Scott Sassa, the former president of entertainment and syndication at Hearst who left his job after sexual text messages he wrote were sent to the company’s legal department, may have been the victim of a “catfish” scam, three sources tell Business Insider.
A catfish is someone who uses a false identity online, particularly to pursue a deceptive virtual romance. College football player Manti Te’o is perhaps the most famous catfish victim — he had been duped into thinking he was in a relationship with a woman named Lennay Kekua, but she never existed.
The sources declined to speak on the record, but they were all familiar with the reason Sassa’s career at Hearst ended. At Hearst, Sassa had been the executive producer on the hugely successful History Channel series “The Bible.”
Sassa resigned his $6 million a year job on March 13 after a man claiming to be the boyfriend of an escort named “Kira” sent Hearst copies of racy text messages. The messages allegedly showed Sassa offering money and drugs to Kira in an effort to convince her to come visit him in a hotel on Christmas Day in 2012.
One source tells Business Insider that she is the woman featured in a photograph attached to one of the texts. The woman tells us she never met Sassa, never exchanged texts with him, and has a different phone number than the one associated with the texts.
She says she never heard of Sassa until Business Insider broke the news of Sassa’s texts earlier this week.
The woman — who we decided not to name because she does not want to be associated with the messages — says she was formerly friends with the man who obtained Sassa’s texts and sent them to Hearst. She believes Sassa was taken in by a catfish scam and that at no time was a woman named “Kira” ever going to show up to meet Sassa.
A second source tells us that the phone used in the scam was not owned by Kira, and that Kira did not pay the bill on the phone either. The phone number for Kira that was sent to Hearst when the company began its legal investigation of Sassa is associated with Ben Free, the boyfriend, according to copies of emails viewed by Business Insider.
Lastly a third source tells us that when Sassa saw photos of the woman identified as Kira in the texts, he did not recognise her — and in fact thought he was communicating with an entirely different person throughout.
We reported previously that the messages caught Sassa at a time when he was feeling particularly lonely — he was in a hotel room in Los Angeles, far from his New York home, and not able to spend Christmas with his children.
It is not clear who, exactly, was texting Sassa on Christmas night. But the messages end with Kira telling Sassa that she cannot meet him because her car battery died. There is no indication that Sassa ever met the woman.
Extortion scams that stem from fake online relationships are rare but not unheard of. In 2010, British authorities warned business executives travelling to China that they were potential targets for blackmail through sexual relationships there.
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