This article was featured in One Great Story, New York’s reading recommendation newsletter. Sign up here to get it nightly.
To the extent that destinies can still be found in Manhattan, that the Lincoln Tunnel is still capable of delivering a doe-eyed adolescent from his life milking cows into a glittering and limitless future, Konrad Bicher found his dream life in the spare bedroom of a fifth-floor walk-up apartment in Inwood. The neighborhood wasn’t exactly the New York of Bicher’s dreams — it felt about as far from Times Square as the small town in Pennsylvania where he’d grown up — but one thing about it mattered a lot to him. “As long as I could say, ‘I live in Manhattan,’ I made it,” Bicher told me. He’d grown up Mennonite, a culture antithetical to the fast-paced lifestyle he hoped to realize in the city. “I didn’t want to go to any of these other boroughs. I didn’t care if it was in Inwood, 500 feet from the Bronx with the waterway. I wanted Manhattan,” Bicher said.
Just as important as the location, though, was the apartment’s spare bedroom. To help pay the rent, Bicher started listing the room on Airbnb. Eventually, he began renting out the whole place. “I was like, ‘Wow, what happens if I get 100 of these? Two hundred of these units?’ It was just a numbers game,” Bicher recalled. “That’s when everything changed.”
Over the next eight years, Bicher, 31, leased dozens of apartments, assembling a portfolio of short-term rentals that he then listed on Airbnb, Craigslist, Facebook’s Gypsy Housing, and other online marketplaces, often skirting the law. It was a gritty, labor-intensive enterprise that required Bicher to juggle calendars, establish relationships with landlords, and play Whac-A-Mole as problems came up. As a teenager, Bicher said he had fantasized about working in Manhattan’s real-estate industry, and he hoped the short-term rentals would be the beginning of a long, lucrative career. “I wanted to walk into a hotel with my name on the outside of it, to make a statement in the real-estate game,” Bicher said. “Unfortunately, it didn’t go quite as planned.”
I first spoke with Bicher last February, after The Real Deal reported on a string of landlords’ lawsuits alleging that the young mogul was making a fortune renting their apartments on Airbnb while claiming COVID hardship and refusing to pay them rent. Bicher, around this time, had been posting pictures online of himself boarding private jets, getting out of a red Ferrari and an orange Lamborghini, and vacationing by the Mediterranean. I wanted to know if Bicher had a legitimate defense or if he was simply living out his childhood dream at the expense of New York City landlords. To The Real Deal, Bicher had called himself “the Wolf of Airbnb,” explaining that he was “someone who is hungry and ruthless enough to get on top of the financial ladder.” During our first conversation, he told me that he’d framed that story and hung it in his office.
At first, Bicher brushed off the lawsuits as mere potholes on his road to success. To him, legal battles were a rite of passage in the real-estate industry. But the experience also seemed to have taught him a lesson about its perils, and, when I asked him for details about his defense, he described himself not as a wolf but as a whistleblower. “When tenants don’t stand up for their rights, they get run over, taken over, and completely destroyed,” he said. “I’m going to stand up for my rights, and eventually, it’s all going to get exposed. I’ll never back down.”
Growing up in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, Bicher always felt like an outsider. He was adopted as an infant by Mennonite parents and raised in the faith’s modest, intentional way of living, without a television or radio. His father was a pastor who worked in construction while also making custom furniture. Bicher loved his family, but from a young age, he knew he was different. It wasn’t just that he had brown skin in a tight-knit, overwhelmingly white community. He also sensed that this provincial universe was too small for his ambitions. “I felt like a bird in a cage. I wanted to travel the world and live in New York,” Bicher told me.
Bicher may have felt like an outsider, but he did learn how to work. As a child, he spent long hours in his father’s shop and mowed lawns. Like other boys in his community, Bicher stopped attending school after eighth grade, around the time he started harboring entrepreneurial ideations. After 14-hour days nonmetaphorically mending fences for his uncle’s company, Bicher said he would go to Barnes & Noble and dive into books by business gurus like Tony Robbins, John Maxwell, and Robert Kiyosaki. He secretly enrolled in a night GED program. Afraid he would stick out in his traditional clothes, he bought jeans and a polo shirt at Walmart and stashed them beneath the seat of a work van.
In Bicher’s telling, he eventually sat his parents down and told them it was time for him to leave for New York. “It was just a laughing stock. It was funny to them. No one believed in me when I left,” Bicher said. “Everyone had a $25,000 to $30,000 job. They were happy, satisfied, and most of my friends are still there. But that wasn’t me. I could never settle.”
What Bicher failed to mention during multiple interviews was that he wasn’t alone in his exodus: He’d moved to New York with Bethany Beiler, who was then his wife. Beiler had also been raised in the Mennonite community. She met Bicher when she was a teenager, but he was engaged to someone else. After Bicher broke up with his fiancée, he started dating Beiler and the two soon married. (According to Beiler, Bicher’s parents were totally supportive of his move to New York.)
“We moved to New York with barely enough money to pay the first month’s rent,” said Beiler. “I would manage the Airbnbs. I would have to go to the laundromat and wash the sheets every time someone would leave and clean the house. That was my job.” Beiler estimated that she managed eight apartments for Bicher while also doing odd jobs like background acting. “The mindset of a Mennonite man is that the woman does all of the chores and the man just provides. But in this case, it was like I was doing all of the housework, and I felt like I was bringing in the income as well.”
While Beiler was taking care of the business, Bicher spent time with his friend Matt King. Like Bicher, King had been adopted into a Mennonite family. According to Beiler, he’d moved to New York before they had and encouraged the couple to follow. (King did not return multiple requests for comment.) Once they were all in the city, Bicher and King began working together. “Whatever they were doing to make money, they wouldn’t tell me,” Beiler said. “I was taught to do the right thing and never hurt people, and he was taught the same, and Matt was, too. So who knows what got in their heads?”
In October 2014, when Gwenaelle Berhault arrived at the cramped studio apartment on 44th Street in Hell’s Kitchen that she planned to sublet, she was surprised to find someone already living there. A week earlier, Berhault had sent a man named Kyle Hoover a cashier’s check for $1,760 for the security deposit. According to police records, she was one of at least three people who tried to move into the same apartment on October 1.
A similar scheme played out at other apartments in Manhattan that fall. People looking for short-term housing would find a listing on Craigslist or HomeAway. They’d get in touch, and someone purportedly named Kyle Hoover, Luis King, or Matthew Weaver would give them a tour. Satisfied, they would meet up again with Hoover or King or Weaver and hand over a cashier’s check. Then, when they showed up to move in, they’d find someone else living there or the key didn’t work. When detectives tracked down those three names, they found they were all connected by one person: Konrad Bicher. He and King had temporarily rented the apartments for a week, shown them to prospective tenants, collected security deposits, and disappeared by move-in day.
In February 2015, Bicher was arrested and charged with grand larceny. A month later, while out on bail, he sold an Amtrak ticket he’d bought with a stolen credit card to an undercover police officer in Penn Station, whereupon he was rearrested and charged again. Bicher pleaded guilty in both cases and was sentenced to 30 days of community service and five years’ probation. King, who was also charged in the rental scheme, pleaded guilty to grand larceny and was sentenced to six months in prison with five years of probation.
Soon after Bicher’s arrest, Beiler tired of his high jinks and went back to Pennsylvania, filing for divorce later that year. A lawyer told Beiler she didn’t have the money to fight for her share of the Airbnb business, so there wasn’t much to contest. She moved to Florida and opened her own housekeeping business.
Without Beiler in his life, Bicher looked to other places for community. He found friends at Hillsong, the cool-kids church that holds services at the Beacon Theater. He attended entrepreneur meetups and conferences featuring next-generation thought-leader hopefuls like Dream Masterminds (motto: “Hustle inspires hustle”) and Wake Up Wealthy, a boot-camp-style event for men who are “ready to STEP THE FUCK UP and start DOMINATING” their lives.
Meanwhile, he continued to build his rental portfolio. He solicited friends to rent apartments in their names. In some cases, the people he enlisted didn’t even live in New York. At least one friend said Bicher used his name to rent an apartment without his permission. While the leases had other people’s names on them, the property managers dealt with Bicher. Similarly, the short-term rental listings were sometimes managed under pseudonyms, but the phone number was Bicher’s.
As his business grew, Bicher began to flaunt his newfound wealth, posting pictures of himself on vacation in Santorini, Paris, and Bali; dangling from an SUV while on safari in South Africa; and partying at Omnia in Vegas. In conversation, he casually said things like “Jared is a great guy,” referring to the former president’s son-in-law.
By his own tally, Bicher was operating 27 units before the pandemic. The descriptions accompanying his listings were written as if Bicher were trying to appeal to his younger self. “Welcome to the center of the universe. New York City is where megastars are born, mega trends set and mega-millions made and lost,” his listings often read. It apparently worked. “Before COVID, his rent was $100,000 a month, and he was bringing in $200,000 a month,” said a former friend who wished to remain anonymous. “He’s a professional scam artist. I mean, who idolizes Jordan Belfort?”
Even before the pandemic upended everything, Bicher’s business was starting to unravel. In July 2019, the landlord for an apartment on West 63rd Street that Bicher had been renting since 2015 filed a request for a restraining order that prevented him from continuing to list the apartment on Airbnb. According to a subsequent complaint, the landlord had only just realized that Bicher was listing the room on Airbnb. But Bicher remained in the apartment, and in 2021, a judge dismissed the case because the landlord failed to serve Bicher.
In March 2020, the landlord for Bicher and Beiler’s first apartment in Inwood filed a complaint against Bicher for subletting the apartment. In an email to his landlord’s attorney, he denied doing so, and he stopped paying rent. “This is my home and i live here, due to the pandemic i can not legally be evicted. If these accusations do not stop i will need to retain my attorneys and sue,” he wrote. Once again, a judge dismissed the case based on failure to serve Bicher and he allegedly kept renting the apartment out. (This February, the landlord finally reclaimed it.)
The crown jewel of Bicher’s portfolio was a two-bedroom, two-bath in the MiMA, a luxury building on 42nd Street and Tenth Avenue with a basketball court and a residents-only Equinox. In 2019, Haley Frey signed a one-year lease for unit 43B for $6,960 a month, which she renewed in 2020, and began working with Bicher to sublet it. According to social media, Frey lived in Tennessee, and, Beiler said, Bicher knew her because her father had recruited him into a multi-level-marketing scheme when he was a teenager.
The two of them rented the MiMA apartment out frequently on Peerspace, a website often used by photographers and influencers to book spaces for photo shoots and parties. Once, someone who called herself Starlyn Camereena showed a MiMA doorman a receipt on Peerspace that showed she had paid Konrad $400 to rent the space for three hours.
Airbnb is, by and large, illegal to use in New York City apartment buildings, where most landlords and tenants are prohibited from renting an entire unit to someone for fewer than 30 days. That made operating an Airbnb out of a large building like the MiMA, where someone watches the door 24 hours a day, a shell game. Frey seemed to have friends from all over the world visiting her, even though — according to Related Companies, which manages the building — she hadn’t been seen at the apartment since move-in day. Often, confused guests would show up and ask the building’s concierge for a key, and Frey, Bicher, and Bicher’s cleaners would scramble to get them in without raising suspicions. Enough people told the front desk some version of “It’s cool, I’m friends with Konrad” that Frey eventually emailed the building manager to say Bicher was her husband.
Sometimes, Bicher seemed to double-book guests on Peerspace and Airbnb. “We expected to have the space for ourselves from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. After all, this is what we paid for, right?” wrote one reviewer on Peerspace. “Well, there was someone sleeping in a room until 2 p.m. and a dog locked inside a crate. In order for us to do the photoshoot, we had to sweep up dog hair and do minor cleaning beforehand.”
In April 2021, a Related holding company filed a $1.5 million lawsuit against Frey and Bicher. The complaint documented a parade of people coming and going from the apartment as well as the company’s attempts to get Frey and Bicher to stop renting it out online. When Related sent a cease and desist to Frey, she responded, “Can we work out a settle agreement [sic] to pay me to leave? Otherwise, I’ll keep the unit for years and litigate.” Earlier this year, a judge ruled in favor of Related and ordered Frey to pay $110,909.01 in back rent.
New York remains one of Airbnb’s largest markets despite the legal constraints on its use — which makes the roughly $70 billion company at least an accidental co-conspirator in Bicher’s scam. “This type of activity has no place on our platform,” an Airbnb spokesperson said, noting that it had eventually banned Bicher and sought to cooperate with the FBI. But, of course, just by virtue of the incentive structure, the platform encouraged tenants to see their apartments not as homes but as financial opportunities, turning everyone into a potential landlord even though doing so was often illegal. The service’s popularity has demonstrably exacerbated the city’s housing shortage, creating a city with more short-term rental listings than apartments for rent.
Although the city may not bring many cases against everyday Airbnb operators, landlords are increasingly monitoring their tenants to make sure they aren’t listing their apartments. “You’re seeing this rise now of landlords who aren’t waiting for the city to take action,” said Brandon McKenzie, an attorney who has defended a number of Airbnb operators. “Especially big landlords who may look at someone like Konrad, who thinks he’s being clever, and say, ‘We will pay an army of lawyers to end you.’”
Related was hardly the only owner to go after Bicher. According to an FBI affidavit, the last time Bicher paid rent on any of his apartments was in November 2020. In addition to Related, 15 other landlords across Manhattan have filed suits against Bicher. At the center of most of the lawsuits was Bicher’s refusal to pay rent, claiming financial hardship brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to prosecutors, Bicher now owes more than $1 million.
Yet he had more cash on hand than ever. Prosecutors allege that Bicher made approximately $1,170,000 renting the units he was paying nothing on. In addition, Bicher used a series of LLCs, like the Konrad Foundation, to get Paycheck Protection Program loans totaling more than $565,000. During our interviews, Bicher told me that he was developing a small hotel with private villas in Bali.
He also said that many of his landlords were fully aware of what he was doing. Some of the apartments were not up to code, he said, and the landlords wouldn’t be able to find long-term tenants. The pandemic, he insists, wasn’t the reason he’d withheld rent — the slumlords were. To prove his point, he sent a picture of a dead rat in a bathroom, a fire-department report of unsafe conditions, and photos of serious water damage.
Last spring, Bicher didn’t seem concerned about the lawsuits. He was optimistic that the judges in his various cases would agree that his landlords were exploitative. He claimed he was living between Florida and Texas, working with a new business partner, someone with “crazy connects” because he was part of the “Yale illuminati.” But that was before the FBI’s investigation into his use of PPP funds, before his arrest in the Southern District of Florida in June, and before prosecutors in the Southern District of New York brought charges against him last week, accusing him of defrauding landlords and fraudulently obtaining COVID relief funds. If convicted, Bicher could face up to 42 years in prison.
Bicher stopped answering my text messages and calls before he was arrested in Florida in June, and he didn’t respond to calls after prosecutors filed his federal indictment last week, on October 27. “I’m a millennial. No one stands up for their rights anymore,” he’d said before he went silent. “They let people run over them. You’re never going to see that from me. I’ll always stand up for my rights. Whatever rights that are out there, I’ll stand up for them.”
When talking about his past, Bicher played every angle at once. He described his life in Schuylkill County as inadequate and the Mennonite way of life as incompatible with his appetites. He also praised his parents and their community for teaching him hard work, saying he’d left on nothing but good terms. (As recently as last November, he posted a photo with them, taken in his hometown, as they sold their house; he bragged to a friend about buying it himself, although the deed ended up in the name of a woman named Elizabeth Caymares, who’s also in the photo and is listed as a manager under one of Bicher’s LLCs.) “I had everything against me when I left that community,” Bicher said, repeating himself. “It was always a dream of mine to get on top and prove to those back home, ‘Hey, listen, if you leave, you can make it. It’s up to you. It’s all in your mind.’”