While investigating financial crimes for CNN Money, Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken were intrigued by reports that elderly Americans were giving away thousands of dollars to mail-in schemes. With a little digging, they soon discovered a shocking true story.
Victims received personalized letters from a woman who, claiming amazing psychic powers, convinced them to send money in return for riches, good health, and good fortune. The predatory scam has continued unabated for decades, raking in more than $200 million in the United States and Canada alone—with investigators from all over the world unable to stop it. And at the center of it all—an elusive French psychic named Maria Duval.
Based on the five-part series that originally appeared on CNN’s website in 2016 and was seen by more than three million people, A Deal with the Devil picks up where the series left off as Ellis and Hicken reveal more bizarre characters, follow new leads, close in on Maria Duval, and connect the dots in an edge-of-your-seat journey across the US to England and France. A Deal with the Devil is a fascinating, thrilling search for the truth and is long-form investigative journalism at its best.
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About the Author
Melanie Hicken lives in Los Angeles and is a graduate of Syracuse University’s Newhouse School and New York University. With Blake Ellis, she is an award-winning investigative journalist with CNN. Their investigations have uncovered everything from nursing home abuse to widespread consumer fraud.
Read an Excerpt
A Deal with the Devil
THE MYSTERIOUS FRENCH psychic enters the lives of her victims through the mail. For decades, she has seized on the desperation of millions. The lonely. The weak. The elderly. They give her everything. Their trust. Their devotion. And their money.
For many, she became an obsession. It was Maria Duval, they were convinced, who would cure their illnesses. It was Maria Duval, they were convinced, who would bring them much-needed money. And it was Maria Duval, they were convinced, who truly loved and cared about them—often, even more than their own families did. They were captivated by the elusive woman with the piercing gaze, convinced she was the only one left who could help them.
It didn’t take us long before we too were captivated by this woman. At the time, we were two twenty-eight-year-old journalists looking for our next story. Instead, we ended up falling down a rabbit hole so deep that we were still trying to get out of it years later.
We were a relatively new investigative duo at CNN. A tall, blond Idaho native who spent years studying Arabic and worked at a newspaper in the Middle East before joining CNN and traveling to North Dakota in an RV to cover the emerging oil boom. And a short brunette from California who studied journalism in the freezing cold of Syracuse, New York, before becoming a local newspaper reporter back in Los Angeles, covering a corrupt city councilman who was later indicted for embezzling thousands of dollars from a local farmers market. Even though we worked for one of the world’s largest television news operations, we both considered ourselves more like old-school newspaper reporters than aspiring correspondents.
When Maria came to our attention, it was the fall of 2015. The first Democratic presidential debate had just aired, Hillary Clinton was facing harsh public questioning about her controversial response to the Benghazi attack, and the real estate mogul Donald Trump was just starting to make waves by unexpectedly dominating Republican polls.
We weren’t covering any of that. Instead, we’d spent much of the year writing online investigations for CNN, mainly those that exposed how rogue businesses and organizations were taking advantage of consumers. There was the abusive Texas debt-collection firm working for government agencies all over the country that for decades had sat at the center of political scandals. Animal-control agencies that were killing people’s dogs over unpaid fines. Small towns threatening residents with jail time over minor offenses like overgrown yards. After all this, we were trying to figure out what to take on next when we remembered that several readers had sent us multiple boxes of junk mail from unscrupulous political groups and charities preying on the elderly. The boxes had sat under our desks for months, next to piles of books, discarded heels, and a yoga mat or two.
We finally had time to take a look. For the better part of a day, we took over our newsroom’s large central conference table, covering much of it with the hundreds of mailings we had been sent. Some were from political groups using scare tactics, warning recipients in large type with “URGENT” and “EMERGENCY” notices that if they didn’t act now, they could lose their Social Security or Medicare benefits or that the death tax would wipe out all the money they had been hoping to leave their heirs.
We sorted through the pile, finding countless letters from questionable charities seeking money for veterans and starving children abroad. Often these letters contained some sort of “gift,” like a one-dollar bill or a cheap plastic alarm clock to lure in their victims. Then we came across something truly bizarre: a letter from a psychic named Patrick Guerin. We were immediately intrigued by its many details and promises—of lottery winnings, luck, and happiness. The sheer weight of the mailing was also impressive, packaged in a sturdy yellow DHL Global Mail envelope that held a multipart letter and DVD accompaniment. Whoever sent this package clearly had made a significant investment to do so. On one side of the cardboard DVD case was an ominous photo of Patrick, a chubby red-cheeked man with wavy brown hair, wearing a polka-dot tie and a bright red pocket square. On the other side was a weighty promise: “The next 5 minutes could change your life for the better.” When we put the DVD in our computer, a five minute, 36 second video clip popped up, showing Patrick meeting with an elderly man named Mr. Dubois, who claimed Patrick was the reason he had recently won the lottery. Also enclosed in the mailing was a realistic-looking tabloid newspaper, in which every article just happened to be about Patrick and Mr. Dubois.
“Mr. Dubois Tells His Story,” one headline blared across the top of the page. “I contacted Patrick Guerin, not expecting much, and a few weeks later I won 1.2 MILLION DOLLARS at the lottery and . . . I THEN WON A CAR.”
In the article, Mr. Dubois recounted just how Patrick turned his life around.
What happened to me is incredible. Everything was going badly and I was very unhappy. So, I decided to write to Patrick Guerin, even if I didn’t expect much to change. . . . Since then, all my problems have quickly disappeared, one after the other. But what’s even more incredible is that only a few weeks after contacting Patrick Guerin I won more than $1.2 million dollars at the lottery, and then I also won a car! It happened like a miracle, to me, who wasn’t even expecting anything.
What happened to Mr. Dubois? The secret is revealed to you below.
Now discover how you can also benefit and have your life change for the better in the coming weeks.
At the end of the letter was a request for money, along with a separate order form on which recipients were instructed to share their personal information. Sending this form and a check was all it took for someone’s life to change forever, the letter claimed.
Our interest was immediately piqued by this rambling letter, the weird film clip, the phony newspaper all about Mr. Dubois, a form of benevolent wizardry known as “white magic,” and Patrick’s amazing powers. But why would scammers waste their time on such an unsophisticated ploy? How could anyone possibly fall for this?
Our online search for Patrick showed that his letters had been quite effective, raking in millions of dollars. One of the first search results took us to a US Justice Department press release from the year before, announcing its attempt to shut down a number of psychic mailings, including Patrick’s. When we downloaded the original government complaint, however, we realized that Patrick was just a sidekick in a much bigger scheme. The real psychic villain, it appeared, was a woman named Maria Duval.
We searched for Maria next. The search results displayed page after page of emotional complaints from people who had been scammed out of their savings. They had received letters from Maria Duval asking for money in exchange for her personal psychic guidance. Even more common were posts from family members searching for answers.
“How can you do this to an elderly person with Alzheimer’s?” one woman asked when she discovered that her mother had sent thousands of dollars to Maria. “She is the biggest scam ever, she should be imprisoned immediately so she can die there,” wrote another victim, a brain cancer patient who had sent $1,500 in much-needed disability benefits to Maria after being bombarded by what the person described as “panicky” letters demanding $45 twice a month. Another woman was convinced that Maria’s letters somehow had disastrous consequences for her good friend. “I have no doubt that her predictions played a roll [sic] in his last weeks of life.” And a seventeen-year-old British girl had been found dead in a river in 1998 with a letter from Maria in her pocket. Her mother told a newspaper that her daughter had been corresponding with the psychic for weeks before her death. “Clare used to be a happy girl but she went down hill after getting involved with all this,” she said.
Somehow, this simple psychic scam had reached epic proportions.
Many people think of all psychics as frauds, and there are horror stories about people who lost thousands of dollars to storefront psychics or psychic hotlines. But we had never heard of a psychic scam quite like this one, in which fraudsters used the mail to pinpoint vulnerable targets.
To help determine if the scam was as terrible as it seemed, we called the United States Postal Inspection Service, the law enforcement arm of the US Postal Service, which was working in conjunction with the Justice Department to try to shut down the scam. Inspector Clayton Gerber greeted us with a gravelly voice. Clayton, who had been with the agency for more than a decade, had worked on cases involving everything from child pornography to mail scams, and he most notably was a lead investigator on the Stanford investment fraud case that culminated in a 2012 conviction. In that years-long saga, the Postal Inspection Service worked with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Internal Revenue Service to shut down a Ponzi scheme run by a man named Allen Stanford. Using the mail to help him carry out his massive investment fraud, Stanford convinced tens of thousands of victims that they were investing in an offshore bank with returns that were too good to be true. He was ultimately sentenced to 110 years in prison for stealing billions of dollars over the course of twenty years.
Maria Duval was the new focus of Clayton’s attention, and he told us that this operation was in a class all by itself. In fact, he was adamant that it was one of the world’s largest and longest-running cons in history, spanning decades and stealing hundreds of millions of dollars. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if total losses bordered on $1 billion. “Maria Duval’s name comes up in almost every major country,” he told us. And then he said something that really threw us for a loop: he had no idea if Maria Duval even existed.
He went on to tell us that this was one of the most frustrating cases he had ever worked on, because of how hindered the US government was by the international scope of this far-reaching scheme, which made it impossible to get to the true source of the letters even after years and years of trying. He said that as investigative journalists, we could break through barriers that he and his colleagues couldn’t, so it was crucial for us to pursue the story.
When we hung up, we had far more questions than answers. But one thing was clear: we had found the subject of our next investigation. It was baffling that letters from a psychic had managed to reel in so many victims and alarming that someone was taking advantage of people in their most vulnerable states, and we couldn’t help but wonder how many parents and grandparents had been victimized by this—maybe even one of our own.
Over the next months and years, our curiosity would take us on an extraordinary adventure that became darker and more twisted with each corner we turned.
Table of Contents
Cast of Characters xi
The Journalists 3
The Promises 11
The Scam 13
The Victims 21
The Address 39
The Mysterious Psychic 47
The Psychic Sidekick 69
The Sightings 73
The Dentist's Wife 83
The Investigators 89
The Business Web 99
The Sparks Connection 107
The Whistleblower 109
The "Mailing Genius" 113
The Bizarre Businessman 119
The Copywriter 127
The Nucleus 135
The Windfall 143
The Trip 153
The Dusty Archives 159
The Psychic No One Sees 163
The House 167
The Sister 173
The Pot of Jelly 177
The Lover 181
The Son 185
The Attorney 191
The Deal 195
The Myth 213
The Responses 217
The Other Psychics 219
The Checks 225
The Dark and the Strange 229
The Romanians 241
The Childhood Friend 245
The Return to Sanity 251
The Bizarre Businessman Revisited 255
The Fading Myth 259
The Irony 263
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley an the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Two investigative journalists from CNN Money researched the French psychic Maria Duval scam that spanned decades in which people, mostly vulnerable adults, were scammed out of over $200 million dollars. This is a very interesting and informative account of their investigation into this very sad case.