Coachella resort fraudster duped Sam Nazarian

Serena Shi faces maximum 20 years in prison after duping investors over resort project

Sam Nazarian (Getty, iStock)
Sam Nazarian (Getty, iStock)

A 37-year-old woman is facing up to 20 years in prison after duping investors — including Sam Nazarian — out of millions for a resort in Coachella that never even broke ground.

Serena Shi pleaded guilty to wire fraud after tricking investors out of $23 million for down payments on condos, a pot the Los Angeles Times reports she instead used for a slew of lavish personal expenses, including travel, cars and clothing.

Shi spent three years swindling investors, who were buying into a supposed resort project in the desert.

Among those caught up in the con was SBE founder Sam Nazarian, who the Times reported met with Shi in October 2015. Nazarian signed a “letter of intent” to build and operate the condo and hotel resort, dubbed Hyde Hotel & Residences Coachella Valley.

“Let’s get a press release out ASAP!!!” Nazarian said after the meeting in an email to SBE’s development team, according to the Times.

A release dated Oct. 27, 2015, describes the project as the result of a partnership between SBE and Shi’s Global House Buyer set to open in early 2017.

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As described in the release, the “destination lifestyle resort” was expected to feature 350 rooms and a number of amenities, including suites with private plunge pools. But the project never materialized and Nazarian told the Times his company was “taken advantage of.”

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Sam Nazarian (Photo by Kevin Scanlon)
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Shi instead pocketed cash from EB-5 investors from China, which she spent on travel, clothes, meals and other lavish personal expenses, according to authorities. Shi told investors that her development company owned 47 acres for the project and had obtained necessary government approvals for the project, which had broken ground.

Shi did manage to buy part of the necessary land for $2.6 million, according to the Times, but not all 47 acres. James Clark, a former consultant to Shi, said Coachella wouldn’t issue building permits without proof of land ownership.

Her spending eventually drew the ire of Clark, who figured she was misappropriating investment money and tried to confront her. Clark later warned others on the development team about his concerns. A financial advisor also alleged fraudulent real estate books were being kept by Shi.

Shi was arrested in June 2020 on wire fraud charges. After being freed on bail, she was arrested again after prosecutors determined she was trying to secure travel documents under a fake name. Under terms of her plea agreement, Shi won’t ask for less than two years in prison, though she faces up to ten times as much under the maximum penalty.

[LAT] — Holden Walter-Warner