Julienne Adams began to suspect something was awry with Surefire Intelligence when all of its phone numbers suddenly disconnected.
Adams, a 35-year-old Washington state native, had hired the private investigations firm to recover damages for a truck she says was stolen. She had found Surefire through postings on Craigslist, where it billed its impressive roster of former Israeli intelligence agents and other experts in financial and criminal investigations. Its website appeared to be legitimate, and Adams even found a pair of glowing writeups about the company on the publishing platform Medium. She eventually ponied up $1,200 for Surefire’s services.
Adams had spoken with the firm’s ostensible managing partner, Matthew Cohen, last Friday, and he was optimistic about recovering tens of thousands of dollars from the man whom Adams accused of stealing her Hummer. They were scheduled for an in-person meeting in Portland, Oregon, near her home in southern Washington, on Tuesday.
Then the whole thing blew up. Cohen, it turns out, doesn’t actually exist. His real name is Jacob Wohl, and he’s a pro-Trump twitter troll and former teenage hedge fund manager with the dubious distinction of being the youngest person ever to earn a lifetime trading ban from the National Futures Association.
Adams had the poor luck of hiring Wohl just weeks before the Surefire facade came crashing down. Unbeknownst to her, Wohl and his firm—such as it is—had teamed up with Republican lobbyist Jack Burkman to peddle questionable sexual assault allegations against Special Counsel Robert Mueller. They unveiled their claims against Mueller on Thursday at a press conference in Northern Virginia that quickly went off the rails as reporters grilled Wohl about, among other topics, his qualifications as a private investigator.
By all appearances, those qualifications are few. Asked by The Daily Beast at the press conference whether he is licensed as a private investigator in any state, Wohl refused to to answer. He later acknowledged that Adams had enlisted his services, but insisted that those services didn’t require such a license. “There are certain matters which require PI licenses,” he said. “We never take those jobs under any circumstances.”
Such distinctions were never offered to Adams when she went to Surfire in desperate need.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Adams said she had been kicked out of her house in an ugly divorce that began in 2015 and lived out of her Hummer for two years, until it was stolen.
“I was looking for a paralegal to help me with some court documents at the time on Craigslist, the legal services section, and I came across an ad that said ‘have you been scammed? Do you need a private investigator?’” she recalled. “So I’m like, well, yes I do!”
The ad was from Surefire Intelligence. Adams did some research on the company before reaching out. “If you initially looked, three weeks ago, [Wohl’s] agency looked crisp. He had LinkedIn. He had a beautiful website. He had Medium.com reviews. He had—the whole first few pages of Google was him. So anyone with a sound mind would think ‘hey this is a legitimate business.’”
When she finally got on the phone with Wohl—who was then presenting himself as Cohen—he told her, “we can help you with. This is exactly what we do.” Adams wired him $1,200 and signed a retainer agreement, which is largely identical to publicly-available copies of contracts offered by more legitimate public investigation agencies.
Wohl signed it as Matthew Cohen, according to a copy of the agreement provided by Adams.
His decision to do so, even under an assumed name, could present additional legal problems. The Daily Beast described the scope of work in the agreement to Neil Harrison, a licensed private investigator in Washington and the president of the Washington Association of Legal Investigators, a professional organization representing the industry there. Harrison stressed that he is not a lawyer and could only offer a personal opinion. But, he said, “That's called an investigation and you're required, to the best of my knowledge, to obtain a P.I. license in the state of Washington to conduct any sort of investigation.”
Washington state law defines a private investigator as someone licensed by the state and “engaged in the business of detecting, discovering, or revealing” a range of subjects, including “the location, disposition, or recovery of lost or stolen property.”
Even without the P.I. license Wohl—still presenting himself as Cohen—appeared to be making progress on Adams’ case. He told her he had compiled information on the alleged thief including his credit history and the amount of money in his bank account (Wohl didn’t respond to questions about how he came about the latter information). To Adams, everything seemed on the up and up.
According to Adams, she and Wohl (er… Cohen) spoke last week and agreed to meet up on Tuesday in Portland. But Wohl never showed.
Then Adams got a call from her boyfriend. He had just gotten caught up on the day’s news in D.C., where a pair of previously obscure Republicans was promising damning allegations about Robert Mueller. And to do so, they were employing a familiar investigative agency, Surefire Intelligence, in a scheme that had already been referred to the FBI for investigation.
Adams started to panic. She couldn’t afford to lose $1,200 to a scam on top of her lost vehicle. All four of the U.S. phone numbers listed on Surefire’s website—Google Voice numbers forwarding to Wohl’s cell phone—were soon disconnected. The LinkedIn pages of Surefire’s supposed employees, many of which used fake headshots, started disappearing. The Medium posts that attested to Surefire’s expertise were also taken down.
On Thursday, after days of outright lies about his association with Surefire, Wohl admitted he was the company’s founder and defended both his expertise as an investigator and his deceptions. “It was important that I preserved my anonymity,” he said at a press conference.
Less than two hours earlier, Wohl found the time to shoot Adams an email. “I have a rough settlement in place with this man who has caused you trouble (offer of $20k),” Wohl wrote, according to a screenshot of the email provided by Adams. “Either we will have a resolution by close of business Friday, or I will give you a full refund, plus 30% for your trouble. That’s how confident I am.”
By then, Adams was up to speed on Wohl’s involvement in the Mueller saga. She threatened to press charges and bring her story to the media.
“We will talk when I’m back in town tomorrow,” Wohl replied. She has yet to hear from him.
Reached by phone and asked about his work for Adams, Wohl initially refused to say a word, citing a confidentiality agreement, and abruptly hung up. He soon followed up with a text message, in which he accused Adams of lying about her car.
“She hired us to look into her ‘stolen hummer,’” Wohl said. “We looked into it and found that she had actually SOLD the hummer to this guy and was trying to rip him off. Nonetheless, we offered her a refund, which she declined to take.”
It was not immediately clear how Wohl would have extracted a $20,000 settlement offer under those circumstances. He didn’t respond to follow-up questions.
Adams denied that recollection of events, and dubbed Wohl a “fraud” when presented with his explanation. “Why would I pay someone to get a truck that I sold?”
The whole episode has left Adams wondering if she’ll ever get reimbursed for her Hummer. She said she remained in awe of “how far [Wohl] went to make himself look professional, How much money he put into.” But she still has some hope that Wohl might eventually come through.
“I think he actually was going to go after [the alleged car thief] for me,” Adams says. “I think all this blew up in his face.”
—With reporting by Will Sommer