Across 10 episodes, HBO Max’s new docuseries Generation Hustle explores the stories of 10 scammers and grifters, including the infamous Anna “Delvey” Sorokin and Hollywood Con Queen. Episode 6 features one of the less-publicized cases: that of William Baekeland, a now-28-year-old who’s alleged to have stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars from rich travelers between 2015 and 2017. (Several complaints have been filed against Baekeland, but he has not yet been charged for any crimes.)
According to the BBC, Baekeland began encouraging travelers to book their vacations through him after encountering them on other trips. He claimed to be an experienced globe-trotter and seemed to have the affluent background to back it up: he reportedly told fellow explorers that he was a descendant of Leo Baekeland, who created the popular synthetic material Bakelite. However, according to Rolling Stone, Baekeland is actually Jesse Simon Gordon. His friend Josh Radcliffe, with whom he founded the travel company Atlas Travel and Expeditions, told the outlet that Gordon legally changed his name to William Baekeland in 2014. His background is also much different than the stories he’s purported to have told.
Baekeland’s sister, Jasmine Gordon, claimed to the Daily Mail that they didn’t have an extravagant childhood or extensive traveling experiences. “Our parents are normal working-class people, we are not particularly wealthy. We always stayed in England for our holidays, usually Dorset.” She added that her brother had always expressed an interest in travel. “Jesse always said he wanted to be the youngest person to go to every country in the world. He was always reading and very interested in geography.”
Indeed, Baekeland told Expedition Everywhere in 2017 that he planned to be the youngest person to visit every country in the world. At the time, he claimed to have only about 20 left to see, including El Salvador, Bangladesh, Algeria, and Tuvalu. But it now seems possible that he inflated his travel record to make a name for himself and drive business to Atlas Travel. According to Rolling Stone, among the several trips Baekeland planned and had people pay for, only around two actually happened. There were at least nine that fell through, mostly due to excuses Baekeland began making. He reportedly blamed an illness and several deaths in the family on having to adjust travel plans.
Per Rolling Stone, it’s estimated that Baekeland owes around $835,000 to about 20 people. Complaints against Baekeland have been filed in several countries, including France, Ireland, and Britain. The City of London Police told the outlet that they were currently assessing two reports of fraud filed against Baekeland, but one of Baekeland’s alleged victims complained to the magazine that the process “look[ed] very slow.” That was in May 2018.
At the end of Baekeland’s Generation Hustle episode, viewers learn that Baekeland has yet to be been charged with any crimes. He also declined to be interviewed for the docuseries after nearly a year of communicating back and forth with the production team. There have been no meaningful updates on where he is or what he’s doing now. He’s deleted his Instagram, and he was removed as a shareholder in Atlas. In May 2018, Radcliffe claimed to the BBC that the company itself was credible and was not involved in taking any money from clients. He also defended Baekeland’s intentions. “His financial problems came about as a result of over trading and not as a result of deliberate fraud,” Radcliffe said, adding that Baekeland allegedly wished to repay people as soon as he got done clearing his name.
In July 2019, Atlas was dissolved altogether, and Baekeland has continued to keep a low profile. There have since been a couple of books published about his alleged actions, including 2018’s The Curious Case of William Baekeland, which was written by one of Baekeland’s alleged scam victims Harry Mitsidis. Dave Seminara’s book about the subject, Mad Travelers, is also due out this summer.
Baekeland may be staying quiet, but that isn’t stopping others from telling his story for him.