Phone Predator Cases Double as FBI Investigates Potential "Con Queen" Links

Hugh Welchman Illustration
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images / THR Illustration

Authorities have been looking into whether a sexual predator who has been cold calling actresses under the guise of an Oscar-winning filmmaker is actually the notorious Con Queen of Hollywood, who was arrested in the U.K. at the end of November.

The number of actresses claiming to have been contacted by a manipulative sexual predator masquerading as an Oscar-winning filmmaker has doubled.

First reported by The Hollywood Reporter in November, the conman has been cold calling women claiming to be Hugh Welchman, the director of the groundbreaking 2017 animated feature Loving Vincent. The impostor begins by dangling the opportunity of a role in an upcoming project that he says he’s producing. From there, he’s pressured many of his targets into taking part in uncomfortable, domineering, inappropriate and increasingly sexual conversations under the guise of "energy work" and has persuaded several to move to Skype video, where a number have been coerced into taking their clothes off on camera.

Following the initial investigation, the imposter was known to have been in touch with 13 actresses (many of these had reached out to the real Hugh Welchman, who posted a warning video on his Instagram account after learning of the scam), with the LAPD having taken on the case. This figure is now closer to 25 thanks to more victims reaching out to THR.

It’s also understood that he’s been making the calls since — at least — January. Given the lack of exact information as to how long the predator has been active and the actual scale of his activity, the real number of victims could be far higher.

The known areas where the conman has been targeting has also expanded. Initially, those who came forward were predominantly working in New York or Los Angeles. New evidence shows that he’s been phoning around the Washington DC theater community, with a number of actresses having been contacted as recently as last month.

According to Kelsey (she requested just the use her first name for this article), who first received a call on Nov. 3, there are at least six others active in the DC stage scene that the impostor has approached.

“Five of these he’s spoken to and one was called but didn’t pick up,” she says, adding that the calls to the actresses all happened roughly within the span of a single week in early November.

Unlike many of the others, Kelsey’s conversation with the predator lasted just a few minutes — he hung up when she repeatedly insisted she needed to check in with the contact he fraudulently claimed had referred her. But after hearing from a friend whose experience “was much worse than mine” and seeing the first article she started using social media to put warnings out, finding a number of others on a DC Facebook page who had been affected.

“So we've been talking with them lately about the steps that we're all taking and how everybody's doing,” she says.

Calling a group of actresses in the same area in quick succession would indicate that the predator found a list of numbers rather than searching for individuals. Kelsey suspects that the website for The Actors’ Center, a community organization for creatives in Washington D.C., Maryland and Virginia, was used.

“But it could be a variety of ways because — unfortunately — as actors we try to be as transparent and open and available as possible,” she says. “And that's something that we're all used to, but this is the first time that someone has called me in a malicious way.”

The last known call by the predator — to one of the D.C. stage actresses — came on Nov. 11. Coincidentally, this call was made just over two weeks before the arrest of a man accused of being the entertainment world’s most notorious identity thief, the so-called Con Queen of Hollywood.

Hargobind Tahilramani, taken into custody in the British city of Manchester on Nov. 26 after a multi-year investigation, is purported to be the mastermind behind a complex fraud operation in which he successfully masqueraded as industry elites to rob hundreds of film workers, including writers, make-up artists, trainers and actors over a six-year period.

According to multiple sources, the FBI has recently been investigating the sexual predator case, trying to ascertain whether the man impersonating Hugh Welchman and the Con Queen of Hollywood are one and the same person.

On face value, the two scams appear to have entirely different motivations.

Using a high-pitched voice to pose as an array of prominent female film producers — including Amy Pascal, Stacey Snider and Kathleen Kennedy — Tahilramani is alleged to have duped potentially hundreds of victims into thinking they were being specifically approached to work on big budget film or TV projects (some fake, some very real, including Indiana Jones 5). Scores of his targets flew out to Indonesia — where they were supposedly shooting — and handed over thousands of dollars for logistical services such as driving fees and tour guides on a false promise of reimbursement. While relatively small amounts each time, Tahilramani is estimated to have netted in the region of $1.5 million to $2 million via the setup, which dates back to 2015.

“The primary goal [of the Con Queen] seems to be financial,” says Welchman. “Whereas for my impersonator it seems to be a perverted power play. He basically wants to get women to take their clothes off, and gets his kicks from dominating them mentally.”

But there are a number of stark similarities.

At their base, they’re both elaborate catfishing operations that prey on the hopes and dreams of creatives looking for that career-changing opportunity to move up the industry ladder. Both scams have also clearly involved time researching their targets, who were given real-life references that they had worked with, saying they had been personally recommended.

And despite the clear financial intent of the Indonesia swindle, the Con Queen was known to have entered stranger, more sexual territories while on calls to victims. As reported by THR in 2018, while purporting to be Kathleen Kennedy he made “sexual advances” to an ex-Marine who had been approached, and last year was reportedly bullying male targets into engaging in “sexual explicit role play” as part of fake auditions.

“I heard mutterings that the Con Queen’s MO had become more sinister and sexual,” said one person with close ties to Con Queen investigation, who asked not to be identified, adding that “many of the details between the two [cases] sounded eerily similar.”

Alongside Kennedy, Pascal and Snider, the Con Queen, clearly highly skilled with accents, has also impersonated the likes of Rupert Murdoch’s former wife Wendi Deng, ex-Paramount boss Sherry Lansing and Justice League and Wonder Woman producer Deb Snyder. Long before Tahilramani was publicly identified as the prime suspect, it was this penchant for masquerading as high-powered female execs that earned the imposter the label of "The Con Queen of Hollywood."

But that’s not to say male figures haven’t been part of the repertoire. Just last month — even as the net was closing in (and around the same time as the Welchman impersonator was calling Washington D.C. actresses) — Tahilramani was allegedly phoning actors as Bourne Identity and Edge of Tomorrow director Doug Liman, claiming to be casting for the real-life and recently-announced Tom Cruise project set to be shot in space. A recording that aired on the final episode of the Chameleon: Hollywood Con Queen podcast showed the ease with which he adopts the tones of an American male (which is, peculiarly, the accent the predator predominantly uses when speaking as Hugh Welchman, despite the filmmaker being and sounding English).

There are also smaller coincidences.

In his conversations, the predator masquerading as Welchman has claimed to have once lived in London, which correlates with the Con Queen. He has also — bizarrely — repeated referred to his Asian heritage (Welchman, it should be noted, has none), claiming to have been born in India, with Sanskrit as his first language. Tahilramani, the child of immigrants from Pakistan and Hong Kong, was raised in the Indonesian capital Jakarta, before spending two years studying in the U.S.

“He does sound like he could be the same age, and the same ethnicity,” says Welchman. “I can see why they’ve made the link. Maybe they think it was a sexual side project from his main job.”

Despite these numerous connections and the FBI’s interest in the phone predator, those who have been tracking the Con Queen closely have revealed to THR that they’re confident the two cases are, in fact, separate.

At the center of this conclusion are the two differing voices. The Con Queen may have impressively deployed a wide library of accents over the years, but insiders — all speaking anonymously — have asserted confidently that, while there are certain similarities, there’s no exact match between the two. “None of the registries are the same,” says one.

“On hearing details of the [predator] scam, my initial reaction was that it was 100 percent linked,” adds another. “But it wasn’t until I listened to the recording of him that I instinctively knew it wasn’t the person, unless he’d dramatically changed his voice and intonations.”

Other pieces of the predator’s activities don’t quite fit into the Con Queen’s complex jigsaw puzzle.

The Con Queen was known to have been fairly meticulous when it came to researching his subjects. While it’s clear the phone predator spent time digging into his targets’ careers, plucking out particular references he thought would register with the victims and even studying their individual backstories, when it came to the person he was impersonating, he painted an almost willfully wild image far removed from reality. Welchman has no Indian heritage. Neither has he lived in Venezuela or the U.S., as the imposter has claimed.

“He had this background but in 10 minutes on the internet you can find out where I grew up and where I went to school,” says Welchman.

And while the predator had a certain degree of knowledge about the filmmaker’s Oscar-nominated animation Loving Vincent, which he elaborates on early in his calls to convey his impressive credentials, holes soon show when pushed. Once asked how the film could be watched in the U.S, he said it was "on YouTube,” while it’s easy to find out that it’s available on Hulu (and something any filmmaker would know about their own work).

However, as one person with deep knowledge of the Con Queen case explains, after years of successfully scamming numerous individuals, he had recently been “getting sloppy,” possibly due to the stress of knowing investigators were closing in.

That said, the difference in voices is more than enough to convince insiders that the two are different people, which would mean the predator is not Tahilramani and is still at large. But the coincidences and closeness of the cases have led several to question if they could still be linked.

“I guess it’s more than likely a copycat,” says one, raising the disturbing notion that a skilled con artist and sexual predator has been taking notes from one of the most prolific and audacious scammers to hit Hollywood in recent years and been using them to begin his own sinister operation.

“Obviously I would have been completely thrilled if it was the same person,” says Welchman. “Then I could stop worrying about the whole thing.”