Three years ago, 60 passengers boarded a small cruise ship called the Ortelius in the port of Tierra del Fuego, an Argentinian archipelago.
The port is located in Ushuaia, the southernmost city on the planet. Nicknamed ‘the end of the world’, Ushuaia is arduous to reach, with freezing gales and high seas that turn the stomach of even the most experienced sailor.
But then this trip, which was to take in Bouvet Island, a tiny uninhabited landmass between Antarctica and the bottom tip of South Africa, was not for your regular holidaymaker. The passengers — mostly wealthy, middle-aged men — were ‘extreme travellers’ whose life’s mission is to visit all 193 UN-recognised countries. No place is too remote, dangerous or expensive.
The 29-day journey across the South Atlantic ocean on the Ortelius did not come cheap, costing £9,000 for a small, shared cabin.
Jesse Gordon posed as British aristocrat William Baekeland to offer expeditions abroad
But there was one passenger who stood out from all others. Not only did he have his own cabin, which cost around £20,000, he was years younger than anyone else on board.
Quiet, unassuming and impeccably dressed in tailored chinos, a white safari hat and jacket, he introduced himself as 22-year-old William Baekeland, a British aristocrat and great-grandson of Leo Hendrik Baekeland, the Belgian-born inventor of Bakelite — the precursor to modern plastic.
Rumours of this young man’s vast inherited wealth and grand heritage were soon rife, and he was quickly welcomed into the fold.
His fellow travellers were so impressed by his status, encyclopaedic geographical knowledge and cut-glass accent it is claimed that they soon began to hand over huge sums of money for private expeditions William promised to organise.
Little did they know the young man was not who he claimed to be. They now say that they have been left badly out of pocket.
In an extraordinary tale of deception, William was not a multi-millionaire British aristocrat, but a former grammar school pupil from the West Midlands called Jesse Gordon. Instead of the homes he claimed to have across the world, including in London and Ireland, he in fact lived with his parents in a £130,000 ex-council house next to a Mecca Bingo hall in the Birmingham suburb of Great Barr.
Until a few months ago, he managed to keep up this pretence and allegedly convinced dozens to hand over money for expeditions, some of which, to be fair, came to fruition and were declared great successes. But a great many more did not. Now he stands accused of taking £524,000 from 19 people for trips that failed to materialise.
Although British police are investigating, few of his victims think they’ll see their money again. Today, there is a lot of anger and embarrassment among this community as to how the wool was pulled over their eyes.
So how could this young man, without fame, fortune or ancestry, seemingly manage to hoodwink so many wealthy and experienced travellers into giving him so much money? And how could he keep up the ruse for so long?
William, who is now 25, was born Jesse Gordon in Sutton Coldfield in 1993, the eldest of three children (he has two younger sisters, Jasmine, 22, and Grace, 19) of parents Simon Gordon, 62, a railway engineer and Mandy, 53, a housewife.
Although his upbringing was relatively modest, he was an exceptionally bright child and obtained a place at King Edward VI Grammar School. Family holidays rarely went beyond Dorset, but from an early age he had a passion for geography and would study maps for hours.
Childhood friend Joshua Radcliffe, 25, says: ‘He always wanted to see the world. It was an obsession with him.’
Instead of the homes he claimed to have across the world he in fact lived with his parents in a £130,000 ex-council house next to a Mecca Bingo hall in the Birmingham suburb of Great Barr
But it was not until he finished his degree in international politics and economics at Aberystwyth University in 2014 that William —who officially changed his name from Jesse to William Baekeland in the same year — began to seriously travel.
Using a small inheritance from his grandparents, he bought a ticket on the Ortelius and set sail in March 2015, just days after celebrating his 22nd birthday. This was his debut into the community of extreme travellers, who he beguiled with tales of how he could pilot planes and the 100-plus countries he claimed to have visited already.
And as they made the long journey together across icy waters, William revealed his plans for future expeditions, including a circumnavigation of Antartica. He depicted himself as a travel fixer, an explorer who could co-ordinate trips to the most far-flung and inhospitable places, with no expense spared for chartered yachts and security teams.
Dominique Laurent, 67, a retired French financier and oil executive who has travelled to more than 170 countries, was a fellow passenger on this trip. He took in every word. ‘He looked like quite a wealthy guy although he was very young,’ he recalls. ‘I was very impressed by his knowledge.’
Another passenger was British-Greek travel writer Harry Mitsidis, 46, one of only a handful of explorers to have visited every country in the world. By coincidence — and probably to William’s horror — the pair’s paths had crossed in 2013 when William, while still at university, had applied for an internship on Mr Mitsidis’s website. He was using the name Simon Baekeland.
Although they’d they never met in person — the job was carried out remotely — subsequent checks by Harry into the intern’s CV revealed he had lied about his education, claiming to have attended the £17,000-a-year Harrodian school in London.
He also said he had studied in North Korea for a month, as well as at exclusive international schools in Switzerland and Monaco. Needless to say, Harry ended William’s internship and did not hear from him again until he spotted him on the Ortelius.
He says initially William went out of his way to avoid him, but with so much time together onboard (only 24 hours of the trip were ashore) they ended up talking. When Harry asked why William was no longer called Simon, he explained this was his middle name.
Bowled over by his charm and geographical knowledge, Harry quietened his suspicions and put the CV discrepancies down to the different first name. ‘William could quote places like Kapingamarangi (an atoll of Micronesia). It goes beyond geek quirk — no one knows this kind of thing. We were all impressed and there was no questioning his legitimacy. He also had a very clear and upper crust English accent and you would think “Wow, this guy sounds like royalty”.
‘He was sociable, too, and would come to dinner — what surprised me was the ease with which he conversed with people three times his age. We were partially dealing with a genius who was able to plan and execute behaviour in a precise way in order to achieve his goal. There was great attention to detail.’
William travelled extensively and organised a successful expedition to the remote Palmyra atoll 1,000 miles south of Hawaii, in the Pacific
William’s choice of the Baekeland name, for example, was most likely meticulously researched. Although it is associated with the creation of Bakelite, it has a dark past, chronicled in the book and 2007 film, Savage Grace, starring Julianne Moore and Eddie Redmayne.
This tells the story of Barbara Daly, the wife of Leo Baekeland’s grandson Brooks, who was murdered by her son Tony in 1972 after she had tried to ‘save him’ from his homosexuality by seducing him.
In the face of such scandal, William told his enthralled travelling companions, he didn’t like talking about his personal life, and there was no information about his family online because they’d paid Google to delete the results.
With contacts made and cash deposits taken for future trips, the cruise was a success and William began the next stage in his plan.
He posted photographs on an Instagram account of his travels to exotic places, as well as pictures of him flying first class and in chartered planes and helicopters.
In September 2016, he was interviewed for a podcast called Counting Countries, where he said he had visited 154 countries and recounted false tales of childhood expeditions. ‘We went on safaris quite a lot, we went to East Africa, Namibia, Ethiopia…we also went to the Congo.’ There was no mention of the family holidays to Dorset.
Over the next year, William travelled extensively and organised a successful expedition to the remote Palmyra atoll 1,000 miles south of Hawaii, in the Pacific, and another to the sub-Antarctic Marion and Prince Edward Islands.
In February 2017, he organised a trip for four people, including Dominique, to the remote Clipperton Island in the Pacific, for which Dominique paid £10,000. Three months later, he paid another £10,000 for a visit to the Central African Republic, which was a similarly small group tour. Both worked out well. ‘Our rate of confidence in him was 100 per cent afterwards,’ says Dominique.
His reputation boosted by these successes, William continued to take orders, but by the autumn of 2017, trips started to fail to materialise. His explanations were typically outlandish. In a newsletter emailed to disappointed travellers following the cancellation of a trip to the Desventuradas Islands off the coast of Chile, he fabricated a story that his sisters, whom he called Muguette and Ariadne, had died from cancer and ‘weariness of life’ respectively.
His mother, Lady Violette, he said, had travelled first class to the funeral in New York and paid for a separate seat for his sister’s teddy bear. He said they were buried in Sleepy Hollow cemetery, the same one where Leo Baekeland lies.
In September, Dominique learned that William had failed to show up for a planned trip to South Sudan, reportedly stranding a Russian traveller who had paid £20,000. In an email sent by his ‘assistant’, William claimed he had been detained at Heathrow Airport.
News of this ‘no show’ spread fast but Dominique and others weren’t worried. They were expecting to see him at a travel conference in Serbia a few weeks later. But again, William didn’t turn up. Then, a visit to Mali, which Dominique thankfully was not booked on, was suddenly cancelled. To date there has been no mention of a refund.
William posted this picture on Instagram at the camel market of El Fasher in Darfur, Sudan
People started communicating with each other about the tours they had booked with William and it is believed there were at least ten trips scheduled, from November 2017 to early 2019 — including the one he first planned on the Ortelius, the ‘irresistible’ South Antarctic circumnavigation.
In total, Dominique claims he is owed £45,000 for expeditions including South Sudan, Somalia, Equatorial Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo which so far have not happened, and there is no suggestion that they will happen.
With hindsight, Dominique says: ‘He was very cunning to be able to infiltrate an elite group of travellers and play the long game. I feel cheated. I’ve been travelling for decades and thought I was a good judge of character.
‘There was also the feeling of frustration over not being able to visit those countries he said he was going to take us to.’ Dominique has reported what happened to the British police, but feels they did not take him very seriously.
As for Harry, he was determined to get to the bottom of the story. He turned investigator and found no record of William’s birth in Britain, but instead a Jesse Simon Gordon with the same date of birth, who had registered and dissolved a travel company.
Harry remembered he had received emails from someone of this name years ago, enquiring about expeditions. He then found a photograph of him on his sister’s Facebook account, and the penny dropped. ‘He was just an ordinary guy, with an ordinary family, from the suburbs of Birmingham, who it seems has managed to pull off an incredibly sophisticated act.’
Furious, in November last year, Harry — who says he is owed almost £26,000 — sent an email to around 100 fellow travellers revealing William’s true identity, entitled ‘Apocalypse now, a bomb in our travel community’. He never heard from William again.
But where is William Baekeland, aka Jesse Gordon, today?
His family still lives in the same three-bedroom house in Birmingham, where William is said to be a regular visitor.
His parents have refused to comment publicly, although his sister, Jasmine, told one newspaper how their ‘normal working-class parents’ had always believed their son to be a stockbroker in London.
‘We are not particularly wealthy. We always stayed in England for our holidays. He was always travelling for months at a time and we did not understand how he could afford it,’ she said.
Jasmine’s fiance, 22-year-old civil engineer Dylan Walton, was more scathing: ‘I don’t like him as he thinks he’s better than everyone else. But I can’t take away from him his genius. He’s got an amazing memory for all sorts of facts, trivia, history and geography. It’s just scandalous the stories he’s made up.
The ‘baby-faced conman’ is pictured here visiting the world’s highest lake in Nepal
‘When his parents found out he’d changed his name, he said it was because he was working for a secret Government agency. And for some reason, they just believe all his lies. He’s their golden boy.
‘He loves the upper-class lifestyle and I always wondered where he was getting the money from.’
For now, William is lying low and refusing to speak publicly about what happened, instead using his friend Joshua, with whom he set up a travel company last year — a separate venture to anything involved with this current debacle — as his spokesman.
Joshua says: ‘I think he got a bit ahead of himself. He flew too close to the sun, he started to organise trips costing £40,000 to £50,000 instead of £3,000 to £4,000. If you pay so much for a chartered yacht and then don’t sell enough tickets, you lose the deposit.
‘He should have been more upfront about his background, then he could’ve explained the situation. These are wealthy, entitled people who have looked to paint it all in a sinister light and I think it’s unfair. He will pay the money back.’
A spokesman for City of London police, who investigate fraud, say they have received complaints against William and that this information has been ‘disseminated by our National Fraud Intelligence Bureau to West Midlands Police.’
No action has yet been taken and for all those who say they have lost out, it remains to be seen whether they will ever see their money again. Whether we’ll see William Baekeland — and what guise he’ll take when he does emerge — also remains to be seen.