Popular Raleigh blogger and friend awarded $5 million for Fyre Fest debacle

This photo provided by Jake Strang shows tents and a portable toilet set up for attendees for the Fyre Festival in April 2017 in the Exuma islands, Bahamas.
This photo provided by Jake Strang shows tents and a portable toilet set up for attendees for the Fyre Festival in April 2017 in the Exuma islands, Bahamas. Associated Press

Editor’s Note: Since publication, the N&O has learned that passages from this story were taken in large part or in whole from ”Two Fyre Festival attendees just won $5 million for their traumaby Vice News without attribution. This is a violation of our standards. We apologize to our readers.

Two Raleigh men who lost several thousands of dollars they put toward what was supposed to be the “cultural experience of the decade” in the Bahamas last year could now be looking at millions of dollars to put toward future travel plans.

Wake County Judge Keith Gregory on Friday awarded $5 million in damages to Seth Crossno, a popular Raleigh online personality who goes by William Needham Finley IV on Twitter, and his friend Mark Thompson, a 34-year-old Raleigh man.

The two sued Billy McFarland, who faces federal prison sentences for luring people to the Bahamas last year with promises of a luxurious island vacation — including a “residence consisting of four rooms and a living area” on a private island, all meals paid for and exclusive artist passes to Fyre Fest.

They paid $13,000 for a trip to an island that offered only FEMA-style tents surrounding a gravel pit that included none of the amenities promised to them in the marketing scheme that had persuaded them to make the trip.

After realizing the event they paid for wasn’t what had been pitched to them, the two decided to leave. But they had trouble getting off the island. Thousands of people were there, too, on the barren lot with disaster relief tents, inadequate hygiene facilities, substandard food and insufficient drinking water.

Aerial view of Ja Rule's Fyre Festival, the luxury music festival in the Bahamas. The entire festival was "postponed" after the festival cited "unforeseen and extenuating circumstances."

They were there for a celebrity-packed festival that never happened.

Vice News reported the verdict.

Stacy Miller, the Raleigh lawyer who represented Crossno and Thompson, said Saturday that he and his clients asked the Wake County judge “to send a message to these people who defrauded North Carolina consumers.”

McFarland, he said, “created this big event. He lured these young men away from their homes to another country. It was a very dangerous and scary situation.”

Crossno said Saturday the verdict “kind of sends a message that you shouldn’t do this.”

“This could be portrayed as a bunch of millennials got scammed,” said Crossno, 33.

But the advertising for the festival was well executed.

“They obviously spent a great deal of money on their marketing campaign,” Thompson added.

Miller said Crossno and Thompson each were awarded $1.5 million in compensatory damages for flights, hotels and mental anguish, pain and suffering. Both men also were awarded an additional $1 million each in punitive damages.

The lawsuit filed last year initially named McFarland’s partner, the rapper Ja Rule, as a defendant. But his name was later removed as part of an agreement between the parties.

Miller says he feels confident that his clients will be able to collect the money from McFarland despite other lawsuits filed against the Fyre Fest founder.

In addition to those lawsuits, McFarland has pleaded guilty to two counts of wire fraud related to the incident. Then earlier this month, federal prosecutors added more criminal charges.

A recent motion filed by federal prosecutors in McFarland’s criminal case suggest that he may still have some money — including at least $50,000 in cash and a $40,000-per-month income from “freelance work” that he allegedly reported to his probation officer.

But while out on bail awaiting trial on the wire fraud charges related to Fyre Fest, federal prosecutors say McFarland tried to scam some of the same people again.

They contend he directed an employee to contact Frye Festival attendees through a different company he had created with offers of tickets to big events such as the 2018 Met Gala, the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show and even a private dinner with LeBron James.

They all were scams, prosecutors contended in court documents.

McFarland was not present this week for the North Carolina trial. The judge ruled in his absence.

“I’m just happy this is all behind us now,” Thompson said Saturday. “It was definitely an interesting situation to be thrust into.”

Crossno on Saturday was preparing an addition to his podcast about the incident.

“This was more than just a scam,” Crossno said. “It was fraud that was way over the top.”