations smelled a rat, went looking for information online, and found my call for contact.
It may seem amazing that Senese could get away with his shenanigans for so long. But those who prey on others' deepest vulnerabilities often go unmolested by the law for considerable periods of time, in part because their victims are so reluctant to speak out or to give up the last shred of hope. Also, a number of the people who contacted me seemed to be afraid of Senese. He did sue one parent who spoke out publicly about his doubts (the case was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction).

The other thing that's fascinating about this case is that for Senese, it seems to have only partly been about the money. Yes, he's charged with obtaining funds under false pretenses. Yes, many of the people who contacted me spent serious cash on things like travel and materials as a result of Senese's enticements and promises.Yes, he bounced checks and failed to pay for services.

But only a handful of the dozens of individuals I spoke or corresponded with said that they were directly asked for money. What many of them remembered most was Senese's relish for the roles he chose--the big producer, the bestselling author, the hero child advocate--and the sincere conviction with which he played them. Did he actually believe in these identities, at least while he was inhabiting them? There's no way to know. But several of his victims told me they were certain some degree of mental illness was involved.

I've seen some strange things in my years with Writer Beware, but the spiraling tale of Peter Senese, serial con man, is definitely one of the strangest. I'm almost going to miss those every-now-and-then emails that bring me news of his latest bizarre doings.

Senese's content has started disappearing from the web, but you can still see cached versions of his several websites. His Amazon author page is still there, as is his Twitter feed, at least for now; you can sample his self-aggrandizing tweets, which he was making right up to the day of his arrest.


Pat Dilloway said...

Nice how he "graduated" from petty literary fraud to more large-scale fraud. I like the idea though of saying Hollywood stars will show up at a book signing in some minimall in Nebraska or something. I guess people believe what they want to believe.

C.M. Albrecht said...

There are always plenty of slimes crawling about. They put on a great show and talk a great talk, but in the end, they're just slime, taking advantage of people. When it comes to parents of missing children, it's hard to believe even slime can get that low.
Before we give any sort of support to any charity or literary organization, we simply have to be very careful. But it's hard to outsmart these types. They know their game because they make up the rules.

MaryKaye said...

It's not that hard--if you are calm and levelheaded. Thus the slimes prey on people at their worst moments. It is very hard to be calm and levelheaded when your child has been abducted, or when you are desperate for work and your dreams seem to be dying.

I've only been scammed once--luckily for only $125--the scammer found me when I had just had four wisdom teeth pulled and was exhausted, drugged, and in pain. That's why I'm not a libertarian: demands that people take care of themeslves at all times just aren't realistic. We need to deal with the predators as a group, not let them hanging around looking for vulnerable individuals.

Karl Hindle said...

Hi Victoria-
This is Karl Hindle, the parent Sense sued for $5 million because I went public on him.

It has been a long time coming, but at last Senese has been arrested and charged.

The sad thing about this is not simply that so many left-behind parents and others have suffered at his hands, but that his behavior has been known for years to the authorities handling international child abduction.

Yet they did nothing except kick some sand over it and moved on.

People like Senese are able to get away with this behavior for years because good people, and people in authority, do nothing for so long.

I'm personally very, very grateful for those who finally hand some spine and guts, and were brave enough to stand up to this slime ball.

I am now prepping myself for some time off - I intend to go see this guy's trial, and I most definitely will be there when he finally gets sentenced, as I have little doubt he will be found guilty.

scarts said...

I agree with what Karl said, and I'm disgusted that Peter had so many undeserving years of freedom, golf, scuba diving, fancy hotels, and being the big shot while hurting more people. Like Karl, I hope to be at the trial.

Madison Sevier said...

So glad he's been arrested. Hopefully all of the families he has duped...including mine...can find some closure. No, he didn't ask us for money. Instead, we were one of the families he made career and relocation promises to. We can only hope that his deplorable behavior will end now.

Victoria Strauss said...

Karl, scarts, and Madison--thanks so much for your comments. If you do attend the trial, please come back and let us know about your experience.

I'll continue to follow this story, and post updates as I find them.

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