Tyrone Gilliams: Ivy League Scam Artist

Charged by the feds with running a Ponzi scheme, this former Philly success story's web of deceit is just starting to unravel.

In December 2010, a tall, puffy 40-something ex-Penn basketball player named Tyrone L. Gilliams Jr. announced that it was time for him—for all of us—to “give back.”

He did this through a slickly produced five-minute video that identified him as a “mogul,” “philanthropist” and “self-starter” and rotated him through four different wardrobe changes, including one topped by a white wool hat and scarf and another accented by a bright orange hoodie vest. But Gilliams seemed most comfortable in a stylish gray suit with a French-cuffed white shirt and red tie, a look accessorized with a pile of bundled $20 bills.

“This,” he proclaimed, “is what we’re giving back.”

The video was to announce the “Joy to the World Fest,” a series of high-profile events around the city due to take place in mere days. There would be a food giveaway for 5,000 needy people, a children’s spectacular at the Convention Center, a gospel concert, a star-studded bowling party at North Bowl in Northern Liberties with a Ciroc Vodka bar open until 2 a.m., and an album-release party with Oscar- and Grammy-winner Jamie Foxx.

But the main event would be a fund-raising gala the Saturday night before Christmas at the Ritz-Carlton, with tickets ranging from $250 to $1,200. “And it’s not just a black-tie gala,” Gilliams declared in yet another outfit, “it’s red-carpet.” Rap superstar Sean “Diddy” Combs would headline; Kim Kardashian was coming.

Amazingly, everything came off pretty much without a hitch. Kardashian bailed, replaced by a Real Housewife of Atlanta, Sheree. But a who’s who of black Philadelphia showed up at the events: Eagle DeSean Jackson, basketball legend Sonny Hill, State Senator Anthony Hardy Williams, Congressman Chaka Fattah and his wife, glamorous TV anchor Renee Chenault-Fattah. Diddy was late to the gala, but his tardiness was quickly forgotten when he grabbed the mic and began talking about his old pal “Fly Ty Gilliams.” (Pals, yes, though not close enough for Diddy to waive his standard five-figure appearance fee.)

“Fly Ty took my girl back in ’94, and now he’s givin’ back to the community,” Diddy announced. “This is my nigger, he’s one of my brothers, give him some applause y’all, Tyrone Gilliams, he’s my man Tyrone.” The two embraced, then raised their clasped hands together awkwardly.

It was an auspicious debut on the philanthropic scene for Gilliams, the son of a well-regarded local clergyman and an ordained minister himself. “It was as much a coming-out party for him as it was an event for everyone else,” says a Philadelphia society writer who covered the affair. “It was like a hip-hop Academy Ball.”

Afterward, it appeared that Tyrone Gilliams might be on his way to fulfilling the rather lofty promise in his website bio, which portrayed him as the second coming of, among others, Andrew Carnegie, George Steinbrenner, Walter Annenberg and Kenny Gamble. The fact that nobody quite knew where he had been for the past 20 years, or exactly how he had made all his money, seemed almost immaterial.

Until the following April, when his name surfaced at the very end of a Reuters wire-service story about the FBI’s pursuit of unusual financial fraud cases in the aftermath of the Bernie Madoff scandal. As the feds have pulled at the threads of Gilliams’s patchwork financial world in the year since, they’ve uncovered a bizarre tale of financial intrigue and emotional bankruptcy, centered on a man who they claim bilked people across the country out of millions and then spent their money to enhance his own lifestyle and image—like the $1.3 million he “gave back” for the Joy to the World Fest. It’s a still-unfolding mystery that includes the alleged defrauding of an unsuspecting millionaire philanthropist in Cincinnati; an aging Greek national with a questionable account at JPMorgan; a handful of screaming New York civil litigators; and a crusading Wall Street prosecutor recently profiled on the cover of Time magazine, whose office set out to connect the absurdly disparate dots. It’s a story that stretches from brokers in New York and Palm Beach to a medicinal marijuana farm in Denver to a gold mine in Ghana to, finally, the attractive Art Museum-area house that Tyrone Gilliams shares with his two young kids and their mother. He was arrested last October, and is now charged with masterminding a $5 million Ponzi scheme that could land him in prison for years. He has pleaded not guilty, but the brazenness of the purported scheme has left many of the principals breathless. “In all my years of practicing law, I’ve never seen anything like this,” says one attorney involved in the case. “Most scam artists, they take your money and then they steal off into the jungle. But we’re starting to see more cases like Gilliams’s, where the crooks just stand there and say, ‘Come get me.’”

A former friend says that over the past few years, he saw Gilliams becoming delusional, “addicted to attention” and obsessed with the success of others, especially those in the music business. He wondered where it would end. He says people have no idea just how deep the twisted psychology of Tyrone Gilliams really goes. He’s even heard people suggest Gilliams is some kind of hero.

“They talk about Ty,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief, “like he’s the black Robin Hood.”