PokerTribes.com creator Fereidoun ‘Fred’ Khalilian charged with witness tampering in murder-for-hire case

Haley Hintze
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Posted on: November 22, 2023 4:25 pm EST

Fereidoun “Prince Fred” Khalilian, the entrepreneur who convinced two different Oklahoma tribal nations to invest millions of dollars last decade in online-poker projects that had little to no chance of success, has been charged with witness tampering in connection with the murder-for-hire case for which he was arrested in June. Given Khalilian’s former history, including once co-owning a Miami nightclub with socialite Paris Hilton and other investors, the murder-for-hire scheme quickly garnered prominent national headlines in outlets such as Newsweek, the LA Times, Raw Story, and many others.

Khalilian was charged in June in California with attempting to hire a former bodyguard, Michael Sherwood, to kill a Los Angeles filmmaker known as “J. Esco” who also once worked for Khalilian, and who in recent years has been working on a “Tiger King”-style documentary film about Khalilian’s life, violent behavior and various legal troubles. The film, when released, will include a segment on Khalilian’s years-long search for a gold mine on the fringes of the online-poker industry.

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A photo of the staged murder scene included in the probable cause affidavit. PokerOrg has obscured the graphic portion of this photo.

Last March, Sherwood informed authorities about Khalilian’s alleged hiring of him, allegedly for $20,000, and helped Esco create a fake, staged murder scene at the filmmaker’s apartment to show to Khalilian as proof of a completed killing. At least $12,500 of the agreed-upon fee had already been sent Sherwood’s way, including several payments made from a CashApp account labeled “$PrinceFredKhalifa”.

Authorities built their case against Khalilian over the next several months and arrested Khalilian in Las Vegas in June, where Khalilian has business interests. He was extradited to Calfornia and ordered to be held without bond after being a high flight risk while also receiving some legal assistance from the high-profile Vegas law firm of Chesnoff & Schonfeld.

However, Khalilian’s California counsel succeeded in having Khalilian’s case tossed out of a Central District of California federal court on the grounds of improper venue. Federal prosecutors then refiled the murder-for-hire charge in Nevada on November 13, with Khalilian remaining in custody in Los Angeles in the intervening period. Yesterday, Khalilian was indicted on a second charge of witness tampering involving the former bodyguard, Sherwood, who cooperated with authorities and helped Esco create the staged murder scene.

Nine ‘overt acts’ alleged, including two from Khalilian’s cellblock

Khalilian is alleged to have mounted a campaign via friends and family to influence or change Sherwood’s testimony in the murder-for-hire case. Between August 17 and September 12, 2023, Khalilian is alleged to have made nine phone calls. The calls began with attempts to create connections with friends of Sherwood to influence or change Sherwood’s testimony, and they soon escalated to instructing offers to be made to Sherwood for $400,000 if he would recant his testimony or otherwise cause the murder-for-hire case to be dismissed.

The last call, on September 12, involved a Khalilian friend and associate referred to as “T.J.” and included a reiteration of the $400,000 offer. Unknown to T.J., however, he was speaking to a federal agent posing as a friend of Sherwood’s, and the $400,000 offer was already known to investigators.

“On September 12, 2023,” the latest indictment asserts, “T.J. had a call with a person he believed was M.S.’s associate, but who was, in fact, an undercover law enforcement officer. On that call, T.J. indicated to the undercover law enforcement officer that defendant KHALILIAN directed T.J. to offer M.S. $400,000 to say ‘whatever he did never happened.'”

Two of the mid-August calls cited as overt acts of witness tampering were made by Khalilian from the Metropolitan Detention Center – Los Angeles. Khalilian allegedly used another inmate’s pin-access code to make the calls, but investigators quickly matched the discussions to Khalilian and his case. Khalilian perhaps believed that using another inmate’s access code would prevent the alleged witness-tampering scheme from being discovered. However, calls made by inmates are not protected by any rights to privacy and are frequently recorded.

Most of the witness-tampering calls did not directly involve Khalilian’s participation, but were instead made by T.J. on Khalilian’s behalf. The first such call occurred within one day of Khalilian’s initial jailhouse call, implying that authorities quickly obtained a wiretap on the intermediary person. It is not known if T.J. has been or will be charged in connection with the witness-tampering matter. For Khalilian, the witness tampering compounds the serious nature of the original murder-for-hire count, and he could now face over 20 years in prison if found guilty.

Khalilian’s long, tangled history to be framework of documentary

Fred Khalilian’s tour through the fringes of the poker world marked just one portion of his decades-long legal difficulties, both civil and criminal. In poker, he first worked with the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, which for federal-recognition purpose is actually a single combined tribe, on a would-be site called PokerTribes.com.

Khalilian extracted roughly $10 million in investment funds from the Cheyenne and Arapahos, who he somehow sold on the concept that online players in other natures would somehow flock to a tiny new poker site, to be called PokerTribes.com, in preference to playing on much larger and fully regulated sites in their own countries.

The PokerTribes deal collapsed without a working product ever emerging as the C&A leadership changed during a political power struggle. Khalilian then found a second taker for the same project (with the name tweaked to PokerTribe.com) in the Iowas of Oklahoma, while the Cheyenne and Arapaho nation unsuccesfully sued Khalilian and his company for failure to deliver on the project.

The Iowas fared no better, and they also sunk another $10 million or so into Khalilian’s promises. Eventually, the Iowas jettisoned Khalilian and launched a UK-regulated site called GreySnow Poker that failed in less than two years.

Khahlilian himself made many millions on the deal, and he was alleged in the C&A lawsuit to have used much of their invested funds to pay off a $4 million settlement case that he owed the US’s Federal Trade Commission from a phony car-warranty case settled in 2010. If true, Khalilian found a way to obtain federally-originated funds to pay off his own federal debt, since the new and smallish Cheyenne and Arapahoe Tribes received much of its operational budget via federal funding.

Other violent behavior marks Khalilian’s past

The murder-for-hire case is far from Khalilian’s only violent turn. While involved in the Miami “Club Paris” nightclub operations, he was arrested on a rape charge, and was investigated in at least three similar matters, one of which included his telling an officer that he had diplomatic immunity and couldn’t be arrested. He was also arrested and paid a settlement after punching one of his club’s waitresses in the face.

More evidence of Khalilian’s violent nature went on display in 2018. After having been effectively drummed out of the online-poker industry, Khalilian used his music-world connections to engineer what was described as a “hostile takeover” of Monster, the prominent maker of headphones and many other music accessories.

The Monster arrangement went bad, very bad. In July of 2018, Khalilian and his supporters were “exited” out of Monster amid allegations of credit-card fraud, forgery, embezzlement and other misdeeds. In one of the strangest corporate press statements in recent history, Monster denounced Khalilian for having made “threats of mutilation, death, and threats to family” to numerous Monster employees and executives.

In recent times, Khalilian has moved into cryptocurrency startups, again with grandiose promises and, to date, little real results. In 2018, one of Khalilian’s companies launched an IPO for an unsupported WPFH (World Poker Fund Holdings) cryptocoin, and Khalilian has also emerged among the leadership of another crypto startup, Blockchain Consulting Group, which markets solutions to tribal nations. Khalilian’s name and likeness were removed from BCG’s home page, however, following his arrest on the murder-for-hire charges.