Lies, Spies and Double Agents: On the Trail of Peter Nygard in the Bahamas

Lies, Spies and Double Agents: On the Trail of Peter Nygard in the Bahamas

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At times, it seemed as if we were characters in a thriller.

Our reporting began in early 2019 with a tip about a rich Canadian playboy accused of sexually abusing poor teenage girls in the Bahamas. By the time we finally went to press last month, the story had morphed into an epic fight between ultrarich neighbors in a hall of mirrors.

Filled with lies, spies and double agents, it was the most challenging assignment of my career. (For context, I once covered Afghanistan and Pakistan. Then I decided it was possible to write a darkly comic book about the experience. Neither was simple.)

Along with the reporters Catherine Porter and Grace Ashford, I started digging into allegations against the Canadian, Peter Nygard, a fashion executive in his late 70s who had long surrounded himself with beautiful young women.

Mr. Nygard may have seemed like an eccentric has-been, with his long gray hair, low-cut V-neck shirts and obsession with stem-cell injections and cloning as ways of staving off death. But former employees and girlfriends worried about retribution from Mr. Nygard if they spoke against him. They thought of him as omnipotent, with spies everywhere.

A lawyer named Fred Smith introduced us to 11 young Bahamian women who told us that Mr. Nygard raped them as teenagers. The allegations were horrific: Some women said they were drawn to his home by the promise of luxurious parties or modeling work. Some said they were drugged. Some said he forced them to watch pornography with animals or human feces. None wanted to be identified.

Mr. Nygard has denied all these allegations.

Things got complicated quickly. We learned that Mr. Smith had worked closely with the hedge fund billionaire Louis Bacon, who happened to be Mr. Nygard’s longtime nemesis and neighbor in the Bahamas. Their decade-long fight spanned courtrooms in three countries.

Mr. Nygard was behind smears declaring that Mr. Bacon belonged to the Ku Klux Klan; Mr. Bacon and Mr. Smith accused Mr. Nygard of plotting to kill them. Mr. Bacon had even moved three of Mr. Nygard’s former girlfriends to the United States and hired bodyguards for them.

Given Mr. Nygard’s alleged sway in the Bahamas, we were told we needed to be careful.

We switched hotels every few days so no one could track us. A Courtyard Marriott worker insisted that the hotel could not deny I was staying there if someone asked for me by name, so he disguised me as “LaKim LaBarker,” a pseudonym that seemed like poor tradecraft.

One source would talk to me only in a car; as he drove us through a wooded area, he said, worryingly: “Don’t worry. I’m not going to kill you.” People recorded our conversations without telling us. A man with a spoofed phone number (which hid his actual location and number) called my dad, looking for me. No one ever called my dad looking for me.

Mr. Nygard actively tried to shut down the article. He filed a racketeering lawsuit against Mr. Bacon, accusing him of trying to plant a false story with The New York Times. One of his lawyers called the allegations “paid-for lies.” Mr. Nygard’s spokesman falsely suggested that I had taken $55,000 funneled through Mr. Bacon’s foundation. (The so-called evidence: On a public 2016 tax return for the foundation’s grants, easily printable from the internet, somebody had scrawled “—BARKER $55K” next to a grant for Media Matters.)

Weeks before we first hoped to publish, we doubled down on our interviews, visiting our sources to corroborate their stories and crosschecking for inconsistencies. We found that Mr. Smith and his team had spread more money around than anyone had previously told us; in particular, they had paid two women who had helped find alleged victims.

Reporting was complicated by the fact that Mr. Smith had recently nearly died in a paragliding accident in Italy, and we had to interview him as he recovered in an Italian hospital. At times, he screamed in pain.

Then a reporter’s worst nightmare happened: Two accusers told us they had been lying all along. They said they had never met Mr. Nygard. They claimed they had been paid to lie — not by Mr. Smith, not by Mr. Bacon, but by a former Nygard employee, Richette Ross, one of the two women who had helped find victims for Mr. Smith. He had paid her the equivalent of $86,000 a year — for her security and to help with another lawsuit against Mr. Nygard, he claimed.

Ms. Ross passed a lie-detector test denying she had paid anyone to lie, the polygraph examiner told us. In December, her Florida lawyer sent me a cease-and-desist letter, threatening to sue if I continued talking about what we had been told.

Media organizations with fewer resources might have given up. But The Times let us continue to dig.

In the end, we put together a timeline with more than 2,000 entries from court records, books and interviews. We talked to more than 270 people, some repeatedly. And we persuaded one strong woman to go on the record: Tamika Ferguson, the only woman who said she had been raped by Mr. Nygard in the Bahamas and agreed to let us use her name.

The truth can be messy: We found that Mr. Bacon’s money did help fuel the initial investigation in the Bahamas, which led to a lawsuit filed in New York last month. Those payments could be used to undermine witnesses and accusers. But we also found that Mr. Nygard, who had several homes and offices in the United States and Canada, had been accused of sexual misconduct repeatedly over the past 40 years, mainly by former employees.

Not only was that well before the feud with his neighbor, but it was also well outside the Bahamas, a country where many people asked us for money, even the government clerk who wanted $20 to search for a public court record. For obvious reasons, we couldn’t pay a cent.

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