true crime

Vivien thought she'd fallen for a millionaire. P.I. Julia Robson uncovered the truth.

“Millionaire seeking a lifetime partner. I’m a successful businessman tired of all the shit and insincerity of women chasing after my money. I’ve been working overseas, I’ve now come back to Australia. I’m looking for a mature woman. We can share our lives together.”

Vivien stopped scrolling. This Craiglist ad was different from the others. Buried among the litany of sexual propositions, it sounded almost like a dare, a challenge: are you the ‘right’ kind of woman? Can you live up to what I need?

He couldn’t be serious, she thought. Surely a millionaire wouldn’t advertise his wealth, especially on online classifieds.

She replied to him, jokingly.

“I can’t even remember what I wrote. But it obviously got his [attention]. He thought, ‘Here’s another sucker.’

“Looking back, he must have thought that.”

***

What followed is the subject of Chasing Charlie, a new true-crime podcast produced by a female-led team at Fremantle Media and hosted by Melbourne-based private investigator, Julia Robson.

Robson, a former New Zealand police officer, was engaged by Vivien in the dying days of 2011, after Vivien became aware that ‘Charlie’ — the author of the Craiglist ad, whom she ended up dating — had expertly conned her out of almost $70,000 in less than two months.

As Robson dug into the case, it became clear this man had spun a web of deceit and destruction around the world, ensnaring dozens of victims, yet largely escaping the criminal justice system.

“This case was different,” Robson told Mamamia. “Normally, as an investigator, you are just the middle-person person, so you’re instructed by a lawyer or client to find evidence. You get the evidence and then you hand it back, and they will finish the process. But I really took this on and said, ‘You know what? No one’s going to stop this guy unless I do. No matter what, I’m going to make sure that I get some kind of justice.'”

Over the next seven years, she followed his electronic and physical trail, speaking to the women and men he’d left littered along the way. Those interviews form the backbone of the podcast, throwing into sharp relief the Machiavellian tactics ‘Charlie’ used to get what he wanted.

When Vivien met Charlie.

It’s Vivien’s story Robson focuses on in the first three episodes of the series. (At least four more instalments are on the way.) Vivien is single after a 30-year marriage, an empty nester, looking for a new relationship.

We learn that after she replied to that Craiglist ad, its author introduced himself as Charlie, a wealthy New Zealand businessman in Australia to negotiate the purchase of luxury Melbourne apartments. (As Robson later found out, only the New Zealander part was true.)

He spent the next three weeks flooding her with text messages, seducing her with his vision of the future; one of international travel, time spent in the French Riviera where he often worked, and of a partner who is sincere and genuine and challenges him.

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Vivien saw red flags behind the fantasy; she took notes, even questioned him. He had sensical answers for everything.

The onslaught of text messages over those weeks was all-consuming. She started neglecting work, cancelling plans with friends so she could keep responding — all completely out of character.

It was classic grooming.

“That’s the art of the con,” Robson said. “All you end up thinking about is this individual and how you want to please them. So they’ve certainly got this control over you.”

But Charlie was no ordinary ‘catfish’.

“I’ve dealt with a lot of romance scammers, and what you’ll find is that most of them are based internationally and they have no intention of even meeting their victims. And that’s because they’re creating these fictitious characters online, using stolen photographs, and creating whole different personas,” Robson said. “Charlie was going that one step further and actually meeting these people in real life.”

As Robson explores in the podcast, Charlie’s tactics in person are even more stunning and sadistic. There’s physical and emotional abuse, sexual demands, psychological manipulation. And it all feeds into creating an environment where Vivien can be persuaded to part with her hard-earned money.

Vivien stresses repeatedly in her interviews that she doesn’t know how she was victimised — she’s strong, she’s very intelligent, she’s surrounded by concerned loved ones. But in the face of a conman as disturbingly expert as ‘Charlie’, none of that is a guaranteed defence.

“In order to meet a stranger and open your heart up to them, you have to let down your guard, and that’s showing a level of vulnerability that you wouldn’t otherwise show when you’re dealing with people in your normal day-to-day life,” Robson said. “And this is what makes a good con artist: they’re looking for that vulnerability and they’re constantly analysing you and interviewing you and working out the best ways to prey on that vulnerability.”

Undoing some of that stigma is a key part of Robson’s motivation for making Chasing Charlie.

“It happens more often than people realise,” she said. “People like myself, we know it’s happening. And it’s not the first time we’ve heard a story like that.

“It shouldn’t be a shameful thing to talk about.”

Another was to elicit information that would pin Charlie down: “It was hard to try and track his movements, because he was going to Portugal, the UK, United States, France,” she said. “But then as the story progresses, new information comes in and things take a quite a dramatic turn.”

Robson hints at a satisfying conclusion.

“Without giving away the ending,” Robson teases, “I do get to meet him face to face.”

You can listen to Chasing Charlie on Acast.

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