Las Vegas, Nov. 3-4, 2012
Around 6 p.m. on a warm, cloudless November night, Pras Michél, a former member of the ‘90s hip-hop trio the Fugees, approached one of the Chairman Suites on the fifth floor of the Palazzo hotel. He knocked and the door opened, revealing a rotund man, dressed in a black tuxedo, who flashed a warm smile. The man, glowing slightly with perspiration, was known to his friends as Jho Low, and he spoke in the soft-voiced lilt common to Malaysians. “Here’s my boy,” Mr. Low said, embracing the rapper.
The Chairman Suites, at $25,000 per night, were the most opulent the Palazzo had to offer, with a pool terrace overlooking the Strip. But the host didn’t plan to spend much time in the room that night; Mr. Low had a much grander celebration in store for his 31st birthday. This was just the preparty for his inner circle, who had jetted in from across the globe. Guzzling champagne, the guests, an eclectic mix of celebrities and hangers-on, buzzed around Mr. Low as more people arrived. Swizz Beatz, the hip-hop producer and husband of Alicia Keys, conversed animatedly with Mr. Low. At one point, Leonardo DiCaprio arrived alongside Benicio Del Toro to talk to Mr. Low about some film ideas.
Adapted from “Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood and the World” by Wall Street Journal reporters Tom Wright and Bradley Hope, to be published Tuesday in the U.S. by Hachette Books.
What did the guests make of their host? To many at the gathering, Mr. Low cut a mysterious figure. Hailing from Malaysia, a small Southeast Asian country, Mr. Low had a round face that was still boyish, with glasses, red cheeks, and barely a hint of facial hair. His unremarkable appearance was matched by an awkwardness and lack of ease in conversation, which the beautiful women around Mr. Low took to be shyness. Polite and courteous, he never seemed fully in the moment, often cutting short a conversation to take a call on one of his half a dozen cellphones.
But despite Mr. Low’s unassuming appearance, word was that he was loaded—maybe a billionaire. Guests murmured to each other that he was the money behind Mr. DiCaprio’s latest movie, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which was still filming. Mr. Low’s bashful manners belied a hard core of ambition the like of which the world rarely sees. Look more closely, and Mr. Low wasn’t so much timid as quietly calculating, as if computing every human interaction, sizing up what he could provide for someone and what they, in turn, could do for him. Despite his age, Mr. Low had a weird gravitas, allowing him to hold his own in a room of grizzled Wall Street bankers or pampered Hollywood types. For years, he had methodically cultivated the wealthiest and most powerful people on the planet. The bold strategy had placed him in their orbit and landed him a seat here in the Palazzo. Now, he was the one doling out favors.
The night at the Palazzo marked the apex of Mr. Low’s ascendancy. The guest list for his birthday included Hollywood stars, top bankers from
and powerful figures from the Middle East. In the aftermath of the U.S. financial crisis, they all wanted a piece of Mr. Low. Pras Michél had lost his place in the limelight since the Fugees disbanded, but was hoping to reinvent himself as a private-equity investor, and Mr. Low held out the promise of funding. Some celebrities had received hundreds of thousands of dollars in appearance fees from Mr. Low just to turn up at his events, and they were keen to keep him happy.
But even those stars couldn’t really claim to know Mr. Low’s story. If you entered “Jho Low” into Google, very little came up. Some people said he was an Asian arms dealer. Others claimed he was close to the prime minister of Malaysia. Or maybe he inherited billions from his Chinese grandfather. Casino operators and nightclubs refer to their highest rollers as “whales,” and one thing was certain about Mr. Low: He was the most extravagant whale that Vegas, New York, and St. Tropez had seen in a long time—maybe ever.
A few hours later, just after 9 p.m., Mr. Low’s guests began the journey to the evening’s main event. As the limousines drove up the Strip, it was clear they weren’t heading to the desert, as some guests thought, instead pulling up at what looked like a giant aircraft hangar, specially constructed on a vacant parcel of land. Among those present was Robin Leach, who for decades, as host of the TV show “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” had chronicled the spending of rappers, Hollywood stars, and old-money dynasties. But that was the 1980s and 1990s, and nothing had prepared him for the intemperance of the night. A gossip columnist for the Las Vegas Sun, Mr. Leach was among the few guests who had gleaned some details of what was coming. “Wicked whispers EXCLUSIVE: Britney Spears flying into Vegas tomorrow for secret concert, biggest big bucks private party ever thrown,” he tweeted.
One puzzling requirement of Mr. Leach’s invitation was that he could write about the party, but not name the host. He had made his career from the desire of rich people to brag about their affluence; what made this guy want to spend so much cash in secret? he wondered. A nightlife veteran, Mr. Leach was stunned by the audacity of the construction on the site. As he surveyed the arch of the party venue, which was ample enough to house a Ferris wheel, carousel, circus trampoline, cigar lounge, and plush white couches scattered throughout, he did some calculations. One side was circus themed, with the other half transformed into an ultrachic nightclub.
It must have cost millions, Mr. Leach estimated. Here were new lovers Kanye West and Kim Kardashian canoodling under a canopy; Paris Hilton and heartthrob River Viiperi whispering by a bar; actors Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianakis, on a break from filming “The Hangover Part III,” laughed as they took in the scene. “We’re used to extravagant parties in Las Vegas, but this was the ultimate party,” Mr. Leach said. “I’ve never been to one like it.”
Mr. Low was careful not to overlook his less well-known friends and key business contacts. Among the guests were Tim Leissner, a German-born banker who was a star deal maker for Goldman Sachs in Asia. There were whispers among Wall Street bankers about the huge profits Goldman had been making in Malaysia, hundreds of millions of dollars arranging bonds for a state investment fund, but they hadn’t reached insular Hollywood.
The crowd was already lively when Jamie Foxx started off the show with a video projected on huge screens. It featured friends of Mr. Low from around the world, each dancing a bit of the hit song “Gangnam Style.” As the video ended, Psy, the South Korean singer who had shot to stardom that year for “Gangnam Style,” played the song live as the crowd erupted. Over the following hour and a half, there were performances from Redfoo and the Party Rock Crew, Busta Rhymes, Q-Tip, Pharrell, and Swizz Beatz, with Ludacris and Chris Brown, who debuted the song “Everyday Birthday.” During Q-Tip’s session, a drunk Mr. DiCaprio got on stage and rapped alongside him. Then, a giant faux wedding cake was wheeled on stage. After a few moments, Britney Spears, wearing a skimpy, gold-colored outfit, burst out and, joined by dancers, serenaded Mr. Low with “Happy Birthday.” Each of the performers earned a fat check, with Ms. Spears reportedly taking a six-figure sum for her brief cameo.
Then the gifts. The nightlife impresarios who helped set up the party, Noah Tepperberg and Jason Strauss, stopped the music and took a microphone. Mr. Low had spent tens of millions of dollars in their clubs Marquee, TAO, and LAVO over the past few years, just as the financial crisis hit and Wall Street high rollers were feeling the pinch. He was their No. 1 client, and they did everything to ensure other nightclub owners didn’t steal him away. As Messrs. Tepperberg and Strauss motioned to staff, a bright red Lamborghini was driven out into the middle of the marquee. Someone gave not one but three high-end Ducati motorcycles. Finally, a ribbon-wrapped $2.5 million Bugatti Veyron was presented by Szen Low to his brother.
Just after 12:20 a.m., the sky lit up with fireworks. Partying went into the early hours, with performances by Usher, DJ Chuckie, and Kanye West. Surrounded by celebrities and friends, Mr. Low piled into a limousine and brought the party back to the Palazzo, where he gambled well into the bright light of Sunday afternoon.
This was the world built by Jho Low.
“While you were sleeping, one Chinese billionaire was having the party of the year,” began an article on the website of local radio station KROQ two days later, mistaking Mr. Low’s nationality. It referred to him as “Jay Low.” It wasn’t the first time Mr. Low’s name seeped into the tabloids or was associated with extravagance—and it wasn’t the last—but the Vegas birthday party was a peak moment in his strange and eventful life.
Many of those who came across Mr. Low wrote him off as a big-talking scion of a rich Asian family. Few people asked questions about him, and those who bothered to do so discovered only fragments of the real person. But Mr. Low wasn’t the child of wealth, at least not the kind that would finance a celebrity-studded party. His money came from a series of events that are so unlikely, they appear made up. Even today, the scale of what he achieved—the global heists he is suspected of having pulled off, allowing him to pay for that night’s party and much, much more—is hard to fathom.
Mr. Low might have hailed from Malaysia, but his was a 21st-century global scheme. His alleged co-conspirators came from the world’s wealthiest 0.1%, the richest of the rich, or people who aspired to enter its ranks: young Americans, Europeans and Asians who studied for M.B.A.s together, took jobs in finance, and partied in New York, Las Vegas, London, Cannes and Hong Kong. The backdrop was the global financial crisis, which had sent the U.S. economy plummeting into recession, adding to the allure of a spendthrift Asian billionaire like Mr. Low.
Armed with more liquid cash than possibly any individual in history, Mr. Low infiltrated the very heart of U.S. power. He was enabled by his obscure origins and the fact that people had only a vague notion of Malaysia. If he claimed to be a Malaysian prince, then it was true. The heir to a billion-dollar fortune? Sure, it might be right, but nobody seemed to care. Not Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese, who were promised tens of millions of dollars to make films. Not Paris Hilton, Jamie Foxx and other stars who were paid handsomely to appear at events. Not Jason Strauss and Noah Tepperberg, whose nightclub empire was thriving. Not the supermodels on whom Mr. Low lavished multimillion-dollar jewelry. Not the Wall Street bankers who made tens of millions of dollars in bonuses. And certainly not Mr. Low’s protector, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Mr. Low’s purported scheme involved the purchase of storied companies, friendships with the world’s most celebrated people, trysts with extraordinarily beautiful women, and even a visit to the White House—most of all, it involved an extraordinary and complex manipulation of global finance. The FBI is still attempting to unravel exactly what occurred. Billions of dollars in Malaysian government money, raised with the help of Goldman Sachs, is believed to have disappeared into a Byzantine labyrinth of bank accounts, offshore companies, and other complex financial structures. Tim Leissner, who left Goldman in 2016, is now in plea-deal talks with U.S. authorities. Goldman has said it had no way of knowing there might be fraud surrounding the Malaysian government funds.
As the scheme began to crash down around them, Malaysia’s prime minister turned his back on democracy in a failed attempt to cling to power. After a stunning election loss in May, he is now under arrest and facing charges including money laundering. He has denied wrongdoing.
Wanted for questioning by the FBI, Mr. Low is a fugitive moving between Hong Kong, Macau and mainland China as Malaysia seeks his arrest. Through a spokesman, he maintains his innocence.
“Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood and the World” is the result of three years of research, drawing on interviews with more than 100 people in more than a dozen countries. Every anecdote is based on the recollections of multiple sources and in some cases backed up by photographs, videos and other documentation. The authors reviewed tens of thousands of documents, including public court records and confidential investigative and financial records, as well as hundreds of thousands of emails provided to authorities during the course of probing the case. They also relied on official allegations contained in the U.S. Justice Department’s civil asset-forfeiture cases, as well as court proceedings in Singapore and official reports by Swiss authorities.
Corrections & Amplifications
An earlier version of this article misspelled Britney Spears’s name as Briney Spear in a caption. (Sept. 15, 2018)
Appeared in the September 15, 2018, print edition as ‘The Billion-Dollar Mystery Man.’