The Decline And Fall Of Melchizedek, History's Most Imaginary Empire

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The Decline And Fall Of Melchizedek, History's Most Imaginary Empire

Cracked, Washoe County Sheriff Office

The year was 1995, and most of the world was hiding in the woods until Shaggy’s “Mr. Boombastic” finally stopped playing on every single radio station. But then an even deadlier threat emerged. That September, the following message was faxed to newspapers and embassies across the world:

“Under the Constitution of the Dominion of Melchizedek, WAR has been declared on France...The declaration is made on behalf of all mankind. It is with reluctance that the Polynesian Melchizedek Dominion declares war on France, since up till recently France was considered a silent ally. The Ruthenian Melchizedek Dominion is considering aiming at France the nuclear weapons left behind in the Carpatho mountains by the Soviet Union as leverage in the war.”

Naturally, the impending nuclear obliteration of France was highly concerning news, and governments from Haiti to Vietnam raced to stockpile enough confetti and sparklers to weather such a disaster. But curiously, nobody seemed to be able to find the Dominion of Melchizedek on a map. So just where was this mysterious nuclear power, and why was it at war with France? Well, as it turns out, that’s a pretty good story involving fabulous rubies, Idi Amin’s bullet-riddled party mansion, dream warfare, homeless princes, and Australia’s most notorious horse shampooing …

Arrested Developments

The Dominion had first hit the news earlier in the ‘90s, when an elegant young man calling himself Crown Prince Gerald-Dennis Sayn-Wittgenstein-Hohenstein of Melchizedek walked into a Hong Kong bank and successfully deposited a check for $318,000, although God knows how he managed to fit his name on the signature line. Unfortunately, the check turned out to have been drawn on a non-existent Melchizedek bank. Hong Kong police quickly apprehended the prince, who turned out to have spent most of the past month living in the arrivals hall of the Hong Kong airport, as so many wealthy royals do. A court rejected his request for diplomatic immunity, observing that nobody in Hong Kong had ever heard of the Dominion of Melchizedek.

The story of the Dominion had actually started with a crooked 1980s businessman named David Pedley, whose life story was almost alarmingly similar to George Sr. from Arrested Development. Like George Bluth, David Pedley had been indicted for some shady land deals in California, only to escape to Mexico before his trial. And like George Bluth, he quickly ended up in Mexican prison instead (although in his case, it was for illegally exporting pesos rather than for marketing a shoddily-made cornball machine). While in prison, David Pedley supposedly found religion, marketing a holy book called the Melchizedek Bible, which was heavily cribbed from the work of a Hollywood faith healer. Sadly, he died in prison before sales could take off. 

Netflix

Seriously it is just note-for-note AD.

But wait a minute, George Sr. didn’t die in a Mexican prison! He just bribed the guards to fake his death. Well, there’s a funny thing about that. Because David Pedley was facing extradition to the US when he died, the FBI actually turned up at the funeral home asking to fingerprint the corpse. His son Mark refused the request and quickly had the body cremated before a court order could be obtained. As a result, a number of law enforcement sources have suggested that David actually faked his own funeral and secretly continued running things from behind the scenes (the photo of him palling around with the prison guards didn’t help matters).

With David legally dead, copyright on the Melchizedek Bible passed to his son Mark, a very intense man whose eyes never appeared to have signed up for whatever his brain was doing. According to Mark, he was on a bus back to California when he was hit with a mystical revelation that he should start his own country based on his father’s teachings (in fairness to him, there’s at least one guy having that exact revelation on every long-distance bus ride). He duly changed his name to Branch Vinedresser and launched the Dominion of Melchizedek, which was supposedly a Vatican-style religious state dedicated to global peace. And that’s when all the crimes started.   

Washoe County Sheriff Office

This guy? Involved in crimes?! No way.

Fake Passports, Horse Disguises, And Mr. 10 Percent (Of The Ocean)

 

At some point in the mid-‘90s, a man called John Gillespie arrived in the Philippines, calling himself the “Minister of Foreign Affairs” for the Dominion of Melchizedek. Gillespie and his accomplices were promoting a supposed “citizenship by investment” scheme, where Filipinos could acquire Dominion passports in exchange for a one-time payment of $3,500. Many impoverished Filipinos parted with their life savings in the belief that their new passports would allow them to find lucrative work in America. Others paid thousands in “processing fees” to apply for a government job in the Dominion itself, which was supposedly a wealthy country in the South Pacific. In reality, the Dominion was the fictional country dreamed up by Mark Pedley/Branch Vinedresser on the bus years earlier. And Gillespie was hardly an experienced diplomat. In fact, he was a lifelong scammer who had fled Australia after serving a prison sentence for carrying out the country’s most notorious horse makeover.

Back in 1984, Gillespie had planned to rig a high-profile horse race by switching out a slow horse with an identical but much faster horse. It would have been a classic switcheroo, except that the fast horse injured itself shortly before the race. Unwilling to call off the scam, Gillespie managed to locate another horse capable of winning. Unfortunately, it looked nothing like the original horse. So Gillespie and his accomplices decided to shampoo it with store-bought hair dye, which just turned it fire engine red. Meanwhile, an attempt to spray paint white “socks” on its legs left the horse dripping white paint with every step. By this point, the poor animal was extremely stressed, so they tried to revive it with a saline drip, which just gave it a massive nosebleed. So when the race rolled around, Gillespie was forced to produce a neon red horse spraying blood from its nose and leaving white hoofprints everywhere. Amazingly, it still won the race, giving Gillespie and his accomplices roughly 15 seconds of joy before everyone got arrested.

Maksym Kozlenko/Wiki Commons

By the horse cops, one assumes.

After his release from prison, Gillespie joined the government of the Dominion, which was run by “Vinedresser” and his wife, Pearlasia Gamboa. While Gillespie was scamming Filipinos into buying fake passports, Vinedresser was back in the States, promoting a company called Currentsea, which supposedly owned 10 percent of the world’s seas. His plan was to clean up selling penny stocks in the company (imagine The Wolf Of Wall Street if they’d been trying to sell shares in the Pacific Ocean). This ultimately flopped, either due to lack of interest or because they’d angered Namor the Sub-Mariner. So Vinedresser simply switched to marketing a Dominion currency, which was supposedly backed by $400 million in platinum (although, for some reason, he was only willing to show off one platinum bar at a time). 

While clearly scammers, Vinedresser and Gillespie appear to have been genuine believers in their fake country, although they went in different directions with it. While Vinedresser was declaring the Dominion “a force for global peace,” Gillespie was overseeing a new Melchizedek constitution that heavily featured the death penalty. Fortunately, Gillespie was never able to achieve his goal of owning the world’s first imaginary guillotine since he was soon arrested for the passport scam, along with the Dominion’s Justice Minister and “Minister of the Navy.” But it wasn’t long before even more Dominion-based scammers popped up around the world. In fact, it soon became clear that Vinedresser was running the country as a kind of home base for con artists, providing all the documents and references you needed to attempt your own insane hustle. 

Dominion of Melchizedek

Of course, you did have to swear loyalty to the Dom elders, but they make you do that to get into Folsom anyway. 

Fake Gold, Faker Rubies, And The Nefarious Crime Otter

A classic example of a Dominion scam took place in Los Vegas, America’s first scam-based city. In the late ‘90s, financial problems were discovered at Jackpot Enterprises, a company that leased slot machines to any hotel, gas station, or maternity ward that wanted them. Fortunately, a mysterious company called LVEH quickly came forward with an $85 million takeover bid.  LVEH explained that it could easily afford this since it had just traded some mining claims for $2.7 billion in government bonds. Of course, on closer inspection, the bonds turned out to have been issued by the extremely fictional Dominion of Melchizedek, but by that point, the takeover buzz had caused LVEH stock to double in price, allowing early holders to cash out with a hefty return. 

In fairness to LVEH, they also claimed to have a warehouse full of gold dust. Sadly on closer inspection, this turned out to be a huge pile of ordinary dirt, containing less gold than the average Shein earring. And fake minerals would turn out to be a weird running trend with the Dominion’s citizens. Take Gilbert Ziegler, an American who used a Melchizedek passport to travel to Grenada in 1997 (airports operating largely on the honor system is going to be a recurring theme in this article). Ziegler announced that he had come to Grenada to start a new bank, which he capitalized with a photo of a ruby. Not an actual ruby, mind you, just a literal photo of a ruby he said he owned. This was somehow enough to get him a $20 million line of credit. Although we’re not sure why he bothered, given that he could apparently just have dispensed photos of dollar bills, and everyone would have been happy. 

thisisbossi/Wiki Commons

Wait a minute, we’re rich! Finish the article yourselves, nerds; we’re outta here! 

Before long, Ziegler was running a weird combination hotel and Ponzi scheme. Wealthy Americans were flown down for an all-expenses-paid trip to Grenada, where they were promised returns of up to 300 percent for investing in Ziegler’s bank. Now there is absolutely no legitimate enterprise that returns 300 percent a year, and we’re including drug dealing as a legitimate enterprise until the Kinahan Cartel gets back to us about that sponsorship deal. But the ludicrous returns didn’t stop investors from pouring over $140 million into Ziegler’s Xerox-based bank. Naturally, most of the money went missing, and Ziegler fled to Uganda, where he lived in luxury in Idi Amin’s old mansion until he was arrested in a bloody shootout with Ugandan police officers in 2004. He was later extradited to the US, where he died awaiting trial. 

There were literally dozens of similar hustlers operating Melchizedek banks and insurance companies, all supposedly incorporated in a fictional country dreamt up by a man having a nervous breakdown on a long-distance bus. In fact, the Dominion became so successful that it started attracting immigrants from other fake countries -- one Melchizedek insurance scam involved “Chief Wise Otter,” a British guy who had previously been treasurer of the “Sovereign Cherokee Nation Tejas.” This was a fictional native American tribe based on a sandbank in the middle of the Rio Grande. Since the sandbank had been created by a hurricane in 1974, a bunch of white con artists declared it unclaimed territory and tried to start a new country there as a base for their scamming. Why they had to pretend to be Native American to do this remains unclear, although Chief Wise Otter at least had the decency to change his name back to Dallas Bessant when he moved his operations over to the Dominion. 

The Conquest Of Antarctica

But at least the fake Cherokees had a sandbank. For all its claims to nationhood, the Dominion’s territory was restricted to a townhouse in California. So Branch Vinedresser, who was getting increasingly caught up in his own lies, began making determined efforts to acquire some land for his new country. The Dominion had initially tried to claim Malpelo Island, an uninhabitable rock 300 miles off the coast of Colombia. Unfortunately, it turned out that the Colombians also claimed Malpelo and actually maintained a small army base there, presumably in case any of the local geckos tried to join the FARC. The Dominion then began boasting they had “purchased the island of Karitane from the obscure Kingdom of Polynesia.” Sadly, the Kingdom of Polynesia proved to be so obscure that nobody had heard of it, while “Karitane Island” turned out to be an extremely underwater reef south of the Cook Islands. 

At this point, Vinedresser just gave up and started pretending to own 23,000 square miles of Antarctica, presumably on the basis that The Thing was very unlikely to file a complaint against him with the UN. Inevitably, he also began claiming Clipperton Island, a small island in the Pacific. The island had become notorious in 1917, when a passing US Navy ship stumbled across a starving Mexican woman beating the local lighthouse keeper to death with a sledgehammer. As it turned out, Mexico had once had a thriving guano-mining colony on the island but had forgotten to send the monthly supply ships when civil war broke out at home. Trapped on the barren island, the colonists had descended into two years of Lord Of The Flies-style savagery before the Navy rescued the dozen starving survivors. Since then, Clipperton has been claimed by numerous self-proclaimed countries, all of whom sensibly declined to actually set foot on Murder Ghost Island. 

In 2000, Vinedresser kicked things up a notch when he flew to the Fijian island of Rotuma. The islanders had long been unhappy with Fijian rule, and in 1987 a local karate instructor had declared independence, with himself as King of Rotuma. Sadly his karate skills proved no match for the local governor’s shotgun, and Rotuma was quickly returned to Fijian rule. However, discontent was still widespread when Branch appeared on the island, waving a “Rotuman Constitution” and trying to persuade the islanders to secede and join the Dominion. Luckily it turned out that the Rotumans, while somewhat isolated, could still recognize crazy when it stared at them for 20 minutes without blinking, and Vinedresser was forced to return to the US. Incidentally, he did all this traveling on a Melchizedek passport because, until 9/11, you could wave any Dave & Buster’s gift card at airport security, and they’d happily whisk you through to your flight.

In fact, throughout its existence, the territory of the Dominion never extended beyond Vinedresser’s home. Even its heavily promoted “Washington Embassy” was just a post office box (in fairness to them, we hear that the German ambassador operates out of a FedEx depot in Friendship Heights). And it was possibly depression over this state of affairs that led Vinedresser to his most disastrous decision: Nuclear war with France. 

Christopher Michel/Wiki Commons

Thousands of penguins died in the trenches on that tiny border between the Dominion and France.

The Dominion War

In 1985, an elite team of French spies planted a bomb on a Greenpeace ship called the Rainbow Warrior, which was anchored in New Zealand. The plot, literally named Operation Satanique because nobody in France has ever heard of subtlety, ended up murdering a photographer who was trapped on board when the ship sank. Fortunately, France’s top agents proved no match for a local neighborhood watch group, whose tips helped catch two of the bombers. The incident drew renewed attention to France’s nuclear testing in the Pacific, which the Rainbow Warrior had been planning to protest. Between 1966 and 1996, France detonated more than 193 nuclear devices on atolls in French Polynesia, exposing around 100,000 local people to dangerous amounts of radiation. 

In 1994, France announced that nuclear testing would resume, causing outrage around the world. And nobody was more infuriated than Branch Vinedresser, who felt that he had a calling to “establish the government on Earth that would be a model for other governments to follow.” Additionally, the testing was dangerously close to the Dominion’s imaginary home base on the equally imaginary Karitane Island, risking the lives of thousands of hypothetical Melchizedekers. As a result, the Dominion decided to formally declare war on France, threatening to deploy a stockpile of nuclear weapons supposedly left behind in the “Carpatho Mountains” during the fall of the Soviet Union (in fairness to the Soviets, they had just gotten their first McDonald’s, so it would have been easy to drop three or four thermonuclear devices in the stampede to get back to Moscow before all the good Happy Meal toys were gone).

The Dominion apparently soon had second thoughts about the obliteration of Paris, since Vinedresser later told the Washington Post that the country had declared war by accident, insisting that “we were only discussing it and somehow it turned into a press release.” He then called back to clarify that this would be a spiritual war “not to harm, but only to bless our enemies,” adding that nuclear weapons “are available to us if we want to use them. But we're caught in a dichotomy -- our principles are peace, and to use nuclear weapons would run against our ideas.” And look, we don’t want to read between the lines here, but don’t you hate it when you wake up after a night on the schnapps and realize you’ve told everyone you’re going to war with France?

For its part, France took the declaration very seriously, with a senior diplomat telling the Post, “I feel a great deal of emotion now; we are probably at war, I may be called at any minute to fight.” He then started laughing hysterically, presumably due to stress. And it’s no wonder he was worried, given that the Dominion ended up winning the war. At least that’s what they said in their press release declaring a complete victory after France reduced the number of scheduled tests from eight to six (a decision that was definitely down to fear of Melchizedek and not, for instance, the international boycott of French goods being organized by Australia).

In any case, the war ended up being a disaster for Melchizedek, since the sheer hilarity of their press release attracted major media attention to the fake nation. And the Dominion’s scam-based economy could really only survive if nobody was familiar enough with Melchizedek to be sure if it was a real country or not. Plus, no sooner had Vinedresser become an international laughing stock than he found himself locked in spiritual warfare with yet another dangerous foe: US law enforcement.  

Adrian Pingstone/Wiki Commons

Their raid on Karitane had to be called off when the crew came down with scurvy.

The Decline And Fall Of The Melchizedek Empire

In 1995, around the same time that “Crown Prince Gerald” was being tracked down in the Hong Kong airport, a woman named Pearlasia Gamboa applied for a $20,000 car loan in California. As part of the application, she claimed to be the owner of a corporation called Bankasia A.G. However, employees at the small bank in Shasta County (California’s McNastiest county) could find no record of any such company. When they queried, Gamboa revealed herself to be President of the Sovereign Dominion of Melchizedek and flooded the bank with paperwork “proving” that Bankasia was a legally registered Melchizedek company. They called the cops almost immediately.

Things spiraled from there. The case eventually got kicked up to California’s banking regulators, who realized that they had stumbled onto a way bigger fraud than some nutjob lying to get a car loan. State authorities would spend most of the next five years unraveling the web of scams being run by Gamboa and her husband, a certain Branch Vinedresser. The Dominion handled this with its usual level-headed attitude, with Gamboa informing a startled deputy attorney-general that “I will do metaphysical battle with you in your dream state. And if you interpret your dreams correctly, you will know that I am the victor.” Which coincidentally is what we tell the cashier at Chipotle every time they try to charge us extra for guac.

Pearlasia also sent a critic this email, and honestly, somebody with a mind this powerful probably should be president.

SFWeekly

The Dominion went into steep decline in the early 2000s, as police pressure intensified and airports became less likely to accept travel documents produced on a Game Boy Printer. The final crash came in 2010, when Branch Vinedresser was sentenced to two years in prison for his role in selling over $1 million in stock in a nonexistent Dominion mining company. President Gamboa kept up her own scamming for a little longer but was soon caught up in a bizarre scam to redevelop the Queen Mary ocean liner by stealing $300,000 from a Palo Alto mechanic with the amazing name of Eric Diesel. 

After charges were filed against Vinedresser and Gamboa, the Dominion was taken over by one David-Parker: Williams, whose unusual name suggests a possible affiliation with the sovereign citizens movement. A loosely linked collection of oddballs, sovereign citizens believe (among other things) that the government secretly incorporates every newborn baby as a corporation under their birth name. Therefore they usually incorporate a variety of unusual punctuation to distinguish their true name from their corporate name, supposedly freeing them from government control. In 2012, David-Parker: Williams issued a press release denouncing the Melchizedek Bible and declaring that Vinedresser no longer had any affiliation with the Sovereign Dominion.

Since then, the Dominion has been mostly inactive, aside from sporadic press releases granting various highfalutin titles to a group of American evangelical missionaries active in Liberia. But don’t despair, Dominion fans. The rise of cryptocurrency means that scams are more common and lucrative than ever. And major figures in the crypto world are now publishing full-length books outlining plans to start new blockchain-based countries. There may come a time when new online nations abound, all competing to rip each other off. And when that day comes, we truly believe that the United States of Scamerica will rise again. 

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Top Image: Cracked, Washoe County Sheriff Office

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