The rip-off, the psychic, and the sin of wanting extra

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Callas, France — The gate opened slowly, providing a glimpse of overgrown gardens, weathered statues of bare legendary figures and a big white home with pale inexperienced shutters. We tried to soak it in rapidly, not figuring out whether or not the gate would snap shut because it had as soon as earlier than.

This time, we had been allowed inside.

On the high of stone stairs resulting in the home stood an aged blonde lady we acknowledged straight away: Maria Duval, the girl we had been investigating for greater than two years.

Monitoring the mysterious psychic Maria Duval

We had by no means earlier than laid eyes on her. However we’d seen her face many instances. In previous information articles about her miraculous rescue of lacking folks. In movies of her speaking about her psychic talents. On letters despatched around the globe.

It was the letters that introduced us right here.

They had been written to aged, sick and lonely folks, they usually promised that Maria Duval would use her powers as a world-renowned psychic to assist remedy their issues. They may recuperate from illnesses, keep away from horrible misfortune, win the lottery.

All they wanted to do was ship cash.

Not less than 1.four million People fell for the rip-off, as did numerous others around the globe. Some worn out their retirement financial savings. Others misplaced cash they’d hoped to go away to their households.

On its face, this ruse seemed like so many others that prey on the aged and reap the benefits of folks with circumstances like dementia.

However there was one thing particular about Maria Duval.

The letters gave the impression to be handwritten and signed by the psychic. They contained private particulars, like a recipient’s identify, age or hometown. It appeared as if the psychic had intuited this info. It had truly been pieced collectively from “suckers lists” offered by firms often known as knowledge brokers and from info the victims themselves unknowingly supplied up to now.

Seduced by Duval’s guarantees, US investigators say, folks paid round $40 every time they corresponded together with her in trade for her steerage, fortunate numbers and talismans. This seemingly easy scheme grew to become one of many longest-running mail frauds in historical past – infiltrating greater than a dozen nations, spanning greater than 20 years and raking in additional than $200 million in the US and Canada alone. In America, it ensnared 60 instances extra victims than Bernie Madoff’s notorious Ponzi scheme.

In 2014, US officers renewed earlier makes an attempt to close the rip-off down. At first, they questioned Duval’s existence, and different investigators hypothesized that she was an invention, her picture a inventory picture.

We realized in any other case. Not solely was she actual however she was bigger than life – having constructed a profession as a neighborhood psychic within the south of France lengthy earlier than letters had been despatched in her identify.

Two years in the past, we’d hoped to confront her however did not get previous the ominous white gate to her house. We tracked down her middle-aged son, Antoine Palfroy, and satisfied him to take a seat for a protracted and eye-opening interview.

He informed us his mom misplaced management of her identify, that she entered into an ill-fated enterprise deal. She had as soon as been a neighborhood psychic, he defined, who was paid for her consultations and typically labored with police to seek out lacking folks. That each one ended, he stated, when European businessmen approached her a few years in the past and he or she agreed to promote the rights to her identify. At first, the enterprise peddled astrology charts, he recalled. However the enterprise mannequin modified and a brand new scheme was born: the mass mailing of letters penned in Maria Duval’s identify.

Hitting bookshelves: A Deal with the Devil

Hitting bookshelves: A Deal with the Devil

It started with a box of junk mail and turned into a two-year investigation into one of history’s most unstoppable scams. Follow our journey into the shadowy world of mail fraud, as we uncover stories of bizarre con artists, victims battling inner demons, and the mysterious woman at the center of it all. “A Deal with the Devil” is coming to bookstores Aug. 7th.

He claimed she by no means supposed to defraud folks and hadn’t written a single letter. She was too scared, he stated, to interrupt her contract and was herself a sufferer of the rip-off.

We had been skeptical of this portrayal. It was attainable she’d entered a deal that spiraled out of her management. However she’d continued to signal new contracts. And it wasn’t a query of whether or not she’d made cash – solely how a lot.

For a time, we accepted that her son was the closest we’d ever get to the elusive psychic. However within the months and years that adopted, we labored on a book concerning the rip-off and renewed our makes an attempt to fulfill her face-to-face.

Now, we had been standing contained in the gate, in the identical place the place the important thing US investigator had stormed in with French police just some months earlier.

They had been trying to find cash and paperwork. Like us, additionally they had been within the businesspeople behind the rip-off.

Our initial investigation confirmed that Duval was not working the enterprise or mailing the letters – as so many victims had been led to consider. As a substitute, a posh community of worldwide shell firms and entrance operations had been used to cover the letters’ true origins from investigators. Finally we recognized ringleaders on the seashores of Thailand and within the secrecy havens of Switzerland and Monaco – and decided that the operations had handed by an countless variety of arms over time.

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This difficult enterprise net made it tough to find out the scope of Duval’s involvement, although there was concrete proof connecting her to the rip-off. Her signature not solely appeared on the letters however on trademark functions and on a current doc from a civil case that lastly shut down the rip-off in the US. We uncovered enterprise filings displaying she acquired at the least one fee for round $200,000. And she or he traveled the world selling the letters.

It was Duval’s identify and face that made the fraud attainable.

What would she must say?

The psychic behind the gate

As we walked towards the steps to her home, we seen her completely dyed blonde hair was nonetheless styled because it was within the movies we’d seen. However her trendy and expensive-looking garments had been changed with vivid blue Crocs, cartoon-covered socks, pale leopard-print leggings and a worn black sweater. Her eyes regarded confused; her plumped lips nearly deflated; her lipstick was drawn exterior the strains.

We mentally ran by the questions that had pushed our pursuit for 2 years:

How a lot cash have you ever created from the letters? The place is that cash now? Why did you signal that first contract? Should you didn’t agree with how your identify was getting used, why did you promote the letters and seem in YouTube movies? Why ought to we consider that you’re the harmless sufferer your son claims you might be?

In case you are really a psychic, how did you not see this all coming?

We by no means thought this second would arrive, and we continued to doubt the assembly would happen whilst we deplaned in Good for a second time and drove the winding roads to Callas.

Two years in the past, the primary time we stood exterior her gate, we knew lots concerning the rip-off however little about Duval. This time, we had an image of who she was, gleaned by interviews with individuals who knew her effectively or just crossed her path. However we needed to know extra.

Businessman Jean-Claude Reuille, whose former mail-order firm had lengthy overseen distribution of the Maria Duval letters, nonetheless claimed he had nothing to do with the creation of the rip-off (and he hasn’t been charged with any wrongdoing). He acknowledged that he knew Duval, nonetheless, saying he believed in her powers and remembered her as an trustworthy lady – however one who was enterprise savvy and knew what she was doing.

We additionally heard from a person claiming to be Reuille’s childhood pal. Reuille stated the person gave us a faux identify and couldn’t be trusted, although he acknowledged he had launched him to Duval a few years in the past. The person informed us he knew Duval effectively, that she had been very rich and spent a lot of her cash on “silly issues and younger males.”

“To be so excessive, and go so low”

Francoise Barre, Duval’s pal and former secretary

An Argentinian man, Luis Alberto Ramos, claimed Duval had conned him in a land deal. Many years in the past, he stated, he offered her a plot of farmland with cows, equipment and a waterfall on it, however she stiffed him. The few funds she made, he stated, got here from unusual financial institution accounts around the globe. “She was a fairly handsome, charming lady,” he wrote. However she used this attraction in devious methods, he stated, likening her to a difficult character – a “scaramouche.” Palfroy would later inform us that as he remembered it, it was his mom who misplaced cash on a land sale gone fallacious, although he wasn’t positive if it concerned Ramos.

Probably the most detailed depiction of Duval got here from Françoise Barre, her former non-public secretary who additionally had served as mayor of the small city the place they lived. At her house in Callas, proper across the nook from the city corridor, she nonetheless saved numerous mementos from Duval, together with pictures, letters and a pendulum.

From what Barre stated, it appeared Duval might have understood the gravity of the rip-off perpetrated in her identify – at the least because it developed over time. She stated Duval talked about her concern about getting in bother with the regulation due to the letters’ exaggerated claims.

She gave for instance the assertion that Duval had met with the Pope. “She’s been to the Vatican, sure, however on a traditional journey, and he or she actually didn’t meet with the Pope. She informed me, ‘Certainly one of lately I’ll get in bother for the issues they are saying about me.’”

In accordance with Barre, Duval usually stated she had by no means seen the “colour of the checks”—suggesting she believed she ought to have made more cash than she did. Barre stated Duval was all the time very entrepreneurial and confirmed us a letter the psychic wrote her in 2014, the 12 months the US authorities tried to close down the rip-off, asking Barre to be her associate in a brand new enterprise enterprise which she described solely as a “undertaking” that wouldn’t take a lot of her time. Barre didn’t pursue the provide, so she by no means realized extra.

Barre was additionally deeply involved about her pal and former boss, who she believed was a real psychic who had used her powers for good. She stated she was devastated to see her previous pal get wrapped up in such a harmful scheme.

“She was actually essential to lots of people,” Barre stated. “And now she is lowered to—to a state of being aged… so we have to let her be. To be so excessive, and go so low.”

Past household and acquaintances, there was one other group of people that thought they knew the actual Maria Duval: her victims.

We hoped to inform Duval about Doreen Robinson, an aged Canadian lady whose story was like so many others we heard. She as soon as was fiercely impartial and sensible. However the letters arrived in her mailbox as she adjusted to life with out her husband of greater than 40 years and started a painful battle with dementia. She secretly wrote “assist me” time and again in her tackle ebook, ordered junk from catalogues and responded to each single solicitation she acquired – together with the Maria Duval letters. She amassed tens of 1000’s of {dollars} in bank card debt and despatched a number of thousand in response to the Duval rip-off in a single 12 months, in line with her daughter, Chrissie Stevens.

Doreen Robinson died in 2014. Years later, we requested her daughter what she would say to the psychic behind the rip-off.

“Disgrace on you. You’ve taken benefit of a sick, previous, lonely lady,” she informed us. “Disgrace on you, Maria Duval.”

The 81-year-old psychic wore a clean stare as we approached. “Right here is my mom, Maria Duval,” stated her son, Palfroy.

As a substitute of berating us for our important tales about her, she caught out her hand and greeted us with a smile.

Her son quickly lower by the uncomfortable silence, beckoning us to comply with him inside for a tour. Becoming a member of us was his daughter, our digital camera crew and our interpreter.

A sliding glass door opened instantly into Duval’s private workplace.

This, Palfroy defined, was the place his mom had labored on her books and different writings. The room was full of three-ring binders on low-cost steel shelving, every labeled in sloppy cursive or capital letters. Initiatives. SEX. Moscow. Brigitte Bardot. VATICAN.

The raid and the seek for tens of millions

A gold Hindu statue sat in a single nook; in one other, three small clocks displayed the time in New York, Paris, and Tokyo, although they gave the impression to be set to the fallacious hour. On her desk was a vase of faux roses and a big calendar for 2017. Paperwork had been piled in every single place. A drawing of a unadorned man and an ape held on the wall behind a stuffed kangaroo. There have been two pictures within the room, equivalent photographs of a middle-aged Duval, her chin resting on her hand as she peered into the digital camera.

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Palfroy led us right into a extra spacious workplace the place Duval as soon as gave private psychic consultations. We instantly acknowledged the room from the YouTube movies used to advertise her letters, with the identical growing old statue of a younger, robed lady staring out from behind the desk. “Folks fairly often ask me how I can work by correspondence,” she stated in a single video, staring straight into the digital camera. “You possibly can relaxation assured that I take a look at the good majority of your letters.” She spoke clearly and confidently – nearly as if she had been studying from cue playing cards.

Maria Duval’s personal office is stuffed with binders labeled with intriguing titles like SEX, Moscow and Brigitte Bardot.
Maria Duval’s private workplace is full of binders labeled with intriguing titles like SEX, Moscow and Brigitte Bardot.

Like her private workplace, this room was a time capsule. There have been pictures of Duval as a younger lady and as a younger lady touring the world. A Reagan/Bush 1980 marketing campaign button leaned in opposition to a plaque from the 1979 World Congress of Science and Faith in Rome.

Glass cabinets held books about astrology, sexuality and philosophy, together with “Astrology and Private Improvement for Dummies.” Unusual religious work lined the partitions. Pots of faux flowers dotted the ground. On the opposite facet of the room, sliding glass doorways opened onto her sprawling yard, stuffed with numerous statues.

A money-sniffing canine had roamed for hours within the overgrown gardens, Palfroy informed us, on a Thursday morning in March after French police and a US investigator arrived with a warrant to look the property. Duval’s household was there caring for her, in order that they rapidly ushered her to her room and tried to be taught precisely what was occurring. “They informed me that there had been a criticism filed within the US relating to the US mail, and that’s all I do know,” he informed us. “That’s all I do know.”

The Division of Justice and US Postal Inspection Service wouldn’t touch upon something Duval’s son informed us, however the USPIS acknowledged a prison investigation into the rip-off is ongoing. Palfroy named the company’s chief investigator, who he stated got here to the home, and he confirmed us the enterprise card of an lawyer he stated additionally traveled to Callas. We acknowledged the identify because the lawyer concerned within the earlier civil case.

A son’s protection: “She trusted too many individuals.”

Police rifled by drawers and tore by recordsdata, Palfroy stated. They regarded below rugs and mattresses and backyard statues, although a few of the statues had been too heavy to elevate. They seized stacks of paperwork – seemingly excited about something which may level them towards Duval’s dealings with the businessmen working the rip-off. Additionally they took her pc.

Palfroy believes authorities got here in the hunt for cash, however says they discovered nothing however pocket change in Duval’s purse. He additionally says they went to the financial institution to examine Duval’s accounts and a private secure the place she had as soon as saved valuables like jewellery. They even searched his household’s accounts, he informed us.

However, in line with Palfroy, the accounts held little cash, the secure was empty, and so was the home.

“Everybody thinks she had tens of millions however no, she didn’t,” he stated. “The businesses had some huge cash, that’s true, however my mom didn’t even have 1%.”

We had discovered that the lots of of tens of millions of {dollars} generated by the rip-off had been unfold amongst numerous shell firms and businessmen behind its day-to-day operations. The one fee we might determine as being made to Duval was for round $200,000, and even her son acknowledged that she had acquired others. If her earnings even got here near 1%, they’d have amounted to a number of million.

Palfroy recounted this dramatic day to us as we walked from room to room. He then excitedly modified subjects and introduced us to Duval’s desk, the place he pulled out a pile of folders full of press clippings. Duval’s face was in every single place: in horoscope columns, on the pages of French Vogue, on clippings about TV and radio exhibits all through the 1970s and 80s.

As we regarded by the articles, Duval watched us silently. Finally, she slowly flipped by some, too, proudly pointing to previous footage of herself.

Decades-old photos from Duval’s personal collection document her world travels as a famous psychic.
Many years-old pictures from Duval’s private assortment doc her world travels as a well-known psychic.

We’d as soon as thought the claims made within the letters – about Duval’s media appearances, tv fame, and worldwide movie star standing – had been nothing greater than a copywriter’s wild creations. Finally, we decided she had achieved some notoriety as a small-town psychic. However till we noticed all of the press clippings, from totally different nations and spanning a long time, we hadn’t grasped the magnitude of her fame.

Whether or not or not her psychic powers had been faux, her movie star was actual.

She’d already change into well-known – and rich sufficient to purchase this huge property – earlier than she offered her identify. As predatory because the letters had been, there had been some semblance of fact in all of the lies.

Duval was led to her bed room upstairs to relaxation whereas we explored the property. We battled a thick cloud of mosquitos as we wandered by the lengthy grass surrounding her home, peered at a pool (which Palfroy stated was broken in a storm final 12 months) and encountered a sequence of unusual black-and-white work in a run-down visitor toilet. They appeared to depict ghosts having intercourse.

When phrase got here that Duval was prepared to speak, we joined her and her household in her workplace.

She sat down in a chair throughout from us.

Duval appeared unfazed by what was occurring. She rattled off a fundamental sound examine, counting upward with the convenience of somebody who had appeared on digital camera earlier than.

We had been much more anxious, and never solely as a result of this was our one alternative to talk together with her.

For months, as we pursued an interview along with his mom, Palfroy would sometimes have interaction however principally evaded us. He would go darkish for weeks and months. He threatened to sue us for invading his household’s privateness. He informed us his mom was sick.

However after the raid, he’d modified his thoughts and invited us to go to. He stated his mom wished to talk with us.

We feared it is perhaps too late.

In current months we’d begun to suspect that Duval had dementia – based mostly on the accounts of individuals near her and the 2014 letter to her pal Barre through which she stated she was taking a dementia treatment.

Duval’s son Antoine and granddaughter Solène claim that Duval was yet another victim of the mail fraud bearing her name.
Duval’s son Antoine and granddaughter Solène declare that Duval was yet one more sufferer of the mail fraud bearing her identify.

Two attorneys from the Division of Justice, we realized, had additionally made the trek to Callas in March. They needed what we did – to query Duval.

The issue, in line with Palfroy: Duval was unable to talk with police. She couldn’t even inform them her identify.

“When she speaks it’s very tough as a result of she mixes the long run, the previous and as we speak,” he informed us in English.

This was the primary time he’d admitted that she had dementia. She suffered a stroke in 2010, he stated, and was first identified with dementia in 2013. He stated it had not too long ago worsened.

It appeared handy: The lady whose identify and picture helped propel a large rip-off might now not recall her personal identify – a lot much less the small print investigators wanted. In accordance with Palfroy, police insisted on taking his mom to a doctor for an impartial evaluation.

“Disgrace on you. You’ve got taken benefit of a sick, previous lonely lady”

Chrissie Stevens, Daughter of sufferer

After this session, Palfroy stated, Maria Duval was deemed unable to take a seat for a regulation enforcement interview.

As a substitute of sitting face-to-face with the girl they’d flown to France to interrogate, investigators had been pressured to pose their inquiries to her son.

Palfroy stated he spent most of a six-hour assembly defending his mom. He stated investigators additionally zeroed in on the three businesspeople we recognized in our investigation. Would he be keen to testify in any authorized proceedings which will happen within the US, they requested. Sure, he informed them, he would.

He needed desperately for the main focus to show from his mom to the individuals who he felt used her. And we suspected he needed us to see his mom as he did: one other frail and aged sufferer of the rip-off.

The soundcheck ended, and it was time for us to start. We hoped Palfroy had exaggerated the severity of his mom’s situation, that we’d have the ability to get the solutions we had been in search of. He informed us she was assigned a judicial proxy, which is basically a authorized guardian, and, citing privateness issues, he wouldn’t reveal who it was. These data usually are not public in France however the guardianship regulation doesn’t restrict an individual’s means to make choices – together with the choice to be interviewed.

We determined to proceed cautiously.

We started by asking Duval to state her identify. She did. Then we requested her the date. She didn’t know and turned to her household for assist.

We requested about her psychic powers. In her books, she describes intimately the bestowing of those powers from her uncle, a priest in Italy.

The place did they arrive from? How was it she acquired this present?

She couldn’t say.

And she or he had no concept what we had been speaking about after we requested about certainly one of her most celebrated rescues, through which newspapers stated she used a pendulum to direct a helicopter to the precise spot the place a lacking particular person was discovered barely alive.

The one identify she introduced up was that of Brigitte Bardot. She repeated a narrative we had seen within the letters: that she had discovered Bardot’s lacking canine. We’d later attain the actress, who talked to our French colleague within the hope of selling her ebook about animal abuse. Her canine was discovered drowned in a pool, she stated, and the psychic had nothing to do with the invention. Duval’s claims, she stated, had been false.

Duval spent most of our dialog sharing her ideas about love. She stated she liked life and hoped the world would bear in mind her for doing every thing with love.

She appeared unaware of the ache the letters had triggered or why we had been so determined to talk together with her.

Sufferer’s daughter: ‘Disgrace on you, Maria Duval’

We requested if she had any regrets.

“Regrets, I actually have some,” she stated. “We will all the time have regrets however presently, I can say that I believe I’m actually good. I’m good. I’m good in my life, good in every thing I’m presently doing.”

We’d needed to present Duval the prospect to inform her facet of the story. However the concern we had about her mind-set and her means to defend herself deepened as we talked.

The articulate, assured lady we had seen in movies – the girl with the solutions to our questions – was gone.

It was clear we’d by no means know the complete story about Maria Duval. How a lot cash did she make, and the way might she not have recognized what she was signing up for when she offered her identify? If solely we had gotten to her earlier, earlier than her sickness progressed and the solutions grew to become locked inside.

Two years in the past, we had tried. On that go to, a lady briefly opened the gate to inform us Duval was in Rome. Our French-speaking colleague, Julia Jones, was the one one to get a glimpse of her earlier than the gate slammed shut. The subsequent day, we’d returned to the home and heard the identical story from a person claiming to be Duval’s gardener.

This time, after our speak with Duval ended, we sat throughout from Palfroy and his daughter, Solène, and requested whether or not Duval had actually been in Rome after we got here knocking.

“She’s the one who answered,” Palfroy stated as he and his daughter checked out one another and laughed. “She didn’t need to obtain you.”

We had been anticipating him to say she was hiding inside, not that she was the one who answered the door.

“Wait – she’s the one who got here to the gate?”

We remembered the calm voice on the opposite facet of the wall.

“Sure.”

Two years in the past, her thoughts was sharp sufficient to concoct a lie and throw us off her path. Possibly she knew that we had uncomfortable questions for her, or possibly she had one thing to cover.

All of this made it even more durable to consider she was only a sufferer.

We informed Palfroy and Solène we had one thing we needed to share. And with our laptop computer going through them, we pressed play.

The tearful voice of Chrissie Stevens, the sufferer’s daughter who had a message for Duval, spilled from the audio system.

“Disgrace on you, Maria Duval.”

A granddaughter’s pursuit of the reality

Palfroy regarded away; tears crammed his eyes.

“Sadly, my mom has nothing to do with this,” he stated. “She’s not concerned… that’s horrible however… that’s the one factor we will say.”

Does she know folks really feel this fashion about her?

“No. No she would have by no means agreed with this… We will’t do that, stealing cash. There isn’t any phrase for this.”

What would she say to those folks?

“At present she wouldn’t perceive and yesterday if she had seen that sort of factor, she would have been revolted… Even for cash, you possibly can’t steal folks’s cash like this.”

We requested the way it felt to know that the letters preyed on folks affected by dementia, similar to his mom.

“It’s not tolerable,” Palfroy stated.

He continued to defend his mom, however lastly acknowledged that she wasn’t solely harmless and had trusted the fallacious folks.

Her wealth and fame had not been sufficient for her. She’d needed extra. And that’s what the rip-off was constructed upon: a determined want for extra, and a willingness to consider in guarantees too good to be true.

The victims believed within the guarantees of the letters. Duval believed within the guarantees of businessmen. She trusted individuals who wore fancy fits and drove costly vehicles, and hoped that signing on the dotted line would carry extra fame, extra fortune.

She didn’t want it, however she needed it. That was her determination, and hers alone.

“She truly liked to be flattered,” stated Solène, who, after studying our investigation, launched into her personal seek for solutions about her grandmother and others concerned within the rip-off.

“That was… that was a sin,” Palfroy added.

Has she talked about regrets?

“Sure, about what occurred, sure, sure,” Palfroy stated rapidly. “Typically, she has informed us that she fully disagreed with what was occurring however that, sadly, there was no technique to finish this, to gradual issues down.”

Lastly, we requested the query to which we already knew the reply.

What’s going to Maria Duval’s legacy be?

Palfroy pointed to the audio recording on the pc.

“That’s her legacy, the image she’s going to go away,” he stated. “It’s Maria Duval. The letters: It’s Maria Duval. It’s Maria Duval who stole cash from this poor woman. It’s Maria Duval.

“No matter we are saying as we speak, it should all the time be Maria Duval… I believe that’s horrible. Horrible for the victims, horrible for my mom, too… The identical concept will keep: Disgrace on you, Maria Duval.”

The psychic was in her bed room when our interview with Palfroy and Solène ended. We roamed Duval’s workplaces yet one more time, determined for any last clues.

On our approach out, we seen what regarded like a newspaper headline taped to the wall.

“Distinctive lives have their worth,” it stated in French.

Tacked under it was one other clipping.

“Don’t inform anybody.”



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