Fyre Festival co-founder Billy McFarland’s nights used to be filled with clubbing, cocktail parties and art shows. But in an abrupt switch from his former social life, the once high-flying music promoter is currently serving six years in prison, during which he has logged time in solitary confinement, worked in a sewage treatment plant and come down with COVID-19.
McFarland, of New York City, co-organized the 2017 Fyre Festival, which he billed as a luxury musical extravaganza in the Bahamas. Touted by A-list celebrities including Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid, the event promised high-paying guests days of music by big-name acts, gourmet food and swank accommodations.
The reality was far worse, with visitors arriving to a chaotic scene, including tents stocked with soaking-wet mattresses, food offerings of cold cheese sandwiches and music acts that dropped out. The festival was cancelled after festival-goers had already begun arriving on the island of Great Exuma, leaving some scrambling to get home.
In the aftermath, McFarland was accused of multiple crimes, including defrauding guests and investors of more than $24 million. While out on bail for those crimes, he was also charged with selling fraudulent tickets to exclusive events like Coachella, the Met Gala and Burning Man.
In 2018, he pleaded guilty to a total of four fraud charges and a federal judge handed him a six-year term.
Shuttling Between Prisons
Since he first reported to lock-up, McFarland has served time at prisons in New York, where he worked an overnight job in a sewage-treatment plant; Oklahoma City; and Ohio, where he contracted COVID-19. He applied for compassionate release on medical grounds in April 2020 while at the Elkton Federal Correctional Institution in Lisbon, Ohio, but was denied.
McFarland is currently being held at the Milan Federal Correctional Institution in Milan, Michigan, as inmate number 91186-054. He is scheduled to be released on August 30, 2023, according to Bureau of Prison records.
Life Behind Bars
The Milan prison is described as a low-security facility designed for 1,495 men. Prisoners are expected to follow strict routines and rules as detailed in a prisoner handbook.
Daily life starts early, with breakfast on weekdays from 6-7 a.m., followed by lunch at 10:30 a.m. and dinner at 4:30 p.m. Inmates must wear their shirts tucked in during the week from 7:30 a.m. until 4 p.m., but can go untucked on weekends and holidays.
Convicts have access to an array of items at the commissary, including ham chunks for $3.40, a dill pickle for 65 cents, dandruff shampoo for $7.80, a rain poncho for $4.25 and a 10-pack of black pens for $3.
Prisoners can receive mail, but it is opened and inspected, except for legal correspondence. Newspapers and certain books are allowed, but electronic communication devices are not, though that rule appears to be widely flouted and cell phones are plentiful.
Billy McFarland Calls From Prison
While McFarland has not been caught with a cell phone, he has made several phone calls (at least some of which he had to pay $3.15 per 15 minutes) including instances in which he told reporters of his COVID diagnosis and that he was being sent to an isolation room along with 160 other positive cases.
He’s also phoned in to participate in a podcast he started in 2020, called “Dumpster Fyre.”
“A year ago today, I was in the midst of a 3-month stint in solitary confinement,” he said on the first episode. “It was the hardest but most impactful period of my life.”
After authorities got wind of the podcast, McFarland was punished, according to his attorney Jason Russo, who told Insider that McFarland was accused of violating a number of rules and was sent to solitary confinement for 90 days.
Prison authorities later dropped all the administrative charges, except for one forbidding inmates from sharing commissary funds, Russo told the outlet.
But this wasn’t his first infraction behind bars. In the summer of 2019, McFarland was caught with a prohibited recording device.
The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) tells A&E True Crime that inmates possessing contraband is an ongoing problem that it fights on a number of fronts.
“The BOP continually evaluates and deploys as appropriate, contraband-detecting technologies, including walk-through metal detectors and whole-body imaging devices,” a spokesperson says in an email. “In addition, we have employed enhanced staffing patterns in high-security prisons as well as strengthened internal security procedures.”
Life at Milan also includes jobs for physically and mentally able inmates, but prison officials would not comment on McFarland’s particular assignment.
“Vocational and occupational training programs are based on the needs of the inmates, general labor market conditions and institution labor force needs” the agency says, and unit leaders deciding on prisoners’ job assignments take into consideration “the inmate’s capacity to learn, interests, requests, needs and eligibility.”
McFarland Still In the News
Though the Fyre Fest debacle took place five years ago, McFarland remains a figure of public interest, having been showcased in multiple documentaries.
McFarland was also friendly in real-life with another notorious New York-based fraudster, Anna Sorokin, who also went by the name Anna Delvey. Sorokin was convicted in 2019 of grand larceny and theft of services for scamming high-end hotels and others out of about $275,000. In 2013, Sorokin lived rent-free place at McFarland’s New York headquarters for his company, Magnises. The card-based membership company, targeted to millennials looking for VIP perks, was also a scam.
McFarland is reportedly writing a self-published memoir with a working title of “Promythus: The God Of Fyre,” according to New York magazine, but the book has yet to come out.
2022 Updates: On May 18, 2022, TMZ reported that McFarland was released from prison early, on March 30, 2022. He was transferred to community confinement where he is expected to stay until August.
In an interview with Good Morning America that aired on November 4, 2022, McFarland apologized to those affected by his fraudulent actions.
“I need to apologize. And that is the first and the last thing that needs to be done,” McFarland said. “I let people down. I let down employees. I let down their families. I let down investors. So I need to apologize. I’m wrong and it’s bad.”
McFarland has an estimated $26 million in restitution he needs to pay investors, vendors and concert-goers of Fyre Festival.
McFarland revealed he plans to launch a venture called “PYRT”—though details haven’t been made public yet—but understands he’ll need to earn back trust. “I hope I continue to change for the next 40 years,” he said. “So I’m certainly not done changing yet.”
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