The following is an excerpt from Casey Michel’s book, “American Kleptocracy: How the U.S. Created the World’s Greatest Money Laundering Scheme in History,” out November 23rd, 2021.
When Teodoro “Teodorin” Nguema Obiang Mangue was growing up in the small central African country of Equatorial Guinea, he appeared to have it all. He was born with power: since the late 1970s, his father had run the country as a despot overseeing a murderous regime buoyed and financed by unending flows of crude oil. As a result, Teodorin enjoyed flaunting his wealth however he could. He had diamond-studded Rolexes and hilltop megamansions. He owned fleets of high-end cars— Lamborghinis, Maseratis, you name it—which he steered around the nation’s capital, Malabo, attracting the interest of struggling street peddlers, impoverished shop owners, and the emaciated schoolchildren who populated the streets. He had women on his arm, from places as far away as Spain, Brazil, France, or even the United States. He poured money into private jets and bespoke suits and parties that would last for days on end, and told confidants about plans to build 200-foot yachts fitted with shark tanks. He even dreamed of one day creating an international entertainment empire, setting himself up as the Jay-Z of Africa. Frankly, he had more wealth than he knew what to do with—less a big fish in a small pond and more a giant whale in an impossibly small puddle.
But there was, behind it all, an insecurity impossible for Teodorin to escape: A trembling lack of self-worth, which everyone around him could pick up on. A feeling that he could never quite measure up, either to his father or to the billionaires he met with, traveled with, or consorted with. Much of that insecurity came from the fact that Teodorin’s father, now the longest-serving dictator in the world, never thought much of his son. Ignoring him, talking down to him, the dictator treated his son as he did many of his other underlings: dismissively, as nothing more than an imbecile, with as little talent as he had acumen. While his father tortured political opponents and jailed journalists, eliminating opposition and laying the groundwork for his heir apparent, Teodorin lacked the discipline and focus of a leader-in-training. He was always more interested in playing with his luxury cars, or indulging in yet another weeklong drug binge with his friends and hangers-on, than in perfecting the skill set required to oversee a modern dictatorship. When his father tried to teach him the details of foreign policy, or how to manage the country’s economics, Teodorin would try to pay attention, but, still groggy from the night or week or month before, he couldn’t get it to stick. Constantly hungover or strung out, he showed little promise, and constantly left his father embarrassed and angered at his son’s incompetence. “Teodorin is so stupid, so self-indulgent, so selfish that discretion is the last thing that he has,” said one investigator who has followed Teodorin’s exploits over the last two decades. “I think Teodorin” — a man now pushing into his fifties — “reached his potential maturity when he was about ten.”
That rampant insecurity also had to do with the reality that so much of Teodorin’s wealth, which may now stretch into the billions, was so obviously, so transparently, ill-gotten. That it was so clearly tied to his father’s bloody, savage rule, which allowed only his family and a handful of others in their small, nub-shaped country to profit. That it came about only because his father controlled the levers of power in Equatorial Guinea, a country whose state-run media referred to the dictator as a “god,” a man “in permanent contact with the Almighty.” Despite being the country with the highest per capita GDP on the continent, Teodorin’s Equatorial Guinea now has one of the lowest life expectancies (58 years) and highest infant mortality rates (6 deaths per 100 live births) in the world.
The money in Teodorin’s pockets wasn’t illegal, per se; given the nature of his father’s dictatorship, everything he and his family did was technically legal according to Equatoguinean law. But this money was illegitimate: pilfered from his country’s treasury, stolen from the people it should have served most, available only because he was the son of a dictator. And everyone — both domestically and internationally — knew it. No matter how much money Teodorin threw around, no matter how much he was worth, his money would always be tainted.
Which points directly to the final reason for Teodorin’s insecurity. With his dark skin and charcoal eyes, Teodorin, born in 1968, came of age when the only members of the billionaire class were Europeans or North Americans — when wealth was, in essence, white. Sure, there were members of the monied class who were non-white. But they tended to be either fellow tyrants, like Haitian dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier (estimated to be worth nearly $1 billion), or neighboring megalomaniacs, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko (worth upward of $5 billion, and whose name translates to “the all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake”).
There was one figure, though, who by the mid-1980s proved that the world of stratospheric wealth wasn’t reserved only for the lily-white: Michael Jackson. The pop singer may have been American, but he —his reach and his status, his music and his model — was global. He was an icon in corners of the world that Americans had never heard of. That was especially true for the rising postcolonial nouveau riche generation emerging in sub–Saharan Africa. “From an early age, Teodorin wanted to give this air of being cool, being a big star,” Tutu Alicante, an Equatoguinean democratic activist who’s arguably done more than anyone to highlight Teodorin’s crimes, told me. “And Michael Jackson was a global sensation for young kids in Africa to see — to see this Black kid become so successful.”
Which is why, when Jackson died in the summer of 2009, Teodorin spied an opportunity. He came up with an idea that would help with multiple aims simultaneously: how to transform his suspect money into perfectly clean, perfectly legitimate assets; how to honor the man who showed that being Black and wealthy was perfectly acceptable; how to take a significant step toward becoming the celebrity mogul he’d long dreamed of being; and how to try to convince his father that, actually, he knew what he was doing with his money, and that he could be trusted whenever the time came for transition in Equatorial Guinea. It may not have been a wise plan — it’s unclear exactly why Teodorin thought his father would look at Michael Jackson memorabilia as a sign of his son’s abilities — but it was his plan, and he was determined to succeed.
At the time, Teodorin already had a massive Southern California mansion, a private jet and fleets of million-dollar automobiles, and many of the other trappings that came with modern celebrity. Now he would take the next step: he would become the world’s largest collector of Michael Jackson memorabilia. And in doing so, he would help convert some of his family’s dirty lucre into legitimate assets, and take another step toward transforming himself from African despot to international celebrity — and prove to his father that he possessed some of the acumen that everyone else assumed he lacked. He would look to the country that had already welcomed some of his dirty millions with open arms, with little to no scrutiny. A country that had perfected the biggest system of transforming dirty, suspect money into perfectly legitimate finances and assets, obscuring its illicit origins in the process. A country that was so good at it, in fact, that Teodorin was far from alone — many other wealthy and corrupt individuals had been cashing in for decades.
He turned to the United States of America.
In 2003, a few years before Teodorin decided to amass as much Michael Jackson memorabilia as he could, the George W. Bush administration offered full-throated support for the passage of something long overdue: the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, a groundbreaking multilateral agreement providing guidance on everything needed to combat corruption and dirty money. Shortly thereafter, Bush issued Presidential Proclamation 7750, which allowed the U.S. to specifically bar foreign officials accused of profiting from corruption (plus their families) from visiting the U.S. ever again. “High-level corruption by senior government officials, or kleptocracy, is a grave and corrosive abuse of power,” Bush would later say.
Elsewhere in Washington, bureaucratic decisions followed suit, showing how the U.S. was transforming its fight against kleptocracy — oligarchs and despots looking to launder all of their ill-gotten gains in America. In March 2003, Congress birthed the Department of Homeland Security, which would thereafter house the U.S.’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE would later gain notoriety as the most prominent face of Donald Trump’s domestic crackdowns. At the time, however, ICE fell into something of a crack within America’s growing anti-kleptocracy regime. The FBI traditionally manned domestic anticorruption outfits, while the CIA tracked and trailed foreign operations — the kinds increasingly looking to the U.S. for all of their laundering needs. But ICE straddled both worlds, monitoring foreign funds racing into the U.S. and tracing their routes through the states thereafter. Following the White House’s example, ICE leadership in 2003 announced the formation of the Foreign Corruption Investigations Group, an organization specifically tasked with tackling the kleptocrats running their networks throughout the U.S. in order to “identify, trace, freeze, and recover assets within the United States illicitly acquired through kleptocracy.”
As with plenty of other governmental initiatives, though, the difference between theory and practice couldn’t have been wider. The group identified potential candidates for investigation in the first few years, but ran into bureaucratic roadblocks and the difficulties that come with trying to pry open things like anonymous shell companies.
By 2006, without much to show for its efforts, the ICE anticorruption group appeared at risk of wasting away. Then, in a personnel shuffle, new leadership stepped in. The group’s new supervisor, Bobby Rutherford, came with a rocky Southern accent, an openness to new ideas, and the experience that comes with 16 years of monitoring how Latin American drug dealers saturated South Florida with illicit drugs — as well as how they moved their money. Rutherford was initially told that the ICE group would primarily focus on Latin America and the Caribbean, especially the cartels growing in prominence. But Rutherford had a different idea. “I had done the ‘taco circuit’ for so long with drug cases — the Caribbean, all that — I just didn’t want to mess with it anymore,” Rutherford told me. He was tired of chasing the same networks, the same bagmen, the same drug runners infesting Bogotá and Caracas and Mexico City, island-hopping through the Caribbean to reach their final destinations in the U.S. It was time to think a bit bigger.
The ICE group’s headquarters would remain in Miami, but with Rutherford as the new supervisor, they were going to expand their writ. They were going to think the same way their prey did: globally. All they needed was a target to show that such a model could work.
One morning, before arriving at his Miami office, Rutherford opened the newspaper, just to scan the headlines. There was a name he’d never seen before. “There was an article about [Teodorin] Obiang purchasing a Rolex and some other luxury items,” Rutherford remembered. “It was like a society-page-type article on this big guy from Africa, who came over here with his government position and bought this and this and this, and he’s partying here. And that was pretty much it.
“And I go, ‘Oh, who is this guy?’”
That guy, according to later documents, was someone inhabiting a life of luxury that few could have dreamed of, let alone enjoyed. Ensconced in his new Malibu palace — purchased in the mid-2000s for tens of millions of dollars, replete with guest houses and a tennis court and an infinity pool overlooking the most immaculate coastline that California had to offer — Teodorin began plotting out his next steps. He already had a number of American lawyers in his pocket, helping oversee his financial networks — and helping him dodge American banks’ anti-money laundering policies, which required them to flag suspicious transactions. He had his American shell companies, used to help hide his financial tracks, and he had a seemingly bottomless pot of dirty money to draw from, courtesy of his father’s regime and his own behavior back home.
His California mansion was already humming with staff. Alongside the gardeners and the assistants, Teodorin began flying in a number of former police officers from Equatorial Guinea to provide security — including a “chase team” that followed Teodorin when he ranged around Malibu on his daylong benders. (Teodorin would reportedly sometimes sleep as late as 9 p.m., waking only to keep the party going.)
All of these staffers, of course, needed to be paid. Shouldn’t be a problem, said Michael Berger, one of Teodorin’s American lawyers (who described himself on his website as a “Mensa certified genius”). Thanks to their financial networks, comprising anonymous shells and law firm accounts, Teodorin could pass his ill-gotten gains through an unwitting American bank, masked by attorney-client and shell company accounts, funneling tens of thousands of dollars and more to his security details and top-flight chefs and drivers whisking him around town. Later bills even showed one shell company account that directed some $7,500 for something called a “Fish Physician,” for help maintaining Teodorin’s new koi pond.
Nor was a palatial mansion and expanding staff the only place Teodorin’s money went. Just look at the toys he purchased. In the span of just a few years, Teodorin fleshed out his Malibu pad with an incredible thirty-two luxury, high-end cars and motorcycles. Enough to start his own dealership, and leave plenty of inventory to open new locations. Teodorin raced up and down the California coast, pocketing anything that caught his eye. All he had to do, according to later investigations, was write personal checks attached to his shell company accounts, with the checks listing things like “Ferrari” or “Pay off 2005 Lamborghini Roadster” in their memo lines.
Teodorin never missed a chance to show off his collection. As journalist Ken Silverstein wrote, “One night, Teodorin parked his Bugatti Veyron near the entrance of L’Ermitage, a favorite hangout where he’d gone for drinks. When he saw gawkers stop to admire it, he sent [his driver] back to Malibu by cab so [he] could drive back his second Bugatti to park next to it.” (As he would say to his staff, “I’m wearing blue shoes, so get me the blue Rolls today.”)
Teodorin also developed a taste for things that float. For Christmas 2006, he spent some $700,000 to rent out Paul Allen’s 300-foot yacht, named Tatoosh, to fete his most well-known girlfriend, Grammy-winning rapper Eve. Taken with the boat, Teodorin promptly announced that he was going to build one of the world’s largest superyachts himself. He immediately commissioned Kusch Yachts, a German boat-builder, to draw up plans for a 200-foot custom yacht — one that would have a shark tank aboard, in addition to a movie theater, restaurant, and fingerprint-operated doors. Total price tag: $380 million.
While the designs for Teodorin’s new megayacht (code-named “Project Zen”) were finalized, he also sought out smaller options. He picked up multiple performance racing boats from a dealer in Fort Myers, Florida, going for about $1 million apiece — and coming without any requirements from the sellers to inquire about the source of the money. These so-called go-fast boats topped out at almost 200 miles per hour — and could go even faster when tricked out with helicopter engines, which he reportedly demanded.
And then there was the jet. A Gulfstream GV — a “gee-five,” in modern parlance — which soars over 50,000 feet, ranges over 10,000 kilometers, and uses a pair of high-end Rolls-Royce engines to fly so fast it can nearly break the sound barrier. Using the same American financial secrecy tools that he used to purchase his Malibu palace, Teodorin easily pocketed one of the most luxurious private jets on the planet.
It didn’t take long for Teodorin to put his new investment to use. Flight records over the next few years showed Teodorin zooming around the world, from Bermuda to Dubai to Brazil to France. From March 2007 to November 2009, the plane arrived and departed from the U.S. an incredible 35 times. Girlfriends and models and escorts usually rode along, to destinations extraordinaire.
Few women, though, could compare to Teodorin’s favorite female flying guest: Janet Jackson. It’s unclear how exactly Teodorin and Janet first met. By the late 2000s, though, the two were clear friends, with Janet a “frequent visitor” to Teodorin’s Malibu palazzo. Other friends, according to one of the federal investigators I spoke with, were Tito and Jermaine, two lesser-known Jackson brothers. “The Michael Jackson family,” the investigator told me, were “frequent fliers” alongside Teodorin.
But there’s no record of Teodorin ever meeting his idol — the man he, and so many of his generation, worshipped. After Michael Jackson died unexpectedly in the summer of 2009, Teodorin’s opportunity to befriend his hero disappeared. As journalist Ken Silverstein wrote, Teodorin reportedly drove a Rolls-Royce Phantom to Jackson’s memorial, but he’d never have the chance to meet the man he’d idolized growing up.
Yet that didn’t mean he couldn’t remember the King of Pop, and continue his legacy, in other ways. So he launched a plan to instead buy up as much of Michael Jackson’s estate as he could — as many baubles and trophies, as many gold-plated records and Neverland trinkets, as many moments of icon and legacy tied directly to the pop singer — no matter the cost.
Thankfully, there was an easy way to do so, courtesy of the loopholes provided by the U.S. government. In the U.S., art and collectibles vendors, including high-rollers like Sotheby’s and Christie’s, have never been subject to any kind of due diligence or anti–money laundering regulations. Despite the fact that the U.S. has the world’s largest art market — clocking in at nearly $30 billion, some 44 percent of global sales — the entire industry has long escaped any kind of regulatory oversight. For the auction houses that sell this kind of material, as a 2020 Senate report later found, there is no “mandate [for] detailed procedures to prevent money laundering and verify a customer’s identity.”
Or more simply: anyone can buy anything, for any amount, with any money, at any American auction house.
Through a tangle of contacts in the music industry, the Los Angeles-based Julien’s Auctions landed the rights to distribute the lion’s share of Jackson’s estate. It was a natural fit for Julien’s, which had already helped drive demand for everything from Marilyn Monroe merch to Muhammad Ali swag to Barbra Streisand tchotchkes. Founded by the genial Darren Julien in 2001, the auction house had ridden the wave of the growing memorabilia industry — a wave that had already attracted the interest of malign figures elsewhere. “I go back to the auction business in the late 1990s with classic cars, which were laundered for drug money. . . . the car auction company I worked for in the late 1990s, we got raided because the consignors were drug dealers,” Julien told me. Even with that history, though, Julien didn’t seem perturbed by kleptocrats eyeing his auction house as a potential means of transforming their dirty money into valuable memorabilia. Dirty money, after all, is worth just as much as the clean — and all that matters is that these auction houses attract clients. “At the end of the day it’s really what someone does with the money, how they obtain it, that’s not our [business],” the affable Julien told me.
To help grab as much Michael Jackson merchandise as he could, Teodorin assigned one of his assistants, a young, slender Los Angeles resident named Wanda Kelley, to outcompete anyone interested in the Prince of Pop merchandise. According to investigators and later receipts alike, Kelley was only too happy to oblige. In a number of separate auctions throughout the year — some in Beverly Hills, some in Las Vegas, even one held in Macau, where Teodorin’s team phoned in their bids — Teodorin funneled millions of dollars to secure as much Jackson memorabilia as he could.
There was a signed basketball from Jackson and basketball superstar Michael Jordan, each an MJ, which Teodorin grabbed for $245,000. There was the silver-sheen MTV Video Music Awards “Moonman” trophy, snapped up for $60,000. There was Jackson’s gold record for “Beat It,” one of Jackson’s autographed jackets from the seminal “Thriller” music video, a “life mask” of Jackson’s face when he was still alive — all bought for hundreds of thousands of dollars. There were even life-size statues of Jackson that the pop star had sprinkled across his Neverland ranch, life-size imprints of himself, which Teodorin shelled out thousands more for. (If he couldn’t hang out with the pop star himself, why not a half-dozen life-size replicas?)
One video survives of these auctions, which took place in Las Vegas in the summer of 2010. The auctioneer stands at the dais in a powder-blue blazer in front of a black banner emblazoned with “Julien’s AUCTIONS,” flanked by photos of celebrities like Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. She looks down over the dozens of buzzing attendees, all of them carrying paddles to raise to place their bids. “Listen to me — I’m going to do something,” she starts. “I’m going to open this at a buck, so that everyone who has a paddle will be able to bid on it at least once.” Her voice starts to get louder, the crowd’s noise rising in turn. “And then you can tell your children,” she proclaims, “that you came to this auction” — she starts to point at the crowd, practically yelling at this point — “and you—bid—on—that—GLOVE!”
A flash on the television screen to her right reveals what she’s talking about. It’s an item anyone familiar with Michael Jackson lore will recognize: a white cotton glove, with a snap closure at its wrist, swathed in hundreds of hand-sewn Swarovski lochrosen crystals. It’s Jackson’s fabled “Bad” glove, the pinnacle of Jackson’s cultural imprint, the most garish, most inescapable legacy of Jackson’s celebrity.
The auction starts — “one dollar!” — and all the paddles immediately jump. The numbers immediately spiral upward, the auctioneer peppering the crowd with figures, the paddles pumping up and down. The amounts quickly reach six figures. Electricity is running through the crowd, shrieks and screams and murmurs and gasps suddenly bouncing around. The auctioneer reaches $140,000, and pauses: “That’s all you got?” Another paddle goes up: $150,000. And another: $160,000. The auctioneer pauses, looks across a waiting audience. “At $160,000, fair warning,” she says. She looks around once more, and raises her hand. “Going once, going twice, at $160,000 . . . SOLD!”
The crowd immediately bursts into applause. The auctioneer smiles down at the winner. “I think they want you to stand, take a bow!” she says. There, in the front row, a young woman in a gray dress slowly stands, turns around, and curtsies. Few in the crowd, if anyone, would recognize her. But as investigators later identified, the woman was Wanda Kelley, Teodorin’s assistant, who’d just won the prize piece. As she said after the auction, “Let’s just say I wasn’t walking out of here without that glove.”
Payment for the glove, and the rest of the memorabilia, was straight-forward. Since the auction house didn’t have to concern itself with the source of a buyer’s income, the auction house could simply accept a wire transfer directly from Teodorin’s accounts in Equatorial Guinea. But that didn’t mean that Teodorin necessarily wanted it getting around that he was the one behind Kelley’s bids. After one auction in which he shelled out $80,000 for Michael Jackson’s crystal socks and another $140,000 for a jacket and shirt — an entire outfit, nearly — one of Teodorin’s assistants wrote the auction house: “Please make sure that [Teodorin’s] name does not appear anywhere. . . . Please make sure that where a name needs to be, my name is there. This is very important.” He should be, the assistant added, “invisible.”
The auction house was happy to comply. And in the span of just a few months, the bulk of Jackson’s mementos transferred directly from the pop star’s estate, via the auction house, into Teodorin’s possession for what amounted to, a year or so since the singer’s death, the most spectacular Michael Jackson collection in the world. All of it held by the heir apparent of the world’s longest-standing dictatorship.
Back in Miami, around the same time, Rutherford had hit a wall. Each agent he assigned to look into Teodorin’s case ended up distracted, dejected, or both. Some ran into frustrations from trying to glean anything from counterparts overseas; ICE didn’t exactly have the institutional or bureaucratic heft that someone from the FBI could throw around. Others ran into confusion about the shell company networks Teodorin employed, tripped up by the anonymous structures. One by one the agents fell off or were reassigned elsewhere.
Shortly thereafter, though, Rutherford met an agent named Robert Manzanares. Brusque, with close-cropped hair and known for freely cussing — “fuckhead,” “motherfucker,” and variations therein are frequent conversation companions — Manzanares joined Rutherford’s team in 2008 with prior money laundering and corruption experience, though that was only in the domestic context. “They threw me into this fire,” Manzanares told me. “I couldn’t even pronounce ‘Teodorin Obiang,’ or ‘Equatorial Guinea.’” Manzanares knew about laundering. But things like “kleptocracy,” with oligarchs and regimes pillaging entire countries and stashing their looted assets in places like the U.S., was magnitudes larger than anything he’d seen before. “I didn’t know all these buzzwords,” he added. “This was brand new for me. I did corruption work in the past, but foreign corruption — no, no. This was a different animal.”
Manzanares immediately threw himself into the nascent investigation, digging through the previous reports and notes. He thought back to something one of his former supervisors had said. “One of my mentors always taught me to look through the canceled checks, look through the canceled checks, look through the canceled checks,” he recalled. And there, amid the reams of documents the other agents had compiled, was just what Manzanares was looking for. Listed as payment for a boat trailer, the check was a stroke of good luck — not least because the check was made out to a trailer company not far from the ICE foreign corruption office. “It was finding the needle in the haystack,” Manzanares later remembered.
Manzanares immediately hopped in his car and drove directly to the boat trailer company. He found the manager, introduced himself, and asked if he may have remembered the buyer linked to the check in his hand. “Oh yeah,” the manager responded. “That’s the boat for the prince.”
“The prince?” Manzanares responded.
“Yeah, the guy from Africa, the prince,” said the manager. “He came here with all of his bodyguards.” Could this be Teodorin? The manager unspooled a tale of this “prince” building boats in Florida, and told Manzanares which boat company he should contact.
The investigator promptly reached out to the company. He told them what he was looking for, and said that he was trying to trace any financial documentation about how Teodorin paid for the boat. The company rep told him they knew exactly who he was talking about. “And that’s when they told me, ‘Well, Robert, it’s not one boat — it’s three boats,’” Manzanares said. The company said they’d be happy to help.
When Manzanares arrived to pick up the documents, he struck up a conversation with one of the female employees sitting nearby. They talked about this “prince,” and why anyone would need a boat that travels 200 miles per hour. In the middle of their back-and-forth, the employee said, “You know, he got the glove.” Manzanares looked at her. He had no idea what she was talking about — he was there to talk about boats, not clothes. “I’m like, ‘Lady, what are you talking about?’”
“The glove — the Michael Jackson glove.”
“The sequined glove?”
No one — not Manzanares, not any of his colleagues, not anyone outside Teodorin’s immediate network — knew about the glove. Except, apparently, for this woman at this South Florida boat company. Manzanares asked her how she could possibly know that Teodorin got the glove. Her response: “His assistant told me. She was bragging about it.”
He already knew who Teodorin’s assistant was, but he needed more information on this “Michael Jackson glove.” Sitting at his computer, he began searching, and soon came across the video of the auction — and of Kelley landing the bid to win the glove. There was the auctioneer. There were the bids racing upward. There was Kelley winning, and getting up to curtsy. As soon as the clip ended, Manzanares picked up the phone and called the prosecutors ICE had been working with to try to get a case going against Teodorin.
“I said, ‘I’m going to be forwarding you this auction where [Teodorin] buys Michael Jackson’s glove,’” Manzanares recalled.
The other line was quiet for a moment.
“And they’re like, ‘What?’”
Immediately after Manzanares discovered that Teodorin was secretly behind the purchase of Michael Jackson’s crystal-studded glove, he reached out to the man who had made the entire purchase possible: Julien. When the investigator and Julien first spoke, the auctioneer blanched: Had he done something wrong? Had he committed any crimes? Was he under suspicion? The investigator soothed him, telling Julien that he was interested only in tracking Teodorin’s assets. After all, auction houses like Julien’s still remain exempt from basic anti–money laundering and antikleptocracy requirements. There was no reason for Julien to worry. He’d done nothing wrong, Manzanares told me. “Absolutely nothing. They had nothing to report. They had no duty to report. Zero. Zero.”
Still, Manzanares told him, there would be a subpoena coming in order to track the details of how Teodorin was moving his money on the back end, and how he’d managed to fund the purchase of the glove. Julien said he’d be happy to help. But he wanted Manzanares to know one thing about Teodorin: “This is a good-paying client,” Julien claimed, according to Manzanares. The investigator thought for a moment. This was a conversation about a glove — a single, five-fingered Swarovski set. Just the one item. But Manzanares now had a new question: Are there other items he should be looking into? Are there other Michael Jackson trinkets and trophies he should be asking about?
“Then there was that pregnant pause,” Manzanares remembered, recounting Julien’s sudden, conspicuous silence. It was a silence he’d encountered in cases before. A silence that confirmed a new trail. “And I knew right then and there I hit a gold mine.” Before Julien could respond, Manzanares continued on, letting the auctioneer know that he would be expanding the scope of the subpoena to include other items Teodorin, or anyone in his network, had purchased. “And boom: we hit the mother lode there,” Manzanares recounted years later, laughing as he did.
Suddenly, the glove was no longer the single thread for Manzanares and American officials to pull on. Julien complied with the subpoenas, and the documents began flooding in: dates, names, records, transactions. All of it, including emails from Wanda Kelley, the woman wielding Teodorin’s paddle, trying to cover Teodorin’s tracks. “In one of the emails Wanda says, ‘Listen guys, remember, [Teodorin] has to remain a ghost. He needs to be a ghost. No one can ever know that it’s him,’” Manzanares said. “She wasn’t smart enough to understand that a subpoena is gonna get me that information.”
And there were the details of Teodorin’s obsession — his “fetish,” Manzanares called it — with Michael Jackson. The statues and awards, the gold-plated records and gilded socks, the fedoras and photos and sheet music — all the details of Teodorin’s new, sprawling collection were there, all bought with the dirty money he’d brought directly into the U.S. An entire world of Michael Jackson memorabilia beckoned. The biggest single collection in the entire world. “When we got that info back . . . you can start seeing the momentum carrying on and pushing the case a little bit further,” Manzanares said. “And I knew then and there that if it went to trial, that just made the case so much sexier. The sex appeal was all over that case.”
Back in Washington, a new administration was taking note, building up the infrastructure of America’s counter-kleptocracy policies as it went. In the summer of 2010, during a visit to the African Union summit in Uganda, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the formation of a new shop in Washington dedicated to fighting rising kleptocracy. “As my nation’s Attorney General, I have made combating corruption, generally and in the United States, a top priority,” Holder told the attendees. “And, today, I’m pleased to announce that the U.S. Department of Justice is launching a new Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative aimed at combating large-scale foreign official corruption and recovering public funds for their intended — and proper — use: for the people of our nations.”
The Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative was just as it sounded: a new group dedicated to identifying, seizing, and recovering assets purchased with dirty money linked directly to brutal regimes. The process, known as civil asset forfeiture, had a lengthy history in the domestic context of the U.S., allowing authorities to seize ownership of assets purchased with corrupt or embezzled funds. But with the Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative, there was a new step: returning the seized funds themselves to the populations pillaged and brutalized back home.
This freeze-seize-return plan, according to one of the DOJ prosecutors involved in the initiative’s early days, solved one of the major issues that had bedeviled other anti-kleptocracy efforts. If the crooked officials in question got wind of an investigation targeting them and their assets, or if they suddenly found themselves under criminal investigation, they could — thanks to everything from their deep pockets to their diplomatic immunity, available to officials both crooked and clean — simply board a flight out of the country and head back home, where they wouldn’t need to worry about extradition or prosecution. “One of the things that’ll sometimes happen when you realize you’re under federal investigation is that you just won’t come to the U.S. anymore,” the prosecutor said.
But those assets they’d plowed their dirty money into often can’t hop on a plane with them — leaving things like real estate and other assets open to seizure by American authorities.
Soon after the initiative’s launch, the DOJ’s new team connected with Manzanares and Rutherford, who were still overseeing the ICE investigation into Teodorin. The two agents would remain leads on the investigative side, but the DOJ prosecutors would begin patching together the actual asset seizure filings — all in order to convince a judge that the money Teodorin plowed into his American assets was, indeed, the proceeds of one of the most corrupt regimes in the world.
During the investigation, the two agents picked up hints of where Teodorin stashed his other assets across the U.S. After all, despite the anonymity when it came to how his money cycled through the U.S., Teodorin couldn’t help but place himself in the limelight whenever possible. Just ask the boat vendors who heard the gossip of Teodorin’s Michael Jackson stash, or the California luxury car dealers only too happy to service Teodorin’s ever-swelling armada of automobiles, or the locals who didn’t take long to realize who the new owner of the palace overlooking the Pacific — who this new fresh prince of Malibu —was. “I come from the drug world, where you try to keep what you’re doing secret, undercover,” Rutherford said. “You can start immediately dealing in the drug world with destruction of evidence, covering your tracks. With [Teodorin] it didn’t make a bit of difference. He didn’t try to cover his tracks. He didn’t start destroying evidence. He kept going. That’s just who he is — to our benefit.”
In their conversations, in their subpoenas, in the dozens of flights and thousands of documents obtained — in addition to a bombshell 2010 Senate report that detailed just how Teodorin and other kleptocrats managed to dodge money laundering regulations and purchase all of their goodies — the investigators began forming a case: one that would allow an American judge to green-light a seizure of all of Teodorin’s American assets. Thanks to the civil forfeiture proceedings mentioned above, all they would have to do is prove the material was purchased with dirty money, which would then allow them to seize the assets outright from Teodorin — and eventually funnel the proceeds back to the Equatoguinean populations suffering under the Obiangs’ dictatorship.
Their initial play to freeze-and-seize Teodorin’s American holdings relied primarily on his Michael Jackson memorabilia. While the judge was sympathetic to the case, she felt, as Manzanares recounted, that there wasn’t a “lot of meat on the bone” — that a case built solely around targeting Michael Jackson memorabilia was hardly enough for the Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative to tackle as a first case. As the judge told them, they might as well go for broke. So the team dug more, putting out public press releases regarding their search for Teodorin’s loot. And they uncovered an entirely new slate of assets tied to the man whose dreams of celebrity were suddenly beginning to fall apart. There was the private jet, and all the workarounds Teodorin used, from his lawyers to his escrow agents, none of whom had to conduct any basic due diligence. There was the flotilla of Ferraris and Bugattis and Maseratis. There were, as they learned in conversations with foreign counterparts, further homes tied to Teodorin in places like Brazil and South Africa and France, also purchased with the proceeds of foreign corruption. The U.S. had no jurisdiction to issue seizure warrants for those properties. But there was that estate in Malibu, those acres upon acres of sprawling space and infinity pools and a mansion that was larger than all of the American investigators’ houses combined. That American castle, investigators realized, was something they could try to seize, if the judge signed off.
At some point — no one’s quite sure when — Teodorin realized what was happening. His American assets were suddenly a millstone around his neck. His dirty money had transformed into something tangible: into cars and a private jet, into a mansion and more Michael Jackson swag than anyone else in the world owned. And those assets could, as the DOJ laid out in its announcement of the Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative, be seized, and be taken from the man who’d taken everything he’d wanted prior.
It was something of a catch-22 for Teodorin. If he’d kept his money circulating in the banks, it likely never would have been seized, and could have flowed anywhere he wanted. (There’s a reason those banking funds are called liquid assets, after all.) But as soon as it became something tangible — something outside of the bank, there for all to see — it was suddenly there for the taking. Or put another way: the dirty money in the banks could be shifted at a moment’s notice, but the supposedly “clean” assets in the real world were the ones at risk.
By the time Teodorin realized that there would be (maybe for the first time in his life) consequences for his actions, it was too late. Manzanares and Rutherford organized all of their findings, and the DOJ prosecutors bundled those details into a formal case against him. In October 2011, the DOJ led two forfeiture actions, one in California and one in Washington, D.C., targeting the jet, mansion, cars, and Michael Jackson memorabilia.
But Teodorin didn’t back down. After the DOJ made its first moves, his lawyer pledged that his client “would not remove any of his assets from the United States,” so long as the original forfeiture complaint remained under seal. But promises meant nothing to Teodorin. Shortly after the pledge, and unbeknownst to investigators at the time, an employee of his named Emmanuel Asamoah traveled to Malibu. He had one job: to smuggle as much of the Michael Jackson memorabilia out of the country as he could. Two days later, he flew to Equatorial Guinea by way of France — taking with him, among other things, the most famous glove in the world. (After returning to Equatorial Guinea, Teodorin stuffed the cultural center in the country’s capital with some of his Michael Jackson merchandise. It’s unclear where the rest of the smuggled Michael Jackson mementos currently are, or if they keep him company in one of his other mansions somewhere else.)
That wasn’t all. While Teodorin’s lawyer convinced American authorities that all the assets would remain in the U.S., his entourage managed to ship most of the cars to France, sending his luxury automobiles halfway around the world, just to escape U.S. law. The kleptocrat also flew his Gulfstream out of American airspace, free to enjoy it anywhere the U.S. couldn’t seize it.
But there were some items he couldn’t flee with. There was a $500,000 Ferrari, which, for reasons unexplained, Teodorin left parked in his Malibu garage. There was the series of life-size Michael Jackson statues that his employee couldn’t carry with him, scattered around his Malibu grounds like confused onlookers. And there was the mansion itself — Teodorin’s pride, Teodorin’s palace, Teodorin’s claim to American celebrity and American royalty. A megamansion that would remain tucked along the Pacific coastline. A testament to his greed, and all the loopholes and enablers that had led him there. (“The house was just gaudy,” Rutherford remembered of entering the place for the first time. “It was just gaudy, it was a huge house. The rooms were huge. You had to have huge furniture, but it was not anything you or I would have picked.”)
While Teodorin and his lawyers managed to stretch out negotiations with the American investigators, they could hardly play down Teodorin’s clear corruption. When the DOJ announced the settlement of the case — which began as United States of America v. One Michael Jackson Signed Thriller Jacket and Other Michael Jackson Memorabilia, and ran on from there — their press release was stark. “Through relentless embezzlement and extortion, [Teodorin] shamelessly looted his government and shook down businesses in his country to support his lavish lifestyle, while many of his fellow citizens lived in extreme poverty,” said Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell. “After raking in millions in bribes and kickbacks, [he] embarked on a corruption-fueled spending spree in the United States. This settlement forces [him] to relinquish assets worth an estimated $30 million, and prevents [him] from hiding other stolen money in the United States, fulfilling the goals of our Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative: to deny safe haven to the proceeds of large-scale foreign official corruption and recover those funds for the people harmed by the abuse of office.” And all that seized wealth would be sent to the original source: the people of Equatorial Guinea, whom Teodorin and his family had spent decades looting. (Just last month, after years of wrangling and obstinance from Teodorin’s side, the U.S. announced that the seized funds would be used to purchase COVID vaccines for citizens of Equatorial Guinea — a remarkably clever way to work around a kleptocrat who did all he could to block the funds’ return.)
As the seizure documents laid out, Teodorin had acted like a virus, constantly on the move, infecting the openings and industries American kleptocracy had provided. He and his enablers had taken full advantage of the years of deregulatory developments across the American economy — those “pro-business” moves and loopholes carved out, attracting as much capital and revenue as possible, regardless of the source. Teodorin was, in many ways, the logical end point of those deregulatory decisions: of allowing quick, anonymous access to American shell companies; of allowing U.S. lawyers to work with whomever they wanted, and helping clients hide their money along the way; of allowing access to American real estate and American luxury goods and American art dealers and auction houses for the world of clean and dirty money alike. The U.S. had thrown its arms open to anyone who wanted a piece of the American economy, provided they could pay. Of course a kleptocrat like Teodorin would show up on America’s doorstep.
And even though he was eventually found out, the result of Teodorin’s prosecution and settlement revealed the limits of asset recovery. “For the average Equatoguinean, used to seeing Teodorin flaunt his ill-gotten assets and act with absolute impunity, the case in the U.S. represented an opportunity for some sort of real, tangible justice, so . . . many of us still feel that the proceedings [and] the ensuing results thus far have been incomplete,” said Tutu Alicante, the Equatoguinean activist who’d dedicated so many of his years toward upending Teodorin and his father’s regime. “But at the same time, it gives us hope that Teodorin’s and other kleptocrats’ assets, thanks to the Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative . . . are not going to be welcome [in the U.S.]. So we’re learning to celebrate the small victories and continue fighting for greater accountability mechanisms against kleptocrats.”
Still, taking stock of the world of anti-kleptocracy efforts in the early 2010s, the victories far outweighed any losses or missed opportunities. Teodorin had, finally, been stopped. “We did something that, quite frankly, nobody ever thought could ever be done,” Manzanares said. And other countries took note. Shortly after the Americans came down on Teodorin, law enforcement colleagues from Brazil to France followed suit, unearthing details of his purchases in their own countries — and seizing and freezing them along the way.
In many ways, the disintegration of Teodorin’s American empire was a high-water mark for anti-money laundering efforts in the U.S., and for efforts to root out the corrupt networks worming their way through the country. It was a test case, sure, but one that succeeded more than anyone had initially thought. It showed how joint squads from Washington, comprising both prosecutors and investigators under the nascent Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative, could work to target the licit networks propping up illicit funds and make an example of the most corrupt actors relying on the U.S. for their money laundering needs. American leadership, resources, and ingenuity: all of it had been marshaled to stop, as Manzanares dubbed him, the “poster child of kleptocracy” — and to make sure all those following in Teodorin’s footsteps thought twice.
And for a bit, the plan, and the efforts, worked. The poster-child of kleptocracy was no more, even if he still hoarded Michael Jackson memorabilia like Gollum with his idol’s glove. He’d transformed from kleptocrat-cum-celebrity into a cautionary tale. But then a new president entered the White House in early 2017, and Teodorin uncovered a new means of spending his money however he wanted in the U.S.—and of exploiting as much of this American kleptocracy as he could.
Read in Rolling Stone