Survival of the Fibbest?

Ariana CervantesFebruary 23, 2018
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Survival stories aren’t meant to be easy. Robinson Crusoe was imprisoned and shipwrecked. Tarzan was orphaned. The Swiss Family Robinson spent 10 years marooned on a near-deserted island. So, it comes as no surprise that 52-year-old survival expert Todd “TJ” Jostes, competitor on Discovery Channel’s Bushcraft Build-Off, was molded by hardship. Or so he claims.

In a December 2017 interview with PHOENIX magazine, Jostes outlined his backstory. In 1984, he moved to the Valley from Chicago to attend Arizona State University on a wrestling scholarship. The young pre-med student hoped to save lives, inspired by his own brush with death when he and a friend got lost in the desert for three days before being found – dehydrated and unconscious – by rescue workers riding ATVs.

“It was all over the news. People were making fun of me, this stud wrestler lost in the desert. I was embarrassed,” Jostes says. He enrolled in survival classes at Prescott College and began to amass a library of survival techniques. Traumatized by his 17-year-old sister Tracey’s death in a car accident, Jostes abandoned his medical studies and followed their father’s footsteps into the construction business. When his concrete company folded in the aftermath of the Great Recession in 2008, Jostes says he lost his million-dollar home and his marriage to the mother of his two daughters. He hit rock bottom, drinking to numb the pain. One night, he grabbed his camping gear and went to the Verde River with his dog. “I sat there and asked God what he wanted from me. That’s how it came to me… I wanted to teach survival.”

PHM0318PFPPL02Within a few years, Jostes was teaching primitive survival classes at RV expos and ancestral skills gatherings. He specialized in off-grid cooking, something unique in the bushcraft (wilderness survivalist) community. “I didn’t want to do arrowheads or make fire, there are a million guys doing that,” Jostes says. He started his own radio show called Into the Wilderness Arizona on KKNT 960 AM and founded the National Academy of Outdoor Survival. Valley radio personality Dave Pratt, aka the Morning Mayor, heard about Jostes’ on-air success and offered him a slot on Star Worldwide Networks, his online radio empire. The rebranded Into the Wilderness USA with TJ debuted in September 2016. In June 2017, Jostes was tapped to appear in the Discovery Channel competition reality series Bushcraft Build-Off, which premiered in November.

His story was the stuff of legend, full of crushing obstacles and powerful triumphs, not unlike his wilderness brothers Crusoe or Tarzan. Unfortunately, says his sister Julie Vandenberg, his story is only slightly more true than those of his fictional forebears. “When I started hearing all of these things [about his success], I thought, ‘It’s really hard to be happy for him, because everything he’s building this up to is on lies,’” Vandenberg says.

As this issue went to press in early February, a 3TV/CBS 5 investigative report aired alleging that Jostes is a con man who has lured several women into romantic entanglements in order to borrow thousands of dollars of money from them. Past civil and criminal cases and arrests came to light. “What he does is he connects with people on Facebook from his past, also from dating sites – primarily – and he will just drown you in compliments and blow up your phone [with texts] a hundred times a day,” says Dina (real name withheld to protect privacy), who grew up with Jostes in Crete, a small town in Illinois south of Chicago. Dina says she loaned him $16,000 after reconnecting with him on Facebook in February 2016. After a brief “wooing” period, she says, he starts the sob stories: “‘I’m so broke,’ and ‘Just help me get through this rough spot so we can be together and my business can finally take off again.’ It’s all the same. And it’s for large amounts of money.”

Shelly (real name withheld) never got romantic with Jostes, but she did loan her high school classmate $3,900 in 2009 after they reconnected on Facebook. He told her he lost his business and needed money to turn his electricity back on, pay his phone bill and buy food for his daughters. “After giving him the money, he kind of started disappearing,” Shelly says.

She gave Jostes a grace period of six years before she asked for payment. “There were points when I was begging him for the money back,” Shelly says. Her father had died and her brother had been diagnosed with cancer, and she was helping care for his family. “He wouldn’t respond at all,” she says. “He ghosted me.” Eventually he began making payments through Venmo and has paid back $1,400, she says.

Dina says she’s received $400 in repayment, but both women say most of his dozen or so alleged victims have received nothing, and that they have only received some money because they went to the media and reached out to Discovery Channel, Star Worldwide Networks, the Maricopa County court system and Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane’s office, which replied and said that the Scottsdale Police Department was investigating their claims. Dina says she received a cease and desist letter from Jostes’ lawyer and was offered a settlement of $200 a month, with a gag order. “I declined, obviously, because it had a gag order,” she says. “And $200 a month? Are you kidding me?”

Vandenberg says Jostes has a lifelong history of pathological lying and “borrowing” large sums of money. She says she severed contact with Jostes more than seven years ago to protect her family from his machinations. “I don’t know what made me think anything would change, because he never got any help,” Vandenberg says, maintaining he has long been “enabled” by their mother and late father. “He never made any changes. I understand that he was doing this wilderness thing. He even lied about that. He lied about [how] he had a degree from ASU. He never went to college…

“Todd is an amazing talker. He can spin things like nobody… I’ve heard him talk to guys that were in the Marines about him being a Navy SEAL – SEAL Team Six – and having them convinced. That is one of his talents, is to be able to convince people that he is the person that he’s presenting himself to be, even though none of the credentials [are legitimate]. There’s no foundation there.”

Pratt was noncommittal when asked for an official response to the allegations. “I was surprised as anybody and have not spoken with him since,” he says. “TJ is only one network host out of hundreds over the years. Let those without fault cast stones. I have no interest in playing judge or jury to either side.”

PHOENIX contacted Jostes for a follow-up interview to address the TV report and accusations of fraud. He sent a last-minute text message as we went to print.

“Yes I was in a bad spot and still am working my way out of that position,” Jostes says. “I never denied borrowing money for help from friends during crises. I am definitely not proud about that and have never said I would not pay back, I was in a horrible spot and now I have several lies being stated and my Atty [sic – attorney] is working on handing [sic] that.” He maintains that he’s working “each and every day around the clock to rebuild and do the right thing… I am sorry if I’ve hurt anyone during my time of help and I’m working every day to repair the damage.”

It’ll be an interesting survival test, for sure.