Taken for a Ride

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Sean Dong / The Verge

Mike Vallejo, a 32-year-old technology entrepreneur and self-proclaimed multimillionaire from Portland, Oregon, had recently separated from his wife of four years. Their marriage had been on the skids for a while, the true downfall of which was spurred by Mike making out and getting “handsy,” as he put it, with a much younger woman named Lauren.

This past August, Lauren pitched Mike, who was now officially single, on having a threesome with her and her friend Haley. Youthful and blonde, faces impeccably sculpted by makeup, the duo was freewheeling and eager for a good time. Mike readily agreed, and the three of them congregated at a swanky boutique hotel in downtown Portland. “I did a line of cocaine off of Lauren’s ass,” Haley said. “That got Mike excited.”

“It was awesome,” he told me.

Although Mike had previously hooked up with Lauren, he explained that he began dating Haley after the threesome. (“We were not dating,” Haley said. “I can’t have anyone think I was dating him. Let’s just say we were, um, hanging out and he liked me.”) In November, Haley left town for a family vacation.

Mike, missing her, decided to distract himself by joining Tinder. “I got, like, 15 matches within the first 12 hours,” he said.

The dopaminergic rush of the matches, and the potential of meeting up with the women on the other end of his screen, temporarily soothed the loneliness brought on by Haley’s absence and Mike’s ongoing marital separation. “I feel like my wife leaving me made me want, even more, to give the best to others,” he said. “I just wanted to spend time with someone. It was more of feeling like there’s a void that I needed to fill by getting attention or affection from others.”

Mike quickly matched with a woman named Ky. She seemed cute, if somewhat inscrutable, with no biographical details and photographs that included only a mirror selfie and a snapshot of her butt in a bikini. “I am the sweetest person you will ever meet,” she would later tell him. Mike had never used Tinder before; he told Ky that he’d be happy to get together.

So Mike got ready for their date. He put on jeans and a high-end watch, his short haircut neatly framing his boyish face. He trimmed the shadowy stubble that stretched from chin to cheek into a uniform blanket of mature bachelorhood. He was rich, single, and ready to have some more fun.

But then Ky started messaging Mike strange questions. Do you want to get a hotel? Sure. How will you pay? Credit card. Can you pull out cash instead? Okay. (Thankfully for Mike, he never hit up an ATM.)

In hindsight, these questions were obviously red flags. In fact, there were many red flags. Mike had seemingly made vast sums of money, first through his SEO and website development company NS Modern and, more recently, via a watermelon drink called Mela, which boasts slick online branding and, according to Mike, is gearing up for a funding round at a $35 million valuation. But despite his experience as a tech entrepreneur, he was blinded by his eagerness to assume his role as a single man with a lot to offer. He ignored the warning signs and continued the conversation.

What kind of car do you drive? A Jaguar. Can I drive it? Um, sure.

Although Mike had his Tinder radius set within Portland’s city limits, Ky explained that she was currently in Salem, about an hour away, and sent over the address for an apartment complex. Despite the distance, Mike made the drive and, after greeting his date, allowed her to get behind the wheel.

Ky drove erratically, looping around to the highway, clearly unaware of how to navigate the city. (She once reposted a meme on her alleged Facebook account that read, “I don’t drive like a girl ‍♀️ As soon as you get in my car … Welcome to GTA .”) It was past midnight, hardly the ideal time for a dinner date. They settled on a Denny’s in Happy Valley, just southeast of Portland.

In the confines of a booth, and under the harsh fluorescent lighting of the diner, Mike realized Ky didn’t look like her profile pictures. He’d been catfished. In the moment, all Mike could do was think about how much this rendezvous “sucks ass,” he said. But he decided to be cordial and finish the date. Ky ordered chocolate chip pancakes. Mike didn’t eat.

Instead, he fielded a text message from an acquaintance, who asked what he was doing. “I’m at Denny’s with a friend,” he typed back. Mike asked Ky if he could take her picture so he could send it to his buddy.

“What should I do?” she asked.

Mike thought Ky was “kind of ugly” and didn’t want his friend to see her face, so he told her to just look down. She seemed unfazed and obliged. Mike sent the photo.

After the meal, Mike said he let Ky drive again, and they made their way to Oregon City, where she told him she was spending the night at a friend’s place. She pulled up in front of the house, and they waited for her friend to text back.

Mike didn’t understand why she couldn’t just go knock on the door.

“Let’s just wait,” Ky said. Ten awkward minutes passed, silence filling the car. Mike felt that something was off.

“Don’t judge me,” Ky said, “but I’m going to go pee outside in a bush.”

“Okay,” he said. “I’m not judging you.”

Ky turned the car off and got out. She took the keys with her. Mike sat alone in his Jaguar, darkness surrounding him. It was 2 in the morning now, and it was raining — harder and harder, coming down in sheets. Mike started to freak out. He felt like he was in a horror movie.

Mike recounted to me what happened next: Ky returned five minutes later and sat down in the driver’s seat, keys in hand. Suddenly, two men emerged at the passenger window. One brandished a pistol; the other, a large military-style knife.

“Get the fuck out of the car!” Mike remembered one of the men shouting. Terrified at the thought of being shot or stabbed, he complied.

The men forced him away from the Jaguar — gun pointed at his chest, knife thrusted forward near his gut. “Step back or we are going to kill you,” one of them said. The man with the knife kicked him in the chest, nearly knocking him over.

“Don’t do anything stupid,” the other guy told him, his gun aimed firmly at Mike’s heart. “Give me your fucking wallet, and take off the watch right now.” Mike handed over his phone, wallet, and gold Movado.

“Run into the woods right now, or we will kill you,” said the man with the knife.

“I am not going anywhere,” Mike told them. “You guys already took all my shit. Just go.”

Mike recalled that Ky slid over into the passenger seat while the man with the gun jumped into the driver’s seat, fired up the Jaguar F-Type roadster — for which Mike had spent over $50,000 — and sped away. The other guy, knife still inches from Mike’s gut, forced Mike to stay put while the gunman and Ky looped around the block to the adjacent side of the nearest building. The man with the knife then sprinted down a walkway that cut through the block to the awaiting Jaguar. Ky and the other attacker let him in — and then the three of them were gone.

“They had it all planned out,” Mike said. “Bro, I had been Tinder swindled!”

It appeared to be an effortlessly executed con. Mike was an SEO guru who got rich by knowing what people were looking for. Now, he’d been duped by a woman who apparently knew exactly what he was in search of — and that had made him the perfect mark.

Portland has seen a drastic rise in vehicle thefts over the past three years, with nearly 11,000 vehicles reported stolen in 2022, according to Portland Police Bureau statistics, a more than 20 percent increase over the previous year. (Only 6,382 vehicles were reported stolen throughout all of 2019.)

But more than the theft of the car, Mike was the victim of a rising trend: romance scams.

According to the FTC, reports of fraud losses from romance scams topped $1.3 billion in 2022. “That kind of sets the stage for you, in terms of how big this type of fraud is,” said Kieran Ramsey, the Portland FBI field office special agent in charge, adding that, according to the FBI’s internal statistics, Oregon-based victims of confidence and romance scams lost over $10 million between January and October of 2022 alone. “Technology gives you this false sense of trust,” Ramsey added.

Mike’s case, though, is singular because romance scams usually target hard currency that can be stolen electronically. According to Kathy Waters, co-founder of the nonprofit Advocating Against Romance Scammers, automobile hustles are rare. “An auto scam is different from The Tinder Swindler because that hoax continued over a long period of time,” Waters said, in reference to the popular Netflix documentary. “But technology gives criminals a crucial tool to find new victims, and they are definitely getting more brazen overall.”

But what makes the con against Mike so remarkable is how unusual he is as a victim. Mike is a young millennial whose entire identity has been codified by his mastery of technology, and yet he was fleeced in a manner most often associated with seniors who don’t really know how their phones work. But Mike’s greatest mistake wasn’t one born out of stupidity, but confidence.

After watching the three thieves take off in his Jaguar, Mike started walking through the rain, still dismayed at what had just happened to him. It was coming up on 3 in the morning, and he was all alone in a neighborhood the cops would later describe to him as “Methville.”

Mike finally came across an all-night Subway. He barged in, sopping wet and distraught. He told the teenage employee that he got robbed and needed to use the phone. He called the Oregon City Police Department and, within minutes, four squad cars zoomed into the parking lot. The cops sat across from Mike and listened to his story. They didn’t believe him.

“They thought it was a drug deal gone bad,” he said. “They didn’t believe that a girl set me up on Tinder.” Mike admitted to me that he kinda, sorta looked like a drug dealer, with his white hoodie, designer shoes, and ripped jeans, which probably didn’t help his case.

Despite the cops’ initial skepticism, they drove Mike around and eventually found the scene of the crime. At the police station, Mike met with another set of patrol officers. They, too, were dubious of his story but told him that a detective would be put on the case. Mike’s cousin picked him up at the station and brought him home. It was now past 6AM.

At the time, Mike was “depressed, shocked, overwhelmed,” he told me. So he texted Haley (who had just returned from her vacation) and Lauren. They rushed over to his house. At first, the story he told them omitted key details, including that the heist had happened on a Tinder date.

“I was getting a boob job in LA the next morning,” Lauren told me. “Mike was supposed to come, and I thought he was trying to get out of it.”

But slowly, the women started to unravel Mike’s story.

“We started to unpeel the truth because, let’s admit, it was just too embarrassing,” Haley said. They asked him how he didn’t see the red flags. Wasn’t it weird that she asked Mike to bring cash? That she asked what kind of car he owned? And after that, why the hell did he let her drive his Jaguar? “He has a good heart, which is why he gets robbed at gunpoint,” Haley said. “If anyone is going to get robbed, it’s going to be Mike.”

“Seriously, like, how could this happen?” Lauren said.

“I trust people way too much,” Mike said.

After he came clean about what really happened, Haley and Lauren took him to get a temporary license and buy a new iPhone. Haley also asked friends and family to start sleuthing, and they found a Facebook profile for a girl named Kylee Keim, with a photo that the women said matched the one from Tinder. They believed it might be the same girl from the robbery. Mike forwarded it to Oregon City police Detective Jon Neece, who was leading the investigation.

“I’ve heard of [Tinder scams] going on before, but this is the first one I’ve directly investigated,” Neece told me. “I think a lot of people that have had this happen to them on Tinder probably don’t report it because they’re embarrassed.”

Mike also posted on Instagram, where he has over 245,000 followers (he’d hired a marketing company to run a campaign for him), that his car had been stolen during a Tinder date gone awry. He tagged WTFPortland, an account that aggregates Oregon’s most bizarre news, and they reposted his plea, even publishing screenshots from Ky’s Tinder profile. “@ Kylee Keim, THIS U ?? ,” Haley commented on the post, which by then had started going viral and eventually racked up over 5,000 likes and 800 comments.

“Everyone is kind of hating on me a little bit, but I didn’t care,” Mike said. (“Nah u set urself up horny ass n*gga ,” one user wrote.) Mike was unmoved: “I just wanted to find my car.”

Later that evening, just after 9:30PM, Mike received an Instagram DM from someone he didn’t know: Chase Chenea. “Call me it’s about your car!!!” he wrote. Mike was spooked. “I’m thinking this guy is related to the girl, and he wants me dead for trying to get her locked up,” he said. “I think it’s another setup.”

Mike called him anyway.

According to his Facebook profile, Chase went to high school in McMinnville, Oregon, the largest city in Yamhill County, equidistant between Portland and Salem and which has become, over the past three decades, the epicenter of Willamette Valley wine country. A self-professed car and motorsport enthusiast, Chase previously held short stints as a mechanic and automotive detailer. He spent his spare time cruising on his Honda CBR F4 motorcycle, raising his ash-colored pit bull, and spending time with his (now-ex) girlfriend, a blue-eyed blonde named Jayden who worked at a local pet store.

There was, however, a more dubious, less-public side of Chase. According to court records, his criminal history stretches back years, filled with felony and misdemeanor convictions including first-degree theft, second-degree theft, possession of methamphetamine, and driving with a suspended license. In 2022, six warrants were issued for his arrest.

“He went to a bunch of stores around town, said he worked at different [businesses], and racked up huge bills on their company accounts,” said a former acquaintance, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. (They didn’t want their business to be associated with Chase.) “He seemed like a nice-enough guy. I just think he was a pathological liar and obviously a criminal.”

Chase told Mike that he was a former criminal but had become an informant for the Polk County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO). Now, Chase explained, he helped retrieve stolen cars and other merchandise from the Oregon underworld — even asserting, somewhat remarkably, to have helped locate over 70 boosted rides for desperate citizens.

There was just one problem with his story: was any of it even true? “He was not an informant for us,” said PCSO lieutenant Dustin Newman, adding that Mike’s case was the first time PCSO worked with Chase. “We didn’t know this guy from Adam until he called us.”

As for Mike’s Jaguar, the fences who had obtained the car offered to sell it to Chase for $30,000. (A source close to the investigation explained that the purported thieves did not appear to be involved in a sophisticated criminal enterprise, although law enforcement is still probing the possibility.) But Chase wasn’t going to buy the car. Instead, he wanted to help Mike recover it.

“[Chase told us that he was] a self-proclaimed thief who was trying to make things right in the world by helping people get their cars back,” said Newman.

But while Chase was fibbing to Mike about his alleged stature as an informant, he was also apparently stretching the truth with PCSO, telling deputies that he and Mike were already planning on going after the car — with or without their help. Both Mike and PCSO participated in Chase’s cockamamie scheme because each side thought that the other was more committed than they actually were. PCSO explained to me that they didn’t want anyone getting hurt, so they rushed to put together a plan. “He honestly pushed our hand quicker than we normally like to go on something like this,” Newman said.

It was a particularly weird game of cat and mouse. Chase’s specific motives are still unclear to me, and he did not return multiple requests for comment. But according to Mike, “Chase just wanted to be part of the drama.”

By the time Mike reached PCSO to verify Chase’s info about the Jaguar, the deputies were on board — and clearly excited about the prospect of retrieving the vehicle. They planned to do a sting operation with Chase that very night. They would run their own con.

The entire plot came together in less than six hours.

It was now past 11PM, nearly 24 hours since Mike’s now-infamous Tinder date. By then, Mike had linked up with his friend Denis Kurudimov, who owned an HVAC company in Portland and was a client of Mike’s company NS Modern. They bonded over their shared passion for entrepreneurship. Coincidentally, Denis recently had his Mercedes-AMG stolen, so he offered to drive Mike around Portland to scour for the Jaguar at some likely stash spots. “He understood my plight,” Mike told me. Moreover, Denis, who sported an aggressive, tightly faded haircut and black jacket, claimed to have personal friends who worked for the Portland Police Bureau, which boosted Mike’s confidence in him.

After their initial phone conversation, PCSO circled back with Mike and, according to Mike, said, “If you want your car tonight, you need to pick up Chase and take him to the sting; otherwise, your car will be gone, and you will never find it.”

Mike had reservations about the plan. He didn’t want to be involved in an operation with a self-proclaimed “police informant” — a total stranger — and confront potential criminals who he imagined stole cars at gunpoint for a living. Mike wasn’t the only one uneasy about the sting; the Oregon City police shared their reluctance as well. “[The] Polk County [Sheriff’s Office] did all that; we didn’t have any input on it,” Detective Neece said.

Still, the proposal was simple: posing as a potential buyer, Chase would lead law enforcement to the car, and from there, PCSO deputies could intervene. Mike wouldn’t have to do anything at all.

Denis was down for the adventure. “He was like, ‘I love this stuff,’” Mike said. “It was an adrenaline rush for him.” According to Mike, Denis also came to the mission fully equipped. In his trunk, he had an AR-15, mace, a couple of handguns, and a set of handcuffs — just in case. (Denis did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) They raced to pick up Chase, who couldn’t drive himself because his license was suspended. Mike thought that Chase looked pretty casual and seemed quite well-mannered for a guy at the helm of a con against purported carjackers.

Chase climbed into the front seat, with Mike in the back and Denis behind the wheel. For true posterity, Mike took a selfie video once they got on the road.

“We just picked up Chase, and Chase is the seed. We are going to plant him at a location where the thieves are going to bring the car,” Mike said, panning to the front seat, where Chase sat hunched over his cellphone, communicating with the people who said they had the car. Chase, the leader of this caperish sting, smiled at the camera, excited about participating in a wack-job mission that, by all accounts, really had nothing to do with him.

“I got my mace on me,” Mike continued, a smile creeping across his face, “just in case Chase tries to do anything funny, alright?” Chase laughed it off.

Their instructions from PCSO were clear: drive to a location near where the car was located, have Chase drop a pin to the suspects to confirm that he was in the immediate vicinity, and then “get the hell out of there,” Mike told me. From there, PCSO deputies could apprehend the suspects and take custody of Mike’s car. It was a tried-and-true approach, a method PCSO had used in previous cases.

En route, the three men hyped themselves up by blaring the Cops theme song on the stereo. Mike continued to film, documenting the scheme that would hopefully turn him from hapless victim to redemptive hero.

They drove to Sheridan, Oregon, a rural town an hour south of Portland. One of their largest employers is FCI Sheridan, a federal medium-security prison. Higher in elevation than the city, a blanket of snow covered the ground. The people who said they had the car had sent Chase a live GPS location via Instagram, which showed their movements in real time.

The trio got PCSO deputies on the phone. “From what it sounds like, he’s coming with the car right now,” Chase told them. “We’ll hang out on the sidelines, and we won’t even be near the area. You guys just do your thing.” They parked down the street.

Chase called one of the sellers and put him on speakerphone. Change of plans: he wanted Chase to come into the house to do the deal instead of meeting down the street. But Chase demurred, explaining that his “boss,” who was sitting right next to him — played by Denis — didn’t want to do that.

Denis quickly jumped into character, assuaging the thieves’ concerns about law enforcement. “Fuck the police,” he said over speakerphone, trying to convince the crooks that they were serious about purchasing the Jaguar. Mike was floored by his friend’s acting skills: “Denis played the role so well.”

They drove by the house to spot the vehicle. There it was, in the garage. Chase called the guys again, and Denis persuaded them to take Mike’s Jaguar up the street, where PCSO deputies could presumably pull the car over and make an arrest. Another car, a Cadillac, accompanied Mike’s boosted ride to the meeting spot. Once they left the house, the cops got eyes on the Jaguar and the Cadillac and approached the suspects. Chase, Denis, and Mike, as promised, avoided the scene and headed in the opposite direction.

Chase had brought a police scanner so they could listen in on what was happening. It crackled to life: a high-speed pursuit. Mike was on the edge of his seat, the car deadly quiet. All three of them leaned in closer to the scanner, ears perched, waiting for the next update.

Thirty seconds later, more activity came over the scanner: the Cadillac has crashed.

“One down, baby! Let’s go!” Mike yelped. “The Jaguar is still on the move!”

(Haley was at Mike’s house during the sting. “He was calling me, saying, like, ‘Oh my God, this shit is crazy. They are on a chase!’” she said. “I was like, Oh my God, there is no way this is real.”)

The scanner spat out another update: The Jaguar is off the road. The suspects are on the run. A K9 unit has been deployed.

Unsure of whether their cover was blown, the trio raced out of the neighborhood and back to Portland. “We got freaked out and jetted,” Mike said.

On the drive home, Mike received a call from one of the PCSO deputies. The Jaguar was not salvageable. The deputy sent him two pictures of the wreck, which showed Mike’s car flipped over at the base of an embankment, its roof crushed, glass strewn throughout the woods. The suspects fled. The sting had turned into a disaster.

It was well past 2AM by the time Denis dropped Mike off at his house. Haley and Lauren were in bed, asleep. He crawled in and slept at their feet. (“We didn’t have a threesome that night,” Mike said.) Disappointed and exhausted, he passed out from the stress of the past 24 hours. But Mike didn’t lose sight of what was important. The three of them woke up the next morning and flew to California for Lauren’s surgery.

While they were gone, PCSO deputies turned over his Jaguar to Oregon City police Detective Jon Neece. Inside the wreckage, he found Mike’s wallet and a cellphone belonging to one of the suspects. According to Mike, Neece also collected fingerprints and recovered his gold watch at a local pawn shop. (Neece said he could neither confirm nor deny specific details of the investigation.)

After the failed plot, Mike stayed quiet about the theft on social media while Neece processed evidence — including, according to Mike, unlocking the found phone, which held details of the alleged conspiracy — and prepared arrest warrants. Directly after Christmas, Neece arrested Sambou Ceesay and Jasiah Lance, both of whom were only 18 years old. They have both been charged with robbery and the unauthorized use of a vehicle.

It took Neece a few more weeks to apprehend who they believed to be “Ky.” During that time, she appeared to be active on social media. On January 8th, the Facebook profile allegedly belonging to her changed its profile photo — another mirror selfie, the camera carefully placed in front of her face, obscuring her identity.

Less than two weeks later, on January 18th, Kylee Aurora Keim, 21, arrived at the Polk County Circuit Court for a hearing on an unrelated criminal charge (unlawful possession of a firearm) and was arrested. She was transferred to Clackamas County, of which Oregon City is the county seat, and charged with the unauthorized use of a vehicle and two counts of robbery related to the theft of Mike’s car. (She did not respond to requests for comment.)

“It’s an armed robbery, so jail time could be substantial,” said Detective Neece. “But it was a strange set of facts that led to what really happened.”

Before her arrest, Mike was given more information about the woman that is believed to be the honeypot in this brazen Tinder car-theft scheme: the police told him that Ky was largely transient, a person with no home. The purported scammers were down on their luck and targeted someone whose priorities were accumulating — and boasting about — their wealth. The case against the three alleged accomplices is working its way through the courts, with separate trial dates scheduled for May.

Chase, for his part, was booked into county jail on theft charges filed just one week after he participated in the sting. He was accused of agreeing to repair an individual’s 2002 GMC Sierra, for which he was paid $1,000 up front, but instead of doing the work and returning the truck, Chase allegedly stole the vehicle and traded it for a 2013 Subaru Impreza. On March 7th, he pleaded guilty to one count of the unauthorized use of a vehicle and was sentenced to 30 months in jail. (According to a source close to the investigation, Chase is not interested in assisting the criminal case against Keim, Lance, and Ceesay.)

Shortly after the robbery, Mike worked with his insurance company to get his Jaguar replaced. “I love that car, but I don’t know [if I will get another one],” he said at the time. “There’s bad memories with that car now.” (He ended up settling on a 2020 C8 Corvette.) As for Tinder, the robbery hasn’t stopped him from using the app. “I did download it again while I was in LA, right after the heist,” he said. “I was just trying to see what’s up while I was there.”

Come early February, Mike was still “dating” Haley, but his brother caught onto the nature of their relationship and started calling him a “simp.” Mike, however, had a falling out with Lauren who, according to posts on Instagram, has recently become a stripper. The two are no longer speaking.

According to Mike, he’d taken her shopping, where she snapped a photo of his debit card. (“No I didn’t,” Lauren told me. “He’s making shit up.”) Then, Mike said, she started spending his money at the popular online retailers Babyboo and Luxe Fashion Boutique.

Yet again, Mike had been swindled.

Written by Ian Frisch
This news first appeared on https://www.theverge.com/c/23639245/tinder-car-heist-catfish-portland-oregon under the title “Taken for a Ride”. Bolchha Nepal is not responsible or affiliated towards the opinion expressed in this news article.