Few con men are as notorious as Barry Minkow. As a 1980s California high school sophomore, Minkow founded ZZZZ Best carpet cleaners, which grew at such an astronomical rate that it swiftly turned the 16-year-old into a local (and then national) celebrity. The problem was, the entire operation was a mob-funded Ponzi scheme, and it eventually netted Minkow 25 years behind bars. He only served seven and a half years of that sentence, during which he converted from Judaism to Christianity—a transformation that led him, once released, to become a pastor at San Diego’s Community Bible Church, where he again attracted media notice as a heartening redemption story.
Spoiler alert: He wasn’t. During his time preaching at the pulpit, Minkow embezzled over $3 million from his holy place of employment; committed insider trading, libel, and extortion; and founded the Fraud Discovery Institute, an outfit designed to exploit his criminal expertise to uncover corporate fraud but which wound up functioning as a vehicle for perpetrating more of it. Additional jail time ensued, as did an autobiographical 2018 movie called Con Man featuring James Caan, Mark Hamill, Talia Shire, and Ving Rhames as “Peanut,” a prison inmate who Minkow claimed helped “anchor my faith.” That vanity project also starred Minkow as himself—yet another example of the inveterate con man’s consuming hunger for the spotlight, which was only matched by his lust for money.
King of the Con, a three-part Discovery+ docuseries (Jan. 14), is the story of Minkow’s multiple rises and falls, told not only via interviews with relatives and victims (and a wealth of archival footage), but through prolonged commentary from Minkow. Superficially candid and yet cagey when it comes to some of his most egregious alleged offenses (like partnering with a neo-Nazi, and swindling an investor out of money with promises of building a hospital for AIDS-stricken African children), Minkow is a fascinating tour guide through his wild personal odyssey. As far as narrators go, he’s hardly what one might call reliable, and yet he remains a compelling presence, charismatically detailing his wrongdoing and his current efforts (through working with the homeless, and with fellow fraud detectors) to get back on his feet. Thus, on the eve of King of the Con’s streaming debut, we couldn’t resist speaking with the infamous crook about his many misdeeds, as well as the docuseries’ suggestion that what he’s now selling isn’t to be trusted.
Interviewees in King of the Con say you’re a narcissist driven by a desire for fame as much as fortune. Do you agree?
I’ve done 15 years in federal prison and met a lot of people that told me their stories that didn’t make the media—one-on-one friendships with white-collar criminals and so forth—and I think we all had one thing in common when we opened our businesses: We never planned on ending up in federal prison. It was not the bullseye of the target.
In the ZZZZ Best era, the first crime, when I was the CEO of a public company and involved with the mob between ages 16 and 22—not wise decisions—that was because my dad was a real estate broker in ’78, ’79, ’80, and interest rates were 22 percent. Our heat got turned off, and I’d have to call my friend and say, can I come spend the night? I need a hot shower before school tomorrow. Getting handouts from local nonprofits. I think that drove me. I had the best parents in the world. My dad never missed a football, baseball, basketball game. He played sports with us in the street. He was a wonderful dad, and I had a wonderful mom. What I did was my fault, not my parents’. Let me be clear: I had the greatest parents. My problem was, we struggled on the financial end, and my reaction to that was, I’m going to make money so my kids will never have to call their friends to go over.
The second offense—I know this sounds trite, but narcissism is absolutely at the core, and putting the needs of myself above others, no question. I actually relate very well to people who struggle with narcissism, because I don’t judge them. I get them, and want to encourage them. The thing that drove me was just not being grateful and satisfied. My church is going, I have a great bunch of people who believed in me and encouraged me, I had a wonderful family, and I got on the OxyContin and Vicodin abuse and slowly deteriorated. I think the second offense is just not being content or satisfied, and always wanting more, and more never being enough. Narcissism is a common denominator. We create a moral compass in our minds that makes whatever we’re doing OK.
Why participate in King of the Con? Was it to redeem yourself? As a mea culpa? As a cautionary tale? Or all of the above?
In December 2018, I got out of prison, and I had no interest. I got all kinds of letters, and no. Then in the beginning of 2020, when the pandemic was about to start, three companies came to me at once. I went to my wife and boys and said, here’s this opportunity. I’m thinking maybe it’s time to do it; when three companies come at once, yeah, I need to consider it. So that was one thing. But then I had to answer the key question: why do it? Because it’s painful, it’s ugly, it’s awful. You’ve got betraying positions of trust, you’ve got an affair, you’ve got family stuff. So, we came to the conclusion—me, and then the family—that number one, it was worth it because if you lie to get money, if you’ve been cast off by society, if you struggle with drugs and alcohol and fail all the time, if you’ve been in and out of prison, I’m your guy, and I’ve done more evil than you, because you didn’t betray God, and I did. And if there’s hope for me, and I got my family back, how much more is there for you?
“I’m your guy, and I’ve done more evil than you, because you didn’t betray God, and I did. And if there’s hope for me, and I got my family back, how much more is there for you?”
You served 7.5 years of a 25-year sentence (on 57 guilty counts!) for your ZZZZ Best Ponzi scheme. Did you fear you were going away for the entire quarter-century?
David Kenner, who’s in the docuseries, was my lawyer, and he had a birthday party, and the federal judge who sentenced me was there. Wonderful guy, he’s the one who gave me 25 years. I was under the old sentencing guidelines that were pre-November 1987, when the law changed. I was on the parole system, so the guidelines for my crime—first-time, non-violent, white-collar offense—were 40 to 50 months, and I did 108 months. It was my federal judge who wrote the parole board in 1994 saying let Barry out of prison, or I would have done more than 7.5 years. I did about a third, and under the old parole system, you could do that. That was the ZZZZ Best case. But I still did more time than [Michael] Milken, [Ivan] Boesky, and Leona Helmsley combined. When I did the docuseries, I wanted to be enthusiastic, and I didn’t want to be boring. But I didn’t want to depreciate the significance of the offense.
After your release from prison, you resumed conning people, and you state in the docuseries, “What kind of idiot does it again, expecting a different result?” Can you answer that question?
Well, I’m the idiot! [Laughs] You’re looking right at him! Listen, everybody I met in prison promised they wouldn’t do it again, and at the time that we said it, we meant it. If you were to ask me, at that time, are you doing anything wrong, I would have said, no I’m not, look at all the good I’m doing. It’s very seductive. You would be surprised what we can morally justify for the cause. And you just fill in the blank about what the cause is. For me, the cause was, I’m uncovering fraud, a billion dollars, and ain’t nobody else doing that. I don’t see them risking everything. I was going undercover in Bermuda on one case with the FBI, and I uncovered a one-hundred million dollar fraud, as a pastor. Isn’t that good? So doesn’t that entitle me to commingle funds and do insider trading? The government owes me!
The warped thinking along with the drug addiction doesn’t help. When I was in the residential drug treatment program in prison, my case manager looks at me and says Barry, according to these rehab documents, you were taking 325mg of OxyContin a day. Now today, I’d be dead because of the fentanyl. She goes, I’m not saying drugs are an excuse for crime, but you don’t make very good decisions when you’re taking those kinds of drugs. She didn’t understand I was doing it to appease my conscience because I knew I was living a double life. I knew I was insider trading, pastoring a church, having an affair, living this double life, and so the OxyContin numbed me from my conscience, from really dealing with it. My heart breaks for anybody who’s in that life.
“I knew I was insider trading, pastoring a church, having an affair, living this double life, and so the OxyContin numbed me from my conscience, from really dealing with it.”
What drove you to embark on Con Man? In King of the Con, the writer of the film, Jonathan Meyers, is certainly harsh when speaking about you and the project.
I don’t remember meeting him; I’m sure I did, and I’m sure what he says about me is right—I’m not arguing about that—but I don’t know if I could pick him out of a line-up until this. But that’s OK. People are entitled to their opinion. The movie was originally supposed to be a comeback story: you can go to prison, have a church, uncover fraud, and have a happy ending. Well, as we were about to release it, I was indicted for insider trading with Lennar in Miami, which kind of ruined the ending. And it dropped off.
One of the single biggest victims in my life is the executive producer who believed in me, put up money for the film to get done, and thought that story needed to be told. You have no trouble doing eight Christmases away from your kids when you remember the pain you’ve caused others. It made my time justified and bearable in my mind; I deserved that and more, when I think about what I did to that man and his family for believing in me. It wasn’t necessarily the dollar amount, but his love and trust in me. How that was betrayed, along with my church family, is inexcusable.
I am so grateful for the forgivers who have come into my life, many from the church, my family, where I work, the homeless people I deal with, and so forth. I’m grateful for forgivers. For those who don’t, or still have ill will, I get it. But remember: I did fifteen years in federal prison. I did a lot of time for what I did. I deserved more, but I didn’t get away with anything. And my target audience is not them. You know who my target audience is with this docuseries? If you lie to get money, if you’ve been cast off by society, if you’re an addict with drugs and alcohol, if you’ve betrayed positions of trust, then this docuseries is for you, to give you hope. Those are my people.
There’s a story in King of the Con about how, while playing your mentor “Peanut” in Con Man, Ving Rhames repeatedly slapped you during a football game scene. Is that true?
I absolutely love Ving Rhames, and he’s a victim, because he wouldn’t have been a part of a story of scandal. He believed in me. I loved him. He was always good to me. On this prison football scene, it’s like 120 degrees and we have to take salt tablets so we don’t pass out. The scene was: it’s halftime, I’ve broken my nose, and I’m going to go to the sidelines, and Peanut comes up to me and says I’ve got to go back in, and I’m like, I’m not going back in, and he’s supposed to tell me I’m selfish. Well, he comes over to the sideline, and I’m like, I’m not going back in, and BAM! He hits me across the face. Everybody was stunned, and the director’s like, that was brilliant, let’s do it again. Eighteen times! [Laughs] And I’ve got to look surprised. I knew it was coming, and Ving’s a big guy. Acting is for the birds, Nick.
The docuseries expresses skepticism about Peanut, suggesting that he didn’t exist, and was just a Green Mile/Bagger Vance cliché that you invented as part of your redemption story. What’s your response to that?
I don’t know how that could be, because they talked to his [i.e. Peanut’s] son, and I had hired an investigator to find his son in 2006-2007, and that investigator was interviewed, and he explained that he helped try to find Peanut’s son. Jamaal is his name, he’s a truck driver in D.C., he’s on my Facebook and I talk to him all the time, and one of the producers talked to him. That’s not an issue at all. I never even thought it was, and they talked to both the investigator who looked for him, and they talked to his son. I can give you his number too, if you like. His name is Jamaal, and he’s a wonderful son.
“Well, he comes over to the sideline, and I’m like, I’m not going back in, and BAM! He hits me across the face. Everybody was stunned, and the director’s like, that was brilliant, let’s do it again. Eighteen times!”
There are a lot of stunning details in the docuseries, from you stealing from your grandmother, to you reportedly convincing people to invest in a fictional African hospital for children with AIDS, to your partnering with American neo-Nazi Tom Padgett. What was the lowest point during your entire criminal ordeal?
The day I turned myself in to FMC Lexington, said goodbye to my two eight-year-old boys, and was coming face-to-face with the consequences of narcissistic behavior. Saying goodbye to my wife Lisa on that drive from Tennessee to Kentucky to turn myself in. The lowest moment in life was turning myself in to prison, to do my time, and leaving my family in just a horrible predicament. But the people I met in Lexington helped change my life. In my first prison experience, I had Peanut; and in the second experience, I had some wonderful men who rallied around me and really encouraged me. One of them wound up remarrying Lisa and I.
Toward the end of King of Con, your former PR partner Jeri Carr casts some doubt on the genuineness of your current charitable work with the homeless. Do you understand that attitude? How do you respond to it?
I’m not in a position of trust, nor do I want to be. I’m not an investment banker, a hedge fund manager, or the CEO of a public company. I don’t want your money, and I’m not asking you to trust me. I did the docuseries, and I absolutely have empathy for Ms. Carr’s feelings—she’s a wonderful lady and she did a wonderful job for me, and had absolutely no clue at ZZZZ Best that I was a crook. Whatever damage or harm I did, that’s why I spent those years in prison, and had that restitution order for the last thirty years to pay. She’s right, and she’s entitled to her feelings, and I’m deeply sorry for whatever happened. But I didn’t get away with it. She’s not the people I’m trying to convince. I’m targeting people who I can relate to who have lied to people, violated positions of trust, hurt others, lost the trust and respect of society and their families, and are ready to throw in the towel with COVID and everything else. I want to tell them to not give up, and that they can come back from this.
Much of what we’re doing now with the new fraud uncoverings is…the docuseries was going to portray that a lot, but you know how those things go, they don’t have time or whatever. My judge in Miami said, stay away from public companies (and shorting), but you’ve got a gift to help society. So either I’m doing that or I’m not. If you google me, and you find frauds that I’ve uncovered in the last twelve months, then you’ve got to say, wow, he’s actually doing what he’s saying he’s doing. That’s what I’m trying to do – use the talents that I have. We call it reverse engineering, meaning what makes you an expert in fraud and securities laws? I’ve broken them all, so I know them all! It gives me an edge in trying to identify and uncover fraud. That’s another thing I’m doing that I enjoy, and that helps pay back society in a way.
In light of your past crimes, though, is it difficult to convince people that you’re operating on the up-and-up?
Here’s the issue. The Lennar case dealt with a public company. So if you stay away from public companies, you don’t have to deal with that. If you’re not asking people to invest in your deal, then you don’t have to worry about them trusting you. I don’t do public companies. I do private companies, because there’s no paying client. I think for the people who are about to invest in something that’s fraudulent, if that enterprise is shut down, they don’t care who did that. They’re just glad it’s done.
I have a close team that I work with that helps me uncover fraud, and I’m grateful for that. And I’m grateful for the success we’re having in trying to be on the front line. I also love the homeless, and what really keeps me grounded in that work is, there’s a House of Hope we have that deals with addicts that go into a program for nine months. For the last three years, every Friday, I teach there, and I love those guys, because they remind me of my friends in prison. At least for me, it’s very important to have some place where I can be transparent so I never go back to those old ways. Avoiding positions of trust. Staying away from public companies. Those all speak much louder than any words I can tell you.