Black-ish star Jenifer Lewis says she was ’embarrassed’ and ‘humiliated’ to be caught in a romance scam in which her boyfriend convinced her to invest tens of thousands of dollars in a business that didn’t exist — but she’s speaking out to help other women who might find themselves similarly conned.
Lewis, 63, was one of several victims of California gym manager Antonio Mariot Wilson, 57, who pled guilty to one count of wire fraud this month and has been accused of stealing from at least four women.
Appearing on Good Morning America today, the actress explained that Wilson was a charmer who she thought was God-sent until she was faced with the ‘painful’ reality that he stole $50,000 from her.
Speaking out: Black-ish star Jenifer Lewis says she was ‘humiliated’ to be caught in a romance scam in which her lover convinced her to invest $50,000 in a business that didn’t exist
Conned: She said he was ‘charming’ and ‘handsome’ when he approached her at the gym
Wilson, whose aliases included Dr. Tony Mariot and Brice Carrington, convinced Lewis and three other women to invest tens of thousands of dollars in a sham sound design business, Ultimate FX, and a fake software company, 2nd Life.
He met three of the victims on Bumble and other online dating apps between May 2015 and October 2018, according to the Department of Justice.
But Lewis, who plays Ruby on the ABC sitcom Black-ish, met him at the gym in 2015 and was smitten.
‘He was charming, handsome,’ she said. ‘He said had graduated from Oxford University. He said he had been in the Navy Seals, I’m thinking, my God, God sent the man.
‘I wasn’t thinking if it’s too good to be true,’ she added.
Lewis said he had researched her on the internet before approaching her at an LA Fitness, and eventually charmed her into starting a romantic relationship.
Criminal: California gym manager Antonio Mariot Wilson, 57, has pled guilty to one count of wire fraud after Lewis and three other women accused him of conning them out of money
She said: ‘I’m speaking out because I care,’ she said. ‘How can this happen to me? Educated, world-traveled, successful in show business, and got conned out of $50,000’
Three months into their romance, he is said to have persuaded her to hand over $50,000 to invest in a film industry project after she fell for his line that he was an Oscar-winner, despite the fact he was working as a front desk manager at a health club.
‘It was a romance scam. I was investing in a dream,’ she says now.
When she learned she was scammed, she said, ‘It was so painful.’
‘I’m speaking out because I care,’ she said. ‘How can this happen to me? Educated, world-traveled, successful in show business, and got conned out of $50,000. I was embarrassed, I was humiliated. But I stood up for other women.’
Lewis has since sued the gym and settled for $13,000, while WIlson himself pled guilty to one count of wire fraud last week.
‘Wilson conned the victims to invest in these companies by making false statements, such as claiming that the ABC television network and EA Sports video game developer had used Ultimate FX for their shows and games,’ the DOJ said.
‘It was a romance scam. I was investing in a dream,’ she says
‘Wilson also falsely claimed that investors — real people whose identities he used without authorization – had valued 2nd Life at more than $30 million and wanted to invest in the company.
‘Wilson also falsely stated that 2nd Life had a present valuation of $3.2 million.’
The con man admitted to prosecutors that he sold unregistered 2nd Life securities by distributing ‘shareholder agreements’ and ‘stock purchase agreements’ to the victims.
Additionally, he fabricated the extent of his status and reputation to appear more legitimate.
‘To create a false impression of legitimacy and prestige. Wilson falsely claimed to be a Navy SEAL, an Oxford University graduate, and an Oxford professor teaching biblical antiquities at UCLA,’ the DOJ said.
Worked out: Lewis has since sued the gym and settled for $13,000
In total, Wilson received $387,000 and all of it went to pay for his personal expenses.
‘After accepting his victims’ funds, Wilson used the money to pay off his credit card debt, pay his rent and buy luxury items.’
Wilson could face up to 20 years in prison when he is sentenced.
But this isn’t Wilson’s first time conning victims out of money through false pretenses.
He previously served a four-year sentence in federal prison in 2009 for wire fraud and tax evasion after attempting to defraud UltimateFX investors.
On TV: Lewis plays Ruby on the ABC sitcom Black-ish
In 2017, Lewis told TMZ that she chose to sue LA Fitness because ‘I want to get this predator off the street and back in prison.’
She added:’We became romantically involved but little did I know he was a life criminal, a con artist.
‘He had researched me on the internet, knew all of my ins and outs and played them against me. This is a horrible man and I really got hurt. It was very painful.’
The actress believed the health chain should have realized he was a con man and not hired him, and claimed in her suit that when she told managers at her gym what happened they sided with her ex, telling her to ‘stop making accusations.’
She has also claimed in her legal filing she was blocked from returning to the gym.
She said: ‘When we found out LA Fitness did nothing we called them and they did nothing. Made me kind of think they were in on it because I couldn’t believe it.
‘And when we went to court LA Fitness actually wrote a letter promoting him, saying that he is a good guy who works with them after we had told them.’