How Scorned Women Caught L.A.’s ‘Dine-and-Dash Dater’
Paul Gonzales scammed his online dates into buying him expensive dinners. Then they made him pay.
Paul Gonzales scammed his online dates into buying him expensive dinners. Then they made him pay.
One evening in the spring of 2016, Marjorie Moon slipped off her scrubs and washed the emergency room out of her long blond hair. She stepped into a dress and high heels, transforming herself from a tired trauma nurse into a hot date. The 47-year-old divorcée from Los Angeles was inundated with offers from men on matchmaking websites, who often compared her to the Friends actress, Lisa Kudrow. For Moon, dating involved racing home from 12-hour shifts while wrangling babysitters. “I’d been under a lot of stress,” she explained. “Just single mom stuff and whatnot. I have five kids.” Scheduling often killed off any romance. Then she matched with a man named Paul on the dating website PlentyofFish.
Smooth-talking Paul shared her love for fine dining, and invited her to the Tam O’Shanter, one of LA’s oldest eateries. “I’m going to go with or without you,” he told her, removing any indecision. Soon she was driving across the city, full of hope that Paul, 43, could be ‘the one.’ He had sent her videos of his two adorable young sons, and said he was the CEO of the LA Fitness gym franchise. But as Moon handed her car keys to the valet, she saw her date arrive on foot. She wondered, did he not have a car? Paul’s dyed-black hair was thick with gel, and he exuded short-guy energy. As he held open the restaurant door, his light green eyes sparkled.
“Look how beautiful she is!” said Paul, as the waitress seated the couple. Then, loud enough for everyone to hear, he boomed: “I don’t deserve to be with her! She’s so gorgeous!” Paul edged his seat closer to hers, then got to work on the menu. Moon said he ordered: “A salad, chicken, fish, and two lobster tails on the side.” When Paul finished, he summoned two more lobster tails. After rounding off the meal with a devilish chocolate soufflé, Paul declared that he wanted to date Moon “exclusively,” then stepped outside to make a phone call. “A few minutes in, I had a funny feeling,” she said. He never came back.
Hot with embarrassment, Moon told the maître d’ she’d been ditched. She had never experienced anything like this. Soon the waitress was sitting in her date’s empty chair, crying. “I wish I could take care of your bill,” she sobbed. “I’m so sorry.” But Moon had no tears to cry. She paid the $250 bill and marched out, imagining the cost of the meal in emergency room hours.
By the time she reached home, Moon was fuming. When Paul sent her a text message asking “Hi. How are you?” she exploded. She called a girlfriend who convinced her to put the word out. It was late at night when Moon angrily typed a Facebook status update: “Here are the pics of the man who ditched me at dinner...Please share on your FB and tell the story so this loser doesn’t do this to others!” But it was too late. Her post went viral, and her inbox filled with other victims of the same man. His name was not Paul Azini, as he had told Moon, but Gonzales. He’d told women he was an NBC sports editor, a sports agent, and that he worked for the Lakers. Gonzales was seemingly everywhere. A widow from Calabasas claimed he’d ditched her at the Cheesecake Factory in Sherman Oaks. “Do you know if he ever lived in Colorado?” asked someone else. His victims all thanked Moon for being ‘their voice.’
“Us girls need to stick together,” Moon replied, and decided to put it all behind her.
“Then the media happened,” she said.
Television stations, a producer from Steve Harvey’s radio show, and a Canadian podcast all contacted Moon for interviews. Victims shared other media requests on Facebook messenger. Appearing on a CBS News segment, Diane Guilmette revealed that Gonzales ordered not one, but two entrees at a Long Beach restaurant before leaving her with a $163 bill. “He’s a very, very handsome man,” admitted another scammed woman. “His eyes are absolutely gorgeous.” News anchors soberly issued bulletins warning viewers of the “handsome” bandit’s modus operandi: Gonzales quickly enticed women into a dinner date, ate like a king, then bolted, deleting his dating profile on the way out. The 5-foot-5-inch tall lothario mostly drank tea and the occasional glass of wine, but focused on high-ticket food items like filet mignon. US Weekly and CNN called him the “Dine-and-Dash Dater.”
Online, Gonzales sparked a national conversation fueled by gender politics. Some people argued that for decades women have done the same thing to men by expecting them to pick up the check. Scientists at the Azusa Pacific University examined the myth of the “foodie call”—finding that 23–33 percent of women had set up a date only for the purpose of getting a free meal. The report found that these female offenders scored highly on three ‘dark’ personality traits: “Psychopathy, machiavellianism, and narcissism.” Was this Gonzales too? Louis B. Schlesinger, a professor of forensic psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who did not evaluate Gonzales, told me that his behavior “may just be his own personal gratification of getting one over on somebody.” But why?
Paul Guadalupe Gonzales had a difficult childhood. He was born in Montebello, California, in 1973, and grew up in Alhambra, in the San Gabriel Valley. In kindergarten, he chose to sit next to the teacher, preferring adult conversation. He idolized his father and was devastated by his parents’ divorce. When his mother met a new partner, 7-year-old Paul told the man his dad was the boxing champion Roberto Duran. It was one of his earliest fabrications. A teenage Gonzales became a fitness fanatic and at 17 found work as a gym membership salesman. He could sell anything to anyone, a relative told me. He intuitively understood a person’s wants and needs, and later sold everything from rubber bands to rifle scopes, earning $20,000 a month. He liked to order steak and lobster on his corporate credit card, gambled in Las Vegas, and dreamed of starting a sports betting company called Sportstradamus. But a messy divorce seemed to derail his life. By 2016 he was unemployed. Flat broke and stripped of his expense account, he started to look for ways to eat for free, a court later heard.
Gonzales signed up for various online dating accounts, presenting the picture of the perfect man. Perfectly groomed at all times, he looked like a hunk from a barber shop poster. His profile photos included tight-vest selfies taken in a gym’s mirror, and portraits with his two sons, whom he dressed in immaculate matching outfits. “I’m very fun, positive, humorous and adventurous. I love sports, music, water sports and traveling, and dining out and try[ing] new things,” his profile read. “Looking for someone to be super adventurous and create a lot of memories and smiles together.” He was against casual flings. “Not my style,” he wrote. “#TooClassy.”
Just days after his date with Marjorie Moon, Gonzales finished a crème brûlée at the Yard House in Long Beach. He held up two fingers, and told Irene Rodriguez that he “had to go number two,” before escaping into the night. “I just sat there dumbfounded,” she recalled, “I was mortified, embarrassed.” In July 2016, Lynise Levine, 52, said Paul had promised her Barbra Streisand tickets, but ditched her at a Mexican restaurant in Westwood.
Two years later, in the spring of 2018, he was still at it, leaving Tina Martinez to pay for his filet mignon at Smitty’s Grill in Pasadena. Even when Gonzales was arrested, for a “snip-and-ditch”—he fled a barber’s shop with the smock still tied around his neck—police found no outstanding warrants. His dates were too ashamed to report his dining misdeeds. Had he created the perfect crime?
On April 13, 2018, Detective Victor Cass was summoned to his sergeant’s office at the Pasadena Police Department. The 49-year-old investigator was handed an anonymous Crime Stoppers report concerning an incident at Buca di Beppo, an Italian chain restaurant in nearby Glendale. An onlooker had noticed a male diner abandon his date, and filled out an online report. Cass is slim, with tidy black hair, and holsters his Glock 9mm beneath sharply-cut designer suits. He specializes in commercial burglary, but unlike most detectives he has a Fine Art degree and leads a double life as a novelist. His romantic thriller, Telenova, was a Latin indie-publishing hit. Colleagues call him “Casanova.”
Cass is also a veteran of online dating. “I was divorced in 2003,” he told me, at an Irish bar in South Pasadena. He recalled a decade of searching and swiping before meeting his long-term girlfriend while on duty. “Back in the old days, I was on the more primitive dating sites like eHarmony, I even used online matchmaking services.” Over the years he met women from MySpace, Match and PlentyofFish (both owned by IAC, which also owns The Daily Beast), and Bumble. According to one wise-cracking cop in the office: “Maybe it takes a casanova to catch a casanova.”
Cass thought a ‘dine and dash’ was a fitting crime for a food-lover’s city like Pasadena. It is the birthplace of chef Julia Child, home to 500 restaurants, and one of America’s few Le Cordon Bleu culinary schools. To its 141,371 residents, Pasadena is known as the “City of Roses,” and it is Cass who cleans up its quirkier criminal cases. “They’re what we call the ‘X-Files,’” he told me. Recently, he captured the ‘Glass Man Burglar,’ a thief who skillfully removed window panes, and the ‘Guitar Bandit’ who delighted newspapermen by pulling off a “string” of thefts. When the detective typed “dine and dash” into Google, to brush up on the law, he was surprised to find hundreds of news reports about one local man named Paul Gonzales. “He had, like, fans, and they were like, ‘hey, he’s not doing anything wrong,’” said Cass. Some websites called Gonzales “scummy” and “Douchebag of the Week.” “This guy was not on any police department’s radar,” said Cass, “yet he was one of the most wanted men in America.”
At home, Cass had a daughter about to turn 18. He had taught her responsible dating, he said, including “how to spot deadbeat guys.” So far, he was impressed with her choices, but he found it hard to think about her falling victim to someone like Gonzales. As he nursed an off-duty pint of Irish lager, Cass told me that Gonzales was not just victimizing women, but “disrupting the internet dating economy.” He had to be stopped. The detective travelled to various apartments linked to the suspect, expecting to make a quick and easy arrest. But Gonzales had no fixed address. “We couldn’t just go out somewhere and pick him up,” he said. And so began the manhunt for Paul Gonzales.
Since the first restaurants opened their doors, innkeepers have been plagued by customers who wish to eat but not to pay. In 1885, a Boston Oyster House cashier complained to the Chicago Tribune about so-called ‘restaurant deadbeats.’ “What the devil a man thinks he is going to gain by robbing a restaurant of 35 or 50 cents is more than I can comprehend,” he said. Notoriety was the ambition of Belgium’s Titus Clarysse, who became famous for ripping off over 100 fine dining halls, but he was stabbed to death in 2014. Suspects included various restaurateurs. Meanwhile, Australia’s “dine-and-dash queen,” Lois Loder, 44, racked up thousands of dollars in unpaid restaurant bills before pleading guilty to 82 charges. She spent two years behind bars, because unlike Gonzales, she dined alone, making the restaurants her victim in the eyes of the law.
Cass studied the Crime Stoppers report, and realized he had no witnesses or victims, just the scene of an alleged crime. He telephoned Buca di Beppo and found the waiter on duty that night. He discovered that the victim paid the bill using her Visa credit card. He petitioned Visa to give him the name of the victim’s bank, and soon Cass was there, leaving a business card for their customer. A few days later, a woman named Daisy Valdez called Cass. She was the Buca di Beppo victim.
Like Moon, Valdez was a nurse, and when she met Cass outside a hospital in Upland, she was still wearing her blue scrubs. Cass showed her his six-pack—six mugshots, not his washboard stomach. Valdez easily identified Gonzales and his green eyes from the line-up of five Paul-a-likes, and told Cass a familiar story. She had matched with him on Bumble; he claimed he was a physical therapist with two daughters; at dinner, he ordered a chicken salad with added shrimp, sank an iced tea, then vanished. Out of embarrassment, she would later close down her dating profiles and never date online again.
The conversation “was all about him,” Valdez told Cass. She couldn’t get a word in. The divorced mother of three said she was convinced to meet him because he was so direct and persuasive. “You want to know how you get to know somebody?” he had messaged her. “You meet him right away.” Cass said that based on his own dating experience, he realized that Gonzales was a smooth operator. “Game recognizes game,” he said.
In a reversal of his usual investigations, Cass contacted various news outlets to ask for access to victims. He called producers and journalists who connected him to a dozen of Gonzales’s dates. He said that during interviews, many victims blamed themselves. Was it something they said, or did? Cass reassured them it wasn’t their fault. He’d have to convince them to overcome their embarrassment and give evidence in court, otherwise Gonzales might get away with it. “That was a big challenge to get them to open up, to get them to trust me,” said Cass. He promised them: “Justice will be served, you know, we’re going to do everything that we can to find this guy, to arrest this guy, to see that he goes to jail. That was a big deal for me.”
Cass interviewed Martha Barba, who said Gonzales invited her to an after-dinner fireworks show at the Rose Bowl in July 2016, but disappeared after telling her to “order dessert.” “I was embarrassed… I felt humiliated... and my self confidence, you know... just wondering what did I do? Did I say something?”
After paying the $180 bill, the single mother said she struggled to pay her rent.
Other victims said they were still struggling to deal with their emotions. After her date with Gonzales, Irene Rodriguez said she had trouble trusting anyone, and quit online dating forever. Another victim said: “It just makes you feel like a piece of crap.”
On April 27, 2018, a woman from Santa Clarita was arriving for a first date with a match from Bumble. Carol Meredith had lost her job of 17 years at a television studio, and was paying the bills with temporary work, while hoping to graduate from plus-size modeling to acting. “Mike” told her he was a sports agent, but later said he worked in advertising. “He just knew all the right things to say,” Meredith told me. He also sent her a fake photograph of a bodybuilder. By the time Meredith sat down in Pasadena’s Mercado restaurant, Mike had already polished off a plate of shrimp tacos. “I know it’s probably surprising,” he said, patting his stomach, “But I can eat, like, two meals.”
He ordered a carne asada and a glass of iced tea, while Meredith politely ate her chile relleno. Then, when Mike slipped away to use the restroom, he found the restaurant’s manager blocking his path. Justin Leyvas recognized the man’s face from the television. He called up a photo of Paul Gonzales on his cellphone.
“You’re the notorious dine-and-dash dater?” he asked. “That’s you, right?”
“Yes?” said Gonzales, stunned.
“Well I’m not going to serve you,” said Leyvas firmly, and chased a flustered Gonzales out of the restaurant.
Leyvas appeared at Meredith’s table and showed her his phone. Her meal was on the house, he said.
“You’ve been duped.”
Meredith said the incident left her feeling completely humiliated, and shattered her confidence. “When it happened to me, I was dumbfounded,” she said. “I was more angry than embarrassed.” Meredith swore she’d never date online again.
A few days later, the telephone rang on the desk of Detective Cass. It was now the second week of his search for Paul Gonzales, and he had plenty of witnesses, but few leads. He picked up.
“He’s struck again,” said his lieutenant.
“Yes, it’s on the news, go look. He hit Mercado.”
Cass opened an internet browser and typed “dine and dash” for the hundredth time. Inside Edition had the scoop. “This man needs to be stopped,” Carol Meredith said into the camera. “God knows how many other women he’ll attempt to do this to.” Mercado was just nine blocks away. Cass threw on his jacket. What was once a cold case with dead-end leads was now a live one with a suspect at large. The television crew had beaten him to the latest victim, but Cass knew to interview everyone—not just the manager. A server told him: “I also work at Houston’s... this guy struck there two days ago.’”
Cass knew Houston’s had security cameras. He raced there to score video of Gonzales in action before the restaurant routinely erased it at the end of the week. He watched Gonzales slipping out the front door, mid-meal. “You can see the time frame, everything was brilliant, great evidence,” Cass said. Back at his office, Cass started to assemble his victims. He saw that the women were from all backgrounds, all races, and ages. Gonzales didn’t seem to have a type, he just wanted three courses and zero bill. As more women encouraged each other to come forward and give evidence, it was as if he was arranging characters in a plot from one of his own books.
A Victor Cass novel usually features an ensemble of bodacious female characters, who must overcome adversity by working together. In Black Widow Bitches, his dystopian war thriller, a ragtag group of American women train to become deadly combat troops, helmed by Elias Marin, the only male officer able to lead them. Telenova revolves around three outrageous Latin women and a raunchy daytime soap opera. The jacket promises: “a girls’ night out, friendship drama, and sexy romps.” His writing explores the interior lives of women more emphatically than it does men. “I am half woman on my mother’s side,” he joked.
Cass applied for a search warrant on Gonzales’s cellphone. He analyzed data records to triangulate his suspect’s movements, hoping to find where Gonzales laid his head. “It was all over the South Lake District, at all hours of the night, which led me to believe he was homeless,” said Cass. One location was a parking structure where transients surreptitiously charge their phones. Cass had a theory that Gonzales’ phone held an “electronic shrine” of evidence. “We’ve all kept text messages and photos of girls we like,” Cass admitted. “I needed to get his phone before he erased everything.”
On May 17, 2018, Paul Gonzales was captured, but not by Detective Cass. An Inside Edition TV crew was laying in wait outside a Pasadena branch of Starbucks. They spotted Gonzales enjoying a coffee just yards away from Mercado, the scene of his last crime. “You’ve been going to local restaurants with women you meet online,” the anchorman barked at a startled Gonzales, as he crossed the street. “You’ve been leaving them with the check. Don’t you feel bad about that? Why don’t you apologize to them?” But Gonzales didn’t apologize. He ran away, trailed by men carrying cameras and a boom microphone.
On May 21, Cass tracked down Gonzales’s ex-wife, an aspiring Instagram influencer who curates a food and fashion account. Among the avocado crostinis and cucumber margaritas, Cass recognized the two children he had seen in photographs Gonzales had sent victims. Over the phone she dished up a brief history of her life with Gonzales: They had fallen in love, married, and settled down, but their relationship soured. She told Cass that Gonzales had once enjoyed high-paying jobs, but not any more. She didn’t know where he lived. (She did not respond to requests for comment.)
On May 25, at a luxury apartment building in Pasadena, Cass pressed the buzzer to the home of Gonzales’s mother. “We spoke at length about Paul,” he told me. She is a respected clinical social worker, he discovered, and her other children are settled and successful. She didn’t know where her son was either, and didn’t know about the allegations. She told me Cass questioned her more like a psychologist than a policeman. “She said, ‘One thing I can tell you is that he never forgave me for leaving his Dad when he was a kid,” recalled Cass.
He’s been making women pay ever since, he thought. Literally.
Cass, who served on the police department’s mental health crisis unit, had become fascinated by Gonzales. “I tried to pin down his motivations and psychology,” he told me. As the detective built a profile of his suspect, he realized that in 26 years of policing this was his strangest and most difficult case. He’d now gathered 20 victims, from all over Los Angeles County. Each victim seemed to lead to three more.
Cass knew the biggest challenge would be to convict Gonzales. His crime was not theft because the restaurants were usually paid. Cass visited the district attorney’s office, where they hatched a plan. All of Gonzales’s victims told Cass that they were “too embarrassed and afraid” to make a scene. He thought of victim Yolanda Lora, who was conned into buying Gonzales a seafood dinner at a Beverly Hills restaurant so swanky she couldn’t pronounce its name. Lora was so scared that she had to “build up the courage” to tell the waiter what had happened. A deputy D.A. said the fear element could amount to extortion, a felony. The charge could mean serious jail time for Gonzales. But after a month, Cass was no closer to finding him.
One afternoon Cass had an idea for a honeytrap. “We had a female officer create an online dating account,” he told me. “We had her go on Bumble and create a profile to see if she could lure him and save all the text messages... We wanted to see if Paul bites.” They planned to send the officer on a date with Gonzales, wearing a wire. They uploaded some photographs in the office and together they wrote her profile. She was in for a surprise.
“The experience for women online is vastly different than for men,” explained Cass. “An attractive woman can set up a dating site and instantly—like within 20 minutes—can have 50 contact requests or messages. Our officer was horrified at what these guys sent her.” Cass said the unnamed officer is gay, and was appalled at the wild messages she received from men. “Crazy statements, outrageous things,” said Cass. “Dick pics.”
The experiment was a failure.
“Sadly he never took the bait,” he said.
Cass started to worry that he’d never catch his man. “You know, a lot of time had passed, and we weren’t able to get this guy,” he said. If he didn’t make progress, he’d have to focus on other pressing cases: The “Hipster Shoplifter” was targeting the Madewell store in Pasadena’s Old Town. Cass was waiting on DNA results to convict the “Rock Burglar” who smashed into buildings by hurling stones through windows. Cass was also concerned that if another officer arrested Gonzales, they wouldn’t know to confiscate his cellphone. Maybe Gonzales would sit in the back of a squad car and delete his digital trophies. “This is probably gonna sound kind of weird, OK, but, I’m a pretty religious dude. Presbyterian,” Cass told me. “I believe that everything is predestined to happen. I pray all the time.” Cass said he hit his knees and prayed, “God, let me find him.”
On the evening of August 25, 2018, Cass was working overtime in Pasadena’s Old Town. “I know a lot of people down there so I get to socialize, and you know, it is kinda fun,” he told me. “It’s kind of interesting to see all the characters. You’re people-watching.” It’s also a good opportunity to look for revellers with outstanding warrants. He had been tailing Gonzales for four months, and started to see Paul-a-likes everywhere. “I had gotten all the victims, I felt that I had solidified the case,” said Cass. “I just had a feeling because of all the work I’d done, the guarantees I’d made the victims, I had a feeling it would be me.”
At just after nine o’clock, Cass noticed a street vendor strolling down the boulevard, hawking Lakers T-shirts to tourists. Springing to action, he grabbed the man and threw on the handcuffs. Cass recalled: “My partner, he told me... man, Cass is really cracking down these vendors!” But then he heard the detective make the radio call: “This is footbeat three, we have Paul Gonzales in custody... the Dine-and-Dash Dater.”
News of the arrest quickly circulated the police department. Though it was a stroke of luck and not a splashy sting or epic foot chase, Cass was a hero. “I think the victims were extremely pleased and happy,” he said. “They never thought they would see the day that this guy got busted.” That night, Cass typed out a text message to the victims, with the happy news.
Carol Meredith was at her desk when the text message landed.
“Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!” she screamed.
Just as Cass predicted, his suspect’s phone was full of dating trophies—photographs of hundreds of women. “I was able to go back to at least 2013,” said Cass. During his interogation, he asked Gonzales if he was a “demented, sick individual,” or if he was like “sex perverts that... get some kind of perversion out of victimizing people?” Or, was he another type of person, “somebody who deep down has a lot of anger... because they were abandoned when they were young by their mothers?”
Maybe, said Cass, “you have an abandonment issue.”
“The reality is I did it one time,” Gonzales pleaded. “One accident without meaning... it wasn’t... it wasn’t like, planned.”
“Well, no, Paul, it wasn’t just one time. It was multiple times,” said Cass. “And in fact, during my investigation, I found out that over a three-year span you did it to at least… thirteen women.”
“He made out he was a perpetual dating victim,” said Cass. “He tried to portray himself as the one getting catfished in relationships.” Gonzales told Cass about various physical ailments, including an injured back, and claimed that he only felt better when he ate fine foods. If he didn’t, Cass recalled, he said he’d “get weaker in both body and mind. He would... feel numbness and pain to his body.”
On August 27, 2018, Gonzales was charged with seven felony counts of extortion, two felony counts of attempted extortion, and one felony count of grand theft. For good measure, prosecutors added two misdemeanor counts of defrauding an innkeeper, and petty theft. Together, he faced a possible maximum penalty of 13 years in prison, a year for each of his victims. The heavy charges further divided the public. “Felony for eating and running?” someone scoffed on Twitter. “What a waste of tax dollars to imprison someone for that.” Unable to make bail, set at $315,000, Gonzales remained in custody until his court date. “He told me stories about inside the jail,” Cass recalled, when they later crossed paths in a courthouse hallway. “He lived like a hero in there. He said, you know, inmates were high-fiving him, and... even some of the deputies.”
On September 11, 2018, Gonzales appeared at a preliminary court hearing, where some of his female victims sarcastically complimented his lime green prison jumpsuit. “He was definitely the cleanest, sharpest looking guy in court, and county jail, probably,” Cass recalled. “His hair was always coiffed. And he always came in looking like he was ready for one of his dates.”
Gonzales pleaded not guilty, then listened to witness statements from half a dozen of his victims. On the witness stand, Wendy Luttrell told the court about a February 2018 date at Pasadena’s Parkway Grill. Gonzales said he needed to wire money to his daughters in college in Arizona, then vanished. “I didn’t have a choice. He left so I had to pay the bill,” said Luttrell, a 52-year-old divorcée. She avoided causing a scene in front of restaurant staff, and added: “It’s not their fault that he’s a jerk.”
Gonzales, now 45, interrupted proceedings to complain to the judge about his court-appointed lawyer. While it would have made for incredible entertainment, the judge shut down the idea of Gonzales representing himself. After hearing the evidence, the judge concluded that the women were the victims. “But victims of what crime? That’s really the issue,” he said, before concluding it wasn’t extortion. When the prosecution didn’t agree with the judge’s ruling, the deputy district attorney asked for a rare motion, sending the case to a superior court for ruling. “It was all very dramatic,” recalled Cass. A superior court judge agreed it wasn’t extortion. Instead, Gonzales pleaded no contest to four misdemeanors: three counts of defrauding an innkeeper by non-payment, and one count of petty theft.
While it was not the 13-year sentence Cass had hoped for, Gonzales was sent to jail for 120 days, and ordered to pay $240 in restitution to two of his victims—proving there’s no such thing as a free lunch. He was placed on probation for three years, and must stay at least 100 yards away from five restaurants. He was also barred from the dating sites PlentyofFish and Bumble, who sent flowers to victims, including one bouquet that carried a note reading: “Sorry, we got your back, girl.”
There was a party atmosphere outside the courthouse after the judge handed down his sentence. “I believe in karma,” laughed Carol Meredith, who had encouraged other victims to speak to the media, and the police. “He doesn’t have to worry about any meals now, he’s gonna get three square meals a day!” Eight of the witnesses arrived at a nearby restaurant for happy hour, where glasses were clinked and appetizers shared. “It was pretty awesome,” said Marjorie Moon. “We all got to meet each other and know that you’re not the only one, it was kinda nice.” When a waiter arrived with the ladies’ check, he was surprised by a gale of laughter.
After he was released from jail, I tried to reach Paul Gonzales through his mother, who asked not to be named. She believes her son “did not commit any crimes.” Her professional perspective as a clinical social worker is that her son’s behavior may have been caused by his “ugly” break-up, which triggered unprocessed pain from his childhood—the feeling of being abandoned. She was upbeat about his future, and said he is focused on being a great father to his sons. “He is all about reading to them, explaining everything to them...doing math with them… baseball, basketball, and football. He’s all about their social skills... how to order food at a restaurant.”
Eventually Gonzales agreed to meet me in April this year, in a Starbucks in Santa Monica, but later changed his mind about giving a full interview. Gonzales claimed he was innocent. He insists he only ran from one restaurant; he’d never met some of his alleged victims; the whole thing was a conspiracy. It was the women who “catfished” him by using outdated photographs, he said. “I got tired of paying for people who are scamming me.” According to Gonzales his dating days are over. He says he’s in a healthy relationship with newborn twins at home. He also boasted of a new, high-powered job for Nike and the NFL, which I suspected was another of his fabrications. (Nike and the NFL did not respond to a request for comment.)
“The construction of the fantasy seems to be an important part of his process,” said Dr. Frank T. McAndrew, a professor of psychology at Knox College. “The only thing that makes sense here is that Gonzales gets a rush from pulling off each new caper. The planning of it, luring the victim in, and—at least for the moment—being the center of a desirable woman’s attention.” McAndrew said he expected Gonzales to strike again, “as the thrill of possibly getting caught is probably part of the fun.” I thought about that when I met Gonzales for the last time at Starbucks, early one Sunday morning. He placed a used coffee cup on the counter and asked the server for a free refill. After he bounced off to find a table, a tired-looking manager appeared. “I’ve been here since 4:30 this morning and that man has bought nothing,” she said flatly. “He’s not getting a refill.” Out of embarrassment, I quickly paid for his drink.
At another café in Pasadena, Cass sometimes bumps into Gonzales, too. He’s pecking away at another book, based on a real-life villain who likes to eat but not to pay. You might see them one day, if you’re in the City of Roses, just two casanovas enjoying a cup of coffee.
Not long ago, I spoke to Carol Meredith, who told me that standing up for herself on Inside Edition gave her acting career a boost. She has since appeared in the CBS cop drama S.W.A.T., and General Hospital. She is still looking for love and has returned to online dating.
Marjorie Moon, who had sworn off restaurant dates, eventually agreed to meet another handsome stranger from a dating app. She found a babysitter, and drove across town, but this time her date picked up the check, she said, speaking from their honeymoon in Hawaii.
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