Illustrations: Joan Wong
How a Texas oil heiress got scammed ? and then seduced ? by Twitter?s most inept Trump-loving troll
By now, broke enough to be on welfare, Cass went back to Craigslist to find a private investigator. There, she discovered a Surefire ad promising to recover assets for those who had been scammed out of $5,000 or more.
Wohl, who answered the phone gruffly, softened when Cass said she was calling for ?Matthew Cohen.? Wohl?s alias boasted an impressive resume: ?Cohen? dropped out of Harvard after being recruited by the Mossad, Israel?s national intelligence agency. He returned to L.A. seeking a quiet life. He said he?d started his PI firm because it made good money ? $30,000 to $40,000 a month ? and let him travel for undercover cases. ?I did feel a strange connection toward him,? Cass said of their first call. ?He was obviously picking up on the fact that I was young, probably attractive considering what I was involved in ? music, modeling, fashion.?
Surefire seemed legit to Cass. It had a glossy-looking website and was reviewed favorably by bloggers on Medium ? though she later learned from media reports that those posts were falsified by Wohl, and eventually deleted. (No internal information or user data from the Medium platform was shared with the writer of this piece.) Cass told ?Cohen? about her situation with DeSando. She wanted to collect information about him to strengthen her case. ?Cohen? promised that he?d get her the money from DeSando within a month. In fact, he told her that, if they found more dirt on DeSando, they could even shake him down for more than that. Feeling confident in ?Cohen?s? abilities, Cass signed a retainer agreement and pawned the title of her car to pay his $2,000 fee.
Cass? elation at having hired a competent detective was short-lived. According to Cass, ?Cohen? dropped the case several weeks later, claiming, curiously, that the investigation had become too costly for him to continue (though she still assumed he would give her copies of whatever work he had done). But where their professional relationship was floundering, their private one was just beginning. Cass says ?Cohen? began talking to her on long phone calls, gleaning personal details about her and sharing info about himself. ?He was basically bragging about how hot he was: ?I have a great body, and green eyes, and a cute face.?? She says he even sent her a shirtless selfie.
Cass got in touch with another investigator in L.A. to help with the DeSando case. When she told him about Surefire, he expressed his skepticism about the unlicensed firm and encouraged her to report them to the authorities. She relayed this conversation to ?Cohen,? who flipped. ?He lost his temper and said, ?That?s how you get your throat slit,?? Cass says. She assured him that she wouldn?t report him to the police.
In July 2018, Cass finally won her small claims case against DeSando, even without help from her pricey PI, and was awarded $10,000. But ?Cohen? hadn?t delivered a single sheet of intel on DeSando, and she still wanted that material. The two set up a time to meet at a swanky marketplace in the Hollywood Hills. ?Cohen? arrived looking nothing like she expected. He seemed young for 25; wearing jeans and a baseball cap, he was more computer geek than superspy. He also brought nothing with him related to her case. He claimed he?d shredded all of the documents as a standard precaution before going on a business trip.
Despite all the warning signs, though, Cass found herself disarmed by the man she thought was ?Matthew Cohen.? Her attraction to him grew.
Several weeks later, Cass says ?Cohen? invited her to his Irvine apartment to do some additional recon work for her. Though he told her he lived alone, she saw photos on the wall of someone else. That was just a cover, he claimed ? in the event that someone broke in, the would-be crook wouldn?t think he lived there. (In reality, they were photos of his roommate.) With Cass listening, ?Cohen? rang Baratti, the photographer, to try to prod out of him lurid details about DeSando. (Baratti recalled the call, saying that when ?Cohen? asked for DeSando?s address, he grew suspicious: ?I said, ?Since you?re such a great investigator, you don?t know where he lives?? He said, ?As a matter of fact, I do know where he lives and, uh, well, forget about that.?? Baratti says he hung up.) Cass and ?Cohen? spent the rest of the day together swimming at his apartment complex pool, making dinner, and eventually sleeping together. As she drove home, she wondered if she was being duped. Was he using her for sex? Trying to distract her from the fact that he?d failed to accomplish a single thing she?d paid him to do? Or did he actually like her?
Meanwhile, Wohl had spent the previous weeks posting on social media about the special counsel investigating the president. In one tweet, he wrote, ?Mueller needs to understand one thing, and one thing only: TRUMP MAKES THE RULES NOW!?
Months passed and Cass continued her relationship with ?Cohen.? Though he often traveled for what he called ?assignments,? they spoke by phone regularly. ?He has a soothing voice and he would talk to me for hours and hours,? Cass says. ?Any time I?d call, he was accessible for me. I really needed somebody to lean on and he was that person for me.? Cass disclosed a lot to him during those conversations, including something that was incredibly painful for her to revisit: Several years prior, she?d been date-raped by a man who?d hired her to do costuming work. The man forced himself on her in a hotel room after a night of drinking. She says she filed a police report months after the incident, but the case petered out.
Wohl seemed sympathetic when she first told him. Then, in October, he came to her with an offer. He and a colleague named Jack Burkman had been tapped by the government for a new job. (Cass says she didn?t know who Burkman was; he?s perhaps most famous for leading an effort to boycott the Dallas Cowboys after they signed Michael Sam, an openly gay football player. Last year, he was shot in the buttocks by an ex-Marine whom he?d hired to uncover a conspiracy around the murder of Democratic staffer Seth Rich.) Cass recalls Wohl telling her the project had ?an unlimited budget.?
This would be a political acting gig: She?d put in some anonymous calls to the press and recount the details of the real rape she?d experienced, but she would change some significant details ? notably, that the man who raped her was Robert Mueller, the man who for months had dominated the news cycle with his investigation of the President. In return, she says ?Cohen? promised he and Burkman would create an alias for her, keep her identity secret, and pay her $50,000. ?If whatever you?re saying is true then yeah, sure,? she said, referring to ?Cohen,? the covert operation, and the major payday. ?If it?s legit, it?s legit.?
Not only was Burkman a lawyer, but ?Cohen? said that his father, a big-time attorney, was advising them. Everything would be legal. (Wohl?s father, David, is indeed a lawyer. Despite having tweeted about his son and the Holiday Inn press conference, when asked about Cass over email, David Wohl responded, ?Sorry, I have no idea who that person is.?) Moreover, ?Cohen? added, he knew Mueller had assaulted other people ? they had women lined up to tell their stories. Cass would be hailed as a hero.
Cass agreed. In a roundabout way, she even believed this would bring some justice for the rape she?d endured. Though Mueller was in the process of investigating whether the Trump campaign had colluded with Russia, money and love ? not politics ? seemed to be Cass? motivation: She says she isn?t aligned with a specific party, describing herself as a ?conservative liberal.?
Cass? old friend B says ?Cohen? reached out to ask if he could use B?s name in a document ?to confirm certain allegations? he wouldn?t tell me what they were.? Once he sent her an ?affidavit? with fake details about her friend being raped by Mueller, ?I was like, ?I want no part of this,?? B says. She warned Cass to break ties with ?Cohen.? Cass didn?t listen.
In Cass? telling, ?Cohen? said they were just using her and B?s real names in the document as a placeholder; they would soon set up a covert identity for her. ?I don?t think Carolyne really understood what was happening,? B says, ?because he made her believe that he was trustworthy and cared for her. I think she felt romanced by him.?
?I said, ?Who is this Jacob guy?? He said, ?Don?t worry, it?s just for today.??
Despite ?Cohen?s? iffy promises of anonymity and the fact that he refused to pay her up front, he persuaded Cass to fly with him to Washington. At first, she says, ?Cohen? told her she was just traveling to meet Burkman. Then ?that turned last minute into, ?No, it?s going to be a press conference,?? Cass says. If things went south, she reasoned, ?I could always bail on them at any point.?
Leading up to the trip, Cass prepared as if for an acting gig, styling her clothes and rehearsing lines. On October 30, she rang in her 34th birthday. That day, a story popped up on her news feed that mentioned Burkman, someone named Jacob Wohl, and a mystery woman who was going to accuse Mueller of assault. Cass asked ?Cohen? about this Jacob Wohl person: ?He said, ?I don?t know what you?re talking about,?? Cass says.
That was apparently enough to convince Cass to stay the course. The next day, ?Cohen? picked her up around 4 a.m. and drove to LAX.
There, Wohl?s story quickly crumbled.
At the airport, ?Cohen? asked Cass to take a selfie to prove to Burkman that they?d arrived; he?d repeatedly insinuated that the FBI might intercept them on their journey to Washington. A nervous Cass posed alongside him.
Though they made it through security and into the terminal without Cass seeing ?Cohen? exchange his ID with the ticketing agents or security, they missed their flight. When they approached the airline counter to rebook, the agent assisting them pointed at Wohl and asked, ?Jacob??
He said yes.
?I said, ?Who is this Jacob guy??? Cass recalls. ?He said, ?Don?t worry, it?s just for today.?? Maybe this was all part of his efforts to evade the FBI, Cass reasoned. Plus, she?d been promised a secret alias, which ?Cohen? said he?d set her up with soon. Perhaps ?Jacob Wohl? was his.
But then, as they boarded the plane, ?Cohen? lost all sense of discretion. He began checking his Twitter account? that is, Jacob Wohl?s Twitter account. Pretending to nap in her seat, Cass watched him log onto Instagram to check out girls in Halloween costumes. In previous conversations, he told her he wasn?t on social media. Yet, here he was, zooming in on photos of scantily clad women. ?That was just the final straw,? Cass says.
Furious and frightened, Cass moved to an empty row of seats at the back of the plane, where she quietly cried. When they landed in Washington, she ducked the man she now believed was Jacob Wohl, rushed to the women?s bathroom, and called B, who told her to leave for New York City. She could stay at B?s apartment and ride out the impending storm.
As Cass hid in a stall, Wohl began calling incessantly and texting to ask if she?d been picked up by agents on her way to the bathroom. She knew she had to lure him out of the airport: She texted that she was waiting outside. She remained hidden until she got confirmation that he?d gone past security. After buying a spot on the next flight to New York City, she called Wohl and told him she was out.
On the phone, Wohl seemed wounded. He tried to convince her that they could skip their plans and go sightseeing instead. For once, Cass held fast and told him not to include her in his plans.
The next day, Wohl and Burkman went in front of a room of reporters and moved forward with the story, using Cass? real name, details about her family, information about the trust fund officer who had embezzled from her, and lurid information about the supposed rape, including some details which mirrored her real experience. ?Miss Cass? accusation is in front of you,? Wohl told reporters that day. ?It?s in voluminous detail and it checks out top to bottom.?
?I told them not to use my name, not to say anything about my family,? Cass says now. ?If you need an actress to stand up there as Jane Doe, whatever. But if you think this can be, ?I?m Carolyne Cass,? you?re dead-ass wrong.?
Of course, they did it anyway.
It didn?t take much for Wohl and Burkman?s manipulation to fall apart. Even before the press conference at the Holiday Inn, a law professor had already come forward to say that someone at Surefire contacted her seeking allegations against Mueller. Another woman, ?Lorraine Parsons,? emailed journalists to say she was pursued by Surefire, too, and offered $20,000 for allegations; she wasn?t a real person, but someone Wohl later claimed to have invented to continue drumming up interest in their smear. NBC News found that Surefire was only recently registered by Wohl. The ?employee? pages on LinkedIn included poorly edited photos of the model Bar Refaeli, actor Christoph Waltz, and Wohl himself, posing as agency director ?Matthew Cohen.? The phone number on Surefire?s site referred callers to a line that belonged to Wohl?s mother. And it turns out Wohl had scammed money from at least one other person under the moniker ?Matthew Cohen?: Julienne Adams from Vancouver, WA, came forward to the Daily Beast about how ?Cohen? had promised to obtain a stolen Hummer in exchange for a $1,200 fee. He allegedly took the cash and didn?t do any of the work.
Wohl sent out the selfie he?d snapped of him and Cass at the airport. Though her face was blurred, people online were able to perform reverse edits on the image to obtain the original. Message boards and internet sleuths hunted down images from society events in New York City and videos she?d appeared in over the years. Cass says reporters swarmed her family?s home in Dallas, thinking she might be hiding out there.
?I was really mad they were doing this to me, but there was nothing I could do,? Cass says of Wohl and Burkman. ?It was like a wildfire, and I had a cup of water to put it out with.? She waited out the storm at B?s place for five days before returning to California. ?She finally understood the gravity of what was happening,? B says.
In retrospect, Cass says she should have stopped communicating with Wohl as soon as he dragged her name through the mud at the presser. Instead, at his request, they met up for lunch at a cafe in Beverly Hills shortly after her return from New York City. She wanted an apology, an explanation, something, anything. But he never even explained why he?d posed as ?Matthew Cohen,? though he did start responding to the name Jacob. He spent their meeting asking strange, romantic questions, such as whether she?d considered marriage in her future. She could?ve walked away; instead, she doubled down on her resolve to figure out what was really going on with Wohl.
?A part of me loved him, but he?s a fraudster.?
Finding out about Wohl?s real identity, age, and social media accounts ? which are filled with pro-Trump and extreme right-wing material ? didn?t bother her. In fact, seeing many of the harshly negative responses on his posts made her feel sympathy, even pity, for Wohl. ?What I saw was so full of awful stuff,? she says. ?All of his dirty laundry, making mean comments about his appearance, saying that he had acne. I was like, ?Wow, maybe this kid is just really lonely.??
The two kept in touch for months after the Mueller debacle. She even went to Wohl?s place in Irvine a few days after their lunch meeting, where Cass says he pressed her to come forward with the false Mueller accusations (she refused), and she pressed him to refund her the money she?d paid for his PI services and some of the $50,000 payout he?d promised for her involvement in the scheme (she recalls him scoffing, ?I won?t give you free money?). She says they still had sex that night. Looking back on the encounter, Cass has a hard time finding words for what made her want to stay by Wohl?s side, except that she felt desperate to believe that he was more like good-guy ?Matthew Cohen? than Jacob Wohl; that despite the abundant evidence to the contrary, he did really care for her.
In the end, it was Wohl who broke things off, saying he could never tell his friends he was dating a 34-year-old. Then Cass spoke to USA Today, which broke the news that Wohl had misrepresented himself to her as ?Matthew Cohen.? In the piece, Wohl himself also said he created fake Twitter accounts to manipulate the election ? an admission that got him banned from Twitter within hours of the story?s publication. ?I think he was totally in shock that this didn?t go the way he thought,? Cass says. She feels like he took that frustration out on her. ?A part of me loved him, and I still do,? she says, ?but he?s a fraudster.?
Fame is a fickle monster in the internet age. You?re only as good as your latest viral moment. Despite his permanent Twitter ban, Wohl carries on hatching new plots, determined to keep the spotlight trained on himself. In that same USA Today interview, he admitted to waging a full-scale war of deception: ?I?ll literally hear one thing,? he said, ?and I?ll flip it 180 degrees.? In February, he went to Minnesota with two fellow provocateurs to ?prove? the baseless claim that Representative Ilhan Omar, a Muslim woman, had married her brother for immigration purposes. In late April, the Daily Beast reported that Wohl and Burkman tried to recruit several gay Republican men to level false rape allegations against presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg (again by posting on Medium), a scheme that included another faux PI firm. This one was called ?Potomac Intelligence Group.?
Cass never did get that refund from Wohl for his Surefire retainer. And, in case you?re wondering, DeSando still hasn?t paid up, either. ?She?ll have to dig my body out of the ground to get it from me,? he says.
Cass says strange things began happening after her split from Wohl. Aggressive drivers ran her off the road, internet trolls impersonated her on Twitter and tried to hack her private Instagram account. The more Cass struggles against Wohl?s web, the more entangled she seems to become.
So in March, she called Michael Avenatti ? yes, that Michael Avenatti. The onetime lawyer for Stormy Daniels was publicly on the hunt for Wohl. Less than two hours after they spoke, Avenatti claimed in a tweet that Wohl was under investigation for possessing illegal firearms, information Cass says he only could have gleaned from their call. (These assertions haven?t been confirmed; the LAPD doesn?t comment on information that could jeopardize a potential active investigation.) Five days later, Avenatti was arrested for embezzling from clients and attempting to extort Nike for more than $20 million, and is now under investigation for embezzling $300,000 from Daniels, too. (In May, Avenatti denied the claims about Cass in an email to me: ?I never disclosed anything we spoke about and I certainly did not learn anything from her that I didn?t already know.?)
?I?m like a feral cat being backed into a corner by scary dudes who all seem to have law licenses and political connections,? Cass says. Though she?s sought legal representation, she says no one will touch her case.
Yet, even after all of this, Cass is not immune to the allure of fame. She still refers to herself as a ?pop star? and takes vocal lessons, though she knows her involvement with Wohl has done irrevocable damage. She?s considered releasing music under an alias. ?My life has been ruined. My family?s been harassed, my life?s been attacked, my social reputation is ruined,? Cass says. ?No reputable person even wants to talk to me right now. What they?ve done to me is beyond repair.?
I last met Cass at a cafe in an airy Hollywood hotel in April. Over iced coffee, I asked what she wanted to do next. Would she take these experiences and turn them into songs? No, she said. She didn?t find the things that had happened to her inspiring in any way. ?It really killed my joy, it really depressed me, it really terrified me,? she says. ?It really made me feel like a fucking idiot, you know?? Nor was she interested in speaking about what she would be doing next. Every time she?d talked about her hopes, she felt she?d been sabotaged. Despite her pop star ambitions, she?ll be laying low, at least for now.
That may be the best move she?s made yet.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that a law professor was offered $30,000 in exchange for allegations Robert Mueller. Though she was offered money in exchange for allegations, a specific amount was never stated.