Wine Country Comic Con’s Bizarre Litany of Lies

Last week we published a piece on Wine Country Comic Con. A first year convention currently scheduled for April 23-24 in Santa Rosa, CA, we were alarmed to find they were using a fake Facebook account to spam groups and talk with potential attendees.

But the more we looked into this event, the more we discovered that this story went further than just the fictional “Frida Avila.” Wine Country Comic Con organizer Uriel Brena has constructed a complex charade of lies, fake staffers, and a whole bunch of weirdness.

This rabbit hole runs deep.

A Full Complement of Fake Staffers

The first thing we found out was that “Frida Avila” wasn’t the only weirdly complex fake staffer created by Wine Country Comic Con. Thanks to some email tips (and a bit of our own digging) we found several more:

I assume that like the now deleted “Frida Avila” account (Edit: Weirdly at least for now the Frida Avila account is back online), these will promptly disappear – so here are some screenshots.

Photo Feb 26, 8 12 53 AMPhoto Feb 26, 8 14 45 AMPhoto Feb 26, 8 15 39 AM
dewolfsPhoto Feb 26, 8 13 48 AMPhoto Feb 26, 8 18 46 AM

There’s at least one other account I suspect to be fake, but as I couldn’t verify who its images had been stolen from, I chose not to list it here.

Besides spamming Facebook groups, Brena has also used these accounts (along with both of the ones in his own name) to “review” this yet-to-occur event on the Facebook page of the convention.

reviews

While it’s true that the now deleted “Frida Avila” account was by far the most prolific in engaging with people, all of these accounts to some degree were interacting with their “friends.”

And… well… it’s still pretty creepy, right?

I think it’s creepy.

An Uncharitable Reality

Organizer Uriel Brena initially began promoting the convention as a charitable event, organized by the Roseland Lions Club to benefit the Early Learning Institute.

Although Brena has changed the language on the official website to be more vaguely worded (and no longer call out a specific charity), these groups could still be found listed on Wine Country Comic Con’s GoFundMe campaign up until last night (which I found deleted this morning) (Update: Brena has relaunched the campaign with modified language). Thankfully, I compiled screenshots of the original page which you can view here:

gofundme

It’s also (obviously) still out there on previously published press releases (mirrored copy). The reason this information keeps disappearing? Well, it seems like Brena has zero affiliation with one of these groups.

We were forwarded a copy of an email from the Early Learning Institute, in which Executive Director Michele Rogers stated:

This is not our event nor have we agreed to be a sponsor. Uriel indicated he may make a donation but as you can imagine I hear that often but have no expectations. What he told me was that he hopes to build a preschool for kids with autism as his son has autism. I have no way to confirm this piece. I told him this was not something we were interested in doing.

Again, while this group is no longer directly referenced on the convention website, the fact that he was promoting the show at any point with this information is alarming.

The site now claims it’s building a new “Early Learning Center” without any particular charity behind it, but in truth I’d be surprised if any money was truly going toward that goal. Frankly, it’s an expensive proposition, and first year cons often barely cover operational costs. With so much clear misrepresentation by Brena, it’s hard to trust anything he says.

Update (3/7): It has now been confirmed that Wine Country Comic Con has officially partnered with the Roseland Lions Club. An earlier version of this article implied he had no connection to the group, and we apologize for our mistake. This was due to bad information given to us by one of our sources. We still don’t believe this excuses the promotional tactics used by Uriel Brena.

The Inauthenticity of Uriel Brena

Uriel Brena is an interesting character. His most notable online presence is through “Brena Outreach Strategies” which has both a Facebook page and website. Immediately upon arriving at both something seemed off. Let’s see if you can tell why by looking at this image that appears on them:

bos

If you said to yourself, “Hey, the logo for Brena Outreach Strategies has a massive Survey Corps insignia from Attack on Titan in it!” you too have probably watched one of the most internationally successful anime series in the last few years. For those of you who haven’t either read the manga, watched the series, seen the god awful live action films, or just been to an anime con in the last few years, this is the logo from the series:

Survey_Corps_Logo

I mean, seriously — this is like putting a Star Trek swoosh on your company logo. It’s a gross intellectual property violation. Brena’s “Hispanic Business Expo” logo looks suspiciously similar to the Expo 2015 as well — though that one is slightly less clear cut.

But after what we found earlier, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that Brena has no regard for IP rights.

So is Wine Country Comic Con a Scam?

This is a complicated question. On the one hand, Brena has clearly misrepresented the event and promoted it using highly unethical practices. On the other hand, if the convention happens, and if it delivers the attendee experience it promises you can’t really consider it one. He may be on the level regarding where the money is going, but using dishonest tactics to raise it. I think the real question potential attendees have to ask themselves is do they trust Mr. Brena.

I, for one, just don’t.

As I stated in our previous article on Wine Country Comic Con, conventions are the cornerstones of local geek communities. When someone comes in disingenuously and lies to their attendees, it weakens that community.

Even if Uriel Brena intends to donate any or all of the money from the event to charity, I honestly don’t think I’d believe him until I saw something actually happen after the convention. When you tell me a half dozen lies, it takes a lot for me to believe the next six things you tell me.

Update (4/10): Most of Wine Country Comic Con’s guest list has now pulled out.

  • Michele Rogers

    I don’t appreciate the use of my personal correspondence, without my permission or even the courtesy of notification, being used in this article. Mr. Brenner was asked to stop using the term Early Learning Institute to refer to his dream of a center for children with autism because it was confusing people. We declined to be involved only because this is not our mission. The rest of the facts in this article I can’t speak to but Mr. Brenner agreed to change his materials and is doing that. This seems like a “he said – she said” situation and it doesn’t benefit the children and families we serve to be dragged into it. Michele Rogers, Executive Director, Early Learning Institute.

    • While I appreciate that we should have given you a heads up, I think it’s a mischaracterization to refer to the portion of the email we published as “personal correspondence.” It was an email sent by you, the executive director, from an email account belonging to the Early Learning Institute regarding the business of the organization to an outside party.

      As for the “He said – she said” — The fact that he’s still using similar language even after changing the name on his releases actually seems designed to still confuse consumers. Combined with the bizarre, manipulative practices he’s used to promote the event (which include taking hundreds of images from people without their permission and misrepresenting them as his own) and the blatant disregard for intellectual property in an industry that relies on it… even if Mr. Brena’s intentions are good, he’s doing it in a way so dishonest I don’t think it does a service to ANYONE.

  • te’Shara

    This is why we can’t have nice things…

  • David Delgado

    Do you realize that your “tips” are coming from a rival local convention? Have you made any effort to contact WCCC so the promoter can address these claims?

    • We’ve talked to multiple parties, and while tips point us towards things, (unless directly stated otherwise) we verified and researched every single thing we published. I did the legwork digging through the Facebook accounts which we posted about. With only one exception (where the account was deleted before I could take a good screenshot of it) these screenshots were all taken by me.

      And whether or not a competitor has decided to capitalize on the scandal, it doesn’t change the fact that Uriel Brena used skeezy tactics, stolen images, and misrepresented the charity he was working with to promote this event.

      Actually sit down and read this and our previous piece. I showed the research in the article. No rival group made that stuff up – Brena did it all on his own.

      • Jason Lee

        Hi Trae. Not sure if you know, but Mike Holbrook, the one who provided the info in the comments section in your previous piece is the one that runs Santa Rosa Toy Con. The so called rival local convention.

        I’m an artist that will be exhibiting at Wine Country Comic Con. I’ve spoken with the head of Roseland Lions Club, Pat Sterck and verified that they are working with WCCC. I’ve even spoken with the person running WCCC, Uriel and it seems all legit to me. Yes there were probably some mistakes that he made when promoting, but mistakes happen for someone doing this for the first time. Have you spoken with WCCC? If WCCC was a scam, wouldn’t the scammer already have gone into hiding and running with any of the funds he was able to obtain? I just got an email the other day from Uriel, the one running WCCC giving me information about vendor setup information for the event. It’s a very small act, but the gesture tells me that the event is going to happen. Would a real scam artist take time to write all that up for the vendors? If I wanted to, I can go and get my refund for my vendor table right now. I really hope the info surrounding WCCC isn’t some negative propaganda to flex territorial rights on who the best con is in the area. What do you think? Am I being naive?

        • Did you not read the final section of this article?

          • Jason Lee

            I’m just trying to make sense of it all and see if there’s anything I’m missing. Guess we’ll just have to see how this plays out.

  • N Elizabeth Johansen

    There is a possibility that the Roseland Lions club web page linked to may be a fake as the page source code caries none of the typical identifiers that would be expected. Information about that page says Starfield Technologies; Go Daddy Website Builder v7.0.90 and none of the media on the page comes from a Lions Club server so far as I can tell. By any chance has anyone verified Roseland Lions Club to see if they are in any way involved with this con?

    • Yes, Comicsbeat reached out to them and checked.

  • Ian Justman (IJ)

    Just checked Mr. Brena’s site to see if anything had changed, remembering he’d used that emblem which was from Attack on Titan; it’s now “down for maintenance”.

    • Yeah, it went down not long after BleedingCool covered it too.

      I’m also fairly certain someone may have reached out to Funimation’s lawyers, but I don’t know if it’s related.

      • Ian Justman (IJ)

        Belatedly, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least. Anime rightsholders–both licensors and licensees alike–are VERY particular about how their assets are being used, especially by people with profit on their minds.