At the opening of Pain & Gain, the new Michael Bay movie starring Mark Wahlberg, we are told that, “unfortunately,” what follows is a true story. It’s meant as a joke, of course, but it calls your attention to the movie’s supposed fidelity to the facts. Later, during an outlandishly gruesome scene, some superimposed text says, “This is still a true story.” During the credits, we get where-are-they-now photos of the principals, reminding us that these are all real people. And the movie’s poster declares flatly, in all caps, “THIS IS A TRUE STORY.”
Is it? By Hollywood standards, perhaps. In late 1994 and early ’95, a crew of thugs led by bodybuilder Daniel Lugo (Wahlberg) did kidnap a Miami businessman and get him to sign over all his worldly possessions. What follows in the film more or less adheres to a very rough outline provided by the novella-length, three-part, highly detailed series written by Pete Collins and published in the Miami New Times over a decade ago. Not surprisingly, many details, and a number of significant characters, are dropped from the movie. A lot of new, fictional detail—and one largely made-up character—takes its place. When the movie first tells us that it’s a true story, we’re seeing something that didn’t happen. When we’re told it’s “still a true story,” we’re watching one invented character watch a semi-fictional character do something that sorta kinda took place.
In addition to the usual Hollywood streamlining and the amping up of certain scenes, the changes seem largely designed to make the central criminals more sympathetic. Whether you think that’s a respectable thing to do will depend on what you think of their actual story—and, perhaps, of the movies in general.
Obviously, lots of spoilers follow.
The then 30-year-old from New York, played by Wahlberg, rose quickly up the management chain at Sun Gym, got the gang together—which, in real life, included several bit players—and spearheaded their violent schemes. His criminal activities were more various than the movie depicts: In addition to his prior fraud conviction, he was running a lucrative Medicare scam, in which he bought information about Medicare recipients and bilked the government for bogus medical services. Movie-Lugo appears to be single; the real Lugo was married—twice. Both his wife and his ex-wife played tangential roles in the gang’s crimes, as did Lugo’s girlfriend (about whom more below). Most notably, unlike Wahlberg’s character, the real Lugo was not stupid. He “was a smart-ass criminal,” according to the P.I. who helped take him down. “He wasn’t some brute street guy.” He did not, as far as I can tell, attend any self-help seminars, nor have I found instances in which he cited Rocky or Michael Corleone as role models. If he ever wore vanilla-scented cologne, Pete Collins doesn’t mention it. The victim of his first kidnapping recognized him by the sound of his voice.
Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), whose given first name was Noel, was a handsome bodybuilder whose steroid use had indeed rendered him impotent. He saw a doctor for hormone injections to fix that problem, but he did not meet his future wife, Cindy Eldridge (called Robin Peck in the movie), at those appointments. (She did recommend the doctor, though.) The need to fund those injections did not motivate Doorbal’s crimes; he was reportedly in good shape financially, because Lugo had given him a cut of profits from the Medicare scam. The movie depicts Doorbal as fairly timid, but, according the gang’s first target, “Doorbal just loved violence,” and seemed like “the kind of guy you’d imagine had fun killing cats and dogs as a kid.” It was Doorbal, not Lugo, who murdered Frank Griga, the gang’s second target. Doorbal and his wife did not have a whirlwind romance: She turned down his first proposal of marriage, and he began dating a stripper; later he and Cindy got back together and married at a courthouse. Cindy helped Doorbal clean up the blood in his townhouse after the Griga murder, though she apparently did not know exactly what had transpired at the time. As in the movie, she divorced Doorbal during the trial and testified against him.
“Paul Doyle” - Carl Weekes (and others)
The character played by Dwayne Johnson is a composite, based primarily on Carl Weekes, with shades of Jorge Delgado (bottom left in the photo above) and Mario Sanchez (top left). Weekes was a recovering addict and ex-con who’d found Jesus and moved to Miami to get help from a cousin who worked at Sun Gym. (He never went to work at a church; no elderly gay priest came onto him.) Both were roped into Lugo’s scheme, but they only helped out with the kidnapping of the gang’s first victim. They declined to participate in subsequent crimes. Weekes, like Doyle, was much kinder to that first victim than the other men. He was also quite small—unlike Mario Sanchez, a weightlifting instructor Lugo paid to serve as an intimidator during the first kidnapping, and who appears to be another inspiration for Doyle. In real life, the third key member of the gang was Jorge Delgado (about whom more below). Like Doyle in the movie, Delgado testified against Doorbal and Lugo and received a 15-year sentence. (Lugo and Doorbal got the death penalty.) Pain & Gain shows a mugshot of “Doyle” at the end of the movie; it’s not clear to us who that mugshot is. (It does not resemble the three men pictured above.) Update, Aug. 28: A Slate reader has identified the man in the mugshot. It is an actor named Shannon Mosley. The mugshot was staged for the film.
“Sorina Luminita” - Sabina Petrescu
The Romanian stripper in Bay’s film comes off as a busty, blonde cliché, but her character is taken faithfully from the pages of the Miami New Times. A former runner-up for Miss Romania, Sabina Petrescu—portrayed in the film as Sorina Luminita, by model and actress Bar Paly—snuck into the U.S. across the Mexican border, in the trunk of a car. By the time Lugo approached her to (as Lugo said) appear in a music video, when she was about 25, she had become an exotic dancer and had modeled for Penthouse. Lugo pawns her off on Doyle in the film, but the real-life Petrescu stuck with the married Lugo through the bitter end, even fleeing with him (and his parents) to the Bahamas. And Lugo really did convince her he was in the CIA, asking her to work for them as a “honey pot” to lure their prey. Why did she believe this crazy story? Collins writes that “she was … dim.” One of the prosecutors, after the scheme, made a similar assessment: “You see, God blessed Sabina Petrescu with a beautiful face and a beautiful body,” the prosecutor said, “but not with any book smarts or common sense.
“Victor Kershaw” - Marc Schiller
Tony Shalhoub’s character is more superficially detestable than the man in the Collins articles who inspired him, Marc Schiller. Unlike the man we meet in those pieces, Kershaw is a scrawny slimeball who’s arrogant about his money. Kershaw drives a BMW with a license plate that says “Miami Bitch,” while Schiller drove a Toyota 4Runner. Kershaw meets Lugo at the gym; Schiller never went. He was targeted first not by Lugo, but by a former employee and associate named Jorge Delgado, a Sun Gym member who had fallen under Lugo’s sway (one of the reasons Delgado and Schiller had a falling out). But Bay leaves out the real story’s final twist: After testifying against his assailants, Schiller was arrested by the FBI for organizing his own Medicare scam that siphoned off about $14 million. He pled guilty, and served 46 months in jail—though he now insists he was innocent, and just too exhausted to defend himself. (For what it’s worth, the judge from the Lugo case made the highly unusual gesture of testifying on Schiller’s behalf in that trial.) Schiller also believes he’s been unfairly depicted in the media before. As for Pain & Gain, “There is no resemblance to me at all,” he said, after watching the trailer. “I was always a humble, family person.” He has written a book about the ordeal.
Ed Du Bois
Portrayed in the film by Ed Harris, the real-life Ed Du Bois was not retired with his beautiful wife when he got the call from the Sun Gym gang’s first victim, Marc Schiller. Rather, he was working for the NFL as a security consultant for Super Bowl XXIX in Miami, in addition to operating his P.I. firm, inherited from his father. As in the movie, Du Bois wasn’t sure whether to believe Schiller at first, but soon proved instrumental in compiling evidence against the gang, while the police remained skeptical. “How does it feel,” he later asked one police investigator, “to have blood on your hands?” Though the movie does not show this, Du Bois also had a leg up in investigating the case because he knew the owner of Sun Gym, John Mese (played by Rob Corddry), who conspired with Lugo. According to the New Times, Du Bois is still working as a private investigator.
Their Crimes and Capture
The Sun Gym gang carried out the Schiller kidnapping in much the way the film depicts, though the movie borrows their ridiculous costumes from an idea they never carried out: posing as trick-or-treaters and nabbing him on Halloween. The real gang does not seem as bumbling as the movie’s trio for the most part, though they did try and fail to carry out their missions on several occasions. They held Schiller for weeks not because he was resisting, but because the paperwork took time. Their failed attempt to finish him off is portrayed pretty accurately in the film—though there is no indication in the Collins story that either Lugo or Doorbal felt squeamish about killing him.
The movie murders of Frank Griga and Krisztina Furton also seem fairly true to life, though, as noted above, Doorbal killed Griga—and not, as far as we know, accidentally. The Sun Gym gang disposed of their bodies roughly as they do in the movie. Lugo (not Delgado) briefly incinerated the bodies outdoors, but he did not use a grill, and no one saw him.
None of the men were involved in shootouts with the cops. No one lost a toe, and no dog walked around carrying the toe of a Sun Gym gang member in its mouth. Doorbal and Delgado were arrested at their homes; Lugo was tracked to a hotel in the Bahamas. He was handcuffed and returned to Miami on a commercial flight.