DinglePharb described VVDragon as “one of the most popular 3D virtual worlds in China”.
Well, that sounded exciting, so various publications happily reported the news. But there were two problems with the story.
First, far from being a smash hit in China, VVDragon is actually a barely-functional game on a website with a negligible amount of traffic.
Secondly, based on our investigation, DinglePharb appears to be operated not by Nathan Agulto but by a man named Charles Lawrence Surry, a convicted felon who is now a fugitive living in the Philippines.
Over the past decade, through a string of flimsy and disappointing startups, Surry has been accused of defrauding friends, investors, and business partners of millions of dollars. And now it seems he may be at it again.
Here is that story. It is a cautionary tale – especially for the tech startup industry, where serial failure is normal, contracting work is common, and investors blindly trust entrepreneurs to abandon the plan for new ideas all the time.
The beginning: Charles Surry, tech exec
Charles Surry was born in 1963, but we have been unable to confirm anything about him before 1999, when he joined Computer Associates (now CA, Inc) as Senior Vice-President, working in Singapore. His stint at CA was brief: Just a few months after joining the company, Charles was fired when CA discovered that parts of his resume were wildly exaggerated, two people who worked with him at the time tell us.
CA then “did everything they could to erase knowledge of his existence,” one of these former colleagues tells us. It apparently did a good job: CA now says it can’t find any record of Charles having worked there.
After another short stint as a senior executive, this time at a NASDAQ-listed company called Technology Solutions Company, Charles moved to Florida. There, his behavior quickly earned him two felony convictions, including one for grand theft auto. Charles was sentenced to probation. He violated this probation by skipping town, and is a wanted man in Florida to this day.
Charles then relocated to California. In 2002 he was convicted of identity theft. This time, he spent several months in prison.
The name change
After his release from prison, Charles adopted the name “Charles Lawrence”, and went in to business for himself, in a big way.
Through various aliases and associates, he has since started more than a company per year, registering them in Delaware, California, and Hong Kong.
We’ve spoken to many people who have done business with him over this period. From all of these conversation, the following themes emerged:
- Charles is, by all accounts, incredibly charismatic when he first meets people. He is very persuasive when laying out business ventures of all sorts, even when he is fuzzy on the details. One source described him as “the world’s greatest salesman.”
- In interactions with both investors and companies with which he has agreed to do contract work, Charles is impressive and likable…until he has money in hand and is expected to produce concrete results. He then becomes difficult to reach, evasive, and filled with stories about unforeseen circumstances. He can do what he promised, he says, but he needs more money.
- Once his creditors get aggressive, or confront him with evidence of untruths, Charles becomes nasty, unpredictable, and incoherent. We’ve looked through more than a hundred emails he has sent to various business partners over the past six years consisting of little more than personal abuse in broken English. On more than one occasion, when Charles has been especially angry at someone, an anonymous website has popped up accusing that person of involvement with child pornography or child prostitution.
A new company called “Shogee”, and life in the Philippines
In late 2004, Charles founded a company called Shogee, using funds raised from acquaintances in California, the Philippines, and Hong Kong. A source involved with a number of Charles’s projects tells us: “Shogee actually was, by comparison, a real company.” The company had a number of vaguely defined ambitions in animation, backed by a studio in mainland China.
In February of 2006, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the President of the Philippines, announced the government’s endorsement of a joint venture between Shogee and Cyber City Teleservices to create a world-class, “Hollywood-style” movie studio in the Philippines.
As CEO of Shogee, a source involved with the project tells us, Charles was responsible for raising $25 million to fund the joint venture, which he claimed wouldn’t be a problem. Months later, with work on the studio underway, he admitted that he had raised just $500,000. The project evaporated.
Around this time, Charles moved permanently to Angeles City in the Philippines. Multiple sources say he travels internationally on his brother Shawn Michael Surry’s passport to avoid being arrested.
During his time in the Philippines, Charles has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from the expat community in Angeles City, both for his
tech/animation companies and for a deal involving a local hotel that never went through. He also managed to appropriate a local bar hosting expats and prostitutes, convincing its owners to sign it over to him before paying them for it. He never paid, and the bar has since been taken away from him.
Pay first, get disappointed later
We have been unable to find any evidence of Shogee or any other of Charles’ companies ever bringing a significant, revenue-generating product to market. What revenue the companies do generate appears to come from consulting work his Chinese animation studio does for other companies.
Two such companies we’ve spoken to, and several more we’ve heard reports about, allege that they signed agreements with Charles to do animation work on a contract or partnership basis, that they paid him substantial sums of money, and that after producing preliminary results, he cut off communications and refused to reimburse them.
One of these companies was You N Me Productions, headed up by Michael Trigg, a Canadian entrepreneur who has since turned exposing Charles into a crusade. Michael had an idea for an animated television series for children called Greanwold’s World, about dragon-like creatures called ‘Minosaurs’. In 2005, You N Me and Shogee signed an agreement to co-develop Greanwold’s World, and You N Me began making payments to cover Shogee’s supposed costs.
The project dragged on, ostensibly because Shogee was busy with the movie studio in the Philippines. But in 2007, with the studio project dead, Charles shifted direction, forming a new company, Vscoop. Shogee investors were reportedly told that getting behind Vscoop was their only hope for recovering their investments, and the new company ultimately inherited all of Shogee’s assets. Vscoop was still involved with various animation projects, but its main focus quickly became developing an online social game involving extremely similar animated, dragon-like creatures to those it was developing with Greanwold’s World.
In 2008, Charles informed Michael Trigg that he couldn’t work with him anymore, and that he would be developing the project on his own. Michael Trigg felt his intellectual property had just been stolen.
Things fall apart
By 2008, Charles’s latest company, Vscoop, was in serious trouble. With investors increasingly troubled by Vscoop’s lack of progress, Charles claimed the business was about to take off, but desperately needed capital. In April of 2008, sources say, investor SW Cheung wired Charles $1 million as a “bridge loan” to get Vscoop on track.
The $1 million did nothing to improve Vscoop’s fortunes. And Charles had to resort to increasingly desperate schemes to keep his investors from revolting. He suggested that people were lining up to invest in Vscoop, naming at least two people who were supposedly already in the process of buying Vscoop shares. Two of these men, discovering their alleged involvement, wrote to Vscoop’s board to say that they were not investors and had no plans of becoming investors. One of these non-investors alleged that Charles had stolen his passport to use as ID on forged documents indicating his interest.
Charles also presented the Vscoop board with a letter of intent to form a partnership with Vscoop, supposedly from Sony Pictures. When Charles’s investors wrote to Sony about it, Sony pointed out that the letter was an obvious forgery.
Soon thereafter, a former Shogee employee wrote Vscoop’s board, telling them that they were involved with “a devious and cunning PROFESSIONAL CON MAN.” By April, Charles had been fired for misappropriating company cash, and his investors were desperately looking for a way to salvage something out of Vscoop.
DinglePharb and Woldtown
And that brings us to up to date.
Over the past few weeks, DinglePharb, a Hong Kong-based company, has issued a series of press releases about its new Facebook game “Woldtown” and its partnerships with HeyZap (for web distribution) and gWallet (for in-game micropayments).
DinglePharb’s CEO is a very young Filipino named Nathan Agulto, the boy holding the toys in the picture at left. (If the boy in the picture is older than 17, we’d be surprised.)
Nathan’s uncle, Narciso Agulto–the man in the white t-shirt on the right of the photo–is DinglePharb’s COO.
DinglePharb has only communicated with its partners in the U.S. — and this publication — over the phone. The sole contact person at the company has identified himself as ‘Nat’. ‘Nat’ initially represented himself as the CEO of the company, and responded to the name ‘Nathan’. In later interactions with his partners, and in the one conversation we had with him, ‘Nat’ indicated that ‘Nat’ was short for ‘Narciso’, and that he was not Nathan, DinglePharb’s CEO, but Nathan’s uncle, the COO. “Nat” vehemently denies knowing anything about a Charles Lawrence or Charles Surry.
Based on our investigation, we believe that the person on the other end of these phone calls is in fact Charles Surry, who is in full control of DinglePharb. We believe the Agultos have merely lent their names to the project, and agreed to pose for these pictures.
We asked “Nat” how DinglePharb came to be. “Nat” said the company had acquired the assets of Vscoop for $1.3 million. The money to buy the assets, Nat told us, was raised from investors in Hong Kong.
On the phone, “Nat” does not sound like a middle-aged Filipino man who learned English as a second language. He sounds like a native English speaker who could easily be a 47 year-old American. Everyone we spoke to who has spoken to “Nat” assumed that he was a native English-speaker. When presented with the photo above of the Agultos and asked if one of them could be the “Nat” she had spoken to, one of DinglePharb’s partners in the U.S. responded: “No. Friggin. Way.”
Moreover, the idea that the Agultos would never have heard of Charles Surry seems absurd.
Janella “Jane” Agulto, pictured here with Charles, and above as part of the DinglePharb team, has been living with Charles for years, say many sources who live in, or frequently visit, Angeles City. Charles is likely the father of one of Janella’s children. And Janella is Nathan Agulto’s sister.
Finally, the game that DinglePharb says Woldtown is based on, VVDragon, is not, in fact, a smash hit in China. So it is unlikely that Vscoop ever owned anything worth buying for $1.3 million.
The idea that Hong Kong investors were willing to give a young boy $1.3 million to buy Vscoop’s assets, of course, seems ludicrous. Emails that we have viewed suggest that what really happened is that Vscoop’s investors gave up hope that they could make something of the company and agreed to give control back to Charles. An email sent by SW Cheung in December refers to an unnamed “company which is going to acquire Vscoop assets, the US$1.3 million debt and the China office plus its employees” and begs other investors not to let their grudge against Charles jeopardize that company’s prospects.
We believe DinglePharb is the company SW alluded to, and that he and Vscoop’s other investors are now backing it. The transfer of assets from one company to the other appears to have been little more than a name change, just as with the transition from Shogee to Vscoop.
After years of working together, during which they invested over $4 million into his companies, Charles’s investors became convinced that he was operating with a false name and embezzling their money. They fired him. But a few months later, they found the company he had left them with was so hopeless that they gave it back to him in the faint hope of one day seeing a return.
Now, with a new name and a new company, he is taking his product to America.
Oh, and he’s looking for investors.
Update: A DinglePharb representative has responded to the original story.