Staveley’s life, never uneventful, had indeed seemed especially difficult of late. The COVID pandemic was raging, and Congress had recently created the emergency Paycheck Protection Program to provide loans to businesses struggling to pay employees. Within a few weeks of the program’s start, Staveley and a man named David Butziger had applied for nearly $550,000 on behalf of four companies. One was an Internet-related business called Dock Wireless, and the others were restaurants, including two in Warwick, Rhode Island. The third restaurant, in Berlin, Massachusetts, was perhaps best known as the filming location, under a previous name, for a key scene between Chris Evans and Ana de Armas in the murder mystery Knives Out.
But there was a problem, or rather a series of them, related to the requests for more than a half-million dollars in aid for employees: Two of the restaurants had already closed, with their employees scattered to the wind. The third wasn’t even owned by Staveley. As for Dock Wireless, which Butziger ran himself, it had apparently never employed anyone full time.
Within weeks, a joint investigation between multiple government agencies uncovered the scheme. Authorities alleged in court documents that Staveley and Butziger had created false paperwork, including tax forms, and, in at least one instance, listed employees who’d never heard of them, much less worked for them.
Staveley and Butziger became the first individuals in the country to be charged in federal court with attempting to defraud the Paycheck Protection Program. They wouldn’t get the money, but they also wouldn’t be the last to try. A recent Associated Press analysis estimates more than $280 billion of COVID-19 relief aid could have been stolen, and called the nationwide scamming of the system “the greatest grift in US history.” As of May 2023, there have been more than 1,000 indictments and 500 convictions related to COVID-19 fraud.
In the case of Staveley and Butziger, prosecutors moved quickly, eager to send a message to other would-be fraudsters. “Tens of millions of Americans have lost their jobs and have had their lives thrown into chaos because of the coronavirus pandemic,” the Rhode Island US attorney prosecuting the case said in a statement in the spring of 2020. “It is unconscionable that anyone would attempt to steal from a program intended to help hard-working Americans continue to be paid so they can feed their families and pay some of their bills.” Staveley and Butziger were charged on May 5, 2020.
Three weeks later, with another court date looming, Staveley removed his electronic monitoring device and vanished. A search of the waters off Wollaston Beach a few days later didn’t turn up a body. And when US marshals examined Staveley’s abandoned SUV, the scene felt too tidy, too constructed. Why would someone intent on ending his life bother to cut off his monitoring device?
In truth, there was another reason why people who’d crossed paths with Staveley over the years — prosecutors, ex-girlfriends, the then-owner of the Lowell Spinners baseball team — could have reason to doubt he’d killed himself. For much of his adult life, police and court records show, Staveley had been a serial con man, probation violator, and harasser of women. When he was caught in one of his lies, he’d often spin a story that placed the blame elsewhere and let himself off the hook.
So as investigators looked to the Atlantic that June, it was natural to ask a question: Was Staveley really dead, or had he conjured yet another tall tale in a seemingly endless line of them?
Nearly 20 years earlier, everything had been different.
Staveley was born in Lowell as Kurt Sanborn, a name he’d use into at least 2016. He spent his early career working in AM radio, and then as a public relations professional, including a stint as a spokesman for the Lowell Police Department.
In the early 2000s, he befriended Drew Weber, then the owner of the Lowell Spinners, which was a minor league affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. Staveley was recommended to Weber as a spokesperson, but instead they became fast friends, often sharing meals several times a week.
Weber says his family and friends didn’t like Staveley. They saw him as a big talker and name dropper who liked to present himself as a man of influence. “He was one of those guys who knows everybody in the world,” Weber says now. “He wanted to be a big show.” But back then, Weber saw him as fun, charming, and fiercely loyal.
At the time, court records show, Staveley helped pull Weber into a massive development project in Manchester, New Hampshire. Estimated to cost $150 million, it involved updating an existing minor league stadium, as well as building a new $25 million one. Weber was also pursuing the development of 16 acres surrounding the future ballpark, with two 18-story condo towers, 100,000 square feet of retail space, and a hotel.
Weber was beginning to find the sprawling project overwhelming, in part because of his ongoing duties with the Spinners, but also because his wife was struggling with cancer. Staveley offered to help, Weber recalls, presenting himself as someone with experience in commercial real estate. Although Staveley’s modest lifestyle gave Weber momentary pause, he found Staveley’s explanation — that he’d been repeatedly “screwed over” — convincing. He hired Staveley and gave him the power to issue business checks.
Staveley in 2003 bought a nearly $570,000 five-bedroom Victorian in Manchester, which included an in-ground pool and a cabana. It must have seemed a fitting home for a man of significance, charged with overseeing one of the largest commercial developments Manchester had ever seen.
He became familiar to reporters, as well as city and state officials. At one dinner with Weber, Staveley put his arm around then-New Hampshire Governor Craig Benson. “I want you to meet Governor Benson,” he told Weber. “I thought that was pretty impressive,” Weber says.
Life was good, at least on the surface. Staveley was the big man he apparently aspired to be.
Then on November 26, 2003, the New Hampshire Union Leader reported that Staveley had left the project due to unspecified friction with Weber. The full truth would emerge only later: Staveley had been stealing.
Among Staveley’s business responsibilities for Weber had been collecting invoices from contractors, then issuing payments. In early 2003, according to documents filed in court, he began creating fake invoices — one for $119,500, one for $164,600 — and pocketing cash for work never performed. Once, he settled for less, skimming several thousand dollars off a real payment.
By 2004, Weber was suspicious of financial inconsistencies and hired a law firm to investigate. When the firm approached Staveley to offer proof of payment for questionable transactions, Staveley obliged with documents. But it soon became clear they had been doctored.
Other stories began to unravel, one after the other. Staveley claimed to have interviewed a well-known contractor about working on the ballpark, Weber says, but the contractor had never heard from him. He’d boasted about numerous high-profile retailers interested in the development, but no retailers ever materialized. And that time he’d chummily put his arm around Governor Benson? Weber later discovered Benson had no idea who Staveley was.
As Weber mulled filing suit in civil court, Staveley asked to speak with him. They met at a McDonald’s, and Weber recalls Staveley began crying hysterically, as if on command. (“Another talent that he had,” Weber says.) Staveley explained his whole life was falling apart, that if Weber pursued things further, it would destroy him. He didn’t offer much of a defense, Weber recalls, let alone an apology. “He was a liar, right until the end,” Weber says.
In 2006, Weber sued Staveley for fraud. In an apparent effort to dodge paying him back, Staveley filed for bankruptcy and ignored court dates, resulting by the next August in a default judgment against him for $8.6 million. The US attorney’s office in New Hampshire subsequently prosecuted Staveley, who pleaded guilty to wire fraud and was sentenced to 30 months in prison.
During sentencing, Staveley offered a brief apology to Weber. “I’ve shamed myself, my family, and my children,” he said. It seemed like he was taking responsibility for his actions. Six days later, however, he argued that his sentence should be reconsidered and accused his defense lawyer of misconduct (a claim the court didn’t find persuasive).
To this day, Weber remains unclear on what Staveley hoped to achieve. “He did steal some money, but I don’t think that was his endgame,” he says. “I would understand it much more if it was a get-rich scheme, but it really wasn’t. Most of the harm against me was stuff that didn’t even benefit him. It was just making him look good.”
After Staveley got out of prison in 2012, the court record suggests his life became filled with stories and cons he’d spin and then try to escape from any way he could.
In 2013, according to court records, he stopped sending his monthly restitution payments to Weber. When questioned about it by his probation officer, he claimed he’d actually been making the payments — and could provide documents to prove it. After those didn’t materialize, he admitted he’d lied.
That same year, Staveley received an increase in salary at his job, from $70,000 to $120,000, but didn’t report it to his probation officer as required (to adjust his restitution payment). When confronted, he claimed he had only received a small raise. He finally admitted that was a lie, too. His monthly payments were increased to about $1,700.
Staveley violated the terms of his supervised release enough that he was assigned home detention and electronic monitoring. His explanations included client meetings going late, running out of gas, and getting a flat tire, none of which he could prove.
Staveley was returned to prison for an unrelated conviction in 2013. As he had been stealing from Weber years earlier, he had also committed mortgage fraud in New Hampshire. He’d confessed, but then changed his mind, wanting his day in court. When the time for a trial finally came, Staveley changed his mind again and accepted a plea deal. He was sentenced to 27 months.
By 2016, when Staveley emerged from prison for the second time, he’d acquired a long criminal history attached to his birth name, Kurt Sanborn. He legally changed it to David Adler Staveley, citing religious reasons. What those reasons could be are unclear, though perhaps distancing himself from Internet searches conducted by prospective girlfriends was a bonus.
The terms of his supervised release required Staveley to remain in Massachusetts, except for court-related business in Rhode Island. He was on supervised release, but he still sometimes traveled to meet women he’d connected with on Match.com. He presented some women with an alternate version of himself — a federal agent, or Navy intelligence officer, or a successful entrepreneur — according to interviews and documents filed in court.
But he didn’t always make the impression he hoped he would. Around 2019, on a Reddit board called “DatingAfterThirty,” one member warned in a since deleted post: “Ladies beware. David Staveley . . . is actually Kurt Sanborn of Dracut, MA. Given he lies about who he is, about his background, and pretty much everything he says, please do a little research and Google him. The web has info that will answer many questions. Think twice about believing anything this guy says. Very manipulative and self serving.”
Staveley could go to great lengths to preserve or rescue a relationship, court records show. In 2014, to avoid a breakup with a woman, Staveley asked a female friend to pose as a federal agent and explain to her — with the help of fabricated documents — that he was an agent who’d been wronged by the government, according to police records. Sometimes he’d try a hail Mary: He once claimed to a skeptical woman that the man she’d read about online was actually his brother.
Police and court records show that at times Staveley’s actions became more aggressive. When one ex-girlfriend was away, he entered her home through a doggie door, then had her locks changed (he was eventually sentenced to six months of probation). On another occasion, he reached out to a woman’s ex-husband, claiming she was an unsuitable mother, according to a probation officer’s testimony. He’d sometimes go to police to file complaints or ask for restraining orders against women — he was granted one at least once — as if trying to get ahead of their allegations against him.
One night in 2016, after a school principal broke up with him, he texted her more than 80 times. She was issued a restraining order, and police records show he allegedly made derogatory fliers — falsely describing her as an alcoholic and promiscuous — and distributed them on car windshields at the town hall, a school, and elsewhere. (His lawyer at the time said his efforts at contact, “albeit childish,” were intended to get her attention.)
When the woman involved the police, Staveley provided a letter from his employer at a Dunkin’ Donuts stating he’d been working at the time the fliers were distributed, as well as surveillance footage showing him at work. Investigators, however, soon determined the letter was faked and the time stamp of the video had been tampered with, according to court testimony. Police matched his phone location to towers near the school, and a surveillance video showed a car matching Staveley’s at the scene, though he was not pictured on the video. (Staveley was placed on supervised probation and the case was later dismissed.)
By the time COVID-19 came along — four years after his last prison release — Staveley had amassed a file with hundreds of pages of court and police records across multiple cities and states. To most, this paper trail would paint the picture of a serial criminal. But to Staveley, as he repeatedly claimed, the files were evidence of inept defense attorneys and malicious police and justice systems intent on victimizing him.
In his statements to officials and his writing, he also blamed his situation on a lifetime of bad luck. But perhaps the introduction of the PPP in the spring of 2020 was an opportunity to turn that luck around.
On March 27, 2020, President Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, known as the CARES Act, into law. The expediency required to meet the COVID-19 crisis required an easy application: Business owners needed a one-page form to list the number of employees and monthly payroll, plus tax documentation.
But authorities knew the ease of the process made the program an easy target for would-be criminals. “When COVID hit, we knew there was going to be a huge amount of fraud,” says Troy Niro, a special agent in the criminal investigation unit of the Internal Revenue Service. The message from Washington, D.C., was to deter it — and fast. “We needed to get the message out very quickly to the public that people are watching,” recalls Lee Vilker, then an assistant US attorney in Rhode Island who helped pursue the case against Staveley.
About a week after the launch of the PPP, Staveley and Butziger already had their applications well underway. According to the court record, Staveley worked with Butziger, who had provided IT services to him, and together they created fraudulent documents claiming to have dozens of employees earning wages at four businesses. (Butziger cooperated with investigators, pleaded guilty, and was eventually sentenced to time served. He could not be reached for comment, but claimed to authorities that he was “duped” by Staveley.)
One application, for $144,050, was for the Remington House Inn restaurant in Warwick, Rhode Island, which they claimed had 18 employees. It was, in fact, in disrepair, with dumpsters on-site, and large “Stop Work” signs posted on doors and windows.
The other Warwick restaurant was called the Top of the Bay, and Staveley and Butziger claimed it had 26 employees and needed $185,750. The restaurant had indeed closed because of the pandemic, but neither Staveley nor Butziger actually owned it.
The Dock Wireless business — which Butziger claimed employed seven people and needed a loan for $105,381 — had never been incorporated and, as far as authorities could tell, never employed a single full-time worker.
For On the Trax restaurant, in Berlin, Massachusetts, the request was for $108,777 to cover 22 employees. The building — where the scene from Knives Out was filmed — was legitimately Staveley’s responsibility. But ownership of it was in the name of his brother, who later told investigators he’d let Staveley use his name to give him a chance at a fresh start. Nonetheless, On the Trax had closed in early March, prosecutors said, after local authorities revoked its liquor license.
The first of these details came to the authorities because of a tip from a cooperating witness who had access to the restaurant’s internal records. The witness approached the Berlin Police Department, and the chief reached out to the FBI.
A multi-agency investigation was set in motion. Warrants turned up emails between Staveley and Butziger that did little to hide what they were doing, referring to “dreaming up” artificial financials to submit to BankNewport as real records.
Needing to make sure the pair wouldn’t claim “someone had used their Internet connection, or somebody applied for [loans] in their name,” Niro says, undercover FBI agents posed as bank officers and made calls to the men.
Staveley, posing as his brother, assured the agent that all information in the applications was accurate: Yes, he owned the businesses, and yes, they did have that number of employees. He even took a moment to offer a “complaint about the reports of large businesses being able to obtain SBA loans,” according to a court document, “saying that ‘the whole thing has become a little bit of a sham.’”
Staveley was arrested on May 5, 2020, and allowed to live at home under strict conditions, according to court documents, including not leaving Massachusetts except for court-related business in Rhode Island. But three days later, he drove to Connecticut and harassed a woman. When he showed up at her home, indicating he’d been watching her, she called the police. The judge ordered him to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet.
Months later, Staveley’s lawyer would suggest that his client’s terror of prison should be a mitigating factor in sentencing. Staveley maintains that during his first prison term he was severely assaulted and has suffered post-traumatic stress disorder ever since, which has required therapy. It was the PTSD and fear of going back, he would later explain, that lead him to plan his biggest escape: faking his own suicide.
This spring, Staveley briefly corresponded by email with the Globe Magazine. “I have no idea why anybody wants to know about why all that happened,” he wrote at one point. He also disputed the public records that document much of his story. “A lot of the information dispersed by the government in this case is false,” he wrote in an email. “The public record is some of my greatest evidence as to what they did to manipulate the information [against me].” He eventually stopped replying to interview requests, but his two months on the run can be pieced together from court documents.
Walking away from his SUV near the shore in Quincy back in 2020, Staveley had access to an estimated $10,000. He began living off the grid, leaving no financial or electronic trails, and cutting off communication with friends and family.
He acquired a minivan and used stolen license plates — at least one from Rhode Island and one from California — swapping them regularly. He had several cellphones with different numbers, which he changed at least five times. He used fake names such as David Spencer and Daniel Pitts. He’d somehow obtained several strangers’ employment applications, to use the tax and Social Security information in his job applications. He diligently kept track of all of this in a notebook.
It quickly became clear to the US marshals that Staveley had gone on the run. Looking for clues, they mined his past, conducting interviews and poring over his old cases. By understanding who Staveley had been, they hoped to learn who he’d decided to become. They eventually found a clue to one of his interests.
In the years around his falling out with Drew Weber, Staveley had attempted to get other development projects going. One was a proposed $100 million thoroughbred racetrack in Nashua, New Hampshire, though it went nowhere. He was also briefly associated with a project called Bow Equestrian Village, a 4.5-acre development with 15 homes where each homeowner would have been allowed one horse. It was a breakthrough for investigators: Staveley seemed fascinated with horses.
Staveley was soon spotted in Franklin, Tennessee, approaching women who owned horse farms, according to interviews with investigators. He had texted one owner in the area, explaining he had lost his own horse business in a divorce and needed work, however menial. Although she told Staveley she didn’t have any openings, he showed up in person anyway — interacting with staff until she kicked him off her property. Another owner was suspicious enough — after an encounter she described as pushy — that she and her husband took note of the license plate on Staveley’s minivan.
Around July 19, 2020, Staveley’s trail was picked up in Alpharetta, Georgia, where other horse owners recognized him in a photo as a man who approached them for work. Staveley had taken up residence in a hotel and settled for work as a bartender at an ice rink, asking to be paid in cash.
Staveley had apparently started dreaming big again. In a personal journal, he indicated he had ambitions to become manager of the rink’s bar, and even establish a new business in Atlanta. He wrote down notes to himself about how to build a team and quotes about the qualities of effective leaders.
On July 23, Staveley pulled into the parking lot of the rink for a shift, and US marshals and local law enforcement who had been waiting approached him.
Staveley didn’t cause a scene, an investigator recalls, but just raised his hands. You got me, he said.
On May 6, 2021, Staveley signed a plea agreement, acknowledging his guilt. (He’d serve his time, and be released in January of this year.) In court before his sentencing, he and his defense argued for leniency because he was accepting responsibility.
But then, insisting he wasn’t making excuses, Staveley claimed he broke the law because of a bad relationship and because he wanted to help his relative get on his feet financially. He claimed that Butziger had been the one to encourage him to remove his electronic monitoring equipment and flee. He claimed that during his escape, he had totally blacked out for two months, from when he left Massachusetts until he was caught in Georgia.
Staveley also addressed his past convictions, saying the theft from Weber was the result of him being a “PR guy” who simply got in over his head. About the mortgage fraud that resulted in his second prison term, Staveley suggested that he took responsibility to spare the mother of his children.
At one point, the judge pointed out to Staveley that he’d slipped into the passive voice, which “disassociates yourself with responsibility.” Later, she seemed to lose her patience. “It just defies logic that someone would do this and then say that they were accepting responsibility.”
In his emails to the Globe Magazine, Staveley reserves his fiercest criticism for the judge and prosecutors. He accused the judge of constitutional violations and “conspiring with [federal prosecutor] Lee Vilker and numerous other conflicts, corruption and blatant biases.” He filed a formal complaint, requesting an investigation. In an email, he also describes the treatment he received as “just the beginning of the railroading and media campaign to convict with no evidence or basis,” claiming the prosecutor “tried me in the media before I even knew there was a claim against me” and used his case as a launching pad for political aspirations.
In a presentence report, prosecutors noted that Staveley “still blames others for his own independent decisions to commit crimes.” Later, they added that the “defendant simply seems incapable of taking full responsibility for his own choices in life.”
Nonetheless, as Staveley addressed the judge, he got emotional when looking back. “It’s been a long 15 years. I know I’ve made serious mistakes, poor judgements, and I take responsibility for all that,” he said. “It’s my fault. It’s my fault.”
Days later he accused his defense lawyer of making mistakes and argued that his case should be thrown out.
Alexander Huls is a journalist based in Toronto whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Esquire, and other publications. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.