In 2017, the Fyre Festival was promoted as the biggest event of the year (via the BBC). CNBC explains that individuals spent thousands of dollars to fly to the Bahamas to attend the luxury music event. Moreover, the Fyre Festival was heavily advertised by various celebrities and models, including Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner. But when attendees arrived at the island of Great Exuma, they were shocked to discover that it was all a lie. Per Insider, they were expecting extravagant accommodations and meals. Instead, attendees were met with tents, little food, and inhospitable conditions. Several scheduled performers — like Blink 182 and Migos — had dropped out days before the event.
CNBC writes that the disastrous situation exploded on social media. Attendees quickly realized that they had been scammed and were now stranded on an island. According to NPR, some individuals paid up to $12,000 for tickets and the promise of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. What went wrong? The U.S. Sun reports that Fyre Festival was the brainchild of Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule. Another article from Insider states that McFarland is a New Jersey native with a shady business past. Shortly after Fyre Festival’s downfall, McFarland and Ja Rule were slapped with a hefty lawsuit. Although Ja Rule later got off scot-free, McFarland was not as lucky.
He received a 6-year sentence
Per CNBC, Billy McFarland (pictured) has been described by FBI agent John Casale as a “serial fraudster.” The publication explains that in order to fund Fyre Festival, McFarland lied to investors about the amount of capital he had and insurance policies he secured. Ultimately, he overestimated the amount of time and money it was going to take to properly execute Fyre Festival. By falsifying documents, McFarland was able to swindle investors out of a whopping $26 million. According to NBC News, McFarland was arrested and charged with wire fraud in connection with Fyre Festival. Insider reports that he posted bail and later pled guilty to two counts of wire fraud in March 2018.
In June of that year, McFarland was arrested again, and his bail was revoked when he was charged with a different scam involving selling fake tickets to exclusive events (via Insider). He was also charged with bank fraud for writing checks in an employee’s name without permission (per CNN). In the end, NPR states that McFarland was sentenced to six years in prison and three years probation. He was also ordered to pay over $26 million in restitution.
With this, McFarland, then 26, addressed the court and said (via NBC News), “I made decisions that were a slap in the face to everything my family tried to teach me.” Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman stated (via CNN), “Today, McFarland found out the hard way that empty promises don’t lead to jet-setting, champagne, and extravagant parties — they lead to federal prison.”
He was sent to various prisons
According to A&E, Billy McFarland’s life in prison was a far cry from his days as an up-and-coming entrepreneur. The Daily Beast reports that he was first sent to a prison in Otisville, New York. There, McFarland worked at a warehouse and an overnight job at the prison’s sewage-treatment plant. However, in 2019, prison officials discovered that McFarland had a recording device in his possession. This is strictly prohibited, and as a result, he was sent to a high-security institution in Ohio. In April 2020, McFarland requested to be released from this prison, citing his asthma and the COVID-19 pandemic (via CBS News).
He was denied, and shortly after, he told the New York Post that he had contracted the virus. After his time in Ohio, he was sent to a prison in Oklahoma City (per Insider). A&E states that McFarland was later sent to the Milan Federal Correctional Institution in Milan, Michigan. There, his everyday schedule was as follows: breakfast from 6-7 a.m., lunch at 10:30 a.m., and dinner at 4:30 p.m. Inmates like McFarland are able to receive mail and purchase an array of items from the commissary, including food, clothing, and stationary. While in prison, McFarland was able to pay for phone calls. However, one specific phone call he made while incarcerated in Ohio came with a hefty price.
Billy McFarland was thrown into solitary confinement
The Fader reports that in 2020, Billy McFarland launched a podcast from prison titled “Dumpster Fyre.” Here, McFarland was to give his side of the story regarding the ill-fated Fyre Festival. According to Insider, prison officials discovered the podcast and decided to discipline McFarland for it. His attorney, Jason Russo, noted that the Ohio prison had filed “administrative charges” against McFarland. Russo explained that the prison cited three violations from his client. First, McFarland had spoken to the media; second, they alleged that he had participated in a three-way call, which is prohibited. Lastly, the prison brought up photos posted by “Billy’s Team” on Instagram.
Russo told Insider that all charges except for one were dropped. Ultimately, McFarland was sent to solitary confinement for six months for sharing commissary funds. In April 2021, after five and a half months, McFarland was released from solitary confinement. Per Fox Business, Russo stated that McFarland was “relieved” to be out. He added, “This punitive action by the (Bureau of Prisons) was unwarranted and tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment.” From here, McFarland was transferred to a prison in Oklahoma City. Per A&E, he was eventually transferred to serve the rest of his sentence at the Milan Federal Correctional Institution.
He was released from prison early
A&E reports that Billy McFarland was set to be released on August 30, 2023. However, in May 2022, the 30-year-old was released from prison and sent to a halfway house in New York (via USA Today). Per TMZ, McFarland was to remain there until August. It’s believed he left prison early thanks to The First Step Act Release. According to USA Today, this “allows inmates to earn increased good conduct time” and “expands opportunities for inmate placement into residential reentry centers or home confinement.” Insider notes that McFarland only served less than four years out of his six-year sentence. ABC News writes that this was his second attempt to get an early release.
The first, as aforementioned, was in April 2020 (per CBS News). However, not everyone is happy to see McFarland leave prison. One of his investors, John Nemeth, told Rolling Stone, “The man should be in jail for the rest of his life; he ruined my life. I’m never gonna recoup that money. He stole it. He has no business being out of jail. That’s what happens when you are born from rich parents and you can afford the best lawyers, but you can’t pay back the people that you’ve robbed.” Nemeth also described his early release as a “joke.”
What is Billy McFarland up to now?
As part of his early release, the New York Post writes that Billy McFarland has to focus on his mental health and take medication for the next three years. According to Vice, the fraudster has bipolar disorder and mania. His legal team had previously cited his mental health as a reason for why he committed his crimes. They added that this warranted a lighter sentence and not the 20-year sentence that prosecutors were aiming for. But his freedom comes with a cost: McFarland has to pay back his victims the $26 million he stole. Now, he wants to get back into business.
His attorney stated (via The Guardian) that McFarland “has put together a team of professionals to brainstorm and come up with ideas in entertainment and other avenues to generate income.” He added that “Billy is looking forward to reuniting with and seeing his family and truly just focusing on his efforts to get this enormous amount of restitution paid.” Although it’s currently unknown how exactly McFarland will pay his debts, New York Magazine reported in 2019 that he was penning a memoir titled “Promythus: The God of Fyre.” However, this book has yet to be released (per A&E).
If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.