Haunted dolls and missing checks: How Stormy Daniels and Avenatti’s anti-Trump alliance came crashing down

Michael Avenatti has been found guilty of defrauding Stormy Daniels, the unravelling of his relationship with his former client helping to complete a spectacular fall from grace, writes Bevan Hurley

Friday 04 February 2022 20:51
<p>Michael Avenatti, representing himself, cross-examines Stormy Daniels during his criminal trial in New York</p>

Michael Avenatti, representing himself, cross-examines Stormy Daniels during his criminal trial in New York

They always seemed like an unlikely pairing to take on the most powerful office in the world.

Swaggering California attorney Michael Avenatti and his onetime star client Stormy Daniels once looked like they might bring down Donald Trump in 2018.

But within a year their relationship turned sour over allegations he had cheated her out of $300,000 in payments from her publisher leading to charges of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft.

Prosecutors portrayed Avenatti as a serial conman and cheat who had taken advantage of his client’s trusting nature and impersonated her on a publishing contract during the trial.

And after he fired his public defenders on day two, jurors witnessed the bizarre spectacle of Avenatti cross-examining Ms Daniels in a Manhattan courtroom about her ability to communicate with dead people through a haunted doll named Susan in an attempt to wreck her credibility.

The jury ultimately sided with the adult actress and found Avenatti guilty of both charges just after 3pm on Friday afternoon.

Avenatti stared straight ahead as the verdicts were read out, and faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

Stormy Daniels and ‘Susan’, the haunted doll from her paranormal TV show Spooky Babes

Back in 2018, Daniels was a little known adult film actress who burst onto the national stage when she credibly claimed to have had sex with Mr Trump at a golf tournament a decade before he became president of the United States.

By her side was Avenatti, the pugilistic Los Angeles attorney who rode his new found fame to regular cable news and late night television appearances, and used the publicity to try to position himself as the sole Democrat who could take on Mr Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

“When they go low, I say, we hit harder,” Avenatti told the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding dinner, a fundraiser for presidential hopefuls, in August 2018.

But Avenatti had more pressing concerns.

At the same time as he was exploring a run for the Democratic nomination, his Newport Beach law firm Eagen Avenatti was imploding, and his star client was asking him for information about payments on a book deal she had signed in April 2018.

Ms Daniels had met Avenatti in February 2018 at the Beverly Hills Waldorf-Asotoria and hired him the next day over lunch at a Los Angeles restaurant to help her extricate herself from a $130,000 non-disclosure agreement she had signed with Mr Trump.

She agreed to pay him $100 and a “reasonable percentage” of future earnings, and he soon set up a crowdfunded legal defence fund which would ultimately bring in $650,00 (£485,000).

Two months later she signed a book deal with St Martin’s Press, the fulfilment of a long-held dream to leave behind the porn industry and become a writer.

She signed an $800,000 (£596,000)deal, and screamed with excitement upon receiving her signing on payment of $250,000 (£186,500) while parked in a gas station in Los Angeles, scaring her security detail.

But after she delivered a manuscript that July, the promised payments never arrived.

Ms Daniels trusted her attorney implicitly, and he promised he was doing everything he could to get the money from the publishers, according to testimony heard by a jury in Manhattan on Thursday.

Months later, their relationship unravelled when Ms Daniels was informed that Avenatti had allegedly pocketed around $300,000 (£223,800) from the deal.

Prosecutors charged him with wire fraud and aggravated identity theft charges over claims he stole from an advance that was supposed to go to Ms Daniels for her 2018 book Full Disclosure.

On week one of the trial, the former confidantes came together for the first time in three years as Ms Daniels gave evidence at his trial in a Manhattan court.

Assistant US attorney Robert Sobelman showed the jury the stream of text messages the pair exchanged between July and September in which Ms Daniels asks for an update on the payment.

Prosecutors argued Avenatti had already taken the money and spent it on his own personal and business expenses, including exploring a run for president.

Ms Daniels said her former attorney strung her along for months while claiming to be chasing her publisher St Martin’s Press for the book advance.

Avenatti, an experienced trial lawyer, fired his legal team on day two over a disagreement on how to question witnesses.

Nearly three hours after Ms Daniels took the stand, he finally had his chance to begin cross-examining her.

He began by asking Ms Daniels about whether she always told the truth.

She said she always did, “to the best of my knowledge”.

In a bizarre exchange, he asked Ms Daniels whether she had claimed to have X-ray vision, and could speak to dead people.

He went on to ask her about a talking doll named Susan who appears on a paranormal TV show Spooky Babes that Ms Daniels is developing.

“Susan speaks to everyone on the show”, Ms Daniels replied. “She even has her own Instagram.”

According to the Spooky Babes website, Susan is a “haunted object” who is attached to a young girl who tragically passed away in the 1960s.

“Susan has always had an intensity to her, affecting those in her presence,” the site claims.

“It was not until Susan interacted with Stormy, however, that she became truly active and began to excel in the form of communication and even movement.”

Earlier, during questioning from Mr Sobelman, Ms Daniels had said her former attorney had lied to her “every day for months” as she tried to find out what was going on with payments from her book publisher.

She initially suspected her literary agent Luke Janklow had taken the payment, and texted Mr Avenatti that she hoped he “choked” on the money he made from her.

On 5 September, Avenatti told her the publisher had mailed a cashier’s cheque for $148,750 to his office.

Ms Daniels said she was “confused and extremely irritated” why the cheque hadn’t been sent to her.

In a separate message Ms Daniels seemed frustrated that Avenatti would be coming on The Jimmy Kimmel Show with her after he had “talked mad s***” about the late night comedian to her.

Stormy Daniels testifying on the witness stand, at right, points to Michael Avenatti, standing at center. Judge Jesse Furman presides on the bench

She appeared alone on the show on 3 October to promote the book, and later asked Avenatti if he had seen the show.

Prosecutors say Avenatti had by this stage told Ms Daniels’s publisher and literary agent not to speak to her, and had received the third down payment for the book.

Growing increasingly frustrated with her publisher, she told Avenatti she couldn’t work out “why they are being dicks”. The book had made the New York Times bestsellers list, and her contract wasn’t dependent on book sales anyway, only that she made a certain number of publicity and media appearances.

In November 2018, she learnt on social media that Avenatti had set up a second crowdfunded  legal defence fund without telling her.

His cheques were bouncing, and her security team – dubbed the dragons – were not being paid.

At the time she was living with her ex-husband and needed the money to put a down payment on a new home in Florida.

She told Avenatti in a text: “I’m trapped in this house with my ex until I get paid. Each day is one step closer to one of us going to jail.”

By February, her third payment from the publisher was four months late, and the final one was almost due.

She says Avenatti asked if she would accept a lump sum payment for less than the amount she had been promised in the contract.

Stormy Daniels and Michael Avenatti before their falling out

“Hell no!” was her response. “Because we had an agreement and I felt like they had been jerking me around for so long, I had zero patience left.”

On 14 February, the Los Angeles Times reported that Avenatti’s firm Eagen Avenatti was accused by a former partner of hiding millions of dollars from the court that oversaw its bankruptcy.

Ms Daniels said she was swamped by reporters asking her about the news, and was sent a statement by Mr Avenatti to give to the press saying that it was a “big nothing burger”.

She replied that he needed to “find my f***ing money.”

Several days later she was shown bank statements confirming that the payments had already been made into an account controlled by Mr Avenatti.

She said she was “beyond furious”.

“He lied to me almost every day for five months. I felt very betrayed and stupid.”

When she told Avenatti she had retained new counsel and he was not to contact her again, he tried to fire her and suggested putting out a statement to the media suggesting they had parted amicably.

Mr Sobelman produced an August 2018 contract between Ms Daniels and her literary agent with her signature on it.

“Did you sign it?” the prosecutor asked. Ms Daniels said: “No.”

After the guilt verdicts were reached, Avenatti’s longtime nemesis, Michael Cohen, tweeted: “Justice has been served. Michael Avenatti has shown himself to be what I have always known him to be…a conman, a liar and a thief.”

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in