“I can help,” she said, and with just those three words, a four-year nightmare began to unfold as I fell hard for one of the oldest cons in the book: The Inheritance Scam.
But this scheme wasn’t cooked up by some fictional Nigerian prince soliciting me through a sketchy email. I fell under the spell of an immensely lovable woman who inserted herself into my life and became my best friend. Unfortunately, she was also an international con artist on the run from the authorities and I was about to become one of her many “marks.”
She scammed me out of nearly $100,000 using a series of brilliant confidence tricks as she simultaneously destroyed my sense of self and darkened my once joyful outlook.
And as she was ruining my life, she was also scamming dozens of others around the world by impersonating psychics, mortgage brokers, psychologists, lawyers, travel agents, and even pretending to be a cancer victim.
She was a true “queen of the con,” utilizing disguises and even plastic surgery to alter her appearance from one crime to the next, and she might have gotten away with cheating many more people if she hadn’t unwittingly turned me into a relentless vigilante. Because instead of completely falling apart in the wake of her scam ― and the bankruptcy she forced me into ― I somehow found the strength I didn’t know I had to pick myself up from the wreckage. And I fought back. I started my own investigation into her scams, uncovered other victims and painstakingly brought her to justice.
Today she’s sitting in a jail cell in Los Angeles County, probably wondering how on earth she became the victim of one of her own victims.
Well, allow me to explain.
She introduced herself to me as Mair Smyth in May 2013 when she joined a group of angry neighbors in my living room to discuss what to do about losing access to our building’s swimming pool due to a legal spat with a neighboring building.
“I can help,” she told us. “My boyfriend is a lawyer who can get the pool back!”
I liked her immediately. We all did. She was brash. Funny. Extremely intelligent and outspoken. Ironically, she came across as a woman who always “told it like it is.” She also came across as an incredibly wealthy woman. She wore $1,200 Jimmy Choos and once showed me her closet filled with more than 250 pairs. That’s $300,000 in shoes alone! I thought to myself. But I Iater discovered they were all fake.
After our initial meeting in my apartment that night, Mair invited my husband, Pablito, and me to dinner. And over the next year, she frequently wined and dined us at fancy restaurants and always insisted on picking up the bill. “I love you guys,” she’d convincingly plead. “I have a lot of money ― let me pay!”
We’d hang out almost every evening in our BBQ area, exchanging intimacies under the cool LA sky. Mair told us she was originally from Ireland and one night she pointed to a framed document hanging in her living room. “This is the Irish Constitution,” she said. “See that signature at the bottom? That’s my great uncle’s.” Since my knowledge of Ireland was scant, I believed her. I had no idea that like her shoes, that tale was also fake.
Mair brought me Irish tea and pastries and regaled me with stories of how when she was a young girl, her grandmother, who was supposedly in the Irish Republican Army, would bring her to the top of a bridge and teach Mair how to hurl Molotov cocktails down on British soldiers. I was captivated and horrified. But her stories about her family were all lies too.
When I tearfully confided in her that part of my family had disowned me for being gay, she pounced. “My family disowned me too!” she said, as she fought back tears. “They’re trying to get me disinherited.” All of a sudden we weren’t just new friends ― we were two discarded souls bonding over our incredibly painful family circumstances.
Mair told me that an uncle, the patriarch of her family, recently died and her cousins were dividing up an estate worth 25 million euros. She said she was supposed to receive 5 million euros ― the equivalent of $6.5 million at the time ― as her share of the inheritance. As months passed, she’d frequently show me angry text messages and emails from her Irish cousins threatening that she wouldn’t get a dime of the inheritance.
I didn’t realize that Mair actually created those phone and email accounts herself to impersonate her “cousins” as part of her scheme.
Mair told me she had taken a lot of family money with her when she left Ireland many years ago, so she never needed to work. However, she claimed she enjoyed working, so she got a job selling luxury vacations at a travel agency in Los Angeles that her family did a lot of business with. She said her family’s association with the company made it easy for her to secure employment there.
Fourteen months into our friendship Mair and I were like sister and brother. We even began ending our phone calls by telling each other “I love you.” She told me that her “barristers” (I had to google what that word meant) were having trouble trying to secure her inheritance and that they had warned her about a clause in her uncle’s will that stated that if any family member was convicted of a felony, they would forfeit their share of the inheritance.
Mair was building up the framework of her con in such enthralling detail that I became an actual player in scamming myself. Instead of her telling me the next step in her deceitful story, she got me to tell her!
“You better be careful!” I cautioned her. “Since your family does a lot of business with the travel agency you work for, one of your disgruntled cousins might try and set you up to get you convicted of a felony to keep your share of the inheritance from you!”
I’d read news stories about husbands knocking off their wives for million-dollar insurance policies. We were talking about $6.5 million here. And according to the emails and texts I saw, many of her family members certainly appeared to hate her. Why wouldn’t they set her up? I thought.
On July 8, 2014, my phone rang.
“You have a collect call from ― It’s Mair ― an inmate at the Century Regional Detention Facility. … Press one to accept,” the computerized voice instructed me.
I quickly pressed “1.”
“You were right!” she sobbed. “I was arrested today. My family set me up to make it look like I stole $200,000 from my job.”
“I told you this would happen!” I yelled into the phone. I was distraught. I quickly found a bail bondsman and paid him $4,200 to get her out of jail. That’s when I first learned that her legal name was Marianne Smyth, not Mair Smyth.
She paid me back the $4,200 the very next day when she was released from jail. Or, rather, the married man she was dating at the time paid me back the next day. Little did I (or he) know it, but she was in the process of scamming him too.
As the months passed, Mair showed me emails from her “lawyers” assuring her that the criminal case against her was falling apart. I had no idea those emails were also from fake accounts she had created herself.
Then, almost three years into our friendship, she told me the district attorney prosecuting her case had frozen her bank accounts. She was devastated. So I started lending her money. She had immediately paid back the $4,200 I used to bail her out of jail, so I felt confident she’d pay me back any other money I loaned her.
But that’s the thing: The term “con artist” is short for “confidence artist” because these individuals are skilled at gaining your confidence ― and then, once they’ve attained it, they use it to scam you out of your money.
Over the course of several months, I loaned Mair nearly $15,000. You’d think I’d be worried about giving her that much money but I wasn’t. At all. She was not only my best friend but she claimed she was about to inherit millions of dollars ― at least that’s what all the emails from her “barristers” said ― so I never even considered the idea that anything sinister could be taking place.
One day, Mair called me and said the DA was now demanding $50,000 to dismiss the criminal case against her. I didn’t have $50,000 in cash. But I did have an 840 credit score. So I let her charge the $50,000 on my credit cards using her PayPal account to get the criminal case against her dropped, thereby opening the pathway for her to secure her $6.5 million inheritance and pay me back. I had only ever been to court for speeding tickets at that point. I knew so little about the criminal justice system. Besides, Mair was now like a family member! I just never imagined that she could be scamming me.
A few months later, I was shocked to find out Mair had been arrested again. She said the judge in her case considered her charging my credit cards with her PayPal account “money laundering” and punished her with 30 days in jail. The charge was not a felony ― she said it was just a “slap on the wrist” ― and she assured me, once again, that as soon as she got out of jail and received her inheritance, she would pay me back in full.
Mair called me collect from jail every day and begged me not to visit her. “I don’t want you to see me like this,” she said. But I insisted. So I logged onto the jail’s website to schedule a visit and that’s when everything fell apart and the true devastation she wrought on my life started to reveal itself.
The jail’s website showed there had been no “slap on the wrist.” Mair was serving time for felony grand theft.
I took the day off work and immediately rushed down to a Los Angeles courthouse. With trembling hands, I started reviewing every record from Mair’s case that I could find. I discovered she had lied to me about everything. I suddenly couldn’t breathe.
That $50,000 I let her charge on my credit cards was really to pay $40,000 as part of a plea agreement to a felony grand theft charge she faced for stealing more than $200,000 from the travel agency she worked for. Had she not been able to come up with that $40,000, she would have received a five-year jail sentence ― not the measly 30 days she actually served.
I discovered that her bank accounts had never been frozen. There was no wealthy Irish family or inheritance. She’s not even Irish! Those were all lies she used to entrap me.
I went home and collapsed in my husband’s arms. I didn’t cry ― I wailed.
“How could I let this happen to us?” I sobbed over and over again. I was inconsolable.
Eventually, my pain was replaced by breathtaking anger and the determination to do something.
First, I confronted Mair in the parking lot outside our apartment building the day she was released from jail. I told her I knew she wasn’t Irish. I knew no one froze her bank accounts. I knew there was no inheritance. She emphatically denied everything. “That’s not true, Johnathan! That’s not true!” she pleaded over and over again as tears streamed down her face.
But I had finally learned that those tears, like everything else in her life, were a complete fabrication. And I was done believing anything she had to say. I balled up my fists. Clenched my jaw. And walked away. We never spoke again.
I went to the police days later in March 2017 and filed a report. The officer interviewing me seemed skeptical that there was anything they could do. “Don’t give strangers your money” were his parting words.
So I started my own investigation.
I dug up Mair Smyth’s yearbook and learned that she was born Marianne Andle in Maine and graduated from Bangor High in 1987. She later moved to Tennessee, where, according to her estranged family, she told everyone in town she had breast cancer and allegedly scammed her friends and neighbors out of thousands for “treatments.” They told me Mair was oddly obsessed with wanting to be Irish ― so much so that in 2000 she went to Northern Ireland on vacation and ended up marrying a local and then stayed in the country for nine years.
In the same way that wooden stakes kill vampires and silver bullets kill werewolves, publicity kills con artists. I began turning my pain into a profound sense of purpose. I started an online blog and detailed how Mair had scammed me. Soon Mair’s other victims from all over the world started reaching out.
I learned that she scammed $10,000 from one victim by impersonating a psychologist, according to allegations in a police report.
She tricked our landlord out of $12,000 in rent by pretending to have cancer.
I did some sleuthing and found out that Mair had low blood iron and would purposely avoid iron-rich foods so she could strategically get admitted into hospitals for transfusions. While sitting in a real hospital bed for a few hours, she’d ask a nurse to take her picture and then email that photo to her victims to better sell her cancer story. She used this particular scam a lot.
I even got a call from a police detective in Northern Ireland. He told me authorities in Belfast had been looking for Marianne Smyth for years. The detective said she had worked as a mortgage broker in 2008 and had scammed many other people and then vanished.
And these are just some of the stories I discovered. All in all, Mair Smyth used (at least) 23 different aliases. In this video, she goes by “Mair Aine” as she tries to convince people she’s psychic. She worked as a psychic for years scamming the most vulnerable of victims by using their innermost secrets and confidences against them. She’s also been charged with felonies for fraud and grand theft in Florida and Tennessee under the alias “Marianne Welch.”
The Los Angeles Police Department ended up spending 11 months investigating my case. I called them every day and became a huge pain in their ass.
Finally, in early 2018, Mair was arrested at the halfway house where she was hiding and charged with grand theft for scamming me. She was then released on her own recognizance, which was a huge mistake. One month before trial, Mair filed for a fraudulent restraining order asserting that I was threatening her with violence. I was forced to lose another $1,500 to her scams ― the cost of hiring an attorney to fight her bogus claim.
“If a judge grants the restraining order, you would be prevented from testifying against her at her criminal trial,” my lawyer explained. I was apoplectic.
Could this be her checkmate move? I wondered.
Thankfully, a prudent judge refused to grant the restraining order and her criminal trial proceeded as scheduled.
Four victims testified against Mair in early 2019 and a mountain of irrefutable evidence was presented by the prosecution. Though she was only being charged with scamming me, the judge allowed testimony from several other people she conned to demonstrate a pattern.
Mair did not testify in her own defense. As the witnesses described how she had scammed them, Mair sat there with an emotionless look on her face. That was probably her biggest tell to the jury. As brilliant of an actress as she proved to be while she was conning people, remarkably, she did not know how to “act” innocent.
The only defense her attorney had for the jury was that I was supposedly making the whole story up and that I had persuaded all of the other witnesses ― people I didn’t even know before Mair scammed me ― to lie under oath so I could make a compelling documentary about it. And he was terrifyingly convincing.
I had in fact decided to make a documentary about Mair. When I took the stand to testify against her, her attorney asked me why.
“I want to warn people about her,” I responded. “By the time I’m done with Marianne Smyth, the world will know her face so she can never scam anyone ever again.”
Testifying at trial was particularly grueling because the prosecutor went over each dollar Mair scammed from me in extreme detail. Having to relive that experience in front of a roomful of strangers ignited fury and embarrassment and regret in a new, especially painful way. I was an emotional wreck.
I spent two years doggedly pursuing Marianne Smyth. It consumed me. I had to file for bankruptcy because of what she had done to me. And the 24 court appearances I made even before the actual trial ― including continuances, pretrial motions and hearings ― meant I had to miss a lot of work and lost even more money. Not to mention the cost of hiring six private investigators in multiple states and countries to ferret out all her scams.
But, damn, it was worth it.
Out of all the victims I uncovered during my investigation, only two of them had ever reported her to the police and that enabled her to continue scamming people for years before she met me. Most of her victims ― like most victims of any con artist ― were too ashamed to tell anyone what happened to them. I’m ashamed too. But my desire to stop her from hurting other people is much stronger than my shame.
I’m forever changed by my experience of getting conned. I’m now suspicious of everyone and everything. I subscribe to multiple criminal databases and I background check everyone. Often, I will suss out even the most minuscule inconsistencies in someone’s story upon meeting them and throw it in their face, demanding an explanation.
Making new friends is not something I’m good at anymore. But that’s not something that I can really help. I was taken advantage of by someone I truly trusted ― and loved ― and when you’re shattered in this specific, unthinkable way, it’s impossible to go back to who you were before.
While my life may never be the same, I hope others can learn from my experience with Marianne Smyth and, by reading my story, avoid being swindled themselves. If you meet someone new whose backstory is filled with drama and intrigue, or even just really unusual circumstances (especially if there’s money involved), there’s a good chance they’re trying to scam you. You might not ever encounter someone as conniving or cunning or deceitful as I did, but confidence games are more common than you think and your entire life can change because you have trusted someone who wants what you have and will stop at nothing to get it.
Johnathan Walton is a reality TV producer by day and a justice-seeking vigilante in his off-hours. His experience putting a con artist in prison has woken him to a new calling in life: helping other victims hunt down their con artists in the name of justice and closure and healing. You can reach him through his website, JohnathanWalton.com.
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost.