Blending years of deep reporting with distinctive, powerful prose, Scott C. Johnson’s unique true crime narrative recounts the tale of the brilliantly cunning imposter who carved a path of financial and emotional destruction across the world. Gifted with a diabolical flair for impersonation, manipulation, and deception, the Con Queen used their skill with accents and deft psychological insight to sweep through the entertainment industry. Johnson traces the origins of this mastermind and follows the years-long investigation of a singularly determined private detective who helped deliver them to the FBI. (They are currently awaiting extradition from the U.K. to the U.S.) Described by one victim as a “crazy, evil genius,” the Con Queen enacted one of the most elaborate scams ever to hit Hollywood.
But for what purpose? And with what motive?
Johnson’s unparalleled access to sources, including exclusive interviews with victims and investigators, and never-before-heard recordings of the Con Queen, brought global attention to the scam, spurred law enforcement to act, and led Johnson to venture in search for the Con Queen themself. Journeying from Los Angeles to the United Kingdom to Jakarta, Johnson eventually came face-to-face with one of the most disturbing criminal minds in recent history, only to realize what chasing the Con Queen revealed about himself and his own troubled family history.
In this excerpt, we meet David Grey, a former U.S. Marine who believed he was working for one of Hollywood’s most powerful women, as well as Nicole Kotsianas, a private investigator who helped break the case.
Grey’s kids were screaming in the background. “You have a family?” Christine Hearst Schwarzman was curious. She was putting together a movie project that would involve security work in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. She and her billionaire husband were financing it. In security circles, these types of clients were referred to as “high-net-worth individuals,” and of all the clientele, they were the most coveted. Three kids, Grey told her, and a wife. Grey was David Grey: former U.S. Marine. Texas native. From the hardscrabble part. With tumbleweeds. After a stint as a private security contractor in Afghanistan, he returned to the U.S., taught firearms and tactics for a while, and then departed again, landing in Thailand. America just wasn’t adventurous enough. Schwarzman asked Grey to give her a list of qualified candidates.
Of the twelve soldiers Grey passed along, Schwarzman chose six husky U.S. Marines with blond hair and blue eyes, six feet tall and over. One of them was Jared. After fighting his way to Baghdad during the Iraq invasion, Jared had left the Corps in 2003, but stayed abroad. As a combat veteran, he was highly qualified to provide security and close protection, and he had landed several jobs in the private sector, catering to the super wealthy. Jared was interested in the opportunity, and Schwarzman was interested in Jared. When the two finally spoke on the phone, Schwarzman was joined by her executive assistant, Jason.
Schwarzman intended to begin a second career as a director and producer in the film industry, she told Jared. Her first project was to be in Indonesia, but to get it off the ground she hoped to create an “advance team” to scout and secure film locations, find lodging, and map safe routes for travel around Jakarta in case of emergencies. Before hiring Jared, Schwarzman needed to be sure that he had the requisite decisiveness and leadership qualities to be a suitable addition as a TL, or team leader. She wanted to engage in some light role-playing: Jared was to “order” her assistant Jason off the call in a prompt and efficient manner. “Just be aggressive,” she told him. “Let me see you can be mean to somebody. Yell at him. Tell him that you’re in charge now.”
Jared thought it was a little strange, but he acquiesced. He had been taking orders for so long, from so many demanding, unrelenting people in such a wide array of impossible scenarios, that the request didn’t set off any alarm bells. There was something else: Schwarzman was offering obscene amounts of money. If this project went through, Jared stood to make up to $500,000.
And so it began.
“Jason, if Christine tells you to do something, you do it,” Jared barked. “If I tell you to do something, you do it. I want you off this call. Now.” Jason obliged and Jared was alone on Skype with Schwarzman. Schwarzman let out a breath. That’s when the sex play began. Really, it was more of a domination fantasy. She asked him to activate his video so she could see him, but she kept hers off, explaining that for security reasons she couldn’t expose herself to potential hackers.
“Now,” she demanded. “Give me kisses.”
“What?” Jared wasn’t sure what was being asked of him. Schwarzman made some kissing sounds.
“Kisses,” she said. “Give me kisses.”
Jared was immediately put off, and said so. But Schwarzman laughed and turned it into a joke. She explained that she wanted to form a “team” but that it should also feel “like a family.”
Again, reluctantly, Jared obliged. But on the other end of the line he could hear her moaning.
She asked him to take off his shirt.
“I’ve got a lot of tattoos,” he said.
“Let me see your tats,” she said. He took his shirt off. “Oh, I like that,” she cooed.
Jared got the job. Eventually he would recruit more than a dozen of his close friends and colleagues for Schwarzman. “She’s going to go all Harvey Weinstein on you,” he briefed them. But the promise of real money was so enticing that the soldiers went along with it. Schwarzman told the men she liked the idea of having a close-knit unit, similar to what they had in the military. “Like a family,” she assured them all, and indeed among themselves the men began to refer to her as a “big sister” and felt in some way that she was protective of them, perhaps in ways that their government, their generals, and even in some cases their own families had not been. “Guys were masturbating on cam for her,” Jared said. “One guy who was getting engaged left his house, rented a hotel room to do this thing, because he thought he was going to get this high-paying job.”
The impersonator had clearly thought through the power dynamics at play in this particular con. The men receiving the phone calls were incentivized to believe they were speaking not just to a woman, but to a powerful woman; it strengthened their view of themselves as chosen ones, the selected or the strong. And because they were heterosexual, gender-conforming types by and large, to think otherwise would have meant a wholesale abandonment of their well-established identities.
Jared took one two-week trip for Schwarzman in March 2018. One night, Jared was riding in the back of a car in Jakarta that Schwarzman had organized when, for reasons he didn’t understand, his driver began ignoring his directions. When Jared asked him to stop, the driver refused, and Jared lost patience. “If you don’t stop the fucking car,” he yelled, “I’m going to beat the shit out of you.”
The driver, in turn, was screaming into his cell phone to a third party. Jared didn’t understand a word.
Then his own cell phone rang.
It was Christine. He described the situation in which he found himself.
“Can you just get away?” Christine pleaded in her nasal New York twang.
“I told you to fucking stop,” Jared yelled at the driver. Then to Christine: “You’re paying these guys $117 a day to drive me around . . .”
“You can’t talk to them like that—”
“I feel like I’m being kidnapped,” Jared snapped, starting to panic. He’d fought his share of Iraqi insurgents blowing up Humvees via roadside bombs, or themselves with suicide vests. This was not how he had survived. He hung up on Christine, then went full bore on the driver.
“Stop the fucking car!”
The sedan lurched to a halt and he jumped out. The driver careened off.
Christine called back immediately.
“Are you away? Where are you?”
He spotted an Indomart. Like a 7-Eleven back home in Ohio
Only smaller. Brighter. Somehow scarier.
Eventually he made it back to his hotel and left the country. The calls tapered off but Schwarzman wasn’t done with him yet. The promised funds, a few thousand by now, still hadn’t arrived in his account. One day she called again. She needed more résumés. This time she wanted a Latino man, so Jared connected her to another buddy who fit the profile. But when that contact turned out not to be available for the times she wanted, Schwarzman called him, screaming, “This fucking Mexican, I’ll have him deported.” Jared tried to calm her down but she hung up on him. Extremely unprofessional, she texted. I’m not interested.
Absolutely disgusting behavior from your friend. Jared was contrite and con- fused. He wrote back, I tried to find you a Hispanic like you asked for ma’am. I’m sorry for his behavior. It’s not me who did that. I’m available for you 24/7 like I have been. Jared continued sending her one candidate after another. When she declined to work with a former Scout Sniper and mixed martial arts fighter whom Jared had put forward, he wrote, Ma’am I’m running out of white English no accent Americans that can protect you. I’m call- ing people that are not looking for a job. You have the best guys in the world of security at your fingertips. These guys will not embarrass you and they will fight and die for you. But Schwarzman seemed unmoved.
Soon after, Jared began avoiding her calls. Without Schwarzman’s voice in his ear, he began to listen instead to the suspicious thoughts he had been tamping down. One day he reached out to a friend who worked as a financial adviser at JPMorgan Chase and explained the story. A day later, the friend called him. Schwarzman didn’t have an assistant named Jason, the friend told him; the wire instruction numbers she had provided to Jared weren’t real. Including the jobs he had forfeited in order to be available for Schwarzman, Jared was out more than $12,000. Jared reached out to Blackstone, the firm run by Schwarzman’s husband. Blackstone’s in-house security team wanted to see the contracts, but when Jared complied with their request the firm went dark.
For a period after the scam, Jared signed on for jobs that were intentionally high risk and morally ambiguous. He spent time in- filtrating the student protests in Hong Kong. Another mission had him working to uncover a cigarette-smuggling operation in Thailand worth billions of dollars. But the weeks he spent inside the toxic world of the fake heiress haunted him. The voice he got to know so intimately remained embedded somewhere in his psyche. He wished he didn’t have to hear it anymore, but he did, and it angered him. She owed him for how she had corrupted him. First, he’d sold himself. Then, to help his friends, he’d helped them sell themselves. She’d screwed them over, too.
NICOLE KOTSIANAS FOUND herself thinking about Norman Bates more than she would have liked. More than once, the imposter had expressed a desire to become a “mommy” to the men who believed themselves in her employ. So many of these men, strong and battle-hardened, perhaps weakened by the desire for a magic escape hatch, were fooled. One of them “straight up thought he was in a relationship,” Nicole said. “For months. And his friends were like, ‘You’re not though.’ And he was like ‘Yeah, she’s gonna fly me here, she’s gonna fly me there, she’s going to give me money every month. Like, I’m going to be a kept man.’” The imposter professed affection and even love, but often under the guise of some kind of brokenness: her marriage just wasn’t working out, it was a sham; or she was going through a divorce.
For Nicole, this was a new theater of operations. Most of the victims were U.S. military veterans. The prospect of money was a constant in the scam, but the powerful undercurrent to the conversations was the promise of intimacy. This is how we’re going to end the call, the imposter would tell her marks: give me kisses and tell me you love me. Nicole felt uncomfortable discussing it with the soldiers’ wives, who, if they talked about it at all, were more concerned with the longer-term safety implications. Were they going to be hacked? Did they need to change their credit cards? Nicole didn’t have the heart to tell them that the imposter might have, at least in some cases, videotaped their husbands in compromising positions. One night, Nicole called a number associated with a Navy SEAL who had been lured to Indonesia. A woman answered.
“This is going to sound absurd,” Nicole began. “But is your bofriend in Indonesia right now? I tried to reach him but his phone isn’t working.”
The woman on the other end hesitated.
“Yes,” she said, “but who the fuck are you?”
Nicole grew emotional telling this story. “The number of wives I’ve talked to who are like, ‘Why are you texting my husband?’” she said. They had no clue what their spouses were going through.
“All these Navy SEALs who are just, you know, a lot of them are really damaged. They’ve had hard, shitty lives. They’ve been in deployments. They come back. A lot of them are divorced and they think this is going to be their meal ticket. And they’re going to turn it all around. They’re going to be a bodyguard for a billionaire.”
Nicole now thought back to the earliest calls she had heard about more than six months ago. They, too, had been flirtatious and awkward, but nothing on this scale. They had evolved; the imposter was improvising as she went along, changing and adopting the scam to fit her whims. The voices were multiplying, taking new shapes as they spread. Now, with these sexual games that seemed to border on abuse, she was also taking more risks, taunting her trackers to follow her into darker corners.
Of all the victims Nicole had so far encountered, the military veterans struck her as the most vulnerable of all, and their pain lingered with her the longest. She knew that even before the scam, they were more susceptible than nonveterans to divorce, self-harm, and substance abuse. If they survived the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, many set up shop in Asia as security contractors for hire. But freelance work was sporadic and unsatisfying, and some of the men had drifted into unem- ployment and even episodic criminality. So, when a Christine Hearst Schwarzman — or, during one intense flurry of calls that targeted a network of Canadian soldiers in 2018, a Melinda Gates — came calling, they jumped at the opportunity. But in spite of their external toughness and years of military experience, they weren’t prepared for the enemy they encountered. They were sitting ducks.
In May 2021, police in Thailand arrested Jared, the former U.S. Marine, and charged him with attempted kidnapping, extortion, and attempted murder after he and several accomplices allegedly abducted a Taiwanese businessman and briefly held him hostage. He was later released on bail. People who knew Jared well wondered whether this criminal turn of events could be traced back to the scam. “As soon as I heard about his arrest, I thought of his experience with Christine Hearst Schwarzman. I think that experience set him on a downward spiral,” said one of his acquaintances, who was also a victim. “He was so raw, you could see the PTSD in his eyes, and then the scammer took advantage of that.” The scammer had ravaged his savings, damaged his self-confidence, and set him on a path of desperation.
Some of them, perhaps to save face, insisted that they had been caught in an Indonesian “intelligence” operation and offered to travel to Indonesia and sort it out for Nicole. As politely as she could, she declined, but of course she empathized with their deflection; it helped them avoid the pain of having been conned. Only when she thought about it later did she realize they weren’t entirely wrong. It was an intel- ligence operation of a sort; an enemy had gotten inside their heads and brought them to their knees. They worried that if they had been taped, the videos might be used by a terror group as a kind of blackmail that could pose security risks to future U.S. operations abroad. This might have seemed like a fanciful abstraction, even paranoid, to an outsider. But it was a real threat for the soldiers, many of whom broke down in tears while recounting their stories to her. For Grey, the emotional fallout lasted for months. He was supposed to be the hero who caught bad guys and investigated evildoers. But Christine had slipped through his defenses.
There seemed to be no depth to which the impersonator wouldn’t sink. Nicole couldn’t shake the story of the seventy-two-year-old veteran photographer. One day he received a call from a woman, a prominent figure in the media landscape, with whom he had a casual acquain- tance. She said her daughter, who was sixteen years old at the time, was getting interested in photography and wanted his advice about what kind of camera she should purchase. Moments later the sixteen- year-old “daughter,” now on the line, initiated explicit, graphic phone sex with the older man. He immediately realized the call was fake, and not only that: a single person was performing both voices, mother and daughter. He hung up and reported the call to the authorities. Nicole had given a lot of thought to what, from a legal and financial stand- point, might transpire if the imposter was eventually caught. Would the victims be able to recoup their losses? What sorts of penalties would follow? But when she listened to the cracking, distraught voice of this abused septuagenarian, the dollars and cents of it all felt irrelevant. “What is that even about?” she wondered. “What is that?”
One day, Blackstone’s in-house security team called Nicole. They wanted to know if she would consider taking Schwarzman on as a client. Nicole chuckled. She had tried to warn Blackstone about the scam months earlier, when it was just a speck on the horizon, and they had declined. Now, as she had predicted, they had been hit, and the details the ex-Marine Jared had provided were depressing in their familiarity. Anthony joked that she was like Carl Hanratty, the dogged FBI agent who spent years tracking the legendary con artist Frank Abagnale Jr. — a true story of cops and conner chronicled in the 2002 film Catch Me If You Can. Abagnale’s fabulist exploits turned him into a doctor, a lawyer, and a copilot for a major American airline, though he was neither trained nor qualified for any of them. The movie, which starred Leonardo DiCaprio as Abagnale and Tom Hanks as Hanratty (based on real-life agent Joseph Shea), revealed a disturbingly symbiotic relationship between the two men. Nicole didn’t yet know who she was chasing, only that whoever it was remained just out of reach. At home, Anthony had started to quote famous lines from the movie back to Nicole when they were lying in bed, or driving to the mall. “You walk out of that door,” he teased her, echoing Hanratty, “they are going to kill you!”
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, phone sex lines were automated. You could see them advertised on billboards at ninety-nine cents a minute: 1-800-976-SEXY, and so forth. They were ubiquitous and soon became a cultural staple, spoofed in music videos, movies, and late-night comedy shows. As a widely available technological interface that simulated intimacy, nothing beat the phone in those years, and the popularity of 976 numbers foretold the explosion of internet porn. From the ether came a voice with an erotic tale replete with moaning and exhortations. Real intimacy through sex is a terrifying enough narcotic. But this kind of numbing exchange could also be addictive. In years to come, for an additional charge, flesh-and-blood people materialized on the other end of the line, and then you were in serious trouble, a state of real extremis: anonymous intimacy. The very idea of an actual person sitting in some location, unknowable and unknown, who followed your orders or ordered you around? Intoxicating.
Nicole thought back to that phone call with the Australian contestant on The Bachelor — his name was Damien Rider — who had spoken with three people at the same time: Wendi Murdoch and her assistant, Aaron, along with Laurene Powell Jobs. As it turned out, there was more to his story.
Eventually Laurene had asked Murdoch and Aaron to get off the call; she wished to speak to Rider alone. At that point, Laurene turned the conversation in another direction. Would Rider like to visit her in Malibu? Would he accompany her to an event as her date? Did he find her attractive? Rider was baffled and felt it necessary to state the obvious: they had never even met. Yes, Laurene agreed but, surely, he’d seen a picture of her? Did he find her attractive? Would he want to kiss her? “Say my name,” Laurene commanded. Rider complied, but Laurene wanted him to say it again and again. As he did, Laurene moaned and carried on moaning until, as far as Rider could tell, she climaxed.
Many other actors had similar experiences, and all of them bore similar features: the same vocal signatures, the same lurid patterns. In one episode that would eventually become part of a lawsuit, an impersonator pretending to be the producer Donna Langley lured an actor into a phone sex call that turned explicit. After some preliminary “kissing,” she began moaning and breathing heavily, and asked if the actor was “getting hard.” She wanted to “hear it,” she said, and asked him to place the phone near his crotch. He pretended to masturbate by slapping his leg. She told him to “stroke it faster, faster, faster” until she came loudly while repeating his name over and over.
Another actor, who believed he was being groomed for a part in a movie with Tom Cruise, to be financed by Elon Musk and filmed in outer space, wound up in a similar setup, having erotic conversations with two different women, one of whom was the same fake Donna Langley. One night, he found himself standing shirtless and staring at a camera at 2 a.m. for an audition. “Do you feel aroused?” his Donna Langley asked. “Are you touching yourself?” He lost it. “What the fuck is wrong with you!” he shouted. His computer screen stared back impassively. By that point, “Donna’s” work was done. The humiliation was complete. To top it off, over the preceding weeks she had also unburdened him of more than $6,000, which he had sent via Western Union to an account in the Philippines.
From the book THE CON QUEEN OF HOLLYWOOD by Scott Johnson Copyright © 2023 by Scott Johnson . Excerpted by permission of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. The book is now available for purchase here.