FINAL: That's all, folks. Thanks again!

EDIT: Thanks for all your questions! That's all we have time for today, but I'll hop back on tomorrow morning to answer any others that may come up.

A filmmaker set out to make a documentary about his former boss, a wealthy businessman with a checkered past. He ended up a central character in the life-or-death drama, involving an alleged murder-for-hire scheme, a double-cross and an FBI sting operation.

In what could be a scene out of a movie (someday it probably will be), documentarian J. Esco lay on the floor with his hands tied behind his back and his head in a pool of (fake) blood. On the wall, cutouts of articles, court papers and photographs are connected with red string. They all tie back to a photo at the top of a man: “Prince Fred.”

I was out at drinks with colleagues one Sunday in March when I received the first email from Esco that started this story. The subject line was “Murder for hire.” Esco had read another story I’d written about a murder for hire and a faked murder (why does this keep happening!) and wanted to share his story with The Times. He had not even called law enforcement yet about the alleged hit out on him.

It took nearly four months for me to report out the story (and for the FBI to investigate and eventually arrest “Prince Fred”).

Here’s a link to the full story on our site (where you can register your email and get 10 free articles as a Reddit user)

And check the comments for a summary with the highlights of the story.


(edited to fix formatting)

Comments: 63 • Responses: 23  • Date: 

losangelestimes129 karma

J. Esco was working as a computer technician in Florida when Fereidoun “Prince Fred” Khalilian hired him for a repair job in 2009.

He was soon working full time for Khalilian. His lavish lifestyle impressed Esco. His boss ran in celebrity circles; he had helped open Paris Hilton’s short-lived nightclub in Orlando, Fla.

For a year, Esco ran IT for Khalilian’s robocall company while helping his boss launch a social media music company. That came to an abrupt end when federal agents raided Khalilian’s office in 2010, resulting in a 2010 Federal Trade Commission lawsuit alleging that Khalilian misrepresented car warranties to unsuspecting customers. Khalilian and his company were ordered to pay a $4.2-million judgment in the case.

After the raid, the company shut down and Esco was out of work.

Esco said his former boss promised to help him get back on his feet. “In my mind I was like, ‘F— this, I’ll never talk to this guy again.’”

A few years later, Esco moved to Los Angeles to try his hand in the entertainment industry. He cobbled together a living in Hollywood, but he was always on the lookout for the big project that might catapult him into more marquee work.

Then, he reconnected with Khalilian on set, according to Esco. As they spoke, Esco had an idea. He could make a documentary about his onetime boss — a high-rolling socialite with a shadowy background.

Esco said he went home and Googled Khalilian and found articles about scandals involving the businessman spanning nearly two decades, with allegations including battery, extortion and “threats of mutilation, death and threats to family.”

Khalilian has defended himself in court, arguing that allegations made against him in lawsuits and criminal cases were false. He has been ordered to pay settlements in some cases and pleaded no contest to lesser charges in criminal proceedings.

Esco thought the documentary could be his big break, but only if he could get Khalilian to participate. He came up with an unorthodox solution in the practice of documentary film: He would lie to his subject. To gain Khalilian’s trust, Esco promised the film would cast him in a favorable light.

Khalilian explained his extravagant wealth by telling people he was an Arab prince — though his national origin changed depending on whom he was talking to, prosecutors and family said.

It wasn’t until about a decade ago that he began referring to himself as “Prince Fred,” Khalilian’s first cousin Paradis Khalilian told The Times. She said he has no royalty background.

His background is Persian, not Arabic, said his cousin. He was born in Iran and moved to Turkey when he was 12, then Germany when he was 13 and eventually the United States when he turned 18, she said.

Esco spent four days interviewing Khalilian, gathering his subject’s version of his life story. Khalilian seemed more interested in a Kardashian-style reality show than a documentary, Esco said.

“He wanted me to ask him as he got out of the car at the club, ‘How’d you lose so much weight?’ ” Esco said.

The ruse could go on only so long. A source whom Esco approached about an interview tipped off Khalilian, Esco said. Now he knew the real direction of the film — and he wasn’t happy about it.

Mike Sherwood, who worked as the head of Khalilian’s security team, said he had no plans to resort to violence when he traveled to Los Angeles to speak with Esco — he hoped to talk the filmmaker out of making the documentary.

Esco showed Sherwood parts of the documentary about Khalilian and asked if the bodyguard would be open to an interview for the project, Esco said.

Sherwood agreed and was filmed in June 2022, though he continued to work for Khalilian. He said he spoke of the “positive and negative” sides of Khalilian in his interview and informed his employer that he had talked with Esco.

For a time, Khalilian appeared less bothered by Esco, Sherwood said. Then Esco began making calls to his former boss.

He started to goad Khalilian, calling from spoofed numbers and saying nothing other than “habibi” — an affectionate address in Arabic — or “Fred,” and hoping that Khalilian would lose his temper, prosecutors said. Esco would record the calls. He called Khalilian about 20 times in early March 2023, according to prosecutors.

Esco said he hoped Khalilian might make threats that he could record and use in the documentary. And Khalilian did, according to the criminal complaint and audio recordings reviewed by The Times.

“When I’m done with you, I’m going to cut each one of your f—ing fingers off,” Khalilian said on one recorded call on March 8, according to a transcript in the complaint. “I’m going to f— you up, b—. I’m going to have your f—ing head.”

In March, Khalilian solicited Sherwood to have Esco killed for $20,000, a federal agent wrote in the criminal complaint.

When Esco woke up on March 17, he saw he had missed a text from Sherwood: “Call me when you can.” When Esco called back, Sherwood said, he filled him in on the whole arrangement.

The two hatched a plan so crazy it just might work: a faked murder, more high school film project than Hollywood motion picture. Esco’s girlfriend would take a photo of the crime scene. Then they would send the photo to Sherwood, who would turn it over to Khalilian as proof Esco was dead.

Sherwood passed along one of the images of the staged killing to Khalilian, according to prosecutors. He told Khalilian that he had hired a group of Mexicans to carry out the murder and that they buried Esco in a warehouse in Los Angeles, according to Sherwood and prosecutors. Within a minute, Khalilian sent $3,000 to Sherwood on Cash App from the account @$PrinceFredKhalilian, prosecutors said. All in all, Khalilian paid Sherwood a total of $12,500 for the faked killing, according to the criminal complaint.

At this point, Esco and Sherwood still had not contacted law enforcement. Sherwood wanted to wait longer to go, he said. He believed Esco was in no real danger because Khalilian thought he was dead — and Sherwood hoped to continue collecting the payment for the killing, he said.

Instead, Esco went to The Times with his story. He then went to the FBI. The agents were interested. But before making an arrest, they wanted Khalilian to admit he had ordered a killing, Sherwood said.

The FBI told him to stay off the grid, Esco said. Meanwhile, the FBI was keeping Sherwood busy. Sherwood recorded calls between himself and Khalilian and sent evidence of the cash payments from his phone, according to the complaint. He had to screen-shot all of his communications with Khalilian and share them with agents, Sherwood said.

On June 21, Sherwood opened the door of his Porsche Macan and prepared to put on the most important performance of his life.

Khalilian got into the car and the two men went for a drive around Las Vegas. Federal agents had slipped a camera into the Dodgers hat on the dashboard, feeding sound and video directly to law enforcement, Sherwood said.

He showed Khalilian the belongings of Esco the FBI had given him — Esco’s passport, IDs, his Global Entry pass.The belongings were further evidence, along with the staged photo, for Khalilian that the deed had been done.

As they sat in the car, Khalilian opened up, Sherwood said.

“If I didn’t pay you to do it, I was going to kill him myself,” Khalilian said, according to Sherwood.

The FBI would not share its recording of the conversation, but it did not dispute Sherwood’s retelling.

Agents surrounded the two and arrested Khalilian. Prosecutors charged him with murder for hire for the plot to kill Esco and the payments he made to Sherwood. A federal magistrate judge in Nevada ordered Khalilian held without bond on June 26. He faces up to 10 years in prison.

“Mr. Khalilian maintains his innocence and looks forward to defending himself in court,” said his attorneys, David Chesnoff and Richard Schonfeld. “The actions of the government witnesses surely need to be examined; however, it would be inappropriate to make any further comment at this time.”

His attorneys argued in court that Khalilian should be released pretrial.

“While counsel understands that the charges are serious and that the government will assert that it has evidence in support of the charges, all remaining factors weigh strongly in favor of Mr. Khalilian being released,” Chesnoff wrote.

His attorneys also said Khalilian has no felony criminal history and has “tremendous family support.”

FeeeFiiFooFumm55 karma

This is by far one of the most fascinating stories I've read in a long time. Thank you for sharing.

losangelestimes20 karma

Thanks for reading!

-Noah Goldberg

theillustratedlife21 karma

I think this is the only AMA I've ever been in where I beat the crowd. I could actually read all the questions and answers. Alas, I don't have any burning questions. The ones that have already been asked were great.

Fascinating story - thanks for sharing!

losangelestimes15 karma

Thanks for stoppin by :)

-Noah Goldberg

elemde31 karma

What do you feel Sherwood's motivation was in working with Esco? Both in the documentary and then in faking Esco's death?

losangelestimes35 karma

That's an interesting question.

Sherwood is definitely the most ambiguous of the three when it comes to motivations.

He met with Esco at Khalilian's behest originally to try to convince Esco to stop making the documentary. He told me he had no interest in hurting Esco at that time.

He liked Esco when they met. When Esco asked him to participate he saw no issue. Sherwood does what he wants, is my sense. If he feels like participating in a doc, he'll do it. He said he was honest about Khalilian's personality, which he saw as up and down, with very low lows. He even told Khalilian about participating, he told me.

Sherwood told me he never had any plans to kill Esco and that he took on the role of hit man so that Khalilian didn't either a. kill Esco himself or b. hire somebody else to kill Esco.

ALSO, as Sherwood told me, he had no issue raking in the murder payments from Khalilian despite Esco still being alive.

He even wanted Esco to delay going to the feds so he could continue taking in the CashApp payments that Khalilian was sending him, he told me.

I see Sherwood as a bit of a loose cannon. He's willing to do some stuff that might be dicey, but he ultimately drew the line at murder and decided to inform Esco instead of going through with it.

Once he was hired as the "hitman" I believe Sherwood's view of Khalilian changed. He saw Khalilian as dangerous and was willing to fake the murder to help get Khalilian caught. Also, Khalilian had asked Sherwood for "proof" that Esco had been killed, so they needed to do something.

-Noah Goldberg

ReelBIgFisk25 karma

How is it he's only facing a possible 10 years for a murder-for-hire plot? Does Esco fear for his life with his attempted murderer receiving such a short sentence?

losangelestimes26 karma

10 years is the maximum federal sentence for murder for hire (when there is no injury to the intended victim, like in this case.

I think Esco is more comfortable now that Khalilian is being held in jail pre-trial. He definitely felt a weight off his back.

he hasn't said that he feels the sentence is short to me. Also, worth noting, Khalilian, if convicted, could get less than 10 years.

-Noah Goldberg

fishh12 karma

Does Esco intended to finish his film project? Is it still considered ongoing?

How has Esco reacted to all this from what you can tell? Your article presents multiple moments where Esco dives deeper to get more material and enhance his story rather than disentangle himself from his subject. That doesn't strike me as the actions of someone who was truly concerned for his well being. How have your interactions with him struck you?

losangelestimes14 karma

Esco has always intended to finish his project. All of his engagement with Khalilian, the goading and the spoofed phone calls he made, were meant to elicit a reaction from Khalilian that Esco could record and use for his documentary, he told me.

I think the scrutiny and his becoming such a focal part of the story — which he always saw as a documentary about Khalilian — has been difficult for him. It was hard for him to let us take photos. He is very used to being behind the camera, and less comfortable being in front of it, he said. But he really wanted to get his story out there.

While I know Esco is concerned for his well-being and was very nervous about the alleged murder for hire plot, he is obviously a risk taker as well. To me, he is someone who is very excited about a project and extremely committed to it. He has a frenetic, high-paced energy and seems to think about nothing besides Khalilian and the project.

That said, he was afraid. He was concerned that it took the FBI so long (about 3 months) to arrest Khalilian after he made the complaint. He didn't like the idea that the man who allegedly wanted him dead was roaming the streets.

-Noah Goldberg

fishh23 karma

As a journalist yourself, were Esco's methods of provoking of his subject, and and willingness to construct a narrative in real life, in your opinion red flags? I hesitate to seem overly critical of his filmmaking methods, as documentaries can come in all shapes and styles. But I'm wondering if his methods, in juxtaposition to your own journalistic ethics, made you pause, consider him in a different light, or treat him with more scrutiny in any way? Interested in your thoughts.

losangelestimes22 karma

I think making a documentary is very different from being a reported news journalist.

I don't think I would say "red flags" but certainly his style of filmmaking is unorthodox and raises certain ethical questions (should you lie to your subject? Should you intentionally goad your subject into making threats?).

I don't consider Esco a journalist like myself, but I also understand that he was never an outside observer. He had worked for Khalilian and had his job taken out from under him when the feds raided the Florida business he was working at for Khalilian. Because of that, he had negative preconceived notions about Khalilian.

The documentary was never going to be a positive look at Khalilian. Based on my own reporting however, there are a lot of fraud claims and financial wrongdoing allegations that have dogged Khalilian. So it wasn't a bad idea for a doc even before the murder for hire came into it.

-Noah Goldberg

cherrieboard10 karma

Are you ever worried about yourself and your family when you do stories as intense as this one? Do you ever worry one of these will come bite back?

losangelestimes22 karma

Not really, no.

I have definitely gotten some scary emails and messages related to my work but I generally feel very safe doing what I do.

The US is a pretty great place to be a journalist even if many people do not like us.

-Noah Goldberg

Nandy-bear8 karma

This is such a weird story. It starts so genuine and you wanna root for the dude, but then it swerves into "so I called him goading him into making threats so I could put them in my film" like wtf.

As a journalist, how do you feel about this ? Or is it simply something you don't "feel" any way about - you're just interested in the story, rather than how it got there ?

losangelestimes1 karma

I think it's the latter. I am not making a judgment call about Esco's methods, because I don't see myself as on Team Esco or Team Khalilian.

That said, I do think it is pertinent for readers like yourself to be aware that Esco was harassing Khalilian and then you can make your own call on how you feel about the case.

-Noah Goldberg

MelonElbows6 karma

Were you surprised this wasn't some new Tommy Wiseau movie? Because reading the title, that's all I could think about

losangelestimes14 karma

If the subject weren't so serious, I could see some comedic elements in the faked murder for sure. Even Esco laughed when describing buying the fake blood from Party City and setting up the staged murder scene.

There is an element of the absurd going on here.

-Noah Goldberg

FaustusC5 karma

Do you feel it inappropriate that Esco called someone and harassed them into losing their temper?

Obviously the guy was nuts but there's a significant difference to me between baiting someone into wanting to hurt you and them just doing it randomly. Per you "He started to goad Khalilian, calling from spoofed numbers and saying nothing other than “habibi” — an affectionate address in Arabic — or “Fred,” and hoping that Khalilian would lose his temper, prosecutors said. Esco would record the calls. He called Khalilian about 20 times in early March 2023, according to prosecutors." Calling someone repeatedly is harassment, especially when you're going out of your way to conceal your identity.

losangelestimes14 karma

I assume that Khalilian's defense team will explore the alleged harassment of Khalilian by Esco as an angle to make Esco seem like a less sympathetic "victim." They will probably argue that Khalilian was set up by the harassment and then lured into the murder for hire plot. That's just a guess.

I don't think harassment -- without threats behind it -- gives someone the right to plan to kill you (obviously). Whether it was inappropriate for Esco to do what he did, that's not for me as a journalist to determine but for you as a reader!

-Noah Goldberg

FaustusC4 karma

Just to clarify: I agree, I don't think harassment without theeats gives anyone the right to plan to kill you lol.

Still feels weird to me though. Like saying "This dog is dangerous!" While showing a dog just laying around. Then you go over and step on it's balls until it bites you.

losangelestimes2 karma

Sure. There were other fraud allegations against Khalilian and two FTC lawsuits filed against him.

He was also accused of threatening to mutilate colleagues at Monster, according to a request for a protective order.

So there was a past that Esco was looking into. Again, Esco admits to goading Khalilian, so it will be up to a jury to determine if the murder for hire charge has merit despite that.

-Noah Goldberg

princesspool4 karma

Was there anything you learned about Fereidoun that truly surprised you? Excellent article!

losangelestimes7 karma

I enjoyed looking into his history with Paris Hilton and the club they opened in Orlando.

His family history was also fascinating: his attempt to characterize himself as a prince even while his cousin Paradis told me that he had no royal background was odd, but worked to convince people that he was important and had lots of money behind him.

I was stunned to hear from Sherwood just how casually Khalilian allegedly discussed the killing of Esco, both in phone calls and in person right before the FBI arrest.

-Noah Goldberg

Ok-Feedback56043 karma

Share your story behind this concept?

losangelestimes14 karma

Hey! I wrote an article about a DIFFERENT murder for hire conspiracy last year and J. Esco, the alleged target of THIS conspiracy, reached out to me via email in March after reading that previous story. Here's the link to that one.

Esco emailed me saying he had faked his murder after learning there was a plot to kill him by the man he was making his documentary about. He called me shortly after faking his death. The man he accused of the murder plot, Fereidoun Khalilian, had not yet been arrested.

Esco reached out to the FBI after speaking with me. While the FBI was investigating, Esco asked me to keep our conversation off record, as he did not want to mess with the investigation.

Once an arrest was made months later, Esco allowed me to use quotes from our conversation. And we had numerous follow up conversations and interviews.

I reached out to the man who was the fake hit man, Mike Sherwood, and he also spoke with me on the record about his role.

Once I had Esco and Sherwood on the record, it was off to the races.

- Noah Goldberg

McGrathsDomestos2 karma

What’s Esco doing with himself now?

losangelestimes6 karma

He's working on his documentary, securing additional interviews, dealing with the publicity that the article has lent to his story.

smujake682 karma

What’re the odds Khalilian skips the country?

Are you sure that’s even his real name?

losangelestimes2 karma


Khalilian is currently being held in custody pre-trial at a federal jail in Los Angeles, so unless he escapes the MDC, it will be hard to flee the country.

I spoke with his cousin, whose name is Paradis Khalilian, so I have family confirmation that Fereidoun Khalilian is his real name.

-Noah Goldberg

abstractWIZARD1 karma


losangelestimes10 karma

Andy Kaufman

Um. This is not relevant to my story but I do enjoy this New Yorker article about the topic.

-Noah Goldberg

DisCode3471 karma

When you started doing this story, how did it affect your mental health?

losangelestimes6 karma

It did not.

-Noah Goldberg

Jrjy31 karma

Sorry I'm late to the party!

As a reporter/journalist reporting this story, how does your own safety play into it? There's no doubt he has some dangerous contacts that could do the same to you as was planned for Esco, so is there anything you do to protect yourself?

Also a side note: I love your glasses! Do you remember which ones they are?

losangelestimes1 karma

Hey. Thanks re: glasses. I believe they are Oliver Peoples, lol.

Obviously my own safety is important to me. I have not felt in danger in the reporting of this story but papers like the LATimes and others have what are called "credible threat assessment" teams/representatives that we can go to if we feel we are in any sort of danger (I have not done that for this story because I don't feel there is any threat).

When reporting on other groups that targeted me, I have learned that making my Facebook and Instagram profiles private is helpful to avoid harassment. Have to keep my Twitter public for work purposes, but besides that as little public facing social media as possible tamps down on harassment.

-Noah Goldberg

Totally_PJ_Soles1 karma

I don't think I'm understanding all the details. This dude was a compulsive liar and fraud, but why did Esco start harassing him? It looks like He harassed him until he was so mad he wanted him dead, then got him arrested. Seems like his "it's just a prank bro" got too real and he got a man arrested who otherwise would've never killed someone.

losangelestimes2 karma

I think that is a question that the jury will wrestle with as well.

-Noah Goldberg

awelawdiy0 karma

Did Sherwood get to keep the money?

losangelestimes2 karma

When I last spoke to him he had gotten to keep $12,500, which was the amount Khalilian had paid him.

I'm not sure if he gets to keep that or if the feds will take it back since it is proceeds from an alleged crime.

-Noah Goldberg

doodooz7-2 karma

What’s your favorite kind of pizza?

losangelestimes2 karma

Pepperoni. In LA, my fave spot is Quarter Sheets. In NYC, I ate at Joes in the Village a lot.

-Noah Goldberg

throwawayhyperbeam-4 karma

What kind of psychiatric problems did this guy have? Is he some kind of narcissist?

losangelestimes12 karma

I am not a psychiatrist and will not speculate about anyone's psychiatric state.

-Noah Goldberg