Getting stood up by a date is a universally sucky experience, but two true crime podcasters think that it could also be a dangerous one. After (somewhat accidentally) uncovering a terrifying online dating scheme that spans multiple dating platforms and cities around the United States, the hosts of Crime Junkie have left listeners wondering whether or not there’s an organized predatory scheme that’s gone undetected for over a decade.
This whole story started back in December of 2020 when the podcast Something Was Wrong invited a guest named Jez on the show to tell a scary online dating story. Upon hearing the story, Crime Junkie hosts Ashley Flowers and Brit Prawat decided to share it on their own show. After publishing the episode, hundreds of listeners wrote in to share their own identical experiences, spanning from 2009 to 2019 and occurring in cities across the country. They call the scheme Operation Fireball.
Here’s what happened: Jez, who had just moved to Denver in 2012 and was looking to meet people in the area, made plans to meet up with someone she met on Plenty of Fish at the Old Chicago for drinks. Upon arriving at the restaurant, her date informed her he would be late and asked her to order two shots of Fireball whiskey. Her date continued to provide excuses for why he was late, and a man at the bar engaged her in conversation. Accepting that she’d been stood up, Jez attempted to leave, but her new companion asked her to stay and offered to buy her dinner or drinks. They chatted for a bit, and she excused herself to the restroom.
While in the restroom, a waitress approached her and informed her that the same man was seen frequently engaging women who have been stood up and purchased two shots of Fireball at the bar, he always leaves with them, and it’s never the same woman twice. Scared, Jez returned to the bar and refused to leave with the man. At this, he became aggressive, until finally leaving without her. The next day, Jez attempted to call her date who had stood her up, only to find that the phone number had been disconnected.
It’s a weird story, but no crime was committed. After publishing the podcast episode, Flowers and Prawat received hundreds of messages from listeners telling identical stories. It happened to a woman named Alex in 2019 in Detroit with someone she met on Hinge. It happened in San Diego to a woman named Amanda with someone from Plenty Of Fish. Mary in Nashville had the same experience with a Tinder date and Kate in Winter Park, Florida, with someone she met on Facebook Messenger. All of these stories involved the date asking them to order two shots of Fireball and a man at the bar trying to get them to come home with him. The scariest part? All of these women had either been warned by bar staff or made the decision not to leave with the man, so none of these stories shed light on what happened after the man got his targets alone.
After the influx of messages, Flowers and Prawat made a follow-up episode in February of 2021 to re-examine the case in more detail.
Flowers and Prawat talked to Anne Dar, a victim’s specialist with the FBI’s Denver field office. “A lot of times a potential trafficker or subject in a case, they are going to do anything they can to exploit any vulnerability,” said Dar. “When they contact you online, they are looking at what vulnerabilities they can exploit.”
After the release of the follow-up episode, no more updates were given in the case, either by Crime Junkie or by any news outlet or investigative body. The mystery of what exactly the goal of Operation Fireball could be has left Redditors and armchair detectives at a loss, and the re-opening of bars and nightlife after a period of isolation means that vulnerability is at an all-time high.
Theories range from deep web pick-up artist advice, (though no such advice has been found,) a way to lure women for sexual assault, and even a large-scale human trafficking tactic.
I was able to find one solved case that involved a similar ruse. A Tulsa man named Ashley Pullen was convicted of first-degree rape in early 2019 after assaulting as many as 11 women by adding them on Facebook with a fake account and luring them to his home. When they arrived, the fake account would say he was running late and tell them to wait with his roommate, Pullen, and his five-year-old son. Pullen would convince the women to do shots with him while they waited, and would spike those shots with date rape drug GHB before assaulting them.
Whether Operation Fireball is a predatory pick-up artist tactic or something more sinister, it seems to exist in most major cities and on most dating sites. While the motives of these men are unknown, it is still a bone-chilling story for those currently in the online dating scene.
In the case of The Old Chicago in Denver, the man was only seen one more time. The bartender, Johnny, who had been present the night of Jez’s ordeal and had sounded the alarm bells to staff, saw him walk through the door, and they made eye contact. The man immediately fled and was never seen there again. As for Jez, she’s since come out as gay and has recently started her own podcast, Let’s Get Back To Questionable, Inappropriate Advice + more, where she shares advice on sex and dating in the internet era. As for me, I’ll never look at Fireball the same way again.
To learn more about victims’ resources, visit www.rainn.org and to report a suspicious incident, contact your local FBI field office.