How a high-living thief reaped millions from a Coachella resort she never built

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Serena Xi’s taste for luxury seemed insatiable.

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She spent $133,000 on clothes at Valentino’s. His two Mercedes-Benzes – a sports car and an SUV – cost $294,000.

Shea’s bills in the Beverly Hills “lifestyle design” business, which provides wardrobe, cosmetics and high-end shopping advice to customers, reached nearly $800,000. A travel concierge service that caters to Jet Set charges $2.2 million for trips around the world.

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Those traps of the high life were gone when Shi, 37, walked into a federal courtroom in Los Angeles on a recent afternoon wearing a beige prison jumpsuit with chains hanging from the shackles of her wrist and ankle.

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Speaking through a Mandarin interpreter, Xi acknowledged that he had duped several investors in China to make $23 million in down payments on condos in California. They thought they were buying units at a trendy resort that Xi was building on a 47-acre desert at Coachella.

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The project never broke ground.

Xi, who runs a Beijing real estate firm with an office in Beverly Hills, confessed to misappropriating money by an FBI agent to cover elaborate personal expenses about a court filing. He pleaded guilty to wire fraud.

The scale of Xi’s three-year swindling stunned investors, who hired lawyers in California to file lengthy lawsuits to recover damages.

One of the lawyers, Justin J. “I’m suing the bullies for a living, and she was pretty high on the scale of shamelessness,” Schrenger said.

Thief of Shea also shocked Sam Nazarian, founder and CEO of Los Angeles-based company SBE, whose hotel, restaurant and nightlife brands at the time included SLS, Mondrian, Clift, Katsuya and Skybar.

In October 2015, Nazarian met with Shi in his office at SBE Tower on Wilshire Boulevard and signed a “letter of intent” for the company to build and operate his proposed condo and hotel resort.

“Let’s make a press release ASAP!!!” Nazarian wrote that evening in an email to SBE’s development team.

Sam Nazarian at SLS Hotel Casino on October 30, 2014 in Las Vegas.
(Mark Boster /)

NS Press release Hyde Hotel & Residences Coachella Valley is described as a 350-room “lifestyle resort” to be built by a subsidiary of SBE in partnership with Xi’s “Beijing-based global real estate placement company.”

It quoted Xi as saying that she was thrilled to work with SBE, and Nazarian said she was excited to introduce an SBE leisure brand to the Palm Springs area. Suites will come with a private plunge pool. Craft cocktails at the bar will follow the stretch routine in the spa’s yoga patio. The “vibe” would be reckless.

In a phone interview, Nazarian said that SBE invested time and money in the project and “was taken advantage of.”

“From that point of view, it was a very unfortunate situation for us as well,” he said.

Shea’s lawyer, Richard Goldman, declined to comment.

A few days after the project was announced, interior designers at SBE prepared a glossy “look book” that would feature the resort with sample photos of mid-century motifs. The caption promised a desert oasis where well-meaning millennials could “party the night away.”

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Xi promoted the resort in forums on the Chinese social media app WeChat. He suggested that green cards would be available to buyers who qualify for “EB-5” visas as part of a program to attract foreign investors into US businesses.

Xi also traveled to Beijing in November 2015 to pitch the project at an elaborate sales presentation at a posh hotel. Elegantly dressed women welcomed the attendees by playing the veena. Accompanying Shi were an SBE executive, the project’s LA architect and two Coachella city officials.

Court records show that investors soon began to reduce payments into bank accounts that Xi would tap for his personal spending.

By then, Xi had provided two $50,000 deposit checks to purchase the vacant land he needed at Coachella. Both jumped up.

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Coachella Mayor Steven Hernandez knew that SBE runs flashy hotels in places like Miami Beach, Las Vegas, and Beverly Hills. He was delighted to hear about plans to build a resort with Xi in his harsh city of 40,000 near the Salton Sea.

The Coachella Valley Music Festival drew huge springtime crowds just a few miles from Indio, yet there was still not a single hotel in downtown Coachella. The resort could rebrand the city as a tourist destination like its neighboring Palm Springs or Desert Hot Springs.

“To get an SBE hotel – that was a huge brand,” Hernandez said. “It would have been a really cool project. It’s like SLS and Delano, so we were like, yeah, let’s do this.”

The rural outskirts of Coachella in February 2020.
(Alan J. Cockroaches /)

At the time, Xi was a 31-year-old Chinese national – her name is Ruixue, but she is visited by Serena in the US – with limited English skills. She was running a real estate firm in an upscale neighborhood of Beijing. Employing about 20 agents, it acts as a brokerage, helping Chinese clients buy real estate in Australia, Europe and Canada, according to two people who work for Xi.

Now she was trying to leapfrog to the upper echelons of professional development in the United States. He had previously explored potential Texas and California deals that could be funded by Chinese investors, but none were ambitious at Coachella.

To pull the project together, he hired James de Klerk, an Arizona business consultant. After a bad break with Shea, Clarke would become a key witness for the FBI.

Clark found three lots with 10 freeways that were perfect for a resort that Shea could buy for $7.6 million. He helped woo SBE into the deal. And he navigated Coachella City Hall, introducing him to officials whose project needed approval.

Xi initially seemed well prepared to buy and develop the land, especially after the first sales event in Beijing, said Clark, who joined Xi on the trip.

“When you saw his operation in China it was reassuring,” he said. “Everyone came back thinking it was the real deal.”

To Coachella executives, the team that Shi and SBE assembled looked impressive. DesignArc LA, the Los Angeles architectural firm that drew up the plans, was also designing two other major resorts: the Hotel California in Santa Barbara and the Kimpton Rowan Hotel in Palm Springs. Landlords, engineers and interior designers were also well established.

“There was no reason for us to think that it was not completely legitimate,” said former City manager Bill Pattison. traveled to beijing With a Coachella planning officer for another Shi presentation to potential buyers.

Pattison remembered Shea as professional and “well put together”.

“She played the role well,” he said.

But for Clark, bounced deposit checks were the first of many signs of trouble ahead. The deadline to buy three lots has come and gone. According to Clark, Shi repeatedly paid sellers for extensions—more than $1 million in total.

It took Xi nearly a year to finalize the $2.6 million purchase of the first 20-acre parcel. But it didn’t have access to public roadways, and it never paid the $5 million it would cost to acquire the remaining 27 acres needed for the project. Clark said Coachella refused to issue permits for construction without proof of ownership of the land.

The delay in the project worried some Chinese buyers, who started demanding refunds.

Xi tried to convince them with a lie, assuring them that he had bought all the land and obtained all the permits, the government court filing says. According to the FBI, he sent them photos of people in bulldozers and hardhats throwing dirt into the desert to give them the false impression that construction was going on.

Bulldozers and people in hardhats sticking shovels into the ground in the desert.
The FBI said Serena Shea’s real estate business falsely assured condo buyers that she had broken ground by sending such staged photos to her proposed Coachella resort, which prosecutors filed in court.
(US District Court)

Xi also told buyers that their down payment was being kept securely in an escrow account, while the money was actually remitted to their personal bank accounts, the government alleged in court papers.

By mid-2016, Xi’s extravagant spending was raising suspicion for Clark and others who worked for him. On a trip to Miami Beach, Clark said, she stayed at the five-star Faena Hotel, where the cheapest rooms can fetch more than $1,000 a night. In California, Shea loved dining at Nobu Malibu and Spago in Beverly Hills, he said.

Her deleted Instagram account shows Xi posing in front of the pyramids in Egypt and resting on the deck of a boat on the Seine in Paris.

In Beverly Hills, Shea rented an office suite on the 11th floor of a tower with a curved black-glass façade, across Wilshire Boulevard from Neiman Marcus. Clarke remembers walking along She Down Rodeo Drive and stopping in Saint Laurent, Valentino and more high fashion Stores where she spent thousands of dollars on clothes she didn’t bother to try.

“I want this, this, this, this,” she would tell the sales clerks, Clark said.

Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.
Serena Shea loved shopping at Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.
(Al Seeb /)

He called it an “obscene and ridiculously ostentatious” spending.

“I’ve seen people who are very, very wealthy, legitimately wealthy, and they don’t spend money like that,” he said.

Chinese investors’ lawsuit alleges Xi used $250,000 in investors’ money to make a down payment on a Beverly Hills condo and spent thousands more for tickets…

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