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.

One of the striking things about the Tyrone Gilliams case is how much the people pursuing it still don’t know, even as they turn over every last one of his Chick-fil-A lunch receipts. They think they know how he spent their money: paying off debts from previous deals gone bad; more than $25,000 for each of his kids’ Shipley School tuitions; charging meals and hotel rooms and airfares and limo services; taking $50,000 cash advances pretty much every week; and eventually paying for all the Joy to the World Fest events, a tab of more than $1 million. He even paid a Chester video production company to follow him around for an online reality show about his life. What they still don’t know is who Tyrone Gilliams is.

“Gilliams strikes me as pathological,” says one lawyer involved in the case. “He will say things that are absolutely preposterous and demonstrably false … but that won’t stop him from saying them. What the psychology is—well, I’m in the wrong profession for that. I understand there are people who are dishonest in this world and people who are crazy in this world, but I don’t know how much of each he is.”

One source in the music industry who has known Gilliams for years says he understands why people took him seriously. “Look, he’s very educated, very quiet, very mysterious,” he explains. “He is an Ivy League graduate, a higher intelligence. Whether it’s business or criminal, he’s still a higher intelligence. Though he rolls like a Rothschild, you’re not gonna find too many people who know much about him. He’s like Keyser Söze and shit. Fuckin’ Keyser Söze!”

Gilliams grew up in South Jersey. His father was a minister and Camden community leader, but the family lived in more upscale Moorestown. Gilliams played basketball for Camden High, then went on to play for Penn in the late ’80s. He was a good-but-not-great guard but an unusual student athlete, an economics and history of law major with a minor in religious studies who talked a lot about faith and God.

Coming into his last season of eligibility, Gilliams caught a break: Coach Tom Schneider, with whom he didn’t get along, was replaced by his top assistant, former La Salle great Fran Dunphy. Gilliams was named co-captain, and ended up as one of the team’s top point guards and jump shooters. “He did what I asked him to do,” Dunphy remembers. “He had a good IQ on the court and was a smart guy off the court.”

In his senior year, Gilliams told the Daily Pennsylvanian that he wanted to go to law school. “Hopefully Yale,” he laughed. He mulled following his father into the clergy, saying he believed his purpose was “to glorify God and bring others to Him through my play and through my actions.”

Instead, after college Gilliams promoted rap shows, and went on to work either for or with Sean (then “Puffy,” now “Diddy”) Combs at Bad Boy Sportz, which aimed to represent athletes with rap-star edge. While Gilliams’s website claims that business failed because of the bloody East Coast/West Coast rap wars, one former friend says he and Diddy split over a woman—the same one Diddy would mention at the Joy Fest.

In the late 1990s, Gilliams decided to become a pastor. He had the calling—his father was a devoted preacher who had relocated to St. Peter’s Church in struggling Chester, where he was known for feeding anyone who came to services. “Tyrone always wanted to be the best at everything, even the ministry,” says one friend. “He said, ‘You have pastors making millions of dollars, driving Rolls-Royces.’ So Tyrone wanted to be as big as them.”

Short on money and trying to build his online ministry, Gilliams did what he always had done, according to this same friend: He “borrowed” cash from women—professional women captivated by his vibe, which one friend described as “suburban guy who went to Penn but wanted to be accepted and respected on the streets.” He got a gun and a license, the friend says, “so he could carry it and look like a ‘big dog.’”

But he wanted even bigger things. In 2002, he thought he had his chance—a potential­ deal with Philadelphia rap producer Joe Nicolo, of Studio Four and Rough House Records. Nicolo was an investor/producer on the film Shade, starring Sylvester Stallone, Jamie Foxx and Gabriel Byrne. Nicolo was introduced to Gilliams “as supposedly a player who had major contacts,” Nicolo recalls. “Tyrone talked a mean streak about how he could hook all this stuff up. I was probably naive taking him at his word, but I was like, ‘Dude, if you can hook me up with distribution, I’ll give you right of first refusal,’ and we put a time date on it. He didn’t come up with anything. I figured that was that, and then he had some total goofball lawyer sue me, saying, ‘Blah, blah, blah.’”

The lawsuit was no fun for Nicolo, who was angling to get a soundtrack deal for the movie; the court ruled that he didn’t really own the rights to which he’d offered Gilliams a free option. The trouble delayed the film’s release for months. But according to one friend, the episode just fueled Gilliams’s desire to have a life with more zeros attached to it.

“I remember he heard that Puffy had made $100 million one year,” this friend recalls. “He couldn’t believe it. Suddenly he was talking about doing million-dollar things, and I said, ‘Where are you gonna get millions of dollars?’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about that.’ That’s when I walked away from that relationship. I thought, If that’s where he’s going, I just hope nobody gets hurt.”