The phone rang: a call from an unknown number. Through a window near my cubicle, I could see a blood orange sunset falling over the Pacific Ocean. It was a Friday evening in June 2014, and I was working late in the newsroom of the Santa Monica Daily Press. The newspaper’s op-ed page had recently become a virtual war zone for local residents and commercial developers at odds over building projects in the beachfront city. As my desk phone pealed, I decided that I didn’t want to risk getting dragged into yet another debate about the semantic decision to use “city owned land” instead of “resident owned land” in our copy. I didn’t answer. The ringing stopped.
After a brief silence, it started up again. This time I grabbed the receiver, planning to keep whatever conversation transpired as short as possible. A frantic voice was on the other end. The caller, a man, wanted to talk about a developer, but not in the manner I’d feared.
“Steve Farzam was arrested by the FBI,” he told me. “They’re raiding his mansion right now. You could take a picture of it.”
I knew who Farzam was. Everybody in Santa Monica did. He was the chief operating officer of the Shore Hotel, a boutique hot spot situated next to the city’s iconic pier. I’d seen him accept awards for environmental stewardship and social responsibility, wearing a practiced megawatt grin and spouting corporate maxims to groups of local business owners. He was 35, with a doughy face and salt-and-pepper hair. He lived in a multi-million-dollar home and was a natty dresser, sometimes donning a plaid tie or jacket. Now the man on the phone was telling me that this pillar of the community had been hit with some 60 criminal charges, most of them felonies.
In my 11 months at the newspaper, I’d never heard dirt on Farzam. Nothing immediately came up in an internet search. In a previous reporting job in Atlantic City, I’d written about mafia cases with multiple defendants and several years’ worth of investigation; none had ever begun with anything close to five-dozen felony charges. I asked for the caller’s name, but he wouldn’t give it. He had to be insane, I thought. Still, after we hung up, I called the local jail.
When the watch commander answered, I apologized for phoning about such a weird tip. “Hey, we don’t have old Steve Farzam in custody, do we?” I heard him shout to a colleague. A pause followed. “Oh shit, we do?” the watch commander replied incredulously. Then to me he said, “You’re going to have to call the California Department of Justice. It’s their case.”
I had barely put down the receiver when the phone started ringing again: the untraceable number, the excited caller. He was eager to hear what the police had said. “I’ve been working the case for months,” he exclaimed. “They’re going to put him away for a long time.” He still wouldn’t give me his name, but he offered a number with an Orange County area code and told me to call him back after I’d talked with state authorities.
I phoned the California DOJ. A spokesperson confirmed that there was a case against Farzam—a big one. It was a joint operation that also involved the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), FBI, and Santa Monica Police Department. The agencies were investigating numerous alleged crimes, including identity theft and illegally importing an assault rifle. And the mysterious caller hadn’t inflated the number of charges—he’d underestimated them. After the raid on Farzam’s mansion, 77 charges would be filed, all but four for felonies.
I dialed the number the anonymous man had given me to tell him what the DOJ had said. He referred to me as “partner” and crowed some more about the case. He said he worked with a federal agency, but he didn’t provide any specifics. In hindsight the wording was deft. I made the jump he likely was hoping I’d make.
Holy shit, I thought. I have a real live FBI mole for a source.
The caller’s name, I eventually learned, was Christopher Dancel. I’ve now spoken to him multiple times and met him once in person, at a Denny’s in the San Fernando Valley. He is 48, tall, and well built, with a wide, heavy face and close-cropped brown hair. His light blue eyes turn down slightly at the corners, making him look perpetually despondent. One of his muscled biceps bears a tattoo in a rigid font that reads, “I have a high art: I hurt with cruelty those who wound me.” It’s a quote from the writings of Archilochus, a Greek poet of the Archaic period.
Dancel is not a federal agent. He never has been. He is many other things: native Angeleno, father, ex-husband of a porn star. For more than a decade, he was also Steve Farzam’s close friend.
The pair met in a peculiar social netherworld. Generously, you could call them police wannabes: guys who long to be associated with or, better yet, mistaken for officers of the law. Dancel and Farzam spent years obsessing over police culture. They became fluent in the lingo, from “copy” in place of “I understand” to the numbered codes cops use when speaking over radios; a favorite is “417,” which means “I’m armed.” They accumulated dozens of certificates in skills like handling firearms, picking locks, using Tasers, and responding to accidents. At the time of the 2014 raid, Farzam’s home was filled with law-enforcement memorabilia, including a fabric display pinned with dozens of badges from the FBI, Los Angeles Police Department, and other agencies. A full-size fire truck was parked in his driveway.
The friends’ methods of pretense, though, were different. Dancel, who worked briefly as a police officer, spent much of his career as a security guard for hire. He conducted a handful of citizen’s arrests and in casual conversation implied that he was a sworn, employed officer, even when he wasn’t. If he deceived, he did so by omission, as he did with me.
Farzam, on the other hand, tried and failed to become a public-safety officer, but he brazenly feigned otherwise. Whether out of a fondness or a fetish for law enforcement, he became a skilled, serial impersonator. He flashed badges, infiltrated government databases, and adopted the identities of real agents. Along the way, he took or threatened legal action against several people he felt had crossed him. Some individuals who know Farzam declined to be interviewed for this story or would do so only anonymously, for fear of retribution. (Over three years of reporting, Farzam did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Even before The Atavist Magazine initiated contact with him as part of its standard fact-checking process, a lawyer for the Shore Hotel sent a letter to the editors alleging that “multiple sources” had said the article might include “defamatory statements”; the letter threatened legal action in case of “improper publication.” Neither Farzam nor the lawyer subsequently replied to requests for verification or comment on the details reported here.)
This is a buddy cop story that careened off the rails of a bizarre, untenable track. It’s thick with ego and delusion, and punctuated by lies and betrayal. Because while Christopher Dancel was not a member of law enforcement, as he intimated when we first spoke, he was working as a government informant.
Santa Monica’s waterfront exudes privilege. The sidewalks and avenues are wide, the manicured bluffs along the beach dotted with lofty palm trees. The pier’s famous arched sign, standing since 1941, advertises yachts, fishing, and food in neon green and yellow. The elegant spokes of the Pacific Park Ferris wheel tower over the sand and waves of the original Muscle Beach. By day, across the Pacific Coast Highway, sunlight illuminates the glass and metal exterior of the Shore Hotel, which is U-shaped and hugs a swimming pool like a bygone mid-century motel.
One April afternoon in 2014, Farzam and Dancel cruised along the oceanfront drag in the hotelier’s black Hummer. They were heading for Farzam’s home on South Rockingham Avenue, the street in the tony neighborhood of Brentwood that became a household name during the O.J. Simpson trial. They were hankering for a meal, or “code seven” in cop-speak.
“I haven’t seen a Unitrol system since I was in academy,” Dancel said at one point, referring to the sirens Farzam had rigged in his SUV, along with flashing lights. Dancel meant it as a jab; the system was outdated. It was also an excuse for him to allude to his real-world police experience.
“They’re badass, though,” Farzam replied, dismissing the judgment in his high, nasal voice. “The air horns sound so gangster.” When he blew them, their muffled blare was likely felt as much as heard in the Hummer’s cab. “Sounds beefy,” Dancel conceded.
It was a typical day in an unlikely friendship.
Dancel, who is Italian American, was born in 1969 and grew up in Highland Park, a diverse neighborhood south of Pasadena. His parents weren’t in the picture; his aunt and uncle raised him. They divorced when he was six, and Dancel and his cousins bounced between two homes. When he was a teenager in the 1980s, Highland Park was known for violent gangs like the Avenidas and the 18th Streeters. Around the Fourth of July one year, Dancel and some friends were on their way home from a recreation area, dressed in white shirts and jeans to make clear that they weren’t in a gang. Two guys, later determined to be high on drugs, appeared in the street and began shooting at them. Dancel hid behind a parked car, where he watched a bullet rip through a friend’s thigh.
His biological father was a cop, but Dancel met the man only when he was very young. More consistent in his life were the LAPD officers who patrolled Highland Park’s streets. “They used to roll through and get out of their cars and give you baseball cards,” Dancel recalled. They also responded to horrific events, restoring a sense of order. In February 1986, 16-year-old Dancel was standing with friends outside Barney’s, a corner store topped with a block-letter sign reading “LIQUOUR,” when a car pulled up in the street. From one of its open windows someone yelled a gang affiliation before firing shots. Eighteen-year-old Louie Lamborena, a member of a rival gang and a friend of Dancel’s since childhood, was struck in the chest and killed. “I was scared, so freaking scared,” Dancel told me. Then the cops showed up.
“There was a lot of positivity to law enforcement,” Dancel said. “It was different from today’s climate.” As a young man, he enrolled at Pasadena City College to prepare for a career as a cop.
Farzam grew up just 20 miles away but a world apart. Born in 1978, he had three brothers and a sister. They spent their childhood in Brentwood. His father, Siroos, an Iranian immigrant, purchased seedy Santa Monica motels when the city was a far cry from the sanitized playground for the ultrarich that it is today. Its homicide rate in 1980 was 19.2 per 1,000 residents, nearly double the national average. The pier was dilapidated, and Ocean Avenue, the strip along the Pacific, was lined with biker bars and empty storefronts.
In 1986, the city filed suit against Siroos Farzam for attempting to forcibly evict a long-term tenant of the Ocean Park Motel. The Evening Outlook, Santa Monica’s paper of record at the time, reported that Farzam was convicted after a short municipal trial. “Our office doesn’t bring many criminal prosecutions against landlords,” a city attorney told the newspaper. “However, Mr. Farzam has acquired considerable enforcement activity.” The same year, according to the Los Angeles Times, Santa Monica sued Farzam for 60 alleged violations of municipal codes, including evading taxes, building without a permit, and knowingly permitting the use of his properties for prostitution.
Many of the records from these cases no longer exist, and the prosecutors involved either don’t remember the details very well or have died. But Siroos Farzam’s indiscretions and any penalties he incurred seemed to fade quickly into obscurity. Commercial development began to improve Santa Monica’s fortunes in the late 1980s, and property values ballooned. As Steve Farzam entered adolescence, his family built a new motel. Eventually, they would expand their Brentwood home to cover some 12,000 square feet.
Farzam attended Palisades High School, where the movie Carrie was filmed. Friends of his whom I tried to interview declined to speak, making it difficult to discern what Farzam was like in his youth. State records, though, indicate that as a teenager he may have begun to test the boundaries of his comfortable upbringing. In 1996, Santa Monica police named him as a suspect in a string of burglaries, extortion attempts, and acts of vandalism. The LAPD separately alleged that he had threatened to vandalize a local business. (The outcomes of these cases aren’t publicly available.)
Nonetheless, Farzam hoped to work in public safety. After high school he moved north to Santa Barbara and joined the city’s police-cadet program. His enrollment still gets an early mention on his LinkedIn page as evidence of his “passion to serve his community.” But he never finished. “It’s not uncommon to [enroll] these cadets and they get a little bit carried away,” said former Santa Barbara police officer Charles McChesney, who was on the force when Farzam was in training. They relish the allure of becoming a cop and the power the job imparts, so much so that they sometimes attempt actions—pulling over a speeding car, arresting a suspect, interrogating people—beyond their competency level. “You get rid of them because they start playing,” McChesney said.
He can’t remember the precise reason why Farzam left the program. A subsequent encounter between the two men, however, left a stark impression.
Near midnight on a shift in the summer of 1999, McChesney sat in his squad car processing a routine traffic stop. A 1996 Ford Crown Victoria appeared on the road. It bore no police decals, but red lights were visible in its rear window. The car sped toward McChesney, made a U-turn, and stopped. “He pulled in behind me like he was going to cover me on this traffic stop,” McChesney recalled. “I recognized him, and he recognized me.”
The driver was Farzam. The Crown Victoria had tax-exempt plates—reserved for vehicles used by government agencies—a spotlight, and a police scanner. Farzam coolly explained that he worked for a business called State of California Metro Private Enforcement; he even handed McChesney a business card. McChesney was wary, but Farzam’s trappings and nonchalance convinced him to let the young man drive off into the night.
Farzam had inserted himself into police work before. In March 1998, he contacted local authorities about a drunk driver and tailed the suspect through Santa Barbara. After the driver caused a collision, Farzam detained him until the cops showed up. He won public plaudits for his efforts, including letters of commendation from local police. In that case, Farzam acted as a civilian, if an unusually audacious one. The interaction with McChesney was different.
Around the same time in 1999, a firefighter told the Santa Barbara police that some kid had shown up at an emergency scene and directed traffic like it was his job. The cops determined that this was Farzam. They spotted him pretending to be a public-safety officer several other times, including on his 21st birthday. (Available records don’t describe the incident in detail.) State of California Metro Private Enforcement, it turned out, was a company registered in Farzam’s name. The police discovered that he’d obtained exempt plates by walking into a DMV branch and announcing himself as a probation officer. Buying or forging the gear necessary to seem legitimate—a badge and handcuffs, for example, both of which Farzam carried—would have been easy enough.
The police issued a warrant for Farzam’s arrest and picked him up in August 1999. Prosecutor Lee Carter told me that Farzam pleaded guilty to several misdemeanors. He was sentenced to three years of probation and community service.
That didn’t stop Farzam from continuing his charade. In January 2000, probation officers conducting a search of his belongings found secret recordings Farzam had made of conversations with a young woman; in them, he told the woman that he was a cop investigating a crime involving her boyfriend, with whom Farzam had a personal quarrel. He was charged again, this time for a probation violation, and admitted to the crime. A judge sentenced him to a short jail stint, driving yet another nail into the coffin of a law-enforcement career.
Dancel wasn’t a cop, either. He’d gotten a DUI in 1990, which wouldn’t be expunged from his record until 2003. He’d also become embroiled in a child-custody dispute with an ex-girlfriend, which sucked up time, energy, and money. Dancel fell into jobs as a conflict-of-interest manager at law firms and worked as a nightclub promoter. Once, standing outside a club with a date, he narrowly missed being shot in a drive-by. A puff of white smoke blinded him for an instant: One of the bullets had struck a plaster wall behind him. “That’s one time where I said to myself, Ah man, I wish I was a cop right now,” he told me wistfully. “I could get in my car and chase them.”
He had friends in law enforcement and was envious when they talked about going on foot chases or helping people who’d been robbed at gunpoint. “I was finally like, Man, I gotta do something,” Dancel said. He started picking up private security gigs. Wannabe cops, he told me, are mainstays of this niche freelance market.
One of his jobs, sometime around the turn of the millennium, was at a church carnival in eastern Los Angeles County. A friend in the local sheriff’s department had hooked Dancel up with what promised to be a quiet daytime patrol. The most exciting thing Dancel recalled happening was a “647,” or drunk person, who got belligerent in the carnival’s beer garden. Dancel mostly shadowed money drops: Booth operators took in cash, church staff collected it, and he made sure the exchanges went smoothly. “They would walk from the bouncy house to the spinning cups to the whatever, and we would stay back 25 yards,” he told me.
The carnival security brigade included a young man who stalked around with a gun on his hip: Steve Farzam. Dancel found him arrogant. “We chatted a bit, and he was like, ‘Well, what about you? What do you do?’ Trying to compare dicks or something,” Dancel recalled. “I was like, whatever bro.”
As the carnival went on, Farzam toned down the macho act. Dancel left the event still unsure if he liked the guy, but when he bumped into Farzam on other security jobs, he started to come around. Farzam had a wicked sense of humor, and both men shared a deep love of all things law enforcement. “He ended up just being a nice guy,” Dancel said. “He wasn’t such a dick.”
According to Dancel, Farzam told his new friend that he was a former cop.
Everyone pretends from time to time. We don metaphorical masks to avoid painful truths or to seem more glamorous than we are. Sometimes, paradoxically, we do it to expose what’s beneath the versions of ourselves that the world sees: our base instincts, desires, and beliefs. “Masquerades disclose the reality of souls,” writer Fernando Pessoa once said. “As long as no one sees who we are, we can tell the most intimate details of our life.”
Serial impostors are cut from a more pathological cloth. Police impersonators in particular, according to people who’ve studied them, crave power and authority they otherwise can’t have. Many manipulate their identities in order to commit serious crimes. Serial killer Ted Bundy pretended to be a cop to lure at least one of his female targets. Other impersonators “like to pull over women on the highway for the purpose of trying to sexually assault them,” N.G. Berrill, a forensic psychologist who has worked with imposters, told me. “What they capitalize on is people’s compliance with law enforcement.”
The problem is common enough that the New York City Police Department has a unit dedicated to tracking it, housed in the Internal Affairs Bureau since 1994. In the book Blue on Blue: An Insider’s Story of Good Cops Catching Bad Cops, published in early 2017, former IAB chief Charles Campisi explains that the unit formed because the NYPD “was having a big problem with bogus cops who were hitting bodegas, travel agencies, or other small businesses, primarily in immigrant communities. They’d flash police badges, identify themselves as cops, steal the money from the cash register or the cigar box under the counter, and then warn the victims not to report it.” Campisi describes working in the unit as “the most coveted assignment” in IAB because “cops generally despise criminal police impersonators; they’re like a personal affront, and they make real cops look bad.”
A more enigmatic type of impersonator wants cops to look good—and to look like a good cop. Berrill described this variety, almost always male, as having a severe personality disorder with compulsive behavior. He knows he isn’t a police officer but pretends he is to satisfy some deep emotional need. “These are highly emasculated, highly emotional, highly insecure people who don’t really feel very good about who they are,” Berrill said. “It’s like an escape, like playacting.” He pointed to George Zimmerman, the Florida man who killed teenager Trayvon Martin, as an example. Prosecutors argued that Zimmerman had pursued, fanatically and unsuccessfully, a law-enforcement career. As a civilian, he hectored 911 operators and followed people he suspected of being criminals around with a gun.
Impersonators often hoard or manufacture credentials. In October 2016, 33-year-old Kirk Figueroa of Boston was killed in his apartment during a firefight with police after an altercation with a roommate. Figueroa, who was wearing body armor at the time, had told friends that he wanted to “revolutionize policing.” He was a certified constable (a civilian law-enforcement position in Boston), drove a Crown Victoria emblazoned with “ElitePolicing.org,” and regularly boasted of his military and security experience. In reality, he never attended so much as basic training, and he was denied an investigator’s license in Florida. He was arrested once for impersonating a detective in Georgia. (After Figueroa’s death, Boston pledged to review the vetting process for constables.)
McChesney, the former Santa Barbara cop, said that to his layman’s eye, Farzam suffered from a “self-identity crisis”—a need to “create this other persona just because he doesn’t like himself or he needs to feel like he’s somebody.” An investigator who worked a case against Farzam, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me, “He’s like a mosaic. You can’t understand him by looking at any one incident, but over the years, patterns emerge.”
Consider the pieces. Not long after his first arrest, Farzam began amassing certificates. In 2000, he finished three training courses in firearms use, including one hosted by the National Rifle Association; another in tactical baton instruction; and one in “officer survival in low-light conditions,” offered by an entity called the Surefire Institute. Two years later, he completed a course with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department on traffic-collision investigations and another in San Bernardino County on responding to domestic violence.
Some training efforts fell flat. Farzam flunked out of a paramedic internship program with the Coronado Fire Department in San Diego County, according to Mike Blood, the current chief. “A big part of that process is evaluating: Would you want this person working on a member of your family?” Blood told me. “If they’re not up to speed, you can’t pass them.” California would deny Farzam—twice—certification as a paramedic. As cause, it cited violations of the state’s Health and Safety Code: “the commission of any fraudulent, dishonest, or corrupt act” and “conviction of any crime which is substantially related to the qualifications, functions, and duties of prehospital personnel,” as well as “demonstration of irrational behavior.” The DMV would also twice reject Farzam’s applications for an ambulance-driver’s certificate.
In 2002, he enrolled in discounted courses of Krav Maga—a self-defense technique developed by the Israeli military—and other hand-to-hand combat by passing himself off as a cop. On the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks, he was spotted posing as a firefighter in Los Angeles. The LAPD arrested him, and he pleaded guilty, resulting in a jail sentence. In 2004, Farzam began teaching EMT courses at East Los Angeles College. A female student who pointed out in class that he contradicted the textbook said Farzam began harassing her, compelling her to obtain a restraining order. In 2006, Farzam failed to disclose his criminal record in an application for an EMT permit and was denied it. He did so again two years later.
Despite arrests and rejections, Farzam sought the spotlight. In the mid-aughts, he was featured on The Tyra Banks Show as a public-safety expert. In a blurry tape of the segment, posted on YouTube by user “Steve Farzam,” he wears a blue paramedic’s uniform with boots, a dark goatee, and an excess of confidence. He tells viewers of the Oprah-style program what to include in emergency-preparedness kits. “You have to have sugar,” Farzam says. “When you don’t, that’s when you get hypoglycemic.” So just keep granular sugar in your kit? Banks asks, mimicking the shaking of a jar. “That will absolutely work,” Farzam replies.
From a pragmatic perspective, it’s easy to impersonate public-safety officers. The market for police equipment is valued at some $7 billion. SWAT vests, handcuffs, batons, badges, radios, helmets, and other gear are available from specialty stores and websites, as well as commercial behemoths like Amazon. Customers often don’t have to show law-enforcement or military credentials to buy items. Police agencies sell used vehicles to private buyers, and people with enough money and know-how can navigate tighter restrictions on things like firearms and uniforms.
Weak penalties also serve as perverse incentives. In many states, impersonation of a cop is a misdemeanor. “Unfortunately, there is not a lot of downside for a criminal,” commissioner Edward Davis of the Boston Police Department told The New York Times in 2011. “The way the law views this crime, it’s as an innocent or silly prank.”
Under Section 8 of California’s penal code, impersonation is punishable by no more than a year in county jail and a maximum fine of $2,000. Farzam, in other words, could break the law at little cost and suffer minimal public scrutiny.
As they grew closer, Farzam and Dancel started calling each other “brother” and “partner.” When they hung out, they compared security gigs worked, certifications earned, and gear purchased. In 2005, Farzam, who volunteered with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Los Angeles, flew to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as part of the organization’s disaster-response team. “I was the only fucking non-sworn,” he later told Dancel. “They would let me put on a vest and fucking do everything shy of having an exposed gun. They didn’t know I had a gun in my pocket.”
Once, the pair traveled to New Mexico together for a five-day training course, entitled “Prevention Response to Suicide Bombing Incidents,” with the state’s Institute of Mining and Technology. Farzam got them in by applying through Emergency Medical Response, a company he’d founded in 2006. State records indicate that he violated a legal prohibition on the inclusion of the word “emergency” in a business’s name unless it “is staffed and equipped to provide emergency medical services.” An investigator compared Farzam’s registering of companies, which he used to project aptitude and expertise, to people who declare a post office box as their address in order to hide where they live. “It kind of gave him a fig leaf of validity,” the investigator said.
Sometimes the friends acted tough in public. “He never had a slow button,” Dancel said of Farzam. He would tell drunks he was an ex-cop, flash a badge, and threaten to “hook ’em and book ’em.” One day, Farzam accompanied Dancel on a private security shift. As the two friends pulled into the parking lot of a Ralphs, the ubiquitous Southern California supermarket chain, they noticed some teenagers smoking marijuana in a car. According to Dancel, he approached the vehicle first. “Hey guys, you need to hit the road. Put out the shit,” he told the kids. Then Farzam jumped in. “I need you to step out of the car,” he instructed, as though he was a cop. Dancel laughed when recounting the story, which ended with him telling Farzam to chill out and his friend getting upset and going home. Usually, they were on the same page.
Dancel said he first started to question Farzam’s behavior while they were working a security detail with an off-duty officer. “Keep your distance,” Dancel recalled the cop saying when Farzam was out of earshot. “He’s carrying a gun concealed.” In California, a permit for a concealed weapon, also known as a CCW, is available to law-enforcement officers. Rare exceptions are granted for other people. Farzam didn’t have a CCW. Dancel described the conversation as one big eye-roll: The off-duty officer thought Farzam was embarrassing himself.
Eventually, Dancel said, his friend confided in him about getting arrested in Santa Barbara in 1999. However, Farzam offered a different version of the story. He said he was a cop at the time and happened to be off-duty in his personal car, which he’d rigged with flashing lights. When he saw a fire truck headed to an emergency scene, he flipped the lights and cleared an intersection for the racing vehicle.
At first, Dancel felt bad for his friend, believing some uptight firefighter had ratted him out for using a personal vehicle as though it was an official one. “On the other hand, I was like, why are you carrying lights on your car? Nobody does that,” he told me.
If he had qualms, Dancel set them aside. He testified on Farzam’s behalf when his friend was hauled in for an alleged probation violation in May 2007. After Dancel started his own security company, called Officer Off-Duty, he offered Farzam a gig. Farzam agreed but told Dancel that he didn’t need a uniform: He’d already had one made.
In his thirties, Dancel enrolled in a police academy at Rio Hondo College in Whittier, California. He graduated but put his ambitions on hold once again. He started a relationship with a British woman working as a porn actress under the name McKenzie Lee. “She looked like Kate Beckinsale,” he told me, adding, “I met Kate Beckinsale when I worked off-duty in Beverly Hills.” They were engaged within three months of meeting; she became pregnant soon after. When money grew tight, they moved for a while to Washington State, where Dancel put his security company on the back burner and got a job at a law firm.
Not long after they decamped, Dancel got a call from Farzam. He wanted to fly up for New Year’s Eve with his then girlfriend. Dancel told Farzam that he and his wife didn’t have anything planned, but his friend told him that was fine. When Farzam arrived, he went to Costco and bought groceries—enough for the group to share and more for after he left.
“Our refrigerator wasn’t empty. He was just doing something to make it easy on us,” Dancel told me. “I would definitely say now that was an important time.”
For the Farzams, real estate proved a family business. As adults, the five siblings got involved one by one in what their father had started. Briefly, though, Steve struck out on his own a few hours south of his home turf. In the summer of 2007, he relocated to a condo in Chula Vista, near San Diego. The condo was yellow and tan with a red roof and a “Beware of Dog” sign out front. Farzam got a job teaching classes on emergency medicine and rescue skills at Southwestern College—until someone in human resources checked his qualifications, including an American Heart Association Healthcare Instructor card, and discovered that they were bogus. Farzam was fired. He sued the human resources employee who’d exposed him, but the defamation case was thrown out.
Farzam kept in touch with Dancel but made new friends, too. One of them was Ben Hogan, a cop Farzam met while walking his Belgian Malinois, a common breed of police dog. Hogan owned a Malinois, too. “His had a little harness that made it look like a working dog,” Hogan told me. “We just struck up a conversation, and I said, ‘Hey, who do you work for?’ He said, ‘Oh, we’re working for Uncle Sam,’ indicating that he’s a canine handler for one of the border agencies.” Mexico is a few miles south of Chula Vista.
Hogan and Farzam started hanging out, sometimes with other law-enforcement officers. The group quickly noticed idiosyncrasies in the new guy’s behavior. “He had a ton of name badges, like he was a vendor with a ton of different companies,” Hogan said. One day a friend of Hogan’s thought he spotted an assault rifle on the console of Farzam’s car. “I saw him carry weapons around, weapons that I wouldn’t even carry around, and I’m a police officer,” Hogan told me. Still, he thought Farzam was just an oddball. “He’s extremely convincing,” Hogan said. “He knows all the jargon. He talks like a cop. He had his vehicle set up like a cop car.” The windows were tinted, and a computer was mounted on the dashboard.
When Farzam let slip that he’d had some trouble with the law, Hogan started looking into his background. After learning about the impersonation charges and convictions, he cut ties with Farzam and left it at that. Then one day, when Hogan was at Ace Uniform, a store in downtown San Diego that sells law-enforcement apparel, Farzam breezed past carrying a bundle of shirts. He said hello on his way out the door.
When Hogan realized who it was, he stopped dead in his tracks. He asked the clerk how Farzam had identified himself, and it turned out that Farzam had flashed a badge for the Department of Homeland Security. He’d used it to buy three restricted uniforms.
Hogan reported the incident to law enforcement. According to state documents, DHS agents executed a search warrant for Farzam’s condo—he told officers several times that he didn’t live there before admitting that he did—and turned up three restricted uniforms and two semiautomatic pistols. In his SUV, registered to Emergency Medical Response, they found a Taser, a baton, and a police-issue emergency light.
Ultimately, no charges were filed. I obtained documents from the case after a local TV affiliate in San Diego posted them online. The investigating officers didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Hogan speculated that agents must not have found the “mother lode” of forged credentials that he suspected Farzam had. “There’s something not right in his head,” Hogan told me. “If you were to come to me and say, ‘Hey, his name’s not even Steve,’ I’d believe you 100 percent.”
There’s another incident from his time in San Diego that Farzam likes to tell people about—one that showed he could save lives. Driving on the South Bay Expressway one day in 2008, he saw a vehicle smashed into a pole. It had burst into flames, and an unconscious man was inside. Farzam pulled over. With a fire extinguisher that he kept in his car, he put out the blaze. His efforts saved the driver’s life. In recognition of his bravery, the San Diego–based Burn Institute gave Farzam an award.
But even Farzam’s heroism came with a touch of embroidery. Today, he references his Medal of Valor in his Shore Hotel bio and on his LinkedIn page. It’s the first thing mentioned on his Twitter profile. The website SteveFarzam.net describes him receiving the medal for a rescue conducted while “off duty.” His YouTube profile says, “I have the Medal of Valor for bravery and heroic work.”
The national Medal of Valor is the highest honor a U.S. public-safety officer can receive. It’s a blue, five-pointed star surrounded by gold, and it bears the seal of the White House. California’s Medal of Valor is bestowed by the governor. In 2016, it was given to officers who responded to the mass shooting in San Bernardino.
What Farzam won is called the Spirit of Courage award. At a Burn Institute banquet in 2009, he was handed a wood and metal plaque.
According to Dancel, Farzam’s family grew tired of him getting into trouble. Siroos Farzam offered to pay for Dancel to go to law school if he would help Steve get a degree, too. Once, Dancel told me, Siroos threw some of his son’s collected tactical gear into a dumpster. “You want any of this shit?” Dancel remembered his friend asking forlornly when they talked on the phone after the incident.
In 2009, Farzam got serious about something other than law enforcement. Freshly back from San Diego, he was named chief operating officer of a new venture—the crown jewel of his family’s real estate holdings. The Farzams planned to demolish a Travelodge and neighboring motel they owned near the Santa Monica pier and erect a chic, eco-friendly property in the same location. “In my 20’s I mainly focused on a career in public service particularly in emergency medicine,” Farzam later told the website VoyageLA. “I worked as a paramedic on a helicopter where I learned the art of delegation in stressful situations and hectic environments…. In 2009, I turned in my flight helmet for a construction helmet, to oversee the building of the Shore Hotel.” I reached out to the company Farzam purportedly worked for, called TriState CareFlight; at the time, a representative was unable to find a record of his employment.
Farzam seemed to take to hospitality management. The four-star Shore Hotel opened its doors in October 2011. It offered 164 guest rooms with orange and teal accents. Some had expansive views of the Pacific Ocean and the pier. The hotel also featured a solar-heated pool, a fitness center, event spaces, and an upscale Mexican restaurant. The hypermodern building was certified gold by the United States Green Building Council, its second-highest ranking for environmental friendliness. Rooms started at more than $300 per night.
The project was a public relations coup for Farzam. There were glowing reviews on travel websites and positive write-ups in newspapers. A picture of him wearing a hard hat and standing before the hotel was featured on the front page of the Los Angeles Business Journal. Articles made no mention of his criminal record.
Farzam was suddenly Santa Monica royalty. By 2013, he would be named chair of the committee overseeing the Santa Monica Tourism Marketing District, a branch of the local visitors bureau. He would golf with top brass in the city’s police department and offer them discounted stays at the hotel. He would brag to Dancel about cops dropping by his office just to chat. “They’re going, ‘OK, this guy’s not an asshole. He’s pretty decent if you get to know him a little bit,’” Farzam said in one conversation.
His newly minted profile was a boon in some outlandish ways, too—ones not immediately discernible to outsiders. He was able to bring his law-enforcement obsession to work. He hired a former cop and Los Angeles sheriff’s deputy to work security. Through a private company called Seaside Public Safety—its business address was another Farzam hotel one block away from the Shore—Farzam filled out incident reports on suspicious people he saw on his family’s properties; in at least one instance he conducted a citizen’s arrest. On the back of his black office chair, Farzam had the words “commander-in-chief” embroidered in red. According to a deposition, he kept weapons on-site, including a Beretta handgun, a shotgun, and a rifle.
The hotel seemed to reconfigure the power dynamic between Farzam and Dancel. For years Farzam had worked alongside his friend and sometimes for him. Now Farzam offered Dancel jobs patrolling private parties and tailing ex-employees he was worried might try to stain his blossoming reputation. In the same conversation that Farzam boasted about his relationship with the police, he told Dancel that he’d been asked to audition for The Millionaire Matchmaker. The popular reality-TV show, which ran on the Bravo channel from 2008 to 2015, professed to help wealthy men and women find love, with a hefty dose of zany drama.
“You’re gonna bring attention to yourself,” Dancel said skeptically.
“Why don’t you do it?” Farzam replied.
“I’m no millionaire, fool,” Dancel said. “I’m a negative millionaire.”
Dancel had briefly held down a police job at the Naval Air Weapons Station in China Lake, California, but he’d been fired in 2009. (He claimed that his superiors didn’t like him working private security jobs on the side; station officials declined to discuss personnel matters.) He then picked up a police position with a Veterans Affairs office. He was fired after two years but alleged in a lawsuit, settled out of court, that his termination was retaliation for blowing the whistle on a supervisor who’d tried to force religion on him. Once a month, Dancel drove six hours east to Maricopa County, Arizona, to participate for a few days in a sheriff’s “posse,” a volunteer group that supported local law enforcement. During those trips, he carried a badge and a gun and wore a uniform. The work was important to him, but he didn’t get paid.
Meanwhile, his marriage was beginning to crumble. It wasn’t his wife’s sleeping with other men as a career that bothered him. Dancel even appeared in one of her movies, produced by a company called Dogfart Network as part of its “Cuckold Sessions,” donning an LAPD uniform and watching as several men had sex with his wife on the roof of a car. Rather, Dancel alleged abuse. He took out a protective order claiming that his wife had punched him. He told me she had an alcohol problem and that he once recorded her screaming and banging on the door of their bedroom after he locked himself inside. (She didn’t reply to interview requests.)
One day, Dancel called Farzam and left a message in a shaky voice when his friend didn’t pick up. “Hey, bro. You’ve been a good friend to me, man, and I want to thank you for everything,” Dancel said. “I’m not under duress. Somebody might say I might be, I don’t know.” He asked Farzam to take care of his dog, Saber. “He’s going to be your responsibility now,” Dancel said. “I’m sorry, bro. But shit happens, you know?” The recording suggested that Dancel was considering killing himself. “Do me a favor, when you talk to my family, make sure I’m not cremated, dude,” he said. “Thanks again, bro. Thanks again, seriously. You always had my back.”
I asked Dancel about the message in a phone interview. He exhaled audibly, then skirted the issue of suicide. He told me that he’d left the recording when he was “done” with his marriage and planning to “move away.” Farzam responded and agreed to take care of the dog. But he wound up not needing to, because Dancel decided to stick around.
While Dancel’s life spiraled, Farzam’s ambitions became grander. If he couldn’t be a cop, maybe he could run an agency that provided a cop-like public service. In May 2013, he contacted a lawyer to ask how he could establish a law-enforcement unit that would provide security for a nonprofit transportation service he wanted to create “predominantly [for] victims of domestic violence in addition to underprivileged members of our community.”
Around the same time, Farzam invited Dancel on a road trip upstate. At first, as they drove north in a BMW 7 Series, Farzam didn’t fully explain where they were going or why. He chattered about plans to remodel his Brentwood home, maybe even put a gun range underneath it, Dancel recalled. “The conversation was all light-hearted,” he told me. Then Farzam got down to business: They were heading toward a small town called Bridgeville, north of San Francisco, because he wanted to buy it.
Bridgeville is little more than a road surrounded by evergreen trees and mountains. A quaint cement bridge crosses the Van Duzen River. The town’s post office is painted pastel pink and green, and the local school looks like a large storage container. Bridgeville made headlines in the early aughts when it was put up for sale on eBay and cycled through several owners, including Los Angeles entertainment manager Daniel La Paille, who bought it in 2006 for $1.3 million and planned to build a hotel there. La Paille committed suicide, however, and the town went back on the market. Farzam wanted to make a bid.
In an email to Humboldt County supervisor Estelle Fennell, Farzam had proposed developing 20 affordable new homes, a camping area, a laundromat, and a small lodge with a western motif. “All of these structures would be built with the strictest eco-friendly guidelines at our forefront,” Farzam wrote. “Essentially, Bridgeville would be ‘The Nations Greenest Town.’ We would build a town police station to include a fire station.”
The latter idea was the one he impressed upon Dancel during their ten-hour drive. “I could make you the chief,” Dancel recalled his friend saying. When the pair stopped for gas, Dancel was dismayed to see that Farzam was visibly carrying a gun and a badge. “I keep my shit hidden,” he told me. “Even as a sworn police officer, if I’m not on duty, you’re not supposed to be showing your gun.” (Dancel was not a working officer when he told me this.)
Once in Bridgeville, the men met with Fennell, a warm woman in her sixties with deep-set blue eyes. She recalled Farzam being well dressed and driving a nice car. He struck her as a dreamer. “It seemed a little, I’m not going to say far-fetched, but it seemed like it was a high bar to reach,” she said of his proposal. The pair also met with Jean-Louis Carmona, who led Bridgeville’s volunteer fire crew. “It mostly sounded like a lot of bullshit,” Carmona told me.
Farzam talked about wanting to start his own police force, and Fennell said that he would have to take it up with the county sheriff. Later, according to Dancel, Farzam said that he wouldn’t buy the town if he couldn’t start a police department. He suggested that if he beat the sheriff in a local election, he could do whatever he wanted. “Dude, that’s a big gamble,” Dancel responded.
After the trip, Farzam contacted the sheriff, who Fennell said was adamant that Bridgeville’s law enforcement would remain as it was. The deal to buy the town never materialized. “This was just one more crazy antic,” Dancel told me. “It was kind of entertaining, because I was like, what is the next thing he’s going to come up with?”
Over the next several months, though, something changed for Dancel. He started to see Farzam in a different light—a less amusing, less quirky one. The reasons for the abrupt shift are murky, so much so that they still baffle people close to this story. “We don’t know why a guy would go to great lengths,” one investigator told me, “to get his friend and employer” in trouble.
But that’s exactly what Dancel did.
In his version of events, there was no beef or falling out between the friends, no jealousy or resentment either. Farzam’s behavior just began to rub him the wrong way. “He likes being that Superman—everybody likes to be that—but he’ll take it so far,” Dancel said. “He thought he could get away with anything.”
That supposedly included moving guns: M4-style assault rifles, to be exact, which are illegal in California unless they were purchased and registered decades ago. According to Dancel, Farzam boasted to his friend that he was clandestinely buying and selling them through a contact at the sheriff’s department.
If true, it would be “a whole other beast” from the ruses Farzam usually pulled, Dancel told me. It would be a felony, for starters, and the backdoored weapons could wind up on the street. “You can make citizen’s arrests if you want to. That’s cool, whatever,” Dancel said of civilians who want to be cops. “But when you start crossing the line to where you’re making it your life and seriously overstepping your area—different story.”
In early spring 2014, Dancel placed a call to the California DOJ in Sacramento. His adrenaline was up, and conflicting thoughts ran through his head. This is gonna be it, he realized. I’m not going to be able to make any more money now on the side, because I’m going to be burned. “I definitely had that moment of, Oh fuck, here we go,” Dancel told me. When someone answered the phone, Dancel shared what he knew.
His tip traveled up the ladder. When authorities got back to him, they gleaned a different impression of Dancel’s motives. “He tried very, very hard to sell this case to any agency that would listen,” one investigator told me. I asked two state employees close to the case in a joint interview if they thought Dancel might have turned on Farzam because he recognized an opportunity to work a big investigation like a legitimate cop. They glanced at each other.
“That’s a very interesting theory,” one said with a smirk.
On April 16, 2014, special agent James Hirt of the California DOJ called Dancel. According to an official summary of their conversation, which Hirt later compiled, Dancel was an encyclopedia of information about Farzam’s purported crimes. If proven, the offenses would vastly expand the hotelier’s rap sheet—and possibly land him in prison.
In addition to buying and selling guns, Dancel claimed, Farzam had figured out a way to access California’s warrants database, which isn’t available to the public, and to request DMV records, which requires special codes distributed only to law enforcement. Dancel said Farzam also carried a counterfeit CCW. “I asked him how he knew,” Hirt’s summary states, “and he told me because Farzam told him so and that Farzam had a program on his computer for manufacturing false documents.”
Their conversation ended when Dancel said he had to get to a meeting with the ATF: He was shopping the case with that agency, too. But his day didn’t end there. In the afternoon, Dancel went to the Shore Hotel. Wearing a microphone, even though the departments he’d met with hadn’t explicitly asked him to, he recorded several hours of conversation with Farzam.
At the beginning of the encounter, Dancel asked if he should shut the door to Farzam’s office. After it clicked, Dancel noisily opened a box containing an assault rifle. He whispered the serial number: LE190249.
“Dude, this is sick!” Dancel exclaimed. “This is tits right here.”
“Don’t hurt yourself on that thing,” Farzam instructed. “Badass, huh?”
Farzam said he’d bought it on a trip to Ohio—not from a sheriff’s department connection after all—along with two other rifles. He’d already sold that pair to some law-enforcement contacts. One had gone for $2,000.
The men talked for a while about Farzam’s quest to get a real CCW. He hoped that obtaining a private-investigator’s license would force the state’s hand, because without a permit to conceal, he’d have to carry a visible firearm when he was on a job.
Then Farzam started bragging about his access to databases. He called the DMV on a burner cell phone; a woman answered. Farzam was winning, calling her ma’am and asking how her day was going. He provided her with an access code, claiming to work for the FBI. Farzam asked the woman to run the license plate “ROKSTUD,” attached to a Chevrolet Corvette. He wanted to see if the car’s driver—the boyfriend of a disgruntled former Shore Hotel employee—had committed any legal infractions.
Farzam gave his name as Andrew Clark, and he provided a driver’s license number as proof of his identity. “Who the fuck is Clark?” Dancel asked after Farzam hung up.
“He’s my boy, dude,” was the reply.
Authorities would later determine that Clark wasn’t Farzam’s friend. Ten years prior, in 2004, Farzam had been walking his dog on the grounds of Kenter Canyon Elementary School in Brentwood when the real Clark, a local resident, asked him to leave the property. An altercation ensued, after which Farzam filed a police report alleging that Clark had assaulted him with a deadly weapon. The case was thrown out, and authorities charged Farzam with reporting a false emergency. Somehow, in the years that followed, Farzam got ahold of Clark’s driver’s license number and used it to craft an alias as an FBI agent. How he got his hands on a legitimate DMV requester code remains unknown, but records indicate that someone with the name Andrew Clark used it to make 20 separate requests for DMV records between 2010 and 2014.
When I called Clark, he sounded terrified to hear Farzam’s name and wouldn’t speak to me. An investigator described Farzam’s behavior as “vindictive,” adding, “He’s the guy who I expect to steal my identity and open credit cards.”
After talking to the DMV, Farzam dialed the number for the warrants section of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. He claimed to be an officer with the Miami-Dade Police Department, and he didn’t use a code. Instead, he asked the representative to confirm that two individuals—the former employee’s boyfriend, along with Dancel’s estranged wife—were wanted by law enforcement in California. “I recognized his approach as social engineering,” Hirt wrote in a subsequent report. “Instead of asking the operator to run the two individuals he asked her to confirm that the two people he had detained had warrants. He then gave the operator the names he wanted run.... By her telling him they were not wanted, she provided him with the information he was seeking, but in the opposite manner from the way a warrant check is normally conducted.”
The day after he made the recording, Dancel called Hirt, like an officer debriefing his commander. Hirt brought him in for a face-to-face meeting, which officers from the ATF and DMV joined, too. In a blue-walled conference room in Glendale, just a few miles from where Dancel grew up, he played his recording. He didn’t get the reaction he’d hoped for, however. The officers were keen on the evidence, not on Dancel. They were skeptical of his intentions, which made him feel like they thought he was, in his words, “some freakin’ scum bucket.”
At one point, Dancel recalled, Hirt asked him, “Does [Farzam] have something on you, and that’s why you’re going after him? It’s just kind odd that you would put your neck on the line for this.” The two men began yelling at each other, as Dancel took offense at the question and failed to provide an answer that satisfied the agents. The group decided to take a break, and the officers left Dancel in the conference room by himself. “It felt like a situation where I’m some fucking dirty cop sitting in a room while they go talk,” he told me.
When the meeting resumed, Dancel offered to get Farzam on video breaking the law. “He kind of thought he should be calling the shots in the case,” an agent later said. But there were procedures to follow—evidence to gather, risk to assess, judicial review to undergo, operations to plan. When the agents said as much, Dancel was insulted. “This isn’t my first rodeo,” he told them. But his work with the Arizona posse, which he touted as his experience, didn’t impress them. “I’ve got into fights. I’ve made arrests. I said, ‘Dude, I do nothing different from what you do except I’m on the street!’” he told me, his voice growing heated at the memory.
An agent I spoke to compared Dancel’s approach to Law and Order. “If you were doing this as a 40-minute television episode, it’s about as complicated as someone saying, ‘Pull the guy’s LUDs,’” the agent said, referring to local usage details, a record of a phone’s incoming and outgoing calls. “There’s no magic guy out there that’s just a LUD puller. We have to write search warrants for all this stuff.”
Dancel thought about backing out of the case, until Steve Goerke, an ATF agent, talked him down. “We can’t do this without you,” Dancel recalled Goerke saying. “You are the only one who can do this.” (Goerke didn’t respond to multiple interview requests.)
That the officers couldn’t afford to lose Dancel was true enough. The case was expanding rapidly to involve six agencies and an astonishing number of potential charges. With automatic weapons purportedly changing hands and Farzam’s long history of impersonation, investigators wanted to build the best case possible to nail their target. Dancel’s information and proximity to Farzam were vital. “The expression that we sometimes use is that the Pope is busy and Mother Teresa is dead,” one agent quipped. “You take what you can get as far as informants go.”
As the weeks passed, Dancel prodded investigators. They reiterated that it was their case, not his, despite a fear that he might flip and tell Farzam everything. In early May, agents were finally ready to act. They decided to use Dancel as bait. Wearing a wire—a government-issued camera—he would purchase the assault rifle that he’d handled in Farzam’s office.
To initiate the sale, Goerke suggested that Dancel tell his friend that a posse leader in Maricopa County wanted the gun. In exchange, Dancel would promise to get Farzam into the group, which the hotelier’s criminal history made difficult. A position, even a volunteer one, with a sheriff’s department might also pave the way for Farzam to get a legitimate CCW. “He would definitely go for that in a second,” Dancel replied.
Around 3:30 p.m. on May 7, 2014, a cluster of California law-enforcement officers met in a parking lot next to several tennis courts. Wearing plain clothes, they stood in a loose horseshoe around Goerke, who had on blocky sunglasses and a navy blue windbreaker. He held a map in his left hand, a pen in his right, as he explained how the buy would go down: Dancel would get the rifle from the Shore Hotel and drive to his friend’s mansion. “He’s gonna take the gun in, they’re gonna fuck with it a little bit,” Goerke said. “He’s actually gonna videotape it for us.”
Goerke turned and faced Dancel, pointing at him for a second. Dancel already had the hidden camera attached to his torso and turned on. It caught an image of the agents looking at him. The scene was “pretty cool,” he told me. “I’d never worked any undercover cases.”
When the briefing ended, Dancel went to the hotel. Once he’d secured the gun, he rolled up to Farzam’s house in his red sedan. While the tactical team watched him from a van—“That’s when I was like, Holy shit, this is like a movie,” Dancel said—he waited silently for the mansion’s electronic gate to slide open. He parked in the driveway next to Farzam’s fire engine, partially covered with a tarp, and hauled the rifle out of his trunk.
As Dancel approached the mansion carrying the gun in its cumbersome cardboard box, a dog began barking at the front door. “Dude, I’m gonna shoot Tracer if she bites me again,” Dancel said.
Farzam appeared in the camera’s view. Tall and husky, he wore athletic shorts, bedroom slippers, and a dark blue T-shirt with “DEA” emblazoned in yellow across the back. Before Dancel arrived, he’d been getting ready to eat with a young blond woman. “You hungry?” Farzam asked, taking a seat at a long wooden table with curly fries and a blood-red beet salad in front of him. He wasn’t in a hurry to make the sale, so Dancel would have to hang around for a while.
The camera captured the home’s unusual decor: a firefighter’s helmet mounted on the wall, a replica of a rescue helicopter suspended from a ceiling, a red and blue light bar mounted on top of a vintage arcade game, an American flag adjacent to photographs of George H.W. and Barbara Bush, a gumball machine. At one point, the camera caught a glimpse of Dancel in a mirror. He wore a blue uniform, which he explained by saying that he was heading to a security gig that evening. “I’m working,” he told the young woman, Farzam’s girlfriend at the time.
After 20 minutes in which the friends mostly discussed K9 training and shouted commands at Tracer, they finally turned to the gun. Farzam lifted it from the box and raised it to shoulder level. He moved through the dining area, across the living room, and finally into his office, aiming the gun’s barrel around his home like a SWAT officer checking for armed criminals. “Easy, entry guy,” Dancel said.
Seated at a desk, Farzam delayed the sale again by placing a call on a flip phone. “Hi, how you doing? It’s Rafi,” Farzam said. Holding the phone away from his mouth, Farzam whispered to Dancel, with a grin, “The DA of L.A. County! Number two!” He was putting on a show.
For a few weeks, Farzam had been telling Dancel about a Santa Monica police officer he thought was cute. He found out that she’d been charged with a DUI, so he decided to call Ellen Sarmiento, the city attorney he now had on the line, for help. He identified himself as Rafael Garcia, an actual high-ranking FBI agent Farzam had found on the agency’s website. Farzam told Sarmiento that the Santa Monica officer was an informant in the bureau’s case against Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. “He has a lot of scary money and does a lot of bad things, and his tentacles are pretty long,” Farzam said. He asked Sarmiento to dismiss the DUI case so that the informant could keep working.
Mid-call, he impassively counted the thick stack of bills that Dancel had brought as payment for the rifle.
When Farzam hung up, the friends went to the house’s garage, where Farzam picked up and put back various weapons like a carpenter might when looking for a tool at his workbench. He announced that he wanted to shoot the assault rifle, to say goodbye to it. “In the backyard?” Dancel replied, dumbfounded. “I shoot back there all the time,” Farzam said. His house overlooked an elementary school; it was a Wednesday.
As the pair moved through the garage and into the yard, Dancel was never more than arm’s length away from Farzam. He could have reached out and hugged him. He considered that if Farzam had guessed what was really going on, he might be taking him outside to kill him. “If he raised it [the gun] towards me or anything, I wanted to be in close quarters with him so I could actually reach it, as opposed to being far away where he could take a round off,” Dancel told me. “I was concerned that he knew who I was.”
But Dancel was being paranoid. Farzam trusted his friend. In the backyard, the hotelier loaded a single round into the rifle’s chamber. With a cigarette dangling from his mouth, he aimed the gun downward. He pulled the trigger and pumped a bullet into the ground.
Dancel left that day with the rifle. Law enforcement, though, didn’t arrest Farzam. They decided to first confirm various details captured by Dancel’s camera.
On May 14, Hirt called Ellen Sarmiento. “She was shocked when I told her he was not an FBI [agent],” Hirt later wrote in a report. “She said she had queried the FBI’s web site for LA and found him listed there. She described him as very personable and [said that he] talked as if he knew what he was doing. Ms. Sarmiento said she truly believed the caller.” In the days that followed, Farzam contacted Sarmiento several more times pretending to be Rafael Garcia. According to Hirt’s report, he “was pretty insistent about getting the DUI case dismissed. He also told her he was worried about his request becoming public.”
Hirt and Goerke then called the real Garcia, who had moved to Washington, D.C., from Los Angeles about three months prior. He said he’d never spoken to Sarmiento. He also described an odd incident that had occurred just before he relocated. “He received a call from one of the local sheriff’s departments,” Hirt wrote. “The caller asked him if he had gone to the county jail to interview an inmate. He said he had not. He felt the call was strange, but he thought they must have mistaken him for another FBI Agent Garcia.” (Neither Sarmiento nor Garcia responded to interview requests.)
Goerke, meanwhile, ascertained the assault rifle’s provenance. A woman named Marcia Masters had purchased it at a firearms store in Ohio in March 2013. It was then sent to California via FedEx in Farzam’s name. The shipment’s contents were reported as violins.
Masters was a police officer in the small town of Oakwood, Ohio. In 2005, when she was still attending a police academy and working nights at a steakhouse in Cleveland, Esquire magazine named her hostess of the year. The accompanying photo showed her with long auburn hair, wearing a tight, strapless black dress and holding a menu. “She’ll probably make an even hotter cop,” the website Cleveland Scene suggested in a write-up. Hirt discovered that in January 2011, Masters and Farzam had tried to sneak into the Golden Globe Awards as security. I asked Dancel how Farzam and Masters knew each other. He said he wasn’t sure but recalled encountering her several years prior, and her being introduced as Farzam’s friend.
There were more strange revelations. According to Santa Monica police, Farzam had allegedly assaulted a homeless man with pepper spray outside the Shore Hotel at the beginning of May 2014. That March, he’d encountered a public attorney named Mitch Fox at a Costco in Culver City. Fox, who’d prosecuted Farzam in the false-emergency case involving Andrew Clark back in 2004, told Hirt that Farzam approached him, pulled a CCW card from his wallet, and said he’d “straightened out [his] life.” According to Hirt’s report, “Fox said he saw a bulge on Farzam’s right hip which was consistent with a firearm worn under the shirt.”
While the police gathered information for an arrest warrant, Dancel kept recording conversations with Farzam. In one taped on May 10, Farzam talked about supporting Paul Tanaka, who was then running for sheriff of Los Angeles County; state records from that month indicate that Farzam personally donated $1,500 to the campaign and the same amount under the auspices of Emergency Medical Response. Farzam said he knew Tanaka’s “right-hand fucking dude,” who’d promised to help him get a law-enforcement gig if Tanaka won. Dancel pointed out that Tanaka wasn’t doing well in the polls. “The only thing that’s fucking him up is that he worked with Baca,” Farzam replied, referring to Lee Baca, a former sheriff. “Baca got in trouble and borderline indicted for, like, beating the niggers down in fucking men’s central jail.” (Tanaka lost the election and two years later was convicted of conspiracy and obstruction of justice for attempting to stymie an investigation of police abuse in county jails.)
On another phone call, Farzam told Dancel that he was going to send him copies of his various certifications—“It’s a shit ton,” Farzam said, “probably 50 different certs”—so that Dancel could share them with the posse leaders in Maricopa County. “Some people trip out,” Farzam said, warning Dancel that he might be overwhelmed by all the documents. “They always say this shit—‘You’re overqualified. Why do you have all this and why aren’t you working now as a cop?’”
“And what do you tell them?” Dancel asked.
“That I’m a convicted child molester, that’s what,” Farzam deadpanned.
On May 14, Farzam got more personal. “Saw my shrink,” he told Dancel on the phone. “She thinks I’m codependent.” The therapist had told him to stop calling an ex-girlfriend whom he worried about. “If I still have an urge to call her, if you don’t mind, I’m just going to call you instead, is that cool?” he asked Dancel.
“Of course,” Dancel said. “I’ll just say, ‘Hey, dumbass, you need some hobbies.’”
Farzam recapped his therapist’s analysis. “Your fucking problem is that paramedic part of your brain wants to always save and help people out,” Farzam said. “You can’t be coming to the fucking rescue of some fucking chick. You need to take care of yourself and respect yourself.”
Then the friends started talking about Farzam’s ambitions. “If they extend the privilege of allowing me into that tight-knit group,” Farzam said, referring to the Arizona posse, “I would love it. I wouldn’t let anybody down, especially myself.” In fact, it would be a relief to be the “low guy on the totem pole.”
“I want something, dude, where I can go somewhere and be the best at what I can be for just a couple days a month,” Farzam said. “Fucking yes sir, no sir, thank you sir, and just fucking lemme do my thing, dude. Tell me what you want me to do. Do you want me to wash windows? Fuck it, I’ll do it.”
Agents watched Farzam leave his mansion’s driveway in a white Chevy Tahoe on the morning of June 27, 2014. They wanted to arrest him away from his home, which they knew was stocked with security cameras and guns. After a few minutes, weapons drawn, they pulled him over on San Vicente Boulevard. They handcuffed him, confiscated a loaded handgun, and put him in the back of a Santa Monica police unit. Then they drove him back to his house, where they served a search warrant for the residence as well as the Shore Hotel.
They recovered three assault rifles, a forged vehicle registration, counterfeit Los Angeles County Superior Court seals, and a fake CCW. In the Tahoe, they found a siren and warning lights. They also discovered two radios and a light bar that had been reported stolen from the sheriff’s department. Farzam had told Dancel that he’d acquired the gear from an inside contact. (The sheriff’s department declined to comment for this story, citing the state DOJ’s jurisdiction over the case.)
Agents reported that Farzam was cooperative at first, even waiving his Miranda rights. He got emotional when Los Angeles Animal Services came to take custody of his dogs. “That made him cry,” one agent said. “He said it was allergies, but I know the difference.”
It soon became clear that Farzam, Miranda rights or no, wasn’t going to give up any information, and he grew testy as he tried to determine how much the officers already knew. So they drove him to the Santa Monica jail. He was fingerprinted, photographed, and booked on the 77 charges, ranging from identity theft to forgery to illegal use of a weapon to assault someone (the homeless man at the hotel). His bail was set at $805,000. He was out in a matter of hours.
A few miles away, my desk phone rang. Dancel—though I didn’t yet know his name—was giddy as he divulged information about the case. Even if he didn’t get public credit for his undercover stint, one reporter covering the story would know that an unheralded law-enforcement officer had made the high-profile arrest possible. That seemed to be his hope, at least. But things didn’t go according to plan.
That evening I sat in the Santa Monica Daily Press newsroom, stunned by the odd story that had landed in my lap and wondering who the man on the phone was. I hacked out some quick copy about the news and posted it online. I waited for larger media in Los Angeles to pick it up and do their own reporting. But Saturday and Sunday passed with virtually nothing. The story seemed to be a victim of the always slow weekend news cycle.
Several weeks later, I got an email from the anonymous man, using an address with the handle “LEOKneeDragger.” (“Knee dragger” is slang for someone who drives a motorcycle.) The message was brief—just one sentence—and pointed me to an attachment: the official charging document in Farzam’s case. I confirmed with local authorities that the file was legitimate and wrote another story. Still, no larger media picked it up.
Looking back, given what I now know about police impersonation, perhaps the crimes Farzam was accused of seemed ridiculous—certainly less important than other illicit activities afflicting Los Angeles, including drug sales, human trafficking, and gang violence. There was also the fact that Santa Monica feels like a small town in a big city. On the one hand, that can nurture gossip and social blacklisting. On the other, people can be quick to avoid discussing anything that might disrupt or embarrass the moneyed community.
As a free daily, the newspaper didn’t have the resources to cover a complex legal case alongside its traditional fare: A City Council election was heating up, as was controversy over proposals for three skyscraping hotels along Ocean Avenue. I was told that Siroos Farzam approached the business side of the paper and made a soft plea for it to stop running articles about his son. No one ever instructed me not to write a story. Still, given all the hindering factors, I realized that untangling the Farzam case would have to become a side project.
The anonymous man kept emailing me; he didn’t want the story to go quietly. He sent footage of Farzam acting like a cop and forwarded emails in which Farzam discussed everything from his relationship with the Santa Monica police to troubles he was having with an ex. Once, while sitting in gridlock traffic, I called the man on the Orange County number he’d given me when we first spoke. He unloaded several stories: Farzam’s quest to buy Bridgeville, for instance, and his arrests stretching back more than a decade. Based on what the man told me, I began requesting public documents.
Farzam, meanwhile, was fighting the charges against him. Six months after his arrest, he was scheduled to appear in court. I planned to attend. But the night before, when I checked the DOJ’s website, I discovered that the appearance had been canceled. A deal had been struck in which Farzam pleaded guilty to just three of the 77 charges: unauthorized computer access, impersonation of an FBI agent, and possession of an assault rifle. There wouldn’t be a trial or testimony from any witnesses or experts. All that was left was sentencing, which wouldn’t happen until the spring. At most, based on the remaining charges, Farzam would get two years in county jail.
“Both shocked and frustrated is an eloquent description,” an investigator on the case told me when I asked about law enforcement’s reaction to the news. “We quite frankly expected state prison time, especially based on this guy’s prior record.”
Agents told me that Farzam’s legal team proffered ameliorating arguments. One was that Farzam was harmless: Nothing he’d done had caused pain or suffering. (Except to the homeless man he’d pepper-sprayed—an act Farzam admitted to in one of Dancel’s recordings—but the assault charge had been dropped.) A second argument was that Farzam simply admired cops and wanted to be friends with them. “There couldn’t be anything further from the truth,” one agent told me. “He kind of wants to be his own show.”
In the months leading up to Farzam’s sentencing, I nagged the DOJ until it sent me the arrest declaration that Hirt had written. It was impressively comprehensive about the investigation’s twists and turns and the evidence gathered along the way. The declaration also revealed the name of the state’s key witness—or, as I knew him, the man on the phone: Christopher Dancel. According to the document, Dancel had known Farzam for many years.
Why would a law-enforcement officer be friendly with an impersonator? I wondered. I called several investigators to clarify. Only one called me back. Speaking anonymously, the agent explained that Dancel didn’t work for the FBI. He was just a buddy of Farzam’s. I asked why Dancel had become an informant and got a version of the same response I’d hear for the rest of my time reporting this story: We never were able to get a clear answer on that.
“The person wasn’t the issue,” the same agent later told me. “It could have been anybody. If you remove Dancel and Farzam from the equation, if some guy had called and spoken to our headquarters in Sacramento and said, ‘I’m aware of somebody who is breaching the state’s classified computer networks,’ which is where this case started, we would have taken the case. The fact that it happened to be these two clowns just adds the icing to the cake.”
In March 2015, I took the subway into downtown Los Angeles to attend Farzam’s presentencing hearing. The county courthouse’s halls were cold and beige. While I waited in line to pass through the metal detector, I saw Farzam arrive. He looked sharp, with a fresh haircut and shave, carefully pressed suit, and phalanx of powerful-looking men around him. He chatted amiably with the sheriff’s deputy manning the metal detector.
In the courtroom, I took a seat in a back corner. Farzam’s attorney, former county prosecutor Decio Rangel, flitted around, joking with court employees, Farzam’s parents, and DOJ agents. Born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Rangel worked for an L.A. Law producer before getting his degree. As a county attorney, he’d specialized in prosecuting public officials, including lawyers and cops. In private practice, an agent close to the Farzam case told me, Rangel was a smooth operator. He’d appeared on TV as a legal commentator, discussing high-profile stories like Michael Jackson’s death and Lindsay Lohan’s run-ins with the law. With a full head of graying hair, a fit build, and an animated face, he commanded the courtroom. (Rangel didn’t reply to a request for comment.)
When the hearing began, two years behind bars was already off the table as a potential sentence. Discussion centered instead on a 90-day jail term. Farzam politely answered every question the judge asked him. He also offered to enter custody voluntarily before the official sentence came down at a later date. Court was dismissed, and Farzam exited the room a prisoner.
I met with Natasha Howard, a deputy attorney general and the prosecutor in the case, at the California DOJ’s labyrinthine office in Los Angeles. Howard, who has long dark hair and speaks slowly and deliberately to reporters, wouldn’t discuss the backstory of the plea deal. But she said that she’d pushed for a two-year jail sentence. The evidence supported it, after all. “At the end of the day, I have a video I can play to the jury,” she told me. “You can think whatever you think about Mr. Dancel, but this is the video depicting exactly what happened, as it happened.”
Still, she defended the case’s outcome. For the first time in his life, Farzam was a convicted felon, Howard pointed out. He could no longer carry firearms, even if he claimed he needed one for a private security detail.
It was something, certainly. But it wasn’t what investigators had hoped for. “Of all the guys I’ve arrested over 30 some years,” one told me, “he’s the one guy who kind of gives me the willies. He’s very obsequious to you in public, but then you know he’s scheming and plotting.”
The next time Farzam appeared before a judge was in June 2015—a year after his arrest and the same month that Marcia Masters was sentenced to two years in prison in Ohio. Farzam wore an orange jumpsuit and had grown a beard. He looked tired but smiled often.
“Mr. Farzam, your attorney gave a very vigorous defense to you,” the judge said at one point. “You got a break in this case. I am telling you, come back and you violate probation, the consequences will be very serious. Do we understand each other?”
“Yes, your honor,” Farzam replied.
When the judge sentenced him to 90 days already served and five years of probation, Farzam left the courthouse a free man—and still COO of the Shore Hotel. A campaign to restore his public reputation was already under way. That winter, before going to jail, Farzam had announced a $1,000 donation to a local food bank. In April, while he was still incarcerated, he’d released a statement publicizing that he would be volunteering personally at the food bank that summer. The statement didn’t mention that the schedule lined up with when Farzam would get out of jail.
“The fact that Steve Farzam would take time out from his incredibly busy career in hotel management and the hospitality industry will not surprise anyone who knows him,” the release read. “For years, he has been an active and generous member of the Santa Monica community who is willing and able to give back and help others.”
Quietly, another campaign had commenced, too—this one to smear the state’s informant.
Dancel said he never saw or spoke to Farzam again after his arrest. He heard from a cop that Farzam was telling people Dancel had been in trouble with the law and turned on his friend as part of a plea deal. (This wasn’t the case; in addition to his DUI, law-enforcement records in Los Angeles indicate that Dancel violated a court order in the 1990s and was the subject of a domestic-violence charge in 2003, which was either dismissed or not prosecuted.) He grew anxious that Farzam might come after him while the case was pending. One day, before Farzam went to jail, Dancel found his garage door broken and worried that his ex-friend might use the opportunity to enter the house and hurt him. A witness getting attacked or snuffed out—it’s the stuff of pulpy crime novels.
According to Dancel, when he arrived at his home, he would exit his car with his gun drawn and tell his two young daughters to remain in their seats until he made sure everything was safe. “I am getting out in total darkness on our cul-de-sac and would have to push this garage door open,” Dancel said. “Our house backed up right against a giant greenbelt, like a big park, so [an intruder] could easily come through that back area.” He hung bulletproof vests on the railings designed to keep his daughters from rolling out of their beds. “If Daddy tells you to put on the vest, put on the vest and get in the corner of the room and wait until I come in,” he told them. The girls even practiced. “I made them put it over their heads and then sit in a little ball in the corner of the room,” Dancel said to me.
His home remained secure, but Dancel did lose something valuable. In August 2014, he contacted Natasha Howard to claim that Farzam, posing as a reporter, was calling the Maricopa County posse leadership and accusing Dancel of being under investigation for posing as a cop and illegally selling assault rifles. Howard sent an email to Goerke, the ATF agent, asking him to intervene on Dancel’s behalf. “It looks like Farzam is trying to dirty up [Dancel’s] image since he is a key witness in our case,” Howard wrote.
Dancel was terminated from the posse that fall. Distraught, he phoned Goerke—and recorded the call—to demand his help. Goerke explained that, because Dancel was a civilian, the ATF wasn’t under any obligation to contact or cooperate with the Maricopa County authorities.
“This has cost me my job now with the department. There is no other reason. I’ve never been in trouble there,” Dancel said. “This is out of control now, when I stepped up and helped out.”
Goerke said he would see what he could do. When Dancel kept pressing, Goerke grew irritated. “You’re a civilian! You’re not law enforcement!” he exclaimed at one point.
Dancel never got his posse position back.
A few months later, attacks against Dancel began appearing online. In March 2015, around the time Farzam went to jail, user “Christopher Dancel” put a short video on YouTube—the only one ever posted by that account—accompanied by whimsical instrumental music. The video shows a photograph of Dancel and warns viewers to “BEWARE!!!” of this “scam artist.”
Then came ChristopherDancel.com, an amateur website dedicated to revealing intimate, embarrassing details about its namesake’s life. It still exists and is registered to Domains by Proxy LLC, a company through which people can purchase URLs and shield their ownership information from public view. The site contains copies of documents pertaining to Dancel’s financial troubles and legal disputes over the years, and a close-up photo of him with bandages wrapped around his scalp, chin, and nose, as if he had been in a fight or had plastic surgery. There’s also information about Dancel’s marriage, which by early 2015 had ended, and a link to a GoFundMe page that Dancel set up to raise money for legal fees incurred trying to get custody of his two daughters.
Most shocking, though, is the recording of Dancel’s seemingly suicidal phone message, left on Farzam’s phone a few years prior. It automatically plays when the site loads.
In October 2015, Dancel emailed me. He’d been out of touch for several months, presumably because I wasn’t writing stories about the case anymore. Farzam “is now harassing me and I am looking for an attorney,” he wrote. “This case ruined my life and he got off with a slap.”
I’d been able to amass numerous documents pertaining to the case and to track down plenty of sources, but the DOJ hadn’t given me the recordings from the investigation’s sting phase. I asked Dancel if he had copies of them. He said that he did but wanted cash for them. He asked me to contribute to his GoFundMe page. When I declined, he went silent again for a few months.
Then, in January 2016, he sent another email out of the blue. “Did you ever get the story off?” he asked. “This fucker is harassing me and created some fake website with all my info.”
By this time, I’d found a regional magazine interested in publishing a story about Farzam, and its editors offered to pay Dancel $100 for the recordings. (The publication later declined to run the piece in the lead-up to an ownership change.) He told me to meet him one day in early February at a Starbucks in Calabasas. It would be the first time we’d ever spoken in person.
We wound up meeting instead at a salon where his girlfriend had an appointment. Dancel wore blue jeans and a tight white T-shirt with an apparel logo scrawled across it in dramatic Gothic script. “Hey, partner. How’s it going, man?” he said, shaking my hand. He made a comment about how awfully long it takes women to get their hair done.
We got into Dancel’s car and went looking for a restaurant where we could talk. Eying my recorder, which I hadn’t switched on yet, Dancel claimed that under California law, in his capacity as a law-enforcement officer, he was allowed to tape someone without consent. In fact, California penal code requires two-party consent for the recording of private conversations. Exceptions are made for an employed public officer acting “within the scope of his or her authority.” Search warrants are often required.
Soon after we arrived at a Denny’s, the battery on Dancel’s laptop died. He approached a waitress and introduced himself as “a former police officer” meeting with a newspaper reporter, by way of explaining that he needed to charge his computer in order to give me his files. When we began talking about Farzam, he insisted that the hotelier wasn’t a close friend. “I wouldn’t count on him if I was in a car accident,” Dancel said, an ironic statement given that Farzam once saved someone from a burning vehicle. “But we definitely had a good rapport.”
Dancel ordered a house salad with ranch dressing; I had french fries. While we ate, we traded information and rumors. He said his decision to help the FBI and ATF get Farzam was a matter of “integrity.” He used “we” when talking about law enforcement. He suggested people I could talk to but seemed astonished by the details about Farzam’s history I’d already been able to turn up. “You’re better than a private detective,” Dancel said, as though rendering a professional opinion.
He was thrilled that someone else wanted to talk about the case. His voice projected authority mixed with regret. “I had no clue that my agency was going to turn their back on me,” he said at one point, referring to the Maricopa County posse. “If I wouldn’t have worked this case, I wouldn’t have had any problems.”
When his files were done uploading, he wanted to keep talking. He got looser and angrier, inadvertently revealing that he knew Farzam better than he’d claimed earlier in the conversation. “His parents have always coddled him,” Dancel said at one point. He talked about knowing Farzam’s siblings, including which ones liked their brother and which ones thought he was a screwup. (One of Farzam’s brothers, on top of working in real estate, is Kanye West’s personal physician.) He described Farzam as a “weirdo” who he’d always assumed would “get caught sooner or later.”
We left the Denny’s and he drove me back to my car at the salon. When I thanked him for his time and the files, Dancel said he was glad to keep helping out.
That meeting was nearly a year and a half ago. In the time since, as I’ve pieced together this story, Farzam hasn’t landed in legal trouble for impersonation. He still leads the Shore Hotel, where rooms now go for upwards of $700 per night. He’s been interviewed for websites and podcasts about leadership in the hospitality business—even as his hotel has come under scrutiny from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for a range of allegations, including sexual harassment, illegal termination of employees, unlawful interrogation and coercion of staff, and surveillance of employees participating in union activity. (Per the NLRB’s website, the parties in those cases reached settlements in 2017.) I’ve reached out to multiple people in the Santa Monica business community, and those who’ve agreed to talk have had little to say. Former mayor and longtime city council member Kevin McKeown told me that a different Farzam brother “has represented the Shore Hotel in all matters in which I’ve participated.”
In February 2017, Steve Farzam told VoyageLA, “In my personal life, I always strive to improve. As an example, I’m in my last year of law school with the intention of using my Juris doctorate degree to better suit the hotel operations needs as we continue to grow.” Describing his hands-on management style, he said, “I personally stay at the hotel on occasion and fill in some of the management positions to see what the organization is like firsthand from the guest experience all the way down to the hourly employee vantage point. These ingredients have lead for [sic] a recipe for continued success, mindfulness, and humility.”
A month later, Farzam posted a photo on Instagram of what appears to be a certification document and badge from the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians. “Yes! It’s official!” he wrote in the caption. “I’m certified again! #paramedic.” I checked the NREMT website and saw that Farzam was registered with the organization. I sent a query about him, to which the NREMT never replied. As of this story’s publication date, Farzam’s status online had been changed to “not registered.”
Dancel and I have remained in touch. Recently, he decided to study to become a nurse. He told me that he had to leave California and now uses a different name because of the anonymous efforts to discredit him. Like in the old days, when he was an unnamed informant on the other end of a phone line, he hasn’t revealed what he calls himself. In our most recent conversations, he’s asked me to help him determine if Orange County authorities are taking seriously allegations he’s made against a local investigator. Dancel claims that the man is dating his ex-wife and investigating him unlawfully.
When he isn’t ranting about this new “case,” he still claims that the Farzam investigation wrecked his life. But when I asked him if it was the highlight of his law-enforcement career, he didn’t hesitate to answer. “I would definitely say that,” Dancel replied. “For sure.”
That professional zenith, such as it was, marked the end of an eccentric but intimate camaraderie. Dancel captured one of its waning days in an audio recording, made on the afternoon in April 2014 when he and Farzam cruised through Santa Monica in the Hummer.
“Lock up fucking Tracer,” Dancel exclaimed as Farzam texted his then girlfriend to say that he was heading home with a friend in tow. “You’re lucky I’m not 417.”
“Why didn’t you bring a gun, fool?” Farzam asked. Dancel listed a few of the weapons he owned—a .40 pistol and a Glock 27 among them—and explained that they wouldn’t fit in the storage compartment of his motorcycle, which he’d ridden to the Shore Hotel that day. The men laughed.
As the vehicle rumbled along, their conversation was easy, shifting from the merits of tinted windows to “crying-heart liberals,” in Farzam’s words, who gave him “ugly looks” for driving a “gas guzzler.” Dancel noted, “They don’t even know it’s diesel.”
At one point, they slipped into silence—the sort that’s only comfortable between close friends. Dancel yawned. Then he spotted what he thought was a familiar location. “Isn’t that the place we came for lunch?” he said. “We ate hot dogs or something in there.”
“Oh yeah,” Farzam acknowledged. “It was across the street.”
“Dude, that was so many years ago. That had to be like 12 years ago.”
“Time flies, huh?”