The Wine Thief

The Wine Thief

Nicolas DeMeyer was a scammer. Or a hero for the age of inequality. Or a young man haunted by the death of a dear friend. Or all of these things.

CreditCreditPeter Horvath

Nicolas DeMeyer was a man centrally concerned with his image who always seemed to be hiding something.

He had no Facebook, Instagram or Twitter account. Close friends can barely recall what he did for a living between 1999, when he graduated from Vassar College, and 2008, when he became the personal assistant to David Solomon, now the C.E.O. of Goldman Sachs.

There were evasions and white lies — in college, Mr. DeMeyer said he was the son of German nobility — but for the most part, Mr. DeMeyer’s flights of fancy seemed relatively harmless.

Then, in January 2018, after 14 months of traveling the world, he was arrested by federal agents at Los Angeles International Airport before he could even collect his luggage. His crime? Looting $1.2 million of wine from the cellar of Mr. Solomon’s home in East Hampton.

Nine months later, Mr. DeMeyer was in New York for a scheduled court appearance, and was expected to plead guilty. Instead, he jumped to his death from the 33rd floor of the Carlyle Hotel.

Had he robbed a random 0.1 percenter, it would have been easy simply to take the word of people who knew Mr. DeMeyer and described him as a modern-day Tom Ripley, just another grifter undeserving of empathy.

But Goldman Sachs is a flash point in the rise of economic inequality — and Mr. DeMeyer lifted more than 500 bottles of Mr. Solomon’s wine without anyone noticing. So perhaps there was a certain inevitability to the recasting of Mr. DeMeyer as Butch Cassidy in Hermès sneakers.

His long con made Mr. DeMeyer’s tale something of a parable of our age, a dark fantasy for millions of people who serve the plutocrat class and dream of getting even.

Nicolas DeMeyer in 1999.

“You never knew the truth of things with Nick. The appearance of things was very important to him,” said Andrew Fitzpatrick, who went to high school with Mr. DeMeyer in Findlay, Ohio (population estimate: 40,000), and for a little more than a year was his best friend.

Back then, Mr. DeMeyer was Nickolas Meyer. His parents were divorced and he was mostly raised by his mother, Jane Rettig, the owner of a local self-storage business.

According to friends, he got through geometry by obtaining an advance copy of the final exam from an upperclassman, and he won an award for his French mostly by charming his teacher.

Mr. Fitzpatrick said that Mr. DeMeyer drove a white Mustang to school, shopped for clothes at Benetton and The Limited, and had a girlfriend named Pamela, who was “the right girl to date — trendy, popular and doing the ‘Clueless’ look before the movie came out. She had gorgeous red hair and drove a convertible. We would leave school during lunch, and drive around in her car singing Abba and talking about how we had to get out of this town.”

In a rare photo from Findlay High School’s 1995 yearbook, Mr. DeMeyer looked Kennedy-esque in a dark ribbed sweater and a white button-down, a backpack hanging from a shoulder.

Mr. Fitzpatrick is now known as the drag performer Mona Mour. In 1995, he was out; Mr. DeMeyer was not. After school, the boys rehearsed for class productions of “Bye Bye Birdie” and “The King and I.” On weekends, they slept over at Mr. DeMeyer’s house, sneaked out in the Mustang and picked up Pamela, bound for Bretz, a gay dance club in Toledo.

Things ended poorly for the trio, Mr. Fitzpatrick said: “One day, I was in the cafeteria, and Nick walked up to me and said ‘You have to decide: Are you my friend or Pamela’s?’ I said ‘Well, Pamela never asked me anything like that, so I guess her.’ But I never understood how he could just cut me out of his life in an instant like I didn’t matter.”


CreditImage provided by Ray Windsor

Vassar College, once known as the alma mater of Jacqueline Onassis and Meryl Streep, was, by the time Mr. Meyer arrived in 1995, a haven for worldly artistic kids who were too urban for Kenyon and Oberlin but didn’t have the grades or scores for Brown or Yale.

What students at Vassar lacked in drive, they made up for in black eyeliner. On campus, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Mr. DeMeyer drove a black BMW, carried his books in a black Louis Vuitton knapsack and kept a stuffed animal in his dorm room named Aloysius, after the one in “Brideshead Revisited.” He also started dating guys.

He dropped the k from Nickolas and changed his last name to Von Meyer. Eventually, he settled on DeMeyer.

“I can’t say I was friends with Nick, but you couldn’t help but notice him on campus,” said Carl Cade, who graduated in 2000. “I even bought the German nobility act, despite that I looked him up in the Vassar directory and wondered how the hell a German noble was from Findlay, Ohio. It didn’t really stand out because there were so many of us who were scholarship kids pretending to be posh and there were so many of us who were rich kids pretending to be street. Vassar was a grifter’s dream. I remember he once announced that he was getting rid of a Gucci camel coat and whoever came over first would get it free.”

Ray Windsor, another classmate, doesn’t buy the idea that Mr. DeMeyer was a Mr. Ripley in waiting. “He was well dressed for no other reason than that he liked being an aesthete,” he said. “He was an art history major!”

But Mr. Windsor does recall that there were gaps in Mr. DeMeyer’s story. The first several years they were friends, Mr. Windsor was under the impression Mr. DeMeyer’s father worked in real estate and lived in Germany, possibly in a castle.

Mr. DeMeyer’s mother ultimately told Mr. Windsor that the story was untrue. “She told me he just was a regular old dad in Ohio and asked me to please not say anything because Nicolas was going to tell me himself,” Mr. Windsor said. “And then Nicolas did, about six months later.”

There was never really any question Mr. DeMeyer would come to New York after college. It was less clear what he planned to do there.

Mr. Windsor recalls hearing about an internship at The New Republic, some time spent working at an art gallery. The two hung out together at gay bars like the Cock, Boiler Room and Phoenix. “I think he was always kind of supported by his family,” Mr. Windsor said.

Then Mr. DeMeyer moved to Rome for a graduate degree. By the time Mr. Windsor visited him in 2005, Mr. DeMeyer was fluent in Italian. He also had a new boyfriend, Sandro Ribeiro, a handsome Brazilian. They lived in a small stylish apartment in Trastevere.

The couple moved back to New York in 2007 and took an apartment in the Meurice, a prewar building on West 58th Street. There, they entertained debutantes, gay men and night life characters.

Mr. DeMeyer liked that he was finally living in a building with a name. But there was no way — in a city teeming with lawyers, art dealers and bankers — for a man without a professional reputation to become a world-class saloniste.

Plans to start a jewelry business and an interior design firm never fully took off. Practically the most distinguished guest Mr. DeMeyer poured drinks for was Amanda Lepore, the transgender night life diva — and she arrived with Mr. Windsor, who was then a party promoter. So in 2008, Mr. DeMeyer got with the times and pledged fealty to one of the city’s financial barons.


David Solomon in September.CreditShannon Stapleton/Reuters

At the time, David Solomon led Goldman Sachs’s investment banking division and he thrived in part by playing somewhat a bit against type. He wore athleisure to the pitch for the Lululemon Athletica initial public offering and D.J.ed at bottle service nightclubs.

After Mr. DeMeyer went to work for Mr. Solomon and his wife as the couple’s personal assistant, he and Mr. Ribeiro often stayed at the Solomons’ Hamptons home.

Mr. DeMeyer seemed to know a lot about art, furniture and movies. “He would show us trailers for obscure foreign gay films,” said Ash Blount, who became a friend around 2009. “For someone who I assumed was just another trust fund baby, he actually had a lot of depth.”

But his snob side did come out.

Once Mr. Blount, who lived in Brooklyn, arrived at Mr. DeMeyer’s with a shoulder bag. “He cracked this joke like, ‘That’s one of the great things about living in Manhattan. I never need to pack a bag.”

Another time, Mr. Blount once arrived with a cheap bottle of wine.

“He put it away, opened something better and said, ‘We just got back from Rome,’” said Mr. Blount, who now wonders whether the wine was stolen.

The two fell out in 2010 or so. “I would call and say ‘I’m in your neighborhood.’ He would say ‘I’m in Rome,’” Mr. Blount said. “That’s how we lost touch.”

Mr. Windsor’s relationship with Mr. DeMeyer was severed by one boozy night in 2012. “There was an incident that was half my fault and half his,” Mr. Windsor said.

One constant presence in Mr. DeMeyer’s life was Ali Can Ertug, a well-dressed Turkish classmate from Vassar who went on to help both Christie’s and Sotheby’s open their Istanbul offices.

Mr. Ertug, who was briefly Mr. DeMeyer’s boyfriend, also served as a mentor to him, a conduit to the good life and a representation of everything Mr. DeMeyer was hoping to become. At Sotheby’s, a number of colleagues were put off by a status anxiety they said bordered on obsession, but that also served Mr. Ertug well in his work.

“Ali Can seems great,” Mr. DeMeyer wrote in an email in 2009. “As fun and silly as ever.”

The next year, Mr. Ertug died by suicide, jumping from the window of his Central Park West apartment. According to people who knew him at work, before this event he’d become fixated on an oligarch who’d lost interest in him.

Following Mr. Ertug’s death, Mr. DeMeyer joined Mr. Blount, Mr. Windsor and a couple other Vassar graduates in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow, where they drank wine, looked up at Mr. Ertug’s apartment and told stories about their friend.

Mr. Windsor was shocked. He found it hard to reconcile the death with Mr. Ertug’s nature and with his status as the most successful member of their group, he said.

But there was also, Mr. Blount thought, a manic quality that suffused Mr. Ertug’s life. When Mr. DeMeyer died in a similar fashion eight years later, the parallels were hard to ignore.


The vineyards of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti in Burgundy, France, produce some of the most sought-after — and most expensive — wines in the world. CreditJames Andanson/Sygma, via Getty Images

Wine theft became Mr. DeMeyer’s primary source of income in January, 2014, according to prosecutors’ court filings. Over the next two years, they said, he stole more than 500 bottles from Mr. Solomon without even arousing suspicion. Most bottles were sold to a wine distributor in North Carolina named Ryan Chaland, who runs the wholesaler Wine Liquidators.

In October 2016, Mr. Solomon bought seven bottles of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Soon after, they were sold by Mr. Chaland to the Napa Valley dealer Patrick Albright.

Mr. Albright was pleased to get his hands on such exceptional stock but found it strange that the bottles had wound up with a dealer like Mr. Chaland. “They really aren’t wines that would typically go to a liquidator,” he said.

Worried that they might be counterfeits, Mr. Albright put out calls to colleagues, who discovered from the serial numbers that they were real but stolen.

Mr. Solomon initially had no idea the wine was even missing, until he heard from his dealer asking if he knew the bottles had been sold. He did not.

He also did not suspect Mr. DeMeyer, who calmly led East Hampton detectives around Mr. Solomon’s wine cellar on Nov. 7, 2016.

But the next day Mr. DeMeyer was back in New York, and his demeanor changed.

According to prosecutors, Mr. DeMeyer arranged to meet Mr. Solomon and his wife, Mary (they later separated), at Locanda Verde, where the Solomons were having dinner at an outdoor table on an unusually warm election night. While returns came in from Florida, showing Donald Trump was likely to win there, Mr. DeMeyer confessed to stealing the seven bottles.

He promised to pay the Solomons back and made a plan to meet Mary in the morning at his bank. Then he left the restaurant, headed to Kennedy Airport, and used his American Express card to purchase a $5,300 plane ticket to Rome.

A week later, prosecutors said, he called Mary and again confessed to stealing from her. He said he left for his “home in Italy” because he was scared of being arrested and couldn’t bear the idea of going to prison. A criminal investigation was already underway. The Solomons’ insurance company was involved. Mary told him the decision to press charges wasn’t up to her.

Mr. DeMeyer did not have a home in Italy. He did have a pair of $17,500 checks from Wine Liquidators that he left with his mother. Over the next year, she slowly deposited money into his bank account.

Mr. DeMeyer spent November and December in Rome and Capri. In January 2017 he traveled to Marrakesh for a friend’s birthday party. In February, he went to Rio and Buenos Aires, then back to Rio. The relationship between Mr. DeMeyer and his longtime partner Mr. Ribeiro busted up, and Mr. DeMeyer started seeing someone new. The new couple spent part of that summer together in Zurich.

Around that time, investigators discovered $153,000 in checks and wire transfers from Wine Liquidators to Mr. Ribeiro’s J.P. Morgan account from 2014 to 2016. Hundreds of other bottles had been stolen.

It wasn’t until September that Mr. DeMeyer was indicted — on one charge of interstate transportation of stolen property. Four months later, he nonchalantly returned to the United States and was arrested — likely a surprise to him, as his indictment had been sealed. According to Sabrina Shroff, the lawyer who took his case, he was in Los Angeles to meet someone about a job prospect.

At his bail hearing — which took place after weeks of bouncing between jails — she pointed out that he’d traveled the world under his own name.

“At any point, they could’ve put a flag on him, put up a request for a warrant, put up an Interpol warning, arrested him and brought him here. They seemed to have done no such thing, and I’m kind of confused as to why,” Ms. Shroff said. “All of his travel was transparent and open and clear.”

The judge set his bail at $200,000 and took away his passport. He was given an electronic ankle bracelet and, after his mother eventually put up the bail, shipped back to Ohio while he awaited trial.

He was not happy to be back in the hometown he had spent his life running away from.

Conor Corcoran, a Vassar classmate, was one of many who said he was unsurprised that Mr. DeMeyer had turned to white-collar crime.

“The character of a man who lifts a million dollars’ worth of hooch was on display in Poughkeepsie 20 years ago,” he said, calling Mr. DeMeyer a “socially carnivorous” “talented Mr. Ripley type” who “was always peddling a patently false image of himself.”

“He was not a mean guy,” Mr. Corcoran said, “but there was a beady quality to him. Something was off.”

Mr. Fitzpatrick, who Mr. DeMeyer mistreated all those years before, mostly agreed. But he also felt a hint of admiration for Mr. DeMeyer’s chutzpah.

“Before he died, everyone I know was like, ‘Go girl, get the money,’” Mr. Fitzpatrick said. “There was a part of me that was cheering him on and rooting for him. This guy from Goldman Sachs was so rich, he never even noticed any of the wine was missing. Had Nick not stolen seven really rare bottles, he could still be doing this and the guy would have no idea.”


The Carlyle on Oct. 9.CreditJohn Roca/Polaris

On Oct. 9, Mr. DeMeyer was in New York for his hearing, staying at the Carlyle.

According to The New York Post, Mr. DeMeyer had been exchanging text messages with his sister — they were worrisome enough that she called his hotel.

Security guards were sent to Mr. DeMeyer’s room and reportedly saw him naked outside the window. They exchanged glances. Mr. DeMeyer smiled and jumped.

Suicide is contagious, but there’s no way to know how much Mr. Ertug’s death operated as permission.

Mr. DeMeyer’s death seemed senseless to his friends. “He would have done a year or two and people would have embraced him because the whole city operates on avaricious class aspirational indentured servitude,” Mr. Corcoran said. “Somebody would have taken him in.”

Mr. Windsor, drawing a comparison to the jail time served by Martha Stewart, said: “It could have been not the end but the beginning of something far greater.”

There was also the way Mr. DeMeyer reportedly made guards witness his death. That really bothered Mr. Corcoran, who saw it as yet another act of disassociation and self-absorption, a thing for others to “carry” with them for the rest of their lives.

Back in college, Mr. DeMeyer and Mr. Windsor had read Andrew Holleran’s “Dancer From the Dance,” a novel about gay life in the 1970s that ends with the protagonist killing himself to avoid old age and icy stares.

Mr. Windsor memorialized Mr. DeMeyer on Facebook last month with a quotation from the book: “Dreams are all equipped with revolving doors. Someone is always walking into the one you are leaving.”

He added some words of his own: “Anyone who walked in to Nicolas’s life felt like they were in a dream. He was so exceedingly charming and elusive.”


An earlier version of this article misstated the year Carl Cade graduated from Vassar. It was 2000, not 1996.

Jacob Bernstein is a reporter for the Styles desk. In addition to writing profiles of fashion designers, artists and celebrities, he has focused much of his attention on L.G.B.T. issues, philanthropy and the world of furniture design. @bernsteinjacob

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page D1 of the New York edition with the headline: The Truth Inside The Wine. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe


Published at Wed, 12 Dec 2018 20:50:15 +0000