After his son Taylor shot himself in 2009, a 54-year-old pool repairman named Jay Hutchinson moved to St. Louis from northern Indiana. His girlfriend taught him how to use Microsoft Word, and in a fugue of grief, a man who claims never to have read a book voluntarily spilled out a 300-page fictionalized account of his son's life. He titled it Taylor Lake, and it was both a living memorial and an unburdening. To hold a memory in one's hand might bring an end to its pain, and so in an attempt to self-publish the novel, Hutchinson met an editor on Craigslist, who took a $1,200 advance and disappeared. Then Hutchinson met Stephen Martines.
When Hutchinson met him in November 2014, Martines was smoking at the Ameristar Casino, where he regularly played no-limit poker. Martines, then 39, was good-looking, with salt-and-pepper hair. He was so good-looking, in fact, that he'd had a fan club in the early 2000s, when he acted on General Hospital and Guiding Light. Since then, Martines had played small roles in Supernatural, Vampire Diaries, Burn Notice and other TV shows. He drove expensive cars and sparkled with the kind of charm that implied unmitigated success. It wasn't clear why he'd moved from Hollywood back to his home in the St. Louis suburbs.
"I don't want to waste your time, but I'm looking for a writer," Hutchinson said, approaching him. Someone to clean up the manuscript so he could self-publish something respectable. Martines was a Hollywood actor; surely he had connections.
Hutchinson told him about the manuscript and about having previously been scammed. He admitted he didn't really know what he was doing, but that the project meant a lot to him.
Martines became animated. Appearing offended, he balked at giving Hutchinson's card to his connections, claiming that his reputation was at stake. Let me read it myself, he said. Hutchinson gave him the entire manuscript.
Not long after, Martines called Hutchinson to arrange a meeting. He loved it.
Really, he loved it. Hutchinson's story was moving, sad, beautiful. In fact, it would be perfect not on the printed page, but on screen, in a theater. As it happened, the story was exactly what Martines' production company, DTE Films, was looking for. It was the perfect genre, perfect subject matter. With a $3 million budget, it would make $6 million. In fact, forget the book. There's no money in books. We're going to make a movie out of Taylor Lake! I can get a screenwriter for $90,000. If you put in 30, I put in 30, and DTE puts in 30...
"I am thrilled about our new found journey of working together to bring this story to light, both, on screen and in paperback," Martines wrote Hutchinson on November 11, 2014. "I can't thank you enough for sharing the most tragic event in your life with me, DTE and soon to be the world ... Perhaps, this was the bookend you needed to finalize 'Taylor Lake'... And, perhaps, it was meant to be."
Martines' charisma was intense, and he spoke passionately. Hutchinson slowed him down, asserting that he only cared about the book. He wanted to hold his son's story in his hand, not to be famous. Martines backed off and offered him a deal. If Hutchinson made a $15,000 investment in the project, Martines would option his story. Martines' other company, Wildhorse Productions, would produce a first draft of the novel by February, only after which DTE Films would produce a film. Martines assured him that his team was already at work, that someone named Claire Miller was already editing the manuscript.
Still, Hutchinson was reticent. Martines urged him to trust him. "My father died in my arms, Hutch! In my arms! I understand the father-son bond." Martines gave him a contract that stipulated weekly updates about the status of book editing. Yet he kept Hutchinson at a professional length, holding meetings at the casino and acting as a middleman between Hutchinson and his team. He was eager to get Hutchinson's initial investment before his departure for LA.
Hutchinson went home and discussed the contract with his girlfriend. His pool-repair contracts looked more legally binding than the document Martines had given him, which had at least two typos. But Martines was persistent, and he was using his own name and reputation in the deal. His name was on DTE Films' IMDb page. His acting credits were real. He gave the address of his team's LA office to Hutchinson, who didn't know it was a PO box. He wanted Hutchinson to draft a screenplay. And then the line about his father... Hutch would have to sell his vintage Mustang to afford the $15,000.
"If this is a scam," he said, "it's a damn good one."