When Roselyn “Rosie” Keo and Karina Pascucci decided that the traditional and legal ways of making money in the strip club scene were not enough, they, along with others, conspired to trick, manipulate and drug unsuspecting wealthy men before taking their money to fund their own lavish lifestyles in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
The money was pouring in and, for a while, no one caught on until it all came crashing down.
Watch the full story on “20/20” Friday, September 13 at 10pm on ABC50.
Hustling from the very beginning
Keo has been a lifelong hustler.
“I don’t think I was a con woman,” Keo said. “I’m a businesswoman. I was just in the wrong business.”
She started her entrepreneurship in grade school, where she would sell candy for a profit, said David Haskell, editor-in-chief of New York Magazine, which covered the scam involving Keo in 2015.
Keo started working as a waitress at a diner in Nanuet, New York, at 17 years old.
“That’s when I started hustling, ’cause you know, you work off of tips,” she said. “You know, the harder you work and the nicer you are, the more money you’re gonna get.”
Customers from Lace, a nearby gentlemen’s club, would frequent the diner, Keo said, during a series of revealing interviews.
“They were like, ‘Oh, you’re hot. You know, you should be working there,'” Keo said.
Keo said she remembered watching “G String Divas” on HBO and seeing strippers become stars on Howard Stern’s radio show.
“I was like, ‘Oh, if they can do it, I could do it,'” she said.
After getting her start at Lace, Keo worked at a number of New York City gentlemen’s clubs, eventually getting a job at Scores in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. On her first night there, she said she made $2,000 to $3,000 in a matter of hours.
To make that kind of money in one night, she said “it felt great to have that power. It’s a rush. You get a high.”
Keo was taking classes at the time, too. “I was making my tuition in one night [working at Scores] and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, school can wait,'” she said, laughing.
Though the cash was rolling in, Keo, like others in the industry, was forced to pay hefty fees to the club’s management just to be given a slot on the schedule.
It was $300 to work at a club and then management would claim 40% of the night’s earnings, Keo said. Additionally, dancers tipped other employees like bartenders to get sent the right clients.
“You’re like, ‘No, I’m doing all the work. I show up to work every day, miserable, drinking to be here, putting up with nonsense… What did you do? You came in a suit,'” Keo said of having to give up her earnings.
She would soon have another major curveball coming her way.
A new hustle
After the 2008 financial crisis, banks collapsed and trillions of dollars in wealth were gone. Keo’s wealthy Wall Street clientele were no longer spending like they once did. With money tight, companies began clamping down on costly expenses, like nights out at clubs.
Keo, who said she was used to making $10,000 a night by that point, needed a new plan of action.
“You weren’t getting paid to sit and talk anymore and hang out,” Keo said. “Girls were doing dirty things…and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t do that.”
Faced with the choice of making less money or having to perform sex acts to keep her income where she needed it to be, Keo said she teamed up with Samantha Barbash, an ambitious single mom from the Bronx.
She wasn’t a dancer, but Keo said “[s]he had connections with the hosts and the customers. She was a veteran and she was somebody you wanted to have on your side.”
Barbash and the others would go “fishing,” the term Keo said is used for luring clients into the strip clubs to get them to spend as much money as possible. The women who participated would walk away with a cut.
“I would like to think Samantha was the CEO and I was the CFO,” Keo said.
Barbash also recruited Karina Pascucci, who worked at the city’s strip clubs but as a waitress and a massage girl.
“The hustle starts from a very legal thing that happens every night in New York City,” Haskell explained. “Men are out on the town [and] they somehow meet an attractive woman at a bar. She’s great, they’re having a good time. She suggests, ‘Hey, let’s go to a strip club, that would be fun.'”
Keo and Pascucci said they would go to happy hours at lounges, bars and steakhouses all over the city to pick up men.
“I was dressed in a blazer… I was pretending that I also came out of work and had a rough day,” Keo said. “People were like, ‘What kind of work are you in?’ I’m like, ‘I’m in marketing.'”
And the women knew their targets.
“If you saw a Black American Express, you knew you had a high roller,” Keo said. “You’re like, ‘Oh, we have a shark,'” Keo said. “We’re lookin’ for Hublots…Rolexes…Patek Philippes.”
Once their marks were convinced to go to a strip club, the women would take them to one, such as Scores. While there, the clients would pay for the cover charge, food and drinks, and perhaps a lap dance and a trip to a private Champagne Room.
The women would then get a percentage of the club’s earnings. It was all legal. But it was time consuming and it wasn’t bringing in the kind of money the women were looking to make. Plus, after spending thousands of dollars in one evening, many of the male clients expected more than just conversations and lap dances. So, Keo said she and Barbash were soon crossing over the line, going from legal to illegal, by hiring prostitutes to perform sex acts on their male clients.
“So, Samantha and I were like, ‘Okay, we need to find girls,'” Keo said. “I became a madam. I saw the connection, I saw the opportunity…and, little by little, you find yourself doing things that sound crazy.”
“We did call girls from Backpage and Craigslist,” Pascucci added. “I guess it’s a form of outsourcing.”
From there, the scam got darker.
Deep on the wrong side of the law, some of the women would fish for men who they assumed were wealthy, drug them and then run up thousands — sometimes even hundreds of thousands — of dollars in bills on their credit cards.
A Drug Enforcement Administration sting operation in November 2013 resulted in authorities’ obtaining a spiked drink as well as incriminating audio and video recordings of the women talking about drugging their “mark,” who was really an undercover DEA agent posing as a wealthy man.
After testing the drugs, law enforcement realized the cocktail had the effect of making men nearly unconscious while outwardly appearing to be awake. In this condition, Keo and her crew would take the men to strip clubs where they would walk past the omnipresent security cameras into back rooms, where their credit cards could be run repeatedly.
Jessica Pressler, a contributing editor at New York Magazine, wrote “The Hustlers at Scores” article about this fishing ring, which was published in 2015. From her reporting, Pressler told ABC News that the women concocted a drug cocktail that consisted of “Just a sprinkle of MDMA and ketamine.”
The charges on the men’s cards were big and often caught the eyes of fraud departments at credit card companies. So, Keo says, the women would simply pose as the assistants of their victims and use their verbal skills.
“I would be on the phone with the credit card company, and I would say, ‘Oh, we are trying to put a $10,000 charge through. It got declined,'” Keo remembered. “‘Can you tell me what’s going on?'”
“I didn’t think what I was doing was wrong,” she said, recalling her state of mind at the time. “Now, looking back, it’s crazy.”
The hustlers face the music
With the amount of money they were making, Keo and her crew felt invincible — they didn’t think anyone would want to call the cops or complain that they were swindled at a strip club. They assumed that most men would be more worried about their wives, girlfriends or bosses, and so they’d simply decide to pay the bill and chalk it up to a bad night. They also figured that no credit card company would believe any customers disputing the charges because the security cameras had caught the men arriving at the clubs.
What they didn’t consider was a man like Dr. Zyad Younan.
Younan received a call from American Express after he racked up $135,000 in bills at Scores. The wealthy cardiologist from New Jersey had the money to spend but he says he had never been to that club, let alone was he able to explain his being recorded on its surveillance cameras on three nights in November 2013. What he remembered was that he had gone out with Pascucci for three dates, where women she described as her sisters, cousins or friends also showed up, but says he had no recollection of what happened later on those nights.
“Someone had to stand up, you know, and stop it,” Younan said in a series of exclusive interviews for “20/20.”
Younan, who has never been married and has no children, blew the whistle on the scam, first by disputing the charges with American Express, which upon investigation agreed with him were fraudulent, and later fighting every effort by the women and Scores to force him to pay — even if it wasn’t the full amount.
In April 2014, Scores sued Younan to try and force him to pay the $135,000 in bills charged during those three nights. The lawsuit brought screaming headlines in the New York City newspapers.
“They wanted to destroy me,” said Younan, who is close with his family. “That was their absolute goal — to destroy me financially [and] embarrass me.”
Then, the NYPD and DEA found him.
Younan learned that law enforcement was far from doubting him. In fact, they had been on to the hustlers for months. They had a cooperator and had run that sting operation in an attempt to catch Keo, Pascucci and their cronies. Younan quickly became the key witness for the detectives and agents on the task force, hoping that the women whom he blamed for allegedly drugging him and racking up fraudulent charges on his card were about to go down.
In June 2014, Keo, Barbash, Pascucci and a fourth woman, Marsi Rosen, were arrested, along with the manager of a different strip club, RoadHouse NYC, in Queens.
Barbash, Keo, Pascucci and Rosen were charged with conspiracy, grand larceny and other charges. Eventually, they all accepted plea deals.
“I’m a single mom. I had a child to take care of… I decided not to go to trial. I decided to just make it all stop,” Keo said. “By taking a plea deal and taking five years’ probation and staying at home and focusing on my daughter and just being the mom that I should have been to her. The outcome could have been worse.”
Barbash, like Keo, cooperated with law enforcement and did not serve jail time. Barbash pleaded guilty to conspiracy, assault and grand larceny in exchange for five years’ probation. Keo pleaded guilty to grand larceny and assault.
Carmine Vitolo, the RoadHouse NYC manager, pleaded guilty to petit larceny and was sentenced to three years’ probation.
Pascucci and Rosen pleaded guilty to conspiracy and grand larceny and served 16 weekends at New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex and five years’ probation.
“I definitely feel responsible for just luring people in and, you know, manipulating them,” Pascucci said.
None of the clubs where the scams took place was charged.
Victims or heroes?
The new movie “Hustlers,” inspired by the true story of Keo, Barbash and Pascucci, hits theaters Friday. The star-studded flick stars Cardi B., Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart.
“For me, the women in the story are very strong…the truth is they’re survivors,” Lopez told ABC News. “We’re all hustling. That’s the point. That’s why the movie is very universal… Because at the end of the day, it’s all metaphoric for what everybody’s doin’ in their life.”
But New York Daily News columnist Linda Stasi feels, “I’m sure in the movie they’re all going to be like super heroes. The truth is, in this story … these women were running a criminal enterprise, period.”
With her story playing on the big screen in “Hustlers,” Keo is now working on a memoir to tell her story in her own words.
“I was a dancer at a young age and then I was a single mom… All these hurdles that I had to go through,” she said. “Writing the book was very cathartic. It was a great experience for me to just get everything out.”
“You know, everything happens for a reason, and I feel like the reason I got arrested was so I could change my life around,” Keo said.
Barbash, who also says she’s working on a book, declined ABC News’ request for an interview and declined to comment except to say she wanted to tell Keo, “Make the money, don’t let the money make you.” She told the New York Post in April that she plans to sue STX Entertainment, the production company behind “Hustlers.”
Pascucci is working on her associate’s degree in criminal psychology.
“The most important thing was to take what I know about people and what I can pick up on and actually use it to help them,” she said. “For me, what felt so wrong was taking advantage of people, I think that hurt me the most. Maybe people can learn from it, maybe people will grow, maybe they’ll take some kind of lesson or something positive from it.”