ST. PETERSBURG, Florida – Bunny and Marge prepared the welcome packet like they do for all new residents of the Isle of Palms mobile home park. They tucked the introduction letter into a plastic sandwich bag along with a rubber Isle of Palms key chain and a $1.25 coupon for Saturday coffee and donuts in the clubhouse next to the shuffleboard court.
They added a little ribbon and dropped it at the door of the single-wide trailer on 1st Street, the one with the black Porsche SUV and white Mercedes transit van parked in the narrow driveway. “We look forward to meeting you!” the note said.
Only later would the ladies learn the notoriety of their new neighbor: Rick Singer, the mastermind-turned-informant behind the biggest college admissions scandal in U.S. history.
First, he lured dozens of wealthy, entitled parents from Silicon Valley, Wall Street and Hollywood to pay him hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribe money to get their average children into the country’s most elite universities. Then he ratted them out. And while those privileged parents have been serving months behind bars, Singer has been free on $500,000 bail after pleading guilty in 2019 to four felonies, including racketeering, money laundering and conspiracy to defraud the federal government. He won’t be sentenced until mid-September after every last parent faces their final reckoning.
When William Rick Singer, now 61, turned up at the Isle of Palms in March 2021, the news flew through the 200-trailer park like aluminum awnings during Hurricane Irma.
“Why he’s living in a little crappy old motorhome, I have no idea,” said Barbara West, who lives a block down and cleaned Singer’s mobile home before he moved in. “It’s the dullest mobile home park in the whole country, that’s probably why he picked it.”
People are so private here, she said, many keep their curtains drawn and “your eyes have to adjust just to go in.”
Yet here he was, far from the 5,100-square-foot Newport Beach Mediterranean home with soaring ceilings and gated gardens that he used to call home in California, spending his final months before sentencing playing Rummikub in the “Harmony Hall” clubhouse, loaning out paddleboards on the beaches, and attempting, in surprising ways, to win over this suspicious group of senior citizens who recognized his face from the stack of magazines they read at their doctors’ appointments when the scandal first broke.
When the Bay Area News Group tracked him down on a hot summer day, Singer was exercising on his stationary bike on the screened-in porch of his pale yellow trailer. His skin was dark from the Florida sun, his wrinkles deep. He shook his head and smiled. His hideaway days were about to end.
‘Just trying to help the world’
With sports radio playing in the background and the Peloton pedals whirring, the one-time assistant basketball coach at Sacramento State and “independent college consultant” to the rich and famous never broke stride.
“I haven’t talked to anybody, nobody,” Singer said. “But I appreciate you trying to find the truth.”
Singer’s truth was coy and cryptic – he wouldn’t discuss the college admissions scandal – but his carefully crafted comments portrayed him as a guy on a mission.
“I’m just trying to help the world,” he said.
What he left out, his neighbors filled in, from Bunny Ennis, who walked with him in the evenings before her asthma got the best of her, to Susan Hurt, the secretary of the Home Owners Association who said “no, no, no, no, no” when Singer offered an investment strategy for the park’s $10,000 savings fund. The stories he has told and the impressions he has left at the Isle of Palms reveal a man who is either trying to make amends for his crimes or assembling a post-conviction do-gooder résumé to get off lightly come sentencing Sept. 15.
Either way, while the likes of actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman along with Silicon Valley equity investors and Napa Valley vintners have been serving months in prison – during a pandemic, no less – and desperately attempting to redeem their reputations, Singer has been panting on his Peloton and deepening his tan on the beaches and islets of Florida.
‘What are the friggin’ chances?’
In spring 2021, Barbara West was one of the first to learn about her new neighbor, and she wasn’t happy about it. With two vehicles in his driveway, the rump of the tall Mercedes transit van nearly protruded into 1st Street. He also parked a bigger storage trailer with a tow hitch in an overflow lot, blocking the view from her perfectly coiffed mobile home decorated inside with white linens and jarred candles that smell like toasted marshmallows and sea salt.
“I even complained a couple months ago – again – because I just realized that it was hogging up two spaces,” she said. “Mobile homes have a thing called a prospectus. It’s rules that you have to abide by. There’s certain things that you can’t do. Well, he’s not supposed to have vehicles like that.”
Mostly, though, she can’t believe the park owners who require background checks let in a felon. Many of their residents in this “over 55” community live on fixed incomes of little more than $1,300 a month and have had enough problems lately, what with the new owners adding water meters for each trailer and increasing the price of laundry from 75 cents to $2 a load. It’s hard enough maintaining their aging trailers, lined up on an angle like dominos, many built in the 1960s with old aluminum framed windows shaded by striped metal awnings.
When Singer inquired about purchasing the yellow trailer for $22,000, he didn’t hide his identity. He called the family who owned the park a year and a half ago, introduced himself with his full name and disclosed up front that he was involved in a “white collar case” in California and was cooperating with authorities.
“What are the friggin’ chances?” said Kat Paluzzi, whose family sold the park to a New York investor a couple of months after Singer bought the trailer. “It’s like this tiny – it’s not even a good part of St. Petersburg.”
This is not the St. Petersburg of the mini Mar-a-Lago’s to the south, where historic brick streets meander along the water’s edge and Spanish moss swings from ancient oaks. This is a timeworn trailer park across 46th Avenue from the Red Tiki Bar that serves tasty tacos and draws a rough crowd at night.
When Paluzzi asked why he chose Isle of Palms “of all the places in the world,” Singer said “he just stumbled upon it.” The trailer park is one of the least expensive in the area, she said, but it still earns good reviews. They did a background check and consulted with their lawyer.
“What could we do? It’s not like he’s a threat to his neighbors. He’s not going to plow into their house like a massive drunk or something,” Paluzzi said. “There was just no real cause for concern.”
‘Netflix and whatnot’
Once the family approved his application, she said, “we saw Netflix and whatnot and we were like, ‘Oh my God.’”
The Netflix movie “Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal” is a docudrama starring actor Matthew Modine as Singer and uses transcripts from Singer’s wire-tapped conversations with parents and coaches for the script.
“My families want a guarantee,” Modine tells one parent as he explains the scheme. He offered them a “side door” to admission to Yale, Georgetown, UCLA, USC and others. Parents paid upwards of $75,000 to Singer’s “charity” to arrange a proctor to cheat on college entrance exams, then hundreds of thousands more for Singer to pay off crooked coaches to “recruit” the unqualified students to teams they never had to play for. To make their applications look legitimate, Loughlin’s daughters were photographed on rowing machines, even though they had never participated in crew.
Crunched for time to submit an application to USC for Napa vintner Agustin Huneeus’ daughter, Singer submitted a photo of someone else playing water polo. Another father, Massachusetts private equity investor John B. Wilson, invited Singer to join him for a birthday party in Paris where he was renting out Versailles.
Throughout the documentary and in court records, Singer comes across as a smooth-talking manipulator, preying on the desperation and vanities of wealthy parents – and raking in $25 million for himself and his co-conspirators along the way.
For the last year and a half at Isle of Palms, he’s been convincing some of his neighbors, anyway, that he’s good at heart.
Shortly after he moved in and remodeled his kitchen, Singer donated his old refrigerator and microwave to the food pantry at Lighthouse Church across the street. He’s helped neighbors move furniture. He pets their dogs.
“I’m under the impression he’s retired,” said Bill Blankenship who lives in the bright blue trailer next door to Singer, “and wants to do good.”
Every morning, Blankenship said, Singer pulls out of his driveway and heads to the beaches around St. Petersburg, looking for people who might want to borrow the paddleboards and kayaks that he keeps strapped to the white Mercedes van. Sometimes Singer finds recreational fishermen along the shores and takes them on kayaks to deeper waters where the fishing is better, Blankenship said.
“I know he has helped some veterans who are disabled,” he said.
It’s a bit unclear exactly how Singer operates, but it’s not a business, per se, and Singer never charges a dime, Blankenship said. “Unless he’s lying to me.”
From paddle boards to pickleball
Within weeks of moving in, Singer – a fitness fanatic who lives in athletic shorts and T-shirts – focused his attention on getting the sedentary set of Isle of Palms moving.
Like the aliens who filled a swimming pool with “life force” that rejuvenated senior citizens in the 1985 movie “Cocoon” – filmed at a nearby St. Petersburg retirement community and shuffleboard club – Singer seems bent on a similar mission.
At an HOA meeting last year, Singer suggested turning a visitors parking lot next to the laundry room into a pickleball court, volunteered to donate a cornhole set to the clubhouse and offered paddle boards and two-seater kayaks for free outings.
In a community that seems to prefer four-wheeled scooters, no one really took him up on his offers.
But another proposition gained more traction – a walking club that would meet outside the park office every night at 7.
Blankenship, who weighed more than 300 pounds, became Singer’s first project.
“I turned him down four or five times. And finally he said, ‘We’ll just go down to the end of the block and back,’” said Blankenship, a retired truck driver and factory worker. “I knew he knew that I couldn’t go very far. And so that’s how we started.”
Singer even gave him a pair of pricey Hoka walking shoes to keep him going. “He started out giving a little fib,” Blankenship said, pretending that he bought the wrong size for himself. The gesture was welcomed and the shoes were a perfect fit.
Blankenship is now up to 8 miles a day – and borrows the stretch bands in Singer’s front storage box to work on his muscles.
He’s lost more than 100 pounds.
Bunny Ennis from the welcome committee, whom neighbors call “a saint,” also joined the evening strolls. They had been advertised in the HOA newsletter – “the benefits of walking as exercise are well documented. Get your sneakers on and join Bill and Rick!”
When Ennis mentioned a water aerobics class she took three days a week, Singer asked if another neighbor he was encouraging to get fit could join her.
The women have been going to the pool together ever since.
“He’s doing good here. He’s thriving,” Ennis said of Singer. “He’s been productive. He’s being friendly. I don’t have a problem.”
Some people do.
Hurt, the HOA board secretary who also joined the walking group, is one of them. Yes, Singer comes across as “super friendly,” she said, but he also can be an annoying know-it-all.
He often gabbed away on group walks about financial markets, housing trends and other money matters. To be honest, she said, “he was so busy talking about how smart he was, I got sick of listening to it.”
So she quit the walking group.
“Who’s he impressing, you know?” she asked. “It must kill him being here.”
‘Don’t want him anywhere near the money’
Before moving to Florida, Hurt, 66, spent her career at Michigan companies building websites and developing training for engineers and said she has “seen guys like this all my life.”
And while she doesn’t really have an issue with Singer residing at Isle of Palms – he’s got to live somewhere, right? – she drew the line when he piped up at an HOA meeting one Wednesday evening earlier this year. Sitting at long folding tables in Harmony Hall, the board was discussing finding a better interest rate on its certificate of deposit set aside for things like replacing poker tables and repairing the bingo calling board.
Singer jumped in with investment advice.
“I know how to handle that and I can take care of that and we can get this taken care of quickly,” Hurt recounted Singer telling the group.
To the residents who had just returned from wintering in Canada and didn’t know about Singer’s past, their new neighbor sounded convincing. But Hurt abruptly tabled the discussion.
“I’ve got alarm bells going off in my head that I don’t want him anywhere near the money, because this is money that has been saved by people in the park for over a decade,” Hurt said. “I thought, ‘Oh, good God. Got a Ponzi scheme we might be interested in?’”
After informing the board of Singer’s criminal history and the prospect that he may soon be in prison, she drafted him a letter.
“Thank you for your interest in wanting to help us,” she said she wrote, “but we’re going to manage this ourselves.”
His take on ‘healthy’ parents
Singer was deep in a workout when a reporter approached him late last month from the other side of his screened Florida room.
“I have nothing to say really until after my sentencing,” he said.
Wearing a lime green T-shirt from an Iron Man triathlon in Kona, Hawaii, he kept his eyes trained on the screen of his exercise bike – and just kept pedaling.
He didn’t answer questions about the bribery scandal or his guilty plea or the prospect of years behind bars.
When the reporter mentioned the accolades from some of the neighbors, that he seemed like a nice guy trying to do good, he responded, “that’s all I’ve done my whole life.”
When it was pointed out that helping students cheat on college entrance exams and arranging bribes to con their way into elite schools isn’t necessarily doing the right thing, he responded, “I have nothing to say.”
Surely he could talk about his fall from grace, trading in the swanky lifestyle for the trailer park. What had he learned living here?
“I feel very blessed,” he said. “I have a blessed life.”
When pushed, he wouldn’t bite on why he chose this Florida mobile home park, or whether any of the parents he turned on have contacted him to say “How could you?”
Again, he would only say: “After my sentencing, after my sentencing, after my sentencing,” with a growing smile.
The only time he fully engaged during the 20-minute interaction – and became most animated – was when he asked where the reporter’s children went to high school and college and provided an assessment of their choices – Cal Poly was a diamond in the rough, San Diego State was tougher to get into for Northern California kids; “healthy” parents understand their children don’t need Ivys to thrive.
“He understands that he did wrong,” said Blankenship, recounting conversations he’s had with Singer on their walks. “He told me there’s right and wrong and he kind of operated in the middle. And then the law jumped all over that.”
Singer also told him, he said, that he expects his punishment is “gonna be pretty light.”
Whether he returns to a privileged California life one day is uncertain. Speculation that Singer stashed millions away in secret offshore accounts, raised in court papers by lawyers for one of the parents, was shot down by federal prosecutors who have collected $6.5 million from Singer “through forfeiture or voluntary payments.” A new lawyer was named in Singer’s case after Sacramento attorney Don Heller passed away in June after a long illness.
Singer sold his Newport Beach home for $2.5 million when the scandal broke in 2019. The federal government, Blankenship said, was the one to “encourage” Singer to move. It was a bad look for their star informant.
“They just didn’t want him living that lifestyle,” Blankenship said.
So here he is at Isle of Palms, awaiting his fate, offering free paddleboard rides to his neighbors and waiting for someone to accept. He walks alone in the evenings now. Most of the others have petered out.
“I can almost feel bad for the guy,” said Hurt, “but it’s like, no, I’m not that big a sucker.”
Staff writer John Woolfolk contributed to this report.