‘Like something out of a movie’

by Peter Benson

September 13, 2018

Melanie Hicken ’09 will visit Newhouse to discuss her book about one of the longest running cons in history.

Melanie Hicken '09
Melanie Hicken '09

CNN Investigates senior writer Melanie Hicken ’09 will visit Newhouse Sept 18 with her co-author, Blake Ellis, to discuss their new book, “A Deal With the Devil: The Dark and Twisted True Story of One of the Biggest Cons in History.” Ellis is also a senior writer with CNN Investigates.

Hicken and Ellis have been writing together exclusively since their first joint investigation in February 2015 and have co-authored a number of investigative pieces for the national news outlet. They were awarded the Heywood Broun Award of Distinction for their work about government debt collectors and were finalists for a Peabody Award for coverage of guns in America. They have also been honored by a number of organizations including the National Press Club and the International Association of Broadcasting. 

We asked Hicken, who is currently based in Los Angeles, about her new book and what insights she plans to share with Newhouse students during her visit.

Give us a brief summary of the book.

The book is about Blake’s and my investigation into a massive psychic fraud that became one of the longest running cons in history. It all revolved around Maria Duval, who was allegedly a French psychic in the south of France. [Scammers sent letters to elderly people and offered psychic help from Duvall at the cost of $40 per consultation.]

The book is the case study of consumer fraud. The U.S. government determined that the Maria Duval letters took in more than $200 million from more than 1.4 million victims. The total losses were likely far larger than that.

Melanie Hicken '09 and Blake Ellis
Melanie Hicken '09 and Blake Ellis

What led you to write the book?

The letters targeted elderly people with dementia who didn’t realize that they were [being scammed]. That is one part that really drew us to this story and, in our opinion, made it worthy of not just a multi-year investigation but also a book. These scams are terrible, taking advantage of people in their most vulnerable state when they really don't have money to give away. So we took it upon ourselves to try to figure out where these letters were coming from, how it had managed to go on for so long and who was really responsible for this scam.

How did you come across the letters?

I had covered the retirement beat and Blake and I had both been in touch with consumers who had told us that their loved ones were being preyed on by mail scams, unscrupulous charities and political groups that would inundate them with junk mail. We had a few of these sources send us boxes of the junk mail their loved ones were receiving so we could see it for ourselves.

There was a day we were both working in the New York City bureau and we dumped all this mail out on a center table in our newsroom and sat there for hours going through all these different scams and shady letters. But it was a letter from a psychic named Patrick Guerin that led us to Maria and to this whole adventure.

Read more about the investigation>>

What were the biggest challenges to completing the investigation?

The scam had been going on for so many years that a lot of people who had been involved were quite old or hard to locate. We were emailing people in Russian using Google translate, which I'm sure did very poor translations of what we were trying to say. Calling people and trying to get them not to hang up on us but also not really being able to converse with them.

It was a huge help when we ended up pairing up with our colleague Julia Jones, who is fluent not only in French but in a few other languages. She helped us speak to a bunch of people and get closer to what was going on.

Tell us about the process of writing the book.

Writing a book can be a very solitary process so having someone to do that with and spend all those hours with was really helpful. We did a lot of initial outlining and sketching out the framework of the book on weekends and in the evenings. We live in different cities so that was done over the phone.

This may be the writer in me, but it sounds kind of fun.

It was fun. Being a journalist, you don't get to be quite as creative with your writing. While this is still non-fiction and we had to stay absolutely true to the way things happened, we were able to stretch ourselves writing-wise. Obviously the scam [was] horrible and interviewing all of the victims and their families was heartbreaking;[but] this story was like something out of a movie, with mysterious motorcycle accidents and a businessman practicing an alien religion. There were so many little details that just felt too good to be true. It made it a lot of fun to write.

What do believe is the role of investigative reporting now?

I think today especially you have this herd mentality of everyone trying to go after that same breaking news story. As investigative reporters, we try to go after those stories that aren't being told. So I think it's more important than ever to try and search for the ways that people are being taken advantage of that you might not have heard of yet. As opposed to trying to match some other story that's already been written by 15 other journalists.

Is there a story behind why you're so passionate about investigative reporting?

I was news editor at The Daily Orange many years ago. I did several so-called investigations at Syracuse. I always tried to do stories that were looking critically and thinking critically. Trying to go deeper. So that definitely started at Syracuse.

In my first job as a city hall reporter in Los Angeles I was able to find stories that had gone uncovered. I reported on a city councilman who had embezzled funds from a farmer’s market and had taken alleged bribes from an affordable housing developer.

It was as a beat reporter that I really learned how to do this kind of reporting. Investigative reporting isn't any sort of magic or science. It's just basically good, solid reporting, but [also] trying to find stories that haven't been covered yet.

That's been the biggest change for me. Going from being a beat reporter where I was writing a few stories a day to now having the luxury of taking time to get to the bottom of the story. When you're taking on large corporations or organizations, you have to be 100 percent buttoned up. You have to know every single word in that story is bulletproof. 

Peter Benson is a graduate student in the magazine, newspaper and online journalism program at the Newhouse School.