Sara King says her spiral started on August 20, 2022, four days before her 39th birthday, in the high-limit room at the Wynn Hotel casino in Las Vegas. The beautiful, athletic brunette was wearing a Christian Dior sweater over yoga pants and holding a Chanel purse in her lap as she slid hundred-dollar bills into a Dragon Link Golden Century, her go-to slot machine.

King was a regular in the room and a big tipper when she hit, which she claims happened so often that she began calling herself the slot whisperer. Her favorite machine was programmed with an A.I.-generated avatar of her that popped up whenever she won.

King spent so much money at the casino between March and November 2022 that she says management gave her a Wynn Chairman card, its highest level of perks, which is reserved for players willing to drop tens of thousands of dollars a day. With it, she had access to complimentary meals, limo rides, and the Wynn’s private jet.

That night, King claims she put $50,000 into the slot machine, banking on a system she had developed playing penny slots when she first started gambling at the Wynn that March. In her purse, she kept her code scribbled on a scrap of Wynn stationery: $1/$25; $2/$50; $1/$50, $2/$100, $5/$125, $1/$75, $2/$150, $1/$125, $10/$250, $5/$250 …

The Wynn Las Vegas, seen from the sky.

“The machines want to pay out bonuses in an order and I figured that order out,” King tells me over chardonnay at the One Hotel in West Hollywood in May. “You needed at least five to ten [thousand] to see where the machine was at,” she explains, insisting that her somewhat incoherent system led to big payouts. With it, she says she was “winning jackpot after jackpot.”

Only that night, she didn’t win big. King blames a woman who had “lips bigger than her face” and who was being giggly and loud at a nearby slot machine. King says she gave the woman a mean look and stood up, leaving the machine before her supposedly foolproof system could kick in. Then, the screecher sat at the machine. As King was leaving, the cacophony of bells and whistles that accompany a jackpot win exploded. “That dumb bitch hit for $1.6 million,” says King. “You could shoot me in the leg, and I wouldn’t cry, I think I cried that night. I knew I should have stayed to play.”

Sara King’s favorite slot machine was programmed with an A.I.-generated avatar of her that popped up whenever she won.

King returned to her comped $5,000-a-night Las Vegas villa, where she and her husband, Kamran Pahlavi, the grandson of Princess Ashraf of Iran, had been living for months. She says Pahlavi was at a Duran Duran concert when she got home, which was probably for the best. “He was always grumpy unless I handed him stacks of cash when I won,” King says. When she lost, “he refused to speak to me for days.”

Sara King and Kamran Pahlavi before her scheme was exposed.

After that night, King kept losing. In court documents filed on June 12, she agreed to plea guilty to felony charges for wire fraud and money laundering, admitting that the money she was gambling with came from clients who had invested in her lending firm, King Family Lending.

Today, King is broke, embroiled in several lawsuits, and under investigation by the F.B.I. and the I.R.S. The role Pahlavi, who has filed for divorce from King, played in the con is less clear. Pahlavi hasn’t been implicated in any of the civil lawsuits against King, but how could her husband, who often socialized with sketchy businessmen, be totally in the dark? And why did his friend, an accomplished Swiss banker, invest more than $10.2 million into King’s one-woman loan operation?

King is a grifter, but is her grift part of an even bigger one?

King of the Con

King was raised in the wealthy beach community of Encinitas, in north San Diego County, the daughter of immigrant parents who ran a successful insurance company.

In 2014, King graduated from Loyola University Law School, in Los Angeles, and a few months later, she married her first husband, Gerar Jamal. He owned a number of businesses and invested in a hard-money-loan outfit called Luxury Asset Lending, which serviced quick, short-term loans to high-net-worth clients who put up luxury assets—think: Lamborghinis, Gulfstream planes, racing boats, and even future earnings on sports contracts—as collateral. Over the next four years, while the couple lived in a Newport Beach mansion, King studied the world of hard-money lending and put her law degree to work, first as a commercial-real-estate attorney, then as a partner at a law firm.

In 2019, she met Pahlavi over a business lunch at the Center Club, in Costa Mesa, near Newport. Their mutual friend, the Hollywood producer Joseph Medawar, also attended. (Medawar was a convicted con man who, in 2006, pleaded guilty to scamming millions of dollars from scores of investors who believed he was developing a television show about the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.) Over lunch, everyone discussed their upcoming business projects. King says she found the prince “super sexy.”

Pahlavi is related to former royals—he is the grandson of the last Shah of Iran’s twin sister. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, his mother, Azadeh, left Iran for Paris, and became a vocal critic of Iran’s Islamic regime.

“He was always grumpy unless I handed him stacks of cash when I won.”

At that lunch meeting, Pahlavi remembers being struck by King’s charisma and charm. “She already had a lavish lifestyle and was probably the best-dressed woman I had ever met,” he told me over e-mail recently. An affair was born, and King divorced Jamal in 2019. She married Pahlavi—who had French, not American, citizenship—on February 24, 2022.

King’s slot of choice, the Dragon Link Golden Century machine.

The year after King and Jamal filed for divorce, Brian Quinn, the president of Luxury Assets Lending, was indicted by the Securities and Exchange Commission on securities-fraud charges connected to a shell company and stock scams. (While litigation is ongoing, other people involved in the scheme have pleded guilty.) King sensed an opportunity. In February 2020, she opened King Family Lending, which had a similar business model to Quinn’s. King, the manager, president, and sole employee of the company, would get investors to fund risky loans taken out by third-party borrowers. Should a borrower default on their loan, she secured her investors’ money with the high-end collateral the borrowers put up.

One of King’s early clients was George Poulos, an Orange County dad with two kids. She also got investments from friends, including her former assistant and makeup artist. The biggest series of investments—totaling $10,258,500—came from Pahlavi’s longtime friend Laurent Reiss, a Swiss banker whom Pahlavi had grown close to during their hard-partying teenage years in Monaco.

In July 2021, Poulos invested $125,000 in King Family Lending after King promised him he “would make a shitload of money.” She took Poulos to an Orange County garage where she kept the collateral, including Ferraris, and showed him the luxury items supposedly backing up his investment. “Everything was fine for a few months,” Poulos tells me. “She was a little bit of a scatterbrain, but she had been doing this for a few years, so I figured she knew what she was doing.”

But when it came time to pay up, in late 2021, King stopped responding to his calls and texts, which would become a pattern for her. The last time Poulos saw King was over lunch in Newport Beach. “She showed me her phone with a Wells Fargo account that said she had two million in it,” he says. “Then I never saw her again.”

A photo of a Lamborghini Urus that King sent to an investor, claiming it was collateral for their investment in her lending company.

In January 2022, Poulos filed a lawsuit in California Superior Court alleging that King Family Lending defrauded him out of $125,000. King never showed up in court, which led the judge to rule in Poulos’s favor and order King to pay back the investment, plus another nearly $100,000 in damages. Poulos still hasn’t seen a dime.

Around this time, King and Pahlavi began spending more time in Las Vegas and, eventually, moved there. King insists she didn’t run away from angry investors, while Pahlavi claims he thought his wife “wanted to expand her business and Vegas was a great place to do it.”

“She showed me her phone with a Wells Fargo account that said she had two million in it. Then I never saw her again.”

Up and down the Vegas Strip, King says she quickly became known as Mary Poppins, a moniker she started using to reserve prime tables at the best restaurants. While she gambled, she also found more investors for King Family Lending. “You needed to play with the big boys to generate new clients,” King explains. “The high-limit rooms were a business opportunity.” In six months, she spent more than $5 million on Wynn slot machines.

Meanwhile, Pahlavi enjoyed long lunches and spa days. “I didn’t like gambling,” he says.

In Las Vegas, King befriended Amal Obaid-Schmid, a Los Angeles trauma surgeon, and took her on shopping excursions and gossiping sessions for months before she gave her the King Family Lending pitch: “I normally don’t open up deals to people who aren’t billionaires … Obaid-Schmid invested $100,000. A month later, King wired her the promised 10 percent return, and urged her to re-invest. Obaid-Schmid invested another $400,000.

Then came the lies—“lie after lie after lie,” says Obaid-Schmid. When it was time to cash out, King faked a wire transfer. Then she stopped responding altogether.

While her investors in California were furious that she wasn’t paying up or responding to them, King’s house of cards didn’t come crashing down until Laurent Reiss, the banker friend of Pahlavi’s, became suspicious of her. King had been sending Reiss bank statements purporting to show that his investments, which were supposedly financing 97 loans, were collecting interest, but in November 2022, Reiss noticed typos on the bank stationery. He traveled to Southern California to inspect the collateral, which King said was stored in warehouses in Orange County. When he arrived, King couldn’t produce any of it.

In February 2023, Reiss filed a civil suit against King. It alleges that “her company was just part of a massive scheme to pay for her outrageous gambling habit,” and that she used “false and fabricated copies of … guaranteed professional sports contracts” for athletes to lure new investors. Reiss also claims there were never any third-party borrowers or loans being financed. Reiss’s old pal Pahlavi wasn’t mentioned in his suit.

King would later admit that those allegations were true, and that the firm never initiated or financed a single loan, or had high-end collateral, and that she was spending her investors’ money on the slots.

Laurent Reiss traveled to Southern California to inspect the collateral. When he arrived, King couldn’t produce any of it.

In our interviews, which happened in the months before King pleaded guilty, she had a hard time explaining what happened to the trove of luxury goods—including an Audemars Piguet 41mm Royal Oak chronograph watch, a Richard Mille RM 030 watch, and Tiffany-stamped Patek watches—that she supposedly had and that she’d taken pictures of and sent to Reiss and other investors. At one point in our conversation, King claimed that “Kamran [Pahlavi] stole my collateral” and that he “made Laurent crazy with accusations so that Kamran would get away with it all and point the finger at me.” Pahlavi steadfastly denies that.

In late November 2022, around the time Reiss started meeting with his lawyers, and other victims of King’s grift began filing lawsuits against her, Pahlavi moved to Morocco, a country without an extradition treaty with the U.S. (Pahlavi claims he moved to help a friend open a restaurant there.) He then gave interviews to media outlets calling his soon-to-be-ex wife a liar and insisting he was in the dark about her schemes.

Photos of collateral—Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe watches—that King sent to investors.

“When he fled for Morocco, we were all like, What the hell? Morocco?” says Poulos. “It seemed suspicious.”

While Pahlavi admits he “kept the books” for King Family Lending, he is not mentioned in any of the lawsuits filed against his wife’s company, which was registered only under her name. Pahlavi claims he had no idea how much she was losing in Las Vegas. “How can you keep a poker face when you are losing so much money, especially money that is not yours, and lying to the whole world about it?,” Pahlavi asks. “It’s beyond me.”

“She needs help,” Pahlavi wrote in an e-mail from Morocco. “She’s a very sick woman.”

Meanwhile, King insists Pahlavi was her biggest enabler, aware of the extent of her gambling and her fraudulent lending scheme, and happy to help himself to the cash she brought in. “Kamran was encouraging me to gamble. Who knows why?” she says. She also alleges that Pahlavi used her to get a green card. (When he filed for divorce, King stopped sponsoring his green-card application.) “I kissed a prince and got a frog.”

“When he fled for Morocco, we were all like, What the hell? Morocco? It seemed suspicious.”

Shortly after Pahlavi left the country, King was taking a bath in her Las Vegas villa when there was banging at the door. She opened it to find the Wynn resort manager flanked by security. While it’s unclear what exactly led to that confrontation, Obaid-Schmid says she informed the hotel that King was swindling people on their casino floor. They kicked King out and banned her from the casino.

After that, King darkened her hair and hid her face behind a mask to try to sneak back to her favorite slot machine, but the casino security’s A.I. facial-recognition software flagged her. “I am a competitive [person],” she says. “I don’t like to lose. I think I can beat everything. That is not a good characteristic of mine.”

A Wynn spokesperson said in a statement that King will be arrested if she returns.

In February, King arrived at the West Hollywood two-bedroom apartment that she had been renting for roughly $8,000 a month to find the door plastered with eviction notices and civil-service processing summonses, along with a copy of the judgment Poulos won against her. Her license to run King Family Lending has been revoked and the California State Bar is investigating her law license. She’s also $11 million in debt.

In the plea agreement filed in the United States District Court in Santa Ana on June 12, King admitted to defrauding five investors, including Reiss, out of $8 million. King has agreed to pay $8,785,045 to those investors, and could be sentenced to up to 23 years in federal prison. On June 20, she wore Dior high heels to face a federal judge in Santa Ana. She pleaded not guilty, which is common for people in her situation because now the case must go to trial. She was released on a $5,000 bond, which was secured by her father, and her trial is set to begin on August 15.

Despite all of this, King seems to have retained her sense of humor about the matter. A few weeks ago, she shared a text from her mother: “What ever happened to What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas?”

Michaela Seward is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer