If you need to refresh your memory, Part 1 is here.
In the summer of 2003, writers began hearing about a major writers’ conference and celebrity charity event to be held in Banff, Alberta. Well-known editors and agents would be in attendance at the conference; famous entertainers such as Celine Dion would grace the event, the proceeds of which would benefit a national autism foundation. The conference registration cost was a bit steep–$1,699 US, including accomodations–but hey, it sounded totally fab.
Originally scheduled for August, the conference was postponed, supposedly due to smoke from forest fires near Banff. Instead, it would be held in October–though the organizer, Elisabeth von Hullessem, didn’t give an actual reschedule date. Then, in September, von Hullessem skipped town for parts unknown, failing to refund the writers who’d paid the registration fees, and neglecting to notify the well-known literary agents who’d agreed to attend to the event.
It certainly did to Writer Beware, when news about the Banff conference scam first appeared in early October 2003. We were also struck by the similarity in writing styles between the solicitation letters sent out by von Hullessem and the correspondence we’d seen from the supposedly dead Melanie Mills–though it hardly seemed credible that the two could be the same.
But fact really can be stranger than fiction. On October 28, 2003, von Hullessem was found in British Columbia, arrested by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and returned to Banff, where she was charged with seven counts of fraud, two counts of false pretenses, and one count of theft. According to official statements by the RCMP, von Hullessem had many aliases and was wanted in the US for fraud-related offenses.
That clinched it for me–I was sure now that Mills and von Hullessem had to be the same person.
I contacted the RCMP officer in charge of the case. He confirmed that he was looking into the Mills connection. I was able to fill him in on Mills’s shady dealings in South Carolina, including the fake writers’ conference there (obviously, in hindsight, a test run for the more elaborate scam in Banff). I also put him in touch with the North Myrtle Beach Police Dept. detective who was investigating Mills. Under questioning, von Hullessem later admitted that she’d operated as Melanie Mills; a mug shot sent by the RCMP to the South Carolina detective confirmed the identification.
In return, the RCMP officer told me all about “Elisabeth von Hullessem,” one of 16 aliases of a woman named Lisa Hackney. The daughter of wealthy German countess Greta (or Gurda; the news reports use both names) von Meerscheidt-Hullessem, Hackney lived in a trailer on her mother’s estate in Arkansas. In the fall of 1999, Countess Greta went away to Europe on vacation. A little later, an apparently distraught Hackney informed neighbors that her mother had been killed in a car accident in Germany (sound familiar?). She filed the paperwork to declare her mother dead, and proceeded to embezzle about $250,000 in merchandise and money from the estate.
But then–whoops–Mom and her boyfriend returned. They called Hackney from the airport to ask for a ride. When they got back to the house, Hackney tried to run her mother over with the car, pinning her against a cement picnic table, crushing her pelvis and causing internal injuries (according to the sheriff’s report, if the table hadn’t fallen, Countess Greta probably would have been killed). Hackney then fled, knocking down and injuring her mother’s boyfriend in the process. She was caught and arrested, spending 28 days in jail before getting out on bail–which she promptly jumped, moving on first to Missouri (where, among other felonies, she passed bad checks), and then to South Carolina, where she embarked upon her career as M.W. Mills, Literary Agent.
The whole thing was so outlandish that it excited quite a bit of crossover interest in the media–not something that often happens with literary scams. Several newspapers and publishing industry periodicals gave it coverage, including Publishers Lunch:
It was even the subject of a cartoon in the January 4, 2004 New York Times Book Review. I cut the cartoon out; it’s preserved for posterity in my Lisa Hackney file.
Those of us who were hoping that Hackney would do time in Canada were disappointed. She was able to broker a plea bargain in answering the charges against her, and was sentenced to time served (less than a month in custody awaiting her hearing) in exchange for a plea of guilty and an agreement to refund the defrauded authors. She didn’t let any grass grow under her feet in getting outta Dodge…er, Banff.
Weird enough for you? But wait–there’s even more. The bizarro conclusion in Part 3.