The Witch Doctor of Hampstead's Sad Trail of Destruction
How Juliette D’Souza conned rich Londoners out of £5m and a capuchin monkey.
Joey the capuchin monkey, the only one to emerge from the insane Juliette D'Souza fraud case somewhat intact
For nearly 20 years, Juliette D’Souza was shaman consultant to the Hampstead set. Installing herself in a range of residences, using her boggly-eyed believability and guided-missile nose for the gullible, deluded and desperate, she tugged off-the-scale sums out of London’s genteel posh folks by claiming she could cure their cancer / earache / lousy lovelife / terrible sense of direction by hanging all of their spare cash from a "sacred tree" in the Amazon, to be "sacrificed" by a shaman called Pa.
And what sums they were; her boldness was her genuis. Eighty-two-year-old ex-opera singer Sylvia Eaves lost £254,000, part of which she borrowed from friends, part of which she re-mortgaged her house to generate. One day, she was driven around London by a friend of D’Souza's to withdraw a £30,000 instalment from separate branches of Barclays in £3,000 cash sums, to stuff it into the manila envelopes D’Souza demanded for "sacrifices". An unnamed woman who didn’t testify at the trial apparently gave £600,000. Another gave her £170,000. Unofficially, D’Souza’s total winnings from her shaman game are estimated at around £5 million, scraping at the reigning fraud champion: a Goldman Sachs secretary, who a decade ago set the criminal justice world alight by managing to scam £5.4 million from her employers. Not bad for an ex-cleaner from Guyana.
At her trial – just concluded at Blackfriars Crown Court – the judge all but marvelled at the farcical success of her farcical operation. “It is the worst case of confidence fraud I have ever had to deal with or indeed that I have ever heard of.”
“I felt terribly let down that she could behave like that,” said one of D’Souza’s former friends, a local hairdresser, elegantly demonstrating her mastery of English understatement.
And this was a case that positively thrived on the pliability of the English temperament. On an old-school vision of Hampstead village, that last bastion of true English domesticity in an increasingly alien and sprawling London. It was a farce worthy of Noel Coward, a morality play pitched somewhere between Terrence Rattigan and The Producers. A tale of the triumph of delusion over reason, of greed over good judgement, of how powerful our deepest wishes can be if someone offers them to us on a plate, and of how the market intervenes to act as a machine that separates fools from their money. Ouija boards on the Chippendale furniture. Voodoo curses muttered in the organic cheese delis.
This was dark shit. But it was dark shit from central casting. There was prim, Miss Marple-style pensioner and former Glyndebourne soprano, Eaves. There was dying solicitor Richard Collier-Wright, who – in his quiet desperation to live – was willing to cast off all the scepticism his Oxford education and legal work had taught him, and throw money and magic at cancer. There was Jocelyn Bain-Hogg, a reportage photographer, who coughed up £145,000 "to improve the health of his mother who was having heart surgery". Despite a client list that included Vogue, Vanity Fair and the Sunday Times, he was soon after declared bankrupt.
There was Ruth Fillingham, who paid a total of £169,000 from 1998 to 2004 for a shopping list of arbitrary bullshit. She coughed up, “to ward off the evil spirit of her deceased brother, to save her partner from a non-existent tumour and to ensure her eye surgery would be a success – which it was not”. In the end, her debts meant the bank foreclosed on her home. Her partner, Geoff Wheeler, who'd already survived the non-existent tumour, was a classic salary man who also paid over £100,000 to "save himself from being made redundant". But he was. And in the end, he too was left "poor as a church mouse".
There was genial balding local osteopath Keith Bender, already blinded by pseudo-science, who’d been actively recommending people to D’Souza, before he became increasingly worried that perhaps the magic tree-Amazon-shaman-Pa-money-sacrifice game wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. More tragically, there was the well to-do family who paid £42,000 in the hope that it would cure their Down's Syndrome son from the behavioural problems that had seen him thrown out of two schools.
And winning the tragedy cup: the young "City high-flier", who’d read one of D’Souza’s ads in the back of Tatler offering consultations for just £35. She was having difficulty getting pregnant. Could this boggly-eyed South American help? Of course she could. For £170,000. Magic tree. Money sacrifice. Amazon. Pa. Etc.
And so it came to pass that this young exec became pregnant. But then D’Souza told her that the baby would be born deformed, so she needed to abort it. Such was the spell under which she’d been held, that she went out and did exactly that.
Over and over again, people just did exactly what she told them. They did not blink. They did not question. D’Souza clearly came with the absolutism of the magnificently deranged.
“She would deliver the information in such a way that you felt you had no choice,” Ruth Fillingham said. “The threats, if the money was not handed over, were very frightening. Death and all sorts of things...”
Some people are just a virus in the human genome. But most of the bad seed falls on stony ground. If you're mad and bad, it's unlikely you'll seem believable or likeable. D'Souza, on the other hand, managed that unique combo of being both highly mad and highly competent.
In the end, perhaps a bit too late, the penny dropped for Eaves, who suffers from the early stages of Alzheimer’s. On her way to Suriname for the tree-plus-shaman-plus-burning end of things, she received a telephone call from a "Mrs Brown" who told her that her money was being held in Heathrow by the government. Mrs Brown explained to her that she’d have to pay a £50,000 "money tax" before the cash could clear customs. She then asked about her cat’s health. But no one except D’Souza knew that her cat was ill. It was, Eaves told the court, a lot like the "Don't Tell Him Pike" joke in Dad’s Army – a stupid utterance that gave the game away from someone too sure of her own authority.
Yes, it was. It was Keeping Up Appearances, too. It was The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin, Gimme Gimme Gimme, To The Manor Born and Chris Morris’ Jam all blended together into one ghastly surreal farce of high manners and low skulduggery. It was one big groaningly laboured satire on wealth and conspicuous consumption. Part of the psychology of D’Souza seems to be the sheer outrageousness of her demands. It’s a pricing strategy that the high-end brands that she loved know only too well. Ask someone for 50 percent above the market rate, and they’ll consider it in terms of what they paid last time. Ask someone for 5000 percent above the market rate, and they’ll lose that frame of reference altogether. Your demand becomes about a whole new category of object. The tables get turned – if it’s that expensive, then how could it not be worth it? For all that money, well you must be getting something of value, surely? Marc Jacobs knows this. Jasper Conran understands it. But what about when what you're selling isn't just an astonishingly overpriced Eames chair but pretty much a thought experiment in sheer uselessness?
What happened to all of that money, harvested from the credulous in a decent working proof of how most wealth remains uncorrelated to intelligence? From her side, D’Souza seems to have lived like a barn animal that had recently joined the Manson Family – evil eyes were scrawled on the walls of her flats. Investigators found heaps of garbage amidst unopened Chanel and Marc Jacobs bags full of never-worn thousand-pound items, in-between the antique furniture that could never be shown off to anyone in a house in that state. There were voodoo dolls. There were burnt photos of her clients. There was an unused, still-boxed barrister’s wig. There was a capuchin monkey on a perch. When professionally gullible osteopath Keith Bender broke in with a mind to the return of his money, the thing that really pissed him off was the seven freezers full of rotting meat – because D’Souza had told them all not to eat red meat or drink alcohol or else their sacrifices would be invalidated. A highly observant man, Bender cast an eye around and at that moment decided that something, something wasn’t quite right here.
Overall, there’s a sense here of someone who had to spin the gyre ever-faster in order to outrun the brittle chaos she’d created. She rented nine addresses in West London simultaneously. Paid a year’s rent in cash to the landlords. Then set about trashing the places by neglect. This wasn’t someone who ever cared for anything, be it her clients or herself. All she seemed to be interested in was maintaining a small lens of external illusion that she was part of the London jetset. That she, the interloper ex-cleaner, former receptionist and temp, was as important as anyone in the rarefied old money circles of Hampstead.
D’Souza sought to create constant movement, constant permanent revolution in her life, perhaps as much to stop herself from dwelling too much on her crimes. This was not someone who ever settled. The cut-off switch in her brain didn't function. She was homo economicus. More was always more to her. More Chanel than she could wear. More houses than she could live in. More holidays than she could feasibly ever go on. The motor of her life was acquisition, and the means was "any necessary". She showed exactly how easy that can be if you’re really prepared to live by that idea, to see it through absolutely to the letter. She took the balls-out maximum she possibly could and then, it seems, like so many of these fraudsters, she had absolutely no fucking idea what she should be doing with it. That's the other half of the morality play: the sheer futility of consumption. How, despite winning the game, it never turned into whatever it was she was really looking for.
But for all the horrors and indignities endured by the victims of D'Souza, there was at least one whose story turned out OK in the end. Her capuchin monkey – rescued from her rotting flat by an animal sanctuary. Eventually, it was nursed back to health, and after a while, it was adopted by a new owner. A nice, genial, quintessential Englishman of the kind you might find propping up a revival of a Noel Coward farce, or broadcasting his wit around the high tables of Hampstead. Yes. It's true. Her monkey now belongs to Stephen Fry.
Previously – Get the Hell Off Twitter, Morrissey