John Fox, the corrupt owner of wine retailer Premier Cru, didn’t travel far when he spent $900,000 of embezzled funds on women he met online.
The lanky 66-year-old with fading blonde hair used to meet scantily dressed 20-year-olds at least two or three times a week at Artís Coffee on Berkeley’s Fourth Street, less than a five-minute drive from his offices at 1011 University Ave., according to observers.
Fox met the young women so frequently that workers in the neighborhood took note. Some of them even started to snap photos of Fox with various dates because they were curious how a middle-aged man connected with so many young women who looked 40 years younger than him.
“He picked up girls literally a couple times a week,” said one worker, who asked that his name not be used. “They were always really young. You never saw him with the same girl twice.”
Fox met with a young woman at Artís as recently as three weeks ago, said the worker.
When Fox pleaded guilty to wire fraud in federal court last Thursday, he acknowledged he spent $900,000 on online dates, even though he is married. The admission was part of a plea agreement in which Fox said he owed $45 million to former customers who paid for wine that Premier Cru never ordered or intended to order. Fox embezzled at least $5 million of that money and spent it on himself and his family, he said. Fox bought or leased expensive cars, including numerous Corvettes, paid the mortgage on his multi-million-dollar home in Alamo, bought memberships in two private golf courses, and paid his daughter’s college tuition, among other expenditures.
Fox also met young women directly. One 22-year-old who called herself Fox’s “girlfriend,” said in an email to Berkeleyside that Fox approached her when she was sitting in a coffee shop in downtown Berkeley in 2012. The two had a relationship that spanned four years. While Fox spent $200,000 on her, the two never had sex, she said.
“I went out with him a few times,” said the woman, who created an email account just to communicate. (Berkeleyside had reached out to her after she left comments on a wine bulletin board. She did not provide her name but provided details that proved she knew Fox.) “We never had sex (even though he tried very very hard to). I’m not sure why he kept seeing me and paying me money. I can say he spent 200K on me and he told me he had had several girls even while seeing me, so I’m certain he’s spent more on ones that were sleeping with him,” she said.
The woman said she spent the money Fox gave her “mostly on tuition and books and things I needed for class. Some on transportation and meals and the rest on rent.” She said Fox would make her pay for the motels where they would meet to talk because he didn’t want anyone to see the couple together. Fox told her he funded “shopping sprees” for his girlfriends, or what he called his “sugar babies.” “He liked it when his girls wore nice shoes,” she said.
The woman said Fox always gave the impression that he was a successful businessman. It wasn’t until February that he mentioned he was in trouble and then he told the woman it wasn’t his fault, she said.
“He did mention Premier Cru as it was falling apart and how he couldn’t afford to pay me anymore,” she wrote. “He told me he hid his embezzled money. Have they found it yet?”
Last week on the wine bulletin board Wine Berserkers, the same woman said:
“He’s a smug SOB. He always bragged he could get away from work to meet me because he was his own boss. He’s flashy (but you all know that) it seemed as though his wife liked to be flashy and he supported her even though he sought attention from many younger girls like me.”
One person employed on Fourth Street said he once was taking BART from San Francisco and noticed a young woman on the train who was wearing a miniskirt and tiny top, even though it was cold outside. When they both got off at the North Berkeley BART stop, he saw her get into Fox’s electric-blue Corvette. The worker recognized the car because Fox parked it on Fourth Street so often.
Although the plea agreement did not detail the mechanism by which Fox met these women (he did say he paid them with PayPal), or the nature of the relationships, there are numerous websites that facilitate older men meeting young women. San Francisco Magazine wrote a story on the “sugar daddy” phenomenon in October 2014 and reported that membership on those sites is growing more rapidly in the Bay Area than other parts of the country, mostly because the tech boom has brought so much money to the region. Some women are looking for companionship and some are looking for financial support, according to the magazine. Some women have sex with their older dates and others do not, according to the magazine.
One site, SeekingArrangement, matches up men and women who are looking to date, often with money to be paid for the “sugar baby’s” lifestyle. There is a special section for “college members,” usually women from 18 to 25. UC Berkeley won a call-out this year as being one of the fastest-growing “sugar baby” schools, according to NBC Bay Area. There were 154 women from UC Berkeley signed up to the SeekingArrangement site at the time of the report, a 77% increase over the previous year, according to the news station.
One 19-year-old, who said she wanted a man to maintain her at a $10,000-a-month lifestyle wrote: “I’m looking for the perfect sugar daddy who I can please and have a good time with.”
Another, February Rose, 23, from Oakland, only expected her dates to support her at the $3,000-a-month level.
“I’m back and ready to find another SERIOUS sugar daddy whose time, attention and of course willing to spoil never waivers. I’m nice, sweet, charming, funny, sexy, intelligent, independent, adventurous, ambitious and well why don’t you get to know me more!,” she wrote.
This article was updated to better explain how Berkeleyside connected with the 22-year old woman.
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