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Mister Wrong

John Michael Gentes
Would You Trust This Man? John Michael Gentes, aka Giovanni Ballachi, aka Gio Vallucci, aka Steve Michael Foley, claims to be a professional dancer, CIA agent and war hero, but spends much of his time tanning. Last week, he was taken into custody on an unpaid warrant for driving without a license.

The truth may finally catch up with a Silicon Valley Lothario who has sweet-talked his way into hearts, homes and bank accounts

By Michael Learmonth

TAMMY SISEMORE, a confident, career-oriented, 28-year-old single mom, can hardly believe that six years ago, she was so vulnerable and lonely that she let "Gio" into her life.

It started at Baxter's in Cupertino. Sisemore, who grew up in San Jose, was out bar-hopping with a friend, also named Tammy. She spotted a tall, dark man standing in a corner. She was attracted by his model good looks and seductive brown eyes, which searched the room. They met hers.

"What drew me to him is he was so outgoing--and he knew how to dance," she recalls. The next day he called Sisemore at home, introduced himself as Giovanni "Gio" Ballachi and asked her to dinner.

That night, "Gio" picked Sisemore up in a white Jeep and took her to Los Gatos. Over dinner he described a hectic, jet-set life. He told her he'd been flying to Los Angeles every day, where he worked as a dancer for MC Hammer. After dinner, he drove her up to a construction site in the Saratoga hills, where, he said, he was building his dream home. He went into detail--describing the neighbors, including a single father living next door who was raising two daughters and owned a dog.

Things moved fast. "I had never had a boyfriend," Sisemore says. "It was my first real relationship." Soon, Gio Ballachi was a permanent fixture in Sisemore's Sunnyvale apartment.

Each day Sisemore faithfully reported to work in the sales department of a software company in Redwood City. She paid the rent and bills and bought the groceries. Soon she realized that despite the exciting stories about his show-biz career, her new beau didn't seem to work.

"He would be gone a lot of times and said he was in some kind of application process for a job," she says. Sometimes, she remembers, he had money in his pocket from a "side job," but "Gio" seemed to spend most of his time lying out tanning in the yard.

Sisemore is tall, about five-foot-nine, with green eyes, blonde hair and bangs that frame her wholesome, Laura Dern-like features. Soon after we sit down at a cafe, her 2-year-old daughter has the run of the place, sprinting between the tables and behind the counter and, to Sisemore's chagrin, out onto the sidewalk. With a mother's singular ability to remain serene amid chaos, Sisemore retrieves and calmly restrains the writhing child as she tells me her story.

Sisemore recalls she liked having a man in her life so much she was able to overlook the inconsistencies in the amazing stories she heard every day. Looking back, she wonders why she didn't pay attention to the warning signs. "I was so young and gullible," she sighs.

It wasn't long after she began living with "Gio" that Tammy Sisemore made a startling discovery. One day he left his wallet behind, and her suspicions finally got the best of her. The name on her boyfriend's Social Security card wasn't Giovanni Ballachi at all, but John Michael Gentes.

Tall, Dark and Pathological

JOHN MICHAEL GENTES, 28, lives the life of an undercover Lothario in Silicon Valley. He goes by a number of glamorous aliases, including Giovanni Ballachi and Giovanni Vallucci, as well as the not-so-glamorous Steve Michael Foley.

His modus operandi is simple: He meets women, seduces them and moves in. Soon he has permission to drive the car and use the credit cards.

He has fathered at least one child for whom he pays no child support. He is under investigation by the Santa Clara County District Attorney's office for allegedly stealing thousands of dollars from another ex-girlfriend, and the Social Security Administration is investigating him for using multiple Social Security numbers.

"I started catching him in his lies the first year," Sisemore says.

In hindsight, she knows she should have heeded her first clue that "Gio" wasn't all he said he was.

One night when they were just beginning to date, he asked her to pick him up. When she arrived at his house, she saw the white Jeep parked in the driveway. "Gio" explained that the car actually belonged to his sister, and that she sometimes let him borrow it. Soon Sisemore realized that the "sister" was probably a girlfriend.

Sisemore knew he was lying about that house in Saratoga, too. And she was very suspicious about his claim that he made $5,500 a month. But she searched for reasons to believe he was everything she wanted him to be. She even bought him a car to help him find work. "I felt deep down that people could change if they wanted to," she says, "and he gave me the impression that he could be a great guy."

She began to listen to her friends and neighbors, who were becoming increasingly skeptical about the stories "Gio" was telling them. He told some of them that his family owned Original Joe's. He told others that he had been a colonel in the U.S. Army. She also heard that "Gio" was spreading the rumor that he and Sisemore were engaged to be married.

"We were always trying tell Tammy to get rid of him, that he's a loser and a liar," says a friend, Diana Klein.

"It's one of those things you've got to realize yourself," Sisemore says.

Sisemore stayed with Gentes off and on for five years, ignoring her friends who saw him with other women at clubs. "I honestly didn't think he was cheating on me. I preferred not to hear about it anyway," she says, buckling her daughter into a car seat in the back of her Honda Accord. "For me, I guess it was someone to have, not to be alone."


The new buzz-word for 'pathological lying' is
APD and it can lead to a heap of BS.


Mispoken Identity

GENTES' RAP SHEET in Santa Clara County reads like that of a two-bit traffic scofflaw--with a slightly bizarre twist. It begins in 1988, when sheriff's deputy Merlin Newton stopped Gentes for speeding in a white Honda Prelude on De Anza Boulevard. When he asked for identification, Gentes stepped out of the car and said his name was Steve Michael Foley. He explained he had been moving and probably left his driver's license at home.

But the deputy didn't believe it. "I noticed a square-shaped object in his right front pocket, possibly a wallet," he wrote in his report. But Gentes said it was his brother's. "He appeared nervous and would get confused when I asked him questions as to why he had his brother's wallet," Newton wrote.

Dispatch reported no registered driver by the name Steve Michael Foley with the date of birth Gentes gave. "I told him that he was wasting my time and his, and to tell me his true name," deputy Newton wrote. "I said I would give him one last chance to give me his true name, or I would take him to jail once I figured it out."

Gentes continued to insist his name was Foley. So Newton slapped on the cuffs, hauled him off to jail and booked him for lying to a police officer and driving without a license.

Newton's frustration comes out in the last line of his report: "It should be noted that it took me approximately 45 minutes to obtain his true name."

Deputy District Attorney Jaqueline Arroyo says John Gentes is now being investigated for more serious crimes. He is being held in contempt of court for failing to pay Sisemore child support. The penalty for that could be jail time. And Arroyo says her office is investigating Gentes for "theft-related and credit card charges," but one star witness, a woman named Anne, has moved out of state and is refusing to cooperate with investigators. "We would subpoena her," Arroyo says, "but it's hard because she's the victim and doesn't want to come forward."

She says that "Gio's" scheme, while predictable, is clever nonetheless. He inevitably gets invited into women's homes or manages to hang around kindhearted souls who he knows won't throw him out.

"I would say he's very sophisticated, very smooth," Arroyo says. "He leaves everything very difficult for us to file criminal charges. Usually, when he borrows a car or runs up a credit card bill, he's covered because he's gotten some kind of permission to use it. That may make him a prick, but it doesn't necessarily make him a criminal."

Arroyo says the D.A.'s office hasn't filed charges because some of the credit card use was consensual. "He works out some kind of deal and runs up a bill," she says. "He gives them a great line and the next thing you know, the credit cards are missing."

Silver-Tongued Devil

IN JULY, GENTES WALKED into Metro's offices and told the receptionist he had a story we might be interested in. He said the Social Security Administration had "lost" his identity, making it impossible for him to find a job or collect his military pension. I sat down with him and listened to his story.

"Gio" cuts a striking figure. On this day, he wore a crisp white shirt, black denim shorts, Nike cross-trainers, a generous amount of hair gel, and an earnest smile on his face. It wasn't long before I realized I was talking to real-life Joe Isuzu, or Jon Lovitz, without the telltale, "Yeah, that's the ticket!"

Gentes told me had been in the military for 26 years. "But you hardly look 26 years old," I said. He laughed, "I'm 45. Ain't it great?!"

He said he had retained an attorney and was about to sue the Social Security Administration for $83 million. "Legally, they raped me of everything--full identity, everything," he said. Then, he pulled out a Xeroxed flyer emblazoned with a rakish, glamour-shot photo of himself, under the headline: "Wanted: Deadbeat Dad!" Tammy Sisemore had been posting them all over Silicon Valley for months. He said he was planning to sue her for defamation.

Soon after Sisemore threw him out of her house, "Gio" met another young woman in her time of need. Brandy Sandoval, 27, met "Giovanni Vallucci" last year, three weeks after she divorced her husband of six years. She and a few friends had gone to the Saddlerack. "I don't usually go there to meet people," she says. "I was really not in a good state of mind."

"Gio" tagged along with Sandoval and her friends when they went for breakfast at The Cardinal. While the two talked in the restaurant, "Gio" altered his identity to appeal to Sandoval, who is raising three children. He said that he was 43 and had five kids of his own--four in Italy with an ex-wife, and one with Tammy Sisemore.

"Gio" went home with Sandoval and just stayed. "I didn't have the strength to tell him to get out," Sandoval says, watching her three boys play in the sand pit at a park in Campbell.

Like Sisemore, Sandoval is pretty, with neatly bobbed reddish-brown hair, enormous brown eyes and porcelain skin. At first, Sandoval says, Gentes was helpful around the house. He took a liking to her children. The kids called him "Buddy."

After a month, Gentes began leaving the house in his white 1995 Toyota truck and not coming back at night. Sandoval was depressed from her divorce and felt like she was gaining weight and losing self-esteem. Gentes was quick to point out her physical flaws, but always gave her an affectionate squeeze afterward and said, "Who loves you, baby?"

Sandoval discovered "Gio's" true identity when he left his briefcase behind one day, filled with papers that revealed his true identity. She believes that part of him wanted her to know the truth. "He left the briefcase out so I would look at it," she says. "He couldn't verbally tell me."

Gentes "borrowed" Sandoval's gas card, and charged $300 in cigarettes and gasoline for his truck. During that time, court records show Gentes was arrested for drunk driving after he was stopped for weaving in his lane on highways 280 and 17. He was also cited for driving on a suspended license.

Pants on Fire

SANDOVAL, SISEMORE and other women who have fallen for "Gio's" shtick fit a profile familiar to Judith Shernock, a Santa Clara County family counselor. "They are people who have a desperate need for affection and don't get it," she says. "They have a built-in denial system and low self-esteem. They think they don't deserve much."

The women who stay with "Gio" more than a few weeks know full well he's telling big fish stories but allow him to stay anyway. "People who are very insecure and needy think, 'With me, he'll be different,' " Shernock says. "I feel sorry for the women."

Shernock believes that if women who are currently involved with Gentes--whom she refers to as "prey"--read this article, they will still find a way to believe that he's different with them, or that if they love him enough, he will change.

"He has no feelings for other people," she says. "He has no conscience."

His aliases, Giovanni Ballachi or Vallucci, she says, make him more attractive and sophisticated in his own eyes. A person with such a compulsion, she says, was very likely to have been raised in "terrible" conditions.

On the other hand, Shernock also believes Gentes knows full well what he's doing. "He must get a big kick out of it," she says. "He's laughing all the way to the bank."

New Bracelets

THE WAY TO THE BANK is not always a sure thing, however. One Saturday night in May, Cynthia Honholt, 29, met "Gio" at Katie Bloom's on S. First Street in San Jose. It got late and Honholt let "Gio" drive her home. The next day, he showed up on her doorstep.

"He wanted to move in with me, he wanted to marry me," Honholt says. Then the stories started: He graduated from West Point, he works for the CIA. During Desert Storm, he carried Norman Schwarzkopf to safety. If they got married, Colin Powell would be his best man. Cynthia was amused--fascinated, almost--but didn't believe "Gio" for long. Within 48 hours, she had sent him packing and can now laugh about it with her friends.

Gentes, in his travels throughout Silicon Valley, has frequented the Saddlerack, Katie Bloom's, the Pavilion and even the Fairmont Hotel pool. Usually he finds a conspicuous perch at an outdoor table at a venue like Keystone Coffee or the Pavilion Starbucks to cast the bait. He holds a book studiously but looks up often, waiting to catch the eye of a new conquest.

"He just hangs out and talks to the ladies," says Marissa Santos, 20, who works at the Pavilion. "Gio" once told Santos he worked for the CIA, but mostly, she says, she tries not to let him get that far. "He's sly," she says, "I don't give him the opportunity."

Due to repeated complaints of loitering, Pavilion security finally told "Gio" he was banned from the premises.

Sisemore, meanwhile, says she isn't bitter. She has a new boyfriend, a daughter she loves and a new life. Soon she'll probably grow tired of posting the fliers. "I was just a doormat," she says, looking back, "but not anymore."

Last week Sisemore finally got some satisfaction, after facing Gentes in court for failure to pay child support. As soon as Gentes appeared, the bailiff served a warrant for his arrest from Santa Cruz for an unpaid fine for driving without a license, and slapped on the cuffs.

Gentes told the judge his wallet had been stolen that weekend and someone had been using his identity.

Arroyo was there with Tammy and reassured her that while Gentes was in jail the D.A. would continue to build a case against him. But just seeing Gentes in handcuffs made Sisemore so happy she had an urge to record the moment. "Too bad you can't have cameras in here," Arroyo said.

When John Michael Gentes gets out, he'll likely go looking for the next Tammy, Brandy, Cynthia or Marissa who will pause just long enough to hear about the house in Saratoga, the war exploits or the family in Italy. Sure as "Gio" will lie again, there will be another woman in Silicon Valley lonely enough to believe him. But if, by some miracle, one thing "Gio" told me is true, he may be about to lay a whopper on the wrong woman. "Gio" told me: "I have a meeting with Susan Hammer next week."

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From the Sept. 18-24, 1997 issue of Metro.

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