“Honestly, I wouldn’t believe a word of it, if it didn’t happen to me.” That’s the first thing TV producer Johnathan Walton says to me over the phone, when I call him at his home in LA. It’s 7 am his time, but the early start does little to dampen his spirits and he’s surprisingly chirpy for a man about to recount one of the most traumatic and devastating moments of his life.
“Thank you for doing this, I’m excited,” he enthuses before launching into the specifics of how he was scammed out of thousands of dollars by a woman called Marianne ‘Mair’ Smyth, a fake Irish heiress. A tale of love, friendship and betrayal, the details are almost too implausible to believe… but this really did happen, he assures me.
Intrigued? I don’t blame you. Here’s the full (unbelievable!) story straight from the horse’s mouth.
Taking me through the general timeline of his friendship with the infamous Mair – who has had dozens of names and aliases over the years – Johnathan says that his interactions first began with her when they met in May 2013. She was new to his building, which he describes as “nice, not super luxury… kind of upper-middle-class”.
“We have this gigantic Olympic-sized swimming pool,” he says. “It was the crown jewel of our building, like an oasis in downtown LA and we enjoyed the pool tremendously, but because of a legal fight with another building who had use of the pool, we lost access.” Johnathan organised a meeting in his building to try to resolve the issue. Mair attended, charming everyone and promising that her boyfriend would help them out.”
“She just kind of took over the meeting. It reminded me of Eva Perón in Evita, talking to the masses who adored her. She had that kind of energy. She was brash and bold and charismatic and funny and irreverent. She told dirty jokes and everybody loved her.”
“She tells us she’s from Ireland but she’s been living in the States for years. She’s dating this powerful politician who’s a partner in a law firm. He’s gonna get the pool back, no problem. Her boyfriend had sued this building twice before and they’re scared of him… one letter from his office will get us the pool back.” Basically, she was the heroine from the get-go.
The blossoming friendship
Making it her mission to get to know Johnathan, Mair begins planting the seed of friendship – taking him and his husband to dinner (her treat) and unpacking the rest of her story over the course of the next few months. “My husband loved her. We all loved her,” he tells me.
Johnathan confides in her that his family disowned him for being gay. Mair understands — her family disowned her too. She tells him about her great-uncle. He’s Irish royalty who famously signed the Irish constitution… I’m sure I don’t need to clarify this, but Ireland has no royal family…
Johnathan was oblivious, taking Mair’s fanciful Irish history as fact. “Her uncle’s €25 million estate is being divided up. She’s supposed to get €5 million but her cousins don’t want her to inherit anything. Over the course of the next few months, weeks, months, years, she’d show me text messages from her evil cousin Fintan, from her Irish barrister – all of which is confirming and corroborating everything she’s saying.”
The story is so outlandish and bizarre that Johnathan never questions it. “Why would someone make that up? I, never, not even for a second, suspect that it’s a scam.”
The story continues. Mair tells Johnathan that she works at a luxury travel agency in LA called Pacific Island. She’s the number one seller there. The company is owned by her cousin’s best friend – who actually helped to get her the job back when they were on good terms. Mair doesn’t have to work though, she makes that very clear. “She has a lot of money, but there’s only so much shopping on Rodeo Drive she can do,” Johnathan continues. “She wants to do something where she’s active. So, she loves selling vacations to the Pacific Islands.”
This part of the story is true. Mair really did work at that travel agency… it was actually the catalyst for her downfall. How she got the job? That part was made up.
“She shows me an email from her barrister that says there’s a clause in her uncle’s will that says if any heirs are convicted of a felony, they’ll be disinherited. The barrister’s like, ‘I just wanted to make you aware of this. I don’t think it applies, but you should know.’”
“I was a news reporter for 10 years, and I’d covered stories and read stories about, you know, husbands knocking their wives off over million-dollar insurance policies, and people getting set up. So, immediately, I’m like, ‘Mair, you’ve got to be careful. Like, your boss’s best friend is your cousin Fintan, who now hates you. They might set you up to make it look like you’re stealing so you get convicted of a felony, and they get to keep the money. We’re talking millions of dollars here; people kill for millions of dollars. Be careful.’ And she laughed me off like, ‘No, Johnathan, don’t be stupid. They would never do that. No, no, no.’
“Fast forward, literally a couple of weeks later and I get a call from jail. She’s been arrested, and she’s crying on the phone, telling me I was right. Her family set her up to make it look like she stole $200,000.”
Wetting your beak
She planted the seed and Johnathan took the bait, so again, he believed everything she told him. “I walked right into it. She used my good nature against me. We’re almost a year and a half into our friendship at this point. I love her like a sister. I love her as much as any gay man can love a woman, so I immediately bail her out of jail.” That alone cost $4,200, but Mair pays him back the next day… or rather the married politician she’s dating, pays him back the next day.
“I’ve been investigating con artists for the past five years now, and I can tell you, that that is a huge red flag. That’s called wetting your beak. It’s a technique scammers use. Once she pays me back, I now have confidence in loaning her more money. She’s trustworthy. In my mind, she’s a woman of her word. I feel comfortable loaning her more money down the line.”
Mair slowly reveals more details about her “evil family” to Johnathan. They’re working with a dirty district attorney in Los Angeles to freeze her bank accounts. They have people on the inside, and they’re tapping her phones.
Johnathan was so convinced of her story that he insisted on moving their phones out of earshot anytime they discussed the case. “Every time we would talk about the case, I would take my phone and her phone and put it 500 feet away under a couch cushion. We would talk out of earshot of the phones because they were tapping her phone, you know. Of course, looking back, that was just bullsh*t, but it made it seem real. Like I really thought, you know, I’ve got to help this woman get what’s rightfully hers.”
Johnathan continues lending her money while her bank accounts are supposedly “frozen”.
“I started loaning her money to live on, I pay her rent. By then she moved into a fancier building where the rent was like $6,000 a month. And I paid her rent for a couple of months. And then eventually, she moves back into our building which was like $3,000. And I loaned her like twenty-something thousand to live on for a couple of months.
“You’d think I was worried, but I wasn’t at all because I believed she was going to get her inheritance, and she was showing me emails and text messages from her barristers saying that the case is going to be resolved, everything’s looking good, she’s happy.”
“Then one day, she tells me, all she needs is $50,000 for legal fees and court costs to make the case go away and get her inheritance. Now, you know, people are like, ‘How can you be so stupid?’. Well, have you ever hired a lawyer? When you go to hire a lawyer – and I’ve had to hire lawyers for contract stuff for the work I do in the entertainment industry – they want $5,000, $10,000 on retainer, and then there’s probably more money down the line. Like, I know lawyers are expensive, so when she tells me $50,000, it didn’t strike me as unbelievable.”
Johnathan charges the legal fees to his credit cards, and naturally, Mair is thrilled. He believes the case is over… until a couple of days later he gets another call from Mair. “She tells me the judge is punishing her because she charged the money to my credit cards. He considers that money laundering and he’s going to make her serve 30 days in jail for that to teach her a lesson.” Johnathan buys that story too. “I was very naive at that point,” he admits. This is where it gets interesting.
“She calls me collect from jail, and every day I tell her I’m going to visit her. She says, ‘No, no, no, I don’t want you to see me like this.’ But this is four years into our friendship, she’s like a sister to me, of course, I’m going to go visit her. So, I log on to the jail’s website to schedule a visit and that’s where her house of cards starts falling down. On the jail’s website, you click on the inmate you want to visit and I see what she’s in there for: felony grand theft. A heat rushed over my body and I couldn’t breathe… like felony grand theft?! That’s not what she told me, this has to be some kind of mistake.”
Not sure what to believe, Johnathan leaves work early and goes straight to the courthouse to look through records for Mair’s case… which is where her lies start unravelling. “I find out that she pleaded guilty to stealing $200,000. I didn’t even know that there is no family at this point, I just know, according to court records, that she pleaded guilty. She admitted to doing it and she used the money she’s getting from me to pay restitution – she would have gotten a five-year jail sentence if she didn’t pay restitution, but all she got is 30 days because she’s come up with forty-something thousand to pay them.
“So I find all this out, but I don’t let her know that I know. She’s still calling me from jail. I’m still pretending like everything’s fine. You know, I did a lot of theatre in high school,” he jokes. Thirty days later, he goes to jail to pick her up, confronting her about the situation once they’re in the car together and secretly recording their conversation (which you can listen to on his podcast about Mair, Queen of the Con).
“You were well cut out for this,” I note in response. “Oh, my god. Those words are so profound,” he replies, “because yeah, I was cut out for everything.”
Still expecting to be paid back at this point, Johnathan said he walked away in a huff telling Mair “pay me back or I’m going to the police.” “It occurred to me days later that she’s not going to pay me back. She wasn’t even sorry! So, I went to the police and they turned me away. They said, ‘This is not a crime. You gave her the money’. Which I did, but, you know, I’m grateful they turned me away at first because that prompted me to launch my own investigation.
“I started a blog about what happened to me and soon other victims started contacting me because they googled her name and I came up. I started hearing stories of all the people she scammed.” To his knowledge, Mair used over 23 different aliases and scammed over 40 people. She would also regularly change her appearance to keep things fresh – a nose job here, a boob job there, “tonnes” of liposuction.
One of the other people she conned was a man named Bob who lived in Newport Beach, an affluent city south of LA. Mair tried to get him to add her name to his house lease. “Luckily, his ex-wife got curious about who he was dating so she googled her name, found my blog and showed it to him.” Mair was living with Bob at that point – she’d been evicted from her other apartment after telling her landlord that she had cancer and was waiting on disability payment to come through (another lie).
Several of Mair’s victims have since personally thanked Johnathan for sharing his story. “People have told me ‘Your blog saved me from her. I was about to, you know, go along with this con, and none of it was real, there is no inheritance.’”
Heartened by the positive response he was getting, Jonathan hired different private investigators to help him uncover more about Mair. Together they discovered that not only is she not Irish (she’s from Bangor in Maine), but she’s also a wanted criminal in Northern Ireland too.
The police agree to start a report. “One guy tells me ‘Listen, they’re only going to do something about it if you call about your case every day, become a pain in their a**, or they’re not going to do anything.’ And I thank him for that, because that changed the trajectory of everything. I started calling every day. Every time I found a new victim, I called. Every time I found a new scam, I called.”
After a year of investigating, Mair is finally put on trial for grand theft. She’s still scamming people in the meantime though – pretending to be mentally ill and trying to coerce another mentally ill man into marrying her.
“He was in his late 70s and he’s sick so he’s not going to live much longer. She pretended to have the same mental illness he did. He used to be in the Navy, he fought in a couple of wars, and he’s on disability. So he’s, he’s making like $5,000 a month in retirement and social security and veterans disability, because he served in the military.” Essentially, he was just a walking dollar sign to Mair.
“She wanted to marry him so that when he dies, that money is hers,” Johnathan explains. “He told me that she kept pressuring him to get married. Again, she was saying all the right things. At one point, she even brings in paperwork for him to sign so they can get married. But he won’t do it.
“Eventually he notices that the name she told him and the name on her prescription bottle don’t match, so he googles her and, guess what? He finds my blog and he calls me to tell his story.
No prior bad acts
“The problem with the justice system is she’s on trial for scamming me, right? That’s all we’re allowed to talk about in the trial. I’m not allowed to talk about all these other victims she’s scammed. No prior bad acts is the legal term in the US.” Extremely limited in what he could actually discuss, Johnathan learned how to be tactical in his phrasing. “I do manage while I’m testifying to work in a lot of other scams that I’ve heard. Her attorney objected and the judge usually struck it from the record but the jury had already heard it by that point, so those stories left a mark regardless.”
The trial lasted four days, and Mair was sentenced to five years in prison – she got out early due to Covid. “In California, they were releasing a lot of non-violent criminals – tens of thousands of them, and she was one of them. Once she’s out, she goes straight to Maine, her home state which is about 3,000 miles away from California. Literally the furthest point she could get from me,” Johnathan tells me of her current whereabouts. But she’s still up to her old tricks. “I’m still hearing from victims there that she’s scamming. She changed her name again, but nothing else has changed. She’s still scamming people and getting away with it.”
Mair is also wanted for crimes in Northern Ireland where she scammed over 20 people out of their mortgage deposits. Johnathan has been in touch with a detective there who said it may take years to extradite her.
“Mair has been flexing her muscles of manipulation since childhood. She’s always gotten a thrill from tricking people. That is psychopathy, that’s a psychopath,” Johnathan tells me.
The Jennifer Anniston connection
Mair also claimed to be clairvoyant, calling Johnathan up one day and telling him that she had gotten a job at a psychic hotline. “She said she had never told me because she was ashamed of it, but that the gift apparently ran in her family. Her grandmother used to help police find missing people. I didn’t know what to think, but she started getting more and more clients and was getting good reviews on Yelp, so I started to think, maybe she is psychic?”
One year, Mair invited Johnathan and his husband to a ritzy New Year’s Eve party in Santa Monica. “I think admission was like $500 or something, but she gets us in for free because we’re with her. They hired her as a psychic to read guests at the party. So we go and drink and have a good time at the party, and I literally witnessed her bring dozens of people to tears with her accuracy.”
Jennifer Anniston was supposedly one of her most high-profile celebrity clients and Mair had the email and text correspondences to prove it. “People in Ireland are like, ‘Who would believe that?’ Well, we’re in Los Angeles. It’s not unfounded that someone I know knows Jennifer Aniston. When I worked on Shark Tank, I was in Sony studios, and I was working down the hall from Will Smith. I would talk to him every day getting coffee. So, it’s not a crazy assertion that someone in LA knows Jennifer Aniston.”
(Johnathan later found out that these correspondences were all false and had been crafted by Mair herself.)
“A lot of the victims she scammed who started seeing her as a psychic all told me the same thing; the first couple of readings were staggeringly accurate. She knew things that were impossible for her to know, she must have a gift. But as she gets to know someone, she can’t read them anymore. Familiarity is her kryptonite. So, I really do believe she has a psychic ability, but she can only read strangers, which is why she couldn’t read me because we became fast friends very quickly.”
After her psychic abilities started wearing off, Mair would tell clients that she was also a psychologist and could help them with life coaching. She would turn all those victims into clients of her psychology practice, and give them therapy and life coaching… and they would pay her tens of thousands of dollars for her services. Mair would give them homework to glean information from them.
Curious as to whether Mair only went for a specific type of person, I asked Johnathan if he could see himself in any of the other victims – was there a unifying thread that she preyed on? He doesn’t think so. “That’s the thing I’ve learned because I get asked that a lot. Each scam was different. Mair is what the FBI call a rescue merchant – she offers to help people, that was her way into everyone’s life. For me, it was offering to help with the pool. For Bob, she told him she could help him with his custody battle.”
A lot of Johnathan’s understanding of the situation has only occurred to him in hindsight. Explaining a recent realisation he had, he tells me that he thinks Mair preyed on him because he’s a “do-gooder”. “I’m the guy who goes out of his way to set up flyers everywhere and get everyone together, essentially for justice, right? So she uses that desire [to do good] against me, because the scam she comes up with is based on my natural inclination to help people. And she knew that. I didn’t realise that until recently.”
Already with ten podcast episodes detailing the intricacies of her scams, Johnathan says that he’s since found out enough information for at least five more follow-ups.
Did he ever feel sorry for her? Even now, in hindsight? In a word, no. “No, I don’t feel sorry for her because I don’t consider her a human being. She’s scammed so many people, including her own daughters, her own family. Even the most notorious mobster in America, who’s murdered scores of people and has blood on his hands, even he loves his family. He looks out for his children. You know, this woman does not have that ability. In my mind, she’s not a human being. She has no empathy, no remorse for anyone or anything.”
“Now, I think everything’s a scam,” he laughs.
As for the new season of the podcast; yes, it’s about another scam, no, he hasn’t been personally victimised by this one… though he still deems it as being personal considering how much time he’s invested in the story. “This new season was born out of other people contacting me for help. There’s one case that I started looking into, Lizzie Mulder, I uncovered a bunch of new scams related to the story and now the Department of Justice might open up a new case based on what I uncovered.”
Johnathan agrees that it’s an incredible feeling knowing that he’s helping people. “Initially, I just felt forsaken by God. Like, why would this happen to me? I’m a good person. I’ve done nothing but help people my whole life. But then as the months and now years have passed, I realise it was meant to happen to me. This is what I was meant to do.
“I know that sharing my story is helping people. I hear that directly from them and it makes me feel that I was meant to go through what I went through.”
Are there aspirations to maybe bring this to another medium down the line? “100%. The podcast has been a huge success, thank God. And yeah, we’re trying to do a documentary series. We’re trying to do a scripted series, because this story has a lot of legs. And the more people that see it, the better. By the time I’m done with her, the world will know her face and she’ll never be able to scam anyone again.”