My terrifying Vegas trip with Gaddafi’s psychotic son: $10k bets, coke binges, Berettas, one-million-dollar hotel bills… and how I barely escaped with my life and $60,000 in stolen cash strapped to my chest

Over the course of his professional PR career, Phil Elwood worked for some of the world’s most notorious tyrants, tycoons, and crooked politicians.

In his new book, All The Worst Humans, he recounts one of his most terrifying weekends in Las Vegas, where he struggled to keep the wild excesses of Libyan dicatator Muammar Gaddafi’s murderous son Mutassim out of the news and not be killed in the process.

We’re sitting under chandelier light at Jasmine, a haute cuisine Chinese restaurant at the Bellagio on the Vegas strip.

‘You follow rules for your own safety. You understand?’ Ali asks.

I nod. 

Ali is Mutassim Gaddafi’s head of security. He’s a former professional soccer player whose hands are built like the heads of hammers. 

Then, Ali lays out the rules for the weekend:

1. Don’t look the Doctor in the eye.

2. Don’t get in the Doctor’s way.

3. Ever.

4. Call him the Doctor. Never Mutassim.

Long stringy hair, sunken eyes, and cigarette ash–colored skin give Mutassim (above, right) the look of an animated corpse. A brown velour suit hangs loose on his stick-thin frame.

My boss's instructions are clear: There should be no credit card bills emblazoned with the name 'Gaddafi' that can be leaked to the press by a Bellagio employee. (Above) U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mutassim Gaddafi on April 21, 2009 in Washington, DC

My boss’s instructions are clear: There should be no credit card bills emblazoned with the name ‘Gaddafi’ that can be leaked to the press by a Bellagio employee. (Above) U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mutassim Gaddafi on April 21, 2009 in Washington, DC

‘Why does he insist on being called the Doctor?’ I ask. ‘He doesn’t have a medical degree, does he?’

‘He has a degree in torture from Moscow State University,’ Ali replies.

Long stringy hair, sunken eyes, and cigarette ash–colored skin give Mutassim the look of an animated corpse. A brown velour suit hangs loose on his stick-thin frame.

His two-man entourage, both named ‘Muhammad,’ suck absently on lobster claws.

 Natasha, a model Mutassim flew in by private jet for the weekend, holds out her champagne flute and pouts her bright red lips.

It’s Friday night, the final days of Ramadan. 

Devout Muslims – which the Gaddafis claim to be – abstain from eating, drinking, smoking cigarettes or having sex from sunup to sundown. 

Today, I’ve seen the Doctor do three of those things. And I’ll bet the house that Natasha wasn’t flown in to tuck him into bed.

The dinner bill comes to $8,000. I charge it to my company’s American Express.

My boss’s instructions are clear: There should be no credit card bills emblazoned with the name ‘Gaddafi’ that can be leaked to the press by a Bellagio employee. 

So, the nine suites on the 29th floor, rows of Cirque du Soleil tickets, four-car motorcade and bottles of vintage bubbly were all get racked up on the firm’s Amex. 

This bacchanal must stay out of the news.

I arrived in Vegas this morning with an email from the colleague I’m relieving of dictator duty.

My colleague wrote: ‘Recent things that Mutassim has expressed interest in and that you may need to help line up for them: visiting the Harley-Davidson showroom, looking into buying a Cadillac Escalade with limo-style rear seats, buying a telescope, buying jean shorts (seriously), and seeing Cher perform on Saturday night (also seriously).’

Over the course of his professional PR career, Phil Elwood (above) worked for some of the world's most notorious tyrants, tycoons, and crooked politicians.

Over the course of his professional PR career, Phil Elwood (above) worked for some of the world’s most notorious tyrants, tycoons, and crooked politicians. 

Saadi Gaddafi (left) and his brother Mutassim (right) with tennis star Anna Kournikova

Saadi Gaddafi (left) and his brother Mutassim (right) with tennis star Anna Kournikova

My phone exploded before my cab passed Mandalay Bay. I answered to someone screaming at me in Arabic. I shouted back that I didn’t speak Arabic.

‘Cleaning persons. They are telling us to leave the rooms. The Doctor still sleeping. Fix problem now.’ Click.

At the Bellagio, I found out the Doctor was threatening a housekeeper for trying to clean his suite. A few months prior, Mutassim’s brother Hannibal was arrested at a Geneva hotel for beating a maid.

Muammar Gaddafi retaliated by cutting oil supplies to Switzerland, yanking more than five billion in assets from Swiss banks, expelling Swiss diplomats, and detaining Swiss nationals in Libya.

We can’t have another international scandal in Vegas.

I sprinted to the concierge desk, where I caught the attention of a man in a periwinkle Armani suit. ‘As you can imagine,’ I said. ‘You and I have a bit of a problem.’

‘Oh, I don’t have to use my imagination,’ he said. ‘It’s quite tangible.’

I brokered a deal for the staff to clean Mutassim’s suite only while he lounged in his cabana at the pool. I tipped the concierge a hundred bucks.

‘There’s more coming,’ I said. ‘I’m going to need a lot of help.’

Sure enough, a few hours later, I’m back.

My fingers tap a jittery staccato against the marble concierge desk. The concierge scowls. I’ve just asked him to help me procure a large amount of cocaine.

He scribbles a phone number on a slip of paper, passes it to me, and stalks away. I dial the drug dealer.

‘Leave $1,000 under a water glass on your bathroom sink,’ they command.

Mutassim was photographer drinking water and smoking a cigarette before his death in October 2011

Mutassim was photographer drinking water and smoking a cigarette before his death in October 2011

We're sitting under chandelier light at Jasmine (above), a haute cuisine Chinese restaurant at the Bellagio on the Vegas strip. The dinner bill comes to $8,000. I charge it to my company's American Express.

We’re sitting under chandelier light at Jasmine (above), a haute cuisine Chinese restaurant at the Bellagio on the Vegas strip. The dinner bill comes to $8,000. I charge it to my company’s American Express.

The nine suites on the 29th floor of the Bellagio (similar room pictured above), rows of Cirque du Soleil tickets, four-car motorcade and bottles of vintage bubbly were all get racked up on the firm's Amex.

The nine suites on the 29th floor of the Bellagio (similar room pictured above), rows of Cirque du Soleil tickets, four-car motorcade and bottles of vintage bubbly were all get racked up on the firm’s Amex. 

I hang up, call Ali, and ask for a grand.

‘Take it from my room,’ he says. ‘Closet.’

I ride the elevator up to the 29th floor and, in a closet the size of my bedroom, I find three black snakeskin briefcases. I click one open, revealing a nickel-plated 9mm Beretta and packets of $100 bills shrink-wrapped in $10,000 increments.

It’s the most cash I’ve seen in my life, at least a million dollars.

I rip open one of the bundles and peel off a $1,000. I hesitate, tempted. Three million dollars in this closet. Would Ali notice twenty grand missing? My credit card debt could go to zero.

Then I look at the Beretta. My credit score won’t mean much if I’m dead.

Back in my own room, I arrange the money under a water glass on the bathroom sink. It’s a tight fit. I catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror set in front of an arrangement of white orchids. 

I’ve got raccoon circles under my eyes, I need a shave, and my suit begs almost audibly for a dry cleaner. A drug peddler for a dictator’s entourage.

A Las Vegas area code calls my cell. Each member of the Libyan delegation has a burner phone. I’ve saved none of their numbers. I tell the voice on the other end where he can find the package, grab my laptop, and prop the door to my room open with the bolt lock.

At the private pool called the Cypress, I spot the Libyans lying out in the cabanas I reserved this morning at 6am. I collapse onto a chaise longue.

The titanium rods in my hip are on fire. Years ago, I tried to jump a concrete barrier while bar-hopping in Washington DC and fell breaking my femur.

Now, I picture the three metal screws inside, the throbbing flesh around them.

My hip aches when I’m tired, and I didn’t sleep last night. 

After dinner, our entourage took the motorcade to see the Cirque du Soleil. Best seats in the house. We left halfway through because the Doctor got bored and wanted to hit the casino

He spun the roulette wheel until past midnight while I fielded angry emails from my employer accountant.

Muammar Gaddafi (second left) with wife Safia and sons Aruba, Khamis and Mutassim in Tripoli, 1992

Muammar Gaddafi (second left) with wife Safia and sons Aruba, Khamis and Mutassim in Tripoli, 1992

At the private pool called the Cypress (above), I spot the Libyans lying out in the cabanas I reserved this morning at 6am. I collapse onto a chaise longue.

At the private pool called the Cypress (above), I spot the Libyans lying out in the cabanas I reserved this morning at 6am. I collapse onto a chaise longue. 

At the pool bar, I buy a screwdriver to anesthetize the fire ants in my hip. But there’s no rest for those who help the wicked. I’m needed at the high-roller lounge. 

The Libyans arrived straight from the pool wearing robes and sandals are being denied entry.

‘We have a dress code,’ the pit boss explains to me when I arrive downstairs.

The Doctor screams in Arabic. 

He gives Ali a look that asks, ‘Is this a person we can hit?’

Ali shakes his head.

‘Please,’ I plead. ‘Could you just put some shoes on?’

‘No,’ the Doctor says.

He reaches into the pocket of his robe and yanks out a package of stiff bills. It’s enough to buy a Toyota Camry – and the magic number to make the pit boss stand down.

In the lounge, I watch the Doctor lose the equivalent of my monthly income on one hand of blackjack. After a few more bad bets, he’s down ninety-five grand, my annual salary.

Ali lights a Marlboro for him and beckons me with his index finger.

‘The Doctor wants you to arrange a private jet for tomorrow,’ he says. ‘To take Natasha back to L.A.’

I call the charter jet service, which sends an invoice for $6,000.

I forward it to my employer for approval. 

In response, I receive back the invoice I sent yesterday for the motorcade. A new quote has been attached. 

Sure enough, the firm has upped the original cost for the cars by $20,000. 

Markups are a common practice at PR firms. They are written into contracts. The standard is 17.5 percent on top of any expenses incurred on behalf of the client. I’m no mathematician, but this blows several miles past 17.5 percent.

Panicking, I call my colleague. ‘The only person I know of who has stolen from the Libyans was Doc Brown in Back to the Future, and that ended very badly for him,’ I tell him.

‘Get it in cash,’ I’m instructed.

I print out the fudged invoice at the concierge desk, in black and white to hide evidence of the doctoring. 

Mutassim's brother Hannibal was arrested at a Geneva hotel for beating a maid; their father retaliated by cutting oil supplies to Switzerland and detaining Swiss nationals in Libya (Above, Hannibal is pictured with his wife)

Mutassim’s brother Hannibal was arrested at a Geneva hotel for beating a maid; their father retaliated by cutting oil supplies to Switzerland and detaining Swiss nationals in Libya (Above, Hannibal is pictured with his wife)

Cirque du Soleil performers at The Mirage Hotel & Casino June 27, 2006 in Las Vegas

Cirque du Soleil performers at The Mirage Hotel & Casino June 27, 2006 in Las Vegas

Glancing at it, you can barely tell that the numbers were changed. But when I look hard enough, I spot the Wite-Out at the edges of the numerals.

Back at the high-roller lounge, I hand Ali the invoice.

‘We’d prefer you paid in cash,’ I say.

‘We’ll take care of it tomorrow,’ he says. ‘Now the Doctor wants to go shopping.’

The Doctor really does want jean shorts. And a Harley-Davidson. And to see Cher. 

We take our  motorcade to the Venetian, where I shepherd the Libyans through the Grand Canal Shoppes.

The Libyans are dressed in multi-colored Adidas tracksuits. The Muhammad twins try to smoke in the Burberry store. I find the Doctor a pair of jorts at the GAP. 

That night at the Colosseum, Cher commands the stage wearing a headdress made of golden feathers crowned by a snake. I’m sitting next to Ali, behind the Doctor and Natasha.

The Doctor remains stone-faced through Cher’s lung-busting rendition of ‘Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves.’ 

You’d think the Doctor’s first trip to Las Vegas would be exciting, but nothing impresses him. I guess because people aren’t getting shot on the stage. He is incapable of joy.

We leave before the curtain falls and head for the MGM Grand. The Strip is thick with Saturday night traffic. This, too, draws the Doctor’s ire. 

He doesn’t understand why the motorcade can’t go lights and sirens through Vegas.

Another casino, another roulette table. Natasha pouts, bored by watching the Doctor lose more money.

‘Can we go to TAO now?’ she whines. ‘You said we could go to TAO.’

The words are hardly out of her mouth when the Doctor beelines for the exit. I limp after him, dialing our drivers. The motorcade must be waiting to ferry him from whim to whim.

Outside, taxis clog the valet stand. Our motorcade is not among them.

The Doctor releases a wail. He throws his hands up in the air and jumps up and down like a toddler who’s been told it’s his bedtime.

I dial the driver over and over. Finally, he pulls up, and I get the Doctor into the SUV. The rest of the entourage appears and piles in.

At TAO, we cut the line. A bouncer stops Natasha at the VIP entrance. She doesn’t have ID. The Doctor rears back a fist, snarling. I jump in front of the bouncer, the headlines running through my brain.

The Doctor remains stone-faced through Cher's lung-busting rendition of 'Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves.' He is incapable of joy

The Doctor remains stone-faced through Cher’s lung-busting rendition of ‘Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves.’ He is incapable of joy

Muammar Gaddafi and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi review an honour guard upon Kadhafi's arrival for his first visit to Italy on June 10, 2009

Muammar Gaddafi and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi review an honour guard upon Kadhafi’s arrival for his first visit to Italy on June 10, 2009

‘If you’re going to hit anyone, hit me,’ I plead.

The Doctor cracks his first smile of the trip, as if that would give him a joy Vegas can’t provide.

Ali convinces him to return to the roulette wheel at the Bellagio. There, he pisses his country’s money away on $10,000 bets. As his stack of chips shrinks, the Doctor curses in Arabic.

‘Get more cash from his room,’ Ali whispers to me. ‘He’ll be angry if he runs out. It’s in the closet.’

‘How much?’

‘A bagful.’

So, we’re measuring money in bags now.

I grab the plastic liner from the empty garbage can and enter the closet. I open a snakeskin briefcase and chuck money into until it feels heavy.

Back down in the casino, the Doctor is screaming at the dealer. He’s out of chips. Bundles from the garbage bag refill his stack. He sparks a Marlboro, pacified for the moment.

I wake to an email from the company accountant.

Amex has been calling hourly, saying we’ve hit our credit limit. I don’t want to imagine the bill we’ve racked up.

Another email sits in my inbox. Attached is an approved invoice for Natasha’s private flight. I notice that the original $6,000 has been changed to $16,597.45.

I print out the second doctored invoice at the concierge desk.

‘Checking out today, sir?’ the concierge asks.

‘Yes, thank God.’

At the casino, I hand the invoice to Ali. He glances at it.

‘That’s sixty thousand total now,’ I tell him. ‘We’d like to be paid before you leave.’

‘Get the money from my room.’

Up in his suite, I open the black snakeskin briefcase one more time. The cash is there. The handgun isn’t. I wonder if Ali will shoot me with it if he discovers my employer’s theft. Or maybe the Doctor will put his degree in torture to good use.

I remove six packages of $10,000 bills and stash the sixty grand in my room safe before joining the motorcade ferrying us to Vegas’s private airstrip, where a Gulfstream jet and a smaller charter plane wait on the tarmac.

The Doctor poses for a picture with Natasha. Ali snaps a shot of their awkward hug. Their bodies do not really touch. They do not kiss goodbye.

Natasha gets on her plane to Los Angeles, and the Doctor boards his jet to New York with the Muhammads in tow. 

Ali is the last to board.

Ten steps to go. Now two. He stops at the cabin door. Looks back at me.

‘Aren’t you riding back with us to New York?’

‘My luggage is back at the hotel,’ I say.

Staring at the horizon, I watch until their plane disappears into the blue. I am exhausted. I can barely walk. But Ali and his gun are gone.

I take a surreal solo ride in the four-car motorcade back down the Strip. I think of the sixty grand in my hotel room safe. How much cash can you legally fly with on a domestic flight? I’m not sure. 

I text one of my colleagues, asking if $60,000 will trip security.

‘Strap that shit to your body,’ he replies.

Limping into a massive CVS on Flamingo Road and Las Vegas Boulevard, I purchase a roll of medical tape for $4.10. 

Up in my room, I secure $60,000 along my rib cage. It bulges when I button my shirt. Adding a blazer helps.

Then I remember the bill. 

Oh holy hell, the bill. 

Down at the front desk, I’m handed a stack of paper as thick as a Russian novel. My company credit card is declined. 

The Doctor might be gone, but I’m still terrified, unsure of what they do to you in Vegas when you can’t pay your seven-figure tab.

I spend the next hour pacing around the bar next to the checkout desk while firm negotiates with American Express to increase my credit limit.

The Amex finally runs.

Walking into McCarran International, I suddenly remember that the three titanium rods in my leg set off metal detectors. 

How will I spin the $60,000 taped to my body?

I stride through the metal detector, holding my breath. 

The silence from that machine is the most golden sonic event of my life.

Excerpted from All The Worst Humans: How I Made News for Dictators, Tycoons, and Politicians by Phil Elwood. Published by Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2024 by Phil Elwood. All rights reserved. 

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