The first time Johnathan Walton, 45, met the woman who became his best friend and turned into his worst enemy, she was offering help with his building's pool.
In the spring of 2013, Walton, a producer for unscripted shows including American Ninja Warrior and Shark Tank, and his neighbors at a Bunker Hill apartment complex in downtown Los Angeles, lost access to their stunning pool amid a dispute with another building. When Walton, an earnest and animated former TV news reporter, held a meeting about the incident in his living room, about 30 people showed up.
Walton hadn't yet met one neighbor and attendee, a handsome 40-something woman with jet-black hair and a pixie cut, who soon took charge of the conversation. She was dressed in pastel-colored clothes and shoes that looked high-end and spoke articulately in a voice with the slightest trace of an accent. Her name was Mair Smyth and she was a luxury travel agent. Her boyfriend was a prominent real estate lawyer, she said, and had sued their own apartment complex "a couple times" and won. He had recommended they start a tenants' association. As the group warmed to the idea, Smyth bantered with neighbors and laughed at Walton's jokes. Almost instantly, she reminded him of Sally Field's pro-union activist character in 1979's Norma Rae: brash, funny and straightforward. He liked her.
This was some time before Smyth, whose full first name Walton later would learn was Marianne, convinced him that she was an Irish heiress who stood to inherit 5 million euros. In time, she would also mention that she was pals with Ashley Judd; show him a closet full of allegedly thousand-dollar designer shoes; and share that she had a psychic gift. It was years before Walton and others began to suspect that all these boasts were lies, part of an elaborate scheme that ensnared several individuals in the entertainment industry, and left Walton filing for personal bankruptcy. "Back then, I was a different person and I took everything at face value," he says now. "That's how they get in your life, they try to help you."
Smyth, indeed, was a practiced operative. But her success in conning Walton and other individuals in and around Hollywood from at least 2013 to 2017 speaks not just to her skill, but to a shrewd choice of setting. Like many creators and wannabes in entertainment, "Mair" was boastful and prone to exaggeration, while her marks were too accustomed to white lies to suspect hers might be insidious. Smyth's run in L.A. demonstrates the strange parallels between con artist and Hollywood creator, performer and professional liar. Her underestimation of the storytellers who became her marks, however, also proved to be her downfall.
Smyth unwound her story for Walton slowly, over many meetings. During her first dinner with Walton and his husband, Pablo Maseda, at a fondue restaurant, she mentioned she was from Ireland. Later, on a visit to her apartment, Walton glimpsed a small, framed print of what Smyth said was the Constitution of Ireland, hanging in her living room. Her great-uncle had signed it, she explained, pointing out his signature. (There were no signatories to the 1937 Constitution of Ireland.) At a later point, Smyth added that the same great-uncle had just died and she stood to inherit part of his 25 million-euro (about $27.5 million) estate. In keeping with her image as a wealthy, worldly heiress, Smyth occasionally showed Walton texts and emails from her friend, actor Ashley Judd, whom she said she had met in college, where they pledged the same sorority. Walton didn't question these assertions: "She seemed wealthy, she seemed educated, she fit the part that she was playing to a T." (Smyth, through the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, declined to speak for this story.)
Smyth began to regularly invite Walton and Maseda to dinner at upscale L.A. restaurants — like Drago Centro and The BonaVista Lounge — always paying for her new friends. Later, she treated the couple to a weekend vacation in Palm Springs at a home she said was a wealthy client's, where she again paid for their meals. Due to her family's money, Smyth said she didn't need a job but preferred to keep busy, working first for luxury tour operator PacificIslands.com and, later, as a psychic running Orchid Psychics. In the time Walton knew her, she also had several plastic surgeries, including what he recalls as a nose job, a breast enhancement and some liposuction. "At the time I just thought, 'Oh, this is what wealthy women do. They have a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon,' " Walton says.
As she got to know him better, Smyth singled Walton out for friendship and frequently asked him to hang out at the Bunker Hill Towers' barbecue patio. Walton grew to love Smyth for what he believed to be her candor and no-bullshit attitude. He opened up to her about how he was estranged from some of his family members who didn't accept his sexuality. She understood how painful alienation from family members could be, she said, revealing that her cousins dividing her great-uncle's estate with her were trying to get her disinherited. In the weeks following, she showed him nasty texts and emails from those cousins, especially one named Fintan, who occasionally wrote in Gaelic. "I was enthralled," Walton says of Smyth's family drama. "It was like a soap opera plot, but it was happening in real life."
Unbeknownst to Walton, Smyth was enthralling other people in and outside of his circle with iterations of this same story. To Tess Cacciatore, the founder of GWEN Global, which produces international films and TV series, Smyth was a philanthropic Irish heiress set to inherit around $50 million. To a Hollywood costume designer who asked to remain anonymous and says she spent $10,000 on life coaching services, Smyth was a life coach inheriting $25 million from her Cork-based uncle who came from Irish royalty. (The Republic of Ireland doesn't have a royal family.) To electrical engineer Bob Turner, whom Smyth dated in 2016 and early 2017, Smyth was an Irish heiress and a former Olympic-level figure skater as well as a child custody expert (Smyth would later attempt to persuade Turner to put her on the title of his two homes).
Ashley Judd wasn't the only famous name Smyth dropped to her acquaintances, either. Film producer Mark, who asked that THR not use his real name, met Smyth through an online dating site in 2014 and learned she was a psychic originally from Ireland who was "best friends" with Jennifer Aniston. On two separate meetings, she arranged to introduce the two — "Aniston" didn't show, texting and calling Smyth with excuses. Later, Smyth gave Mark "Aniston's" email address and number, ensnaring him in a text and email chain (the latter shown to THR) where the ostensible star lambasted him for not caring enough about Smyth. By the start of 2015, Mark asked a friend who was good with computers to research both Smyth and "Aniston's" number and email. Though the friend couldn't find much on Smyth, she warned Mark to stop communicating with "Aniston." "Everyone has history and this 'Jen' cellphone and email, neither of them have any history whatsoever," Mark recalls his friend saying.
In the year after Walton met Smyth, they grew increasingly close. He shot pictures for Smyth's online dating profiles and met her second daughter, Chelsea, who visited a few times during the friendship. When Smyth later moved to Pacific Electric Lofts downtown and then a building called 717 Olympic, near L.A. Live, the two ended their frequent calls by saying, "I love you." They came to refer to one another as best friends.
As he continued to discuss Smyth's inheritance with her, Walton worried for his friend. Her great-uncle's will contained a clause exempting any potential recipient convicted of a felony, she told him. Walton voiced his fears that Smyth's cousins might frame her to push her out of the will.
On July 8, 2014, Walton's speculation seemed to come to horrible fruition. He received a collect call from the Century Regional Detention Facility: Smyth had been arrested on charges that she had stolen about $200,000 from PacificIslands.com, she told Walton over the phone. Her cousins were setting her up, she added, adamant that she hadn't stolen any money and wasn't charged with a felony, so she could still receive an inheritance when her named was cleared. "I told you; I told you. This was your cousins, right?" Walton said. Walton paid $4,200 for bail to secure her release, and one of Smyth's boyfriends paid him back the next day.
For nearly a year, Walton and Smyth spoke almost daily of her travel agency case, Walton says. And in April 2015, Smyth asked him, tears cascading down her face, for another loan: The L.A. district attorney had frozen her bank accounts, and she needed $5,800 to pay rent at 717 Olympic. Walton wrote her a cashier's check, and both agreed that when she regained access to her bank account or received her inheritance, she would pay him back. In the meantime, she moved back into Bunker Hill Towers for relatively cheaper rent. With the case still ongoing, Smyth asked him for a $3,800 rent loan the following month. Walton wrote another cashier's check.
Over a year passed and the case dragged on, with Walton receiving frequent updates. In September 2016, an end to the litigation finally seemed near: Smyth told Walton that if she paid a plea agreement of $50,000, the case would be resolved and her bank accounts would reopen. She asked for another loan, but Walton didn't have that kind of money in savings, so he charged two of his credit cards.
It's not uncommon for victims to be scammed multiple times by the same con artist, so vivid are the stories that experienced operatives can weave. Smyth's requests certainly weren't over for Walton after he had forked over nearly $60,000: The judge in her travel-agency case had slapped her with a 30-day jail sentence to take place in February 2017 for "money laundering" (which can be a misdemeanor in California) by using Walton's credit cards to pay the plea agreement, she said: That meant Walton would have to wait until the end of the sentence to be paid back. And, Smyth requested another $4,000 loan, saying she had to pay for another witness in her case to travel to L.A.; Walton was confused and angry, but acquiesced. Walton also loaned his friend $2,000 for a lawyer to help her avoid eviction at Bunker Hills Towers.
As he fielded request after request, Walton continued to believe that after Smyth served jail time and her accounts reopened, she would repay him. That misapprehension evaporated one day during her February 2017 sentence when Walton logged on to the jail's website to schedule a visit. As he clicked on her profile at the L.A. County Sheriff's website, he noticed something strange: Contrary to what Smyth had told him, she'd been charged with and convicted of a felony. "I got scared," Walton says. He took a day off work and traveled to the Airport Courthouse near LAX to draw up records on Smyth's case. "When I started going through the records, I realized everything she told me was a lie."
It was true that Smyth had been charged with grand theft by embezzlement for allegedly stealing $200,000 from PacificIslands.com and was jailed in July 2014; it was also true she had taken a plea deal and spent 30 days in jail after. "She found a way to play with the credit card process, not ours, but the bank's … It was some sort of Ponzi scheme," PacificIslands.com managing director Jean-Patrick Mouflard explains. "A Ponzi scheme at some point always catches up with you." What she hadn't mentioned to Walton, who wasn't familiar with the criminal justice system at the time, was that the plea agreement meant that she had pleaded guilty, that her bank accounts had never been frozen, that her plea agreement was for $40,000, not $50,000, and included a 180-day jail sentence (later reduced to 30 days), that she had never been accused of "money laundering" and never had to pay for a witness to travel to L.A.
"I was devastated and I felt guilty, sad and angry and I didn't understand why it was happening," Walton says.
Still, he believed there was hope that Smyth would pay him back if he threatened legal action. On March 14, the day of her release, Walton picked her up in his car from the Century Regional Detention Center and surreptitiously activated his iPhone's Voice Memos app to record their conversation. "You've been lying to us the whole time about everything," he said. "What do you mean?" she asked in a small voice. He told her he had seen her court documents and knew she had been convicted of a felony: "You're busted. So from here on in, we're not friends." She protested as her eyes welled up before the two parted. The next day, Walton filed a police report alleging a total theft of $75,000 by trickery — that she tricked him into giving her money to get out of jail and pay a plea agreement.
It wasn't long before the reality producer learned he was just one of many Angelenos to whom Smyth owed money. After confronting his former friend, Walton combed through Smyth's social media and her Orchid Psychics Yelp account to warn people around her. He started a blog, then a detailed website, to tell his story and provide contact information. Walton's landlord shared that Smyth was more than $12,000 behind in apartment payments and had delayed them further by claiming that she had cancer and that her disability insurance wasn't arriving on time.
Walton's case took months to get assigned to a detective at the LAPD. In the meantime, the former reporter embarked on his own investigative work: He hired six private detectives to look into Smyth's history. Background checks revealed she had also been charged with writing bad checks and fraud, among other counts, in Tennessee and grand theft, among other counts, in Florida. Old images of Smyth revealed that she once had blond hair and red hair, short and long in length; Walton began to think her plastic surgeries were also attempts at disguise. In the spring of 2017, a detective for the Newry, Mourne and Down District Council in Northern Ireland got in touch with Walton about a mortgage scam Smyth had allegedly run in Northern Ireland, prior to moving to L.A. (When reached by THR, Det. Mark Anderson said he couldn't provide details on an open investigation and added, "give [Walton] my thanks for all he has done.")
A breakthrough in Walton's investigation occurred one morning over coffee, when he remembered that he still had Smyth's AOL account password. (One day Smyth, driving, feared she had been hacked and asked him to log in for her.) Walton quickly re-accessed the account, found email addresses for Smyth's Irish "cousins" Fintan, Tristan and Dairmuid and tried gaining access to the cousins' email accounts on separate platforms like Gmail and Outlook using the same password — which worked. Walton opened the accounts of "Jennifer Aniston," "Ashley Judd" and other digital aliases, overall uncovering 23 separate email personas, including one for Walton himself. He would learn Smyth had impersonated hockey icons Jack Capuano, Garth Snow, an alleged victim's ex-wife, an Irish mobster named "Finnegan" and L.A. Deputy District Attorney Heba Matta to former boyfriend Bob Turner.
Walton found and spoke with dozens of alleged victims, urging them to file police reports. Many didn't want to, out of shame or simply indifference. Only an estimated 15 percent of U.S. fraud victims report their experiences to law enforcement, per the U.S. Attorney's Office. Even so, several alleged victims — including the costume designer, electrical engineer Turner, his babysitter Sarah Coffin and more — were willing to team up with Walton to compare notes and attend restitution proceedings in which PacificIslands.com was pressing for compensation from Smyth.
Walton believes Smyth was frightened by the idea that her victims would team up. During the travel agency hearings they attended, "She sees us, she freaks out," he says. That spring, Smyth checked into Kedren Community Health Center (Walton says she told hospital personnel she was a danger to herself). Smyth was admitted and later stayed at the psychiatric ward of the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. She was released to the assisted living facility Wilmington Gardens, where she remained until she was arrested on Walton's grand theft charges on April 5, 2018.
By the time of his court case in early 2019, Walton had identified patterns in Smyth's alleged scams: She had several ongoing formulas, including the heiress and cancer ruses, blackmailing married men she met on dating sites and promising to help marks make major life changes. She also often impersonated real people, including alleged past victims, via email or text. Walton was planning a documentary on his experience with Smyth and started a GoFundMe campaign to finance it. (He was in a tough financial situation, which his transformation into a vigilante investigator hadn't helped: He had filed for personal bankruptcy after having loaned Smyth nearly $70,000 and spent nearly $3,000 of his own money on private detectives. After he informed his credit card companies that he had been scammed, his interest rates shot up; he hired one attorney to file for bankruptcy and another to defend himself against a temporary restraining order Smyth filed against him. He estimates he ultimately lost nearly $92,000 to Smyth.)
When the trial began on Jan. 3, 2019, Walton was terrified: "It was the culmination of two years, six private investigators, over $20,000 of my own money spent on bringing this woman to justice. Everything was riding on it." Smyth, represented by a public defender, was silent during the entire trial, pale-faced and dressed in professional attire. In court hearings and pre-trial motions, she wore minimal to no makeup and at one point carrying crutches, to Walton's disbelief.
To prove a pattern of lies, the prosecution included three witnesses: Smyth's onetime boyfriend Turner, the Hollywood costume designer and Chelsea Welch, Smyth's second daughter, who flew in from Knoxville, Tennessee. Welch revealed that when she first met Walton years earlier, she believed that her mother had reformed and was earning her living honestly; that illusion dissipated when Welch started talking to Walton while her mother was in jail for the PacificIslands.com case.
On the stand, Welch said that her mother was born in Bangor, Maine, and had no Irish inheritance or connection to royalty. She had, however, lived with Welch and Welch's Irish stepfather in Belfast, Northern Ireland, from 2002 to 2009. (Welch and other members of Smyth's family declined to speak for this story.) Welch called her relationship with her mother "sporadic and tumultuous." Ultimately, she said later in court, "I think that she's a very troubled person who has used her intelligence malevolently and the things that she has been accused of I'm absolutely disgusted by."
On Jan. 9, 2019, the jury found Smyth guilty of grand theft, and in sentencing the judge gave her five years in jail. She's currently in Century Regional Detention Center serving her time.
Despite his victory in court last year, Walton isn't done with Smyth. He's still waiting to hear about the Northern Ireland mortgage scam case, hoping for extradition. Forty-five of Smyth's alleged victims have come forward to him so far, he says. He also has heard from many who were allegedly victimized by separate con artists and is advising them. "I've got to tag my email with 'This is not legal advice, this is just my opinion,' " he says.
Given the amount of information he has unearthed, Walton's documentary on Smyth has turned into a now six-part series; he and production partner MAK Pictures are currently shopping it. Unsurprisingly, Walton isn't the only of Smyth's former acquaintances interested in mining their experience for the screen: Cacciatore wants to intersperse some facts from Smyth's case into an original scripted series; Mark is thinking about a Lifetime pitch; Smyth, too, has writing ambitions, per Walton: "She told me she wants to write a screenplay about women's empowerment," he says grimly.
Smyth, however, was never in Hollywood to sell a script — like many who move to L.A., she was running away from one persona and chasing another, fine-tuning her art in a city full of such aspirants. Even though many of her L.A. marks were storytellers, she never seemed to guess one of them might catch her in a fiction. "I think she moved here for the same reason we all moved here: to ply her craft," Walton says. "Her craft was to scam people."
A History of Hollywood Hustles
Starry-eyed victims with big dreams have long made the town a fertile ground for financial swindlers.
George Smart and Layne Britton
Smart, an MGM sound recorder, and Britton, a makeup artist for the studio, allegedly stole around $50,000 from four victims in the late 1930s by posing as deal brokers for MGM head Louis B. Mayer. The pair penned false promissory notes with Mayer's signature in exchange for investments and impersonated Mayer on the phone.
The National Talent Pictures Corporation
At the height of Shirley Temple's career in August 1938, the National Talent Pictures Corporation stole nearly $200,000 from dance schools and show parents by promising young dancers opportunity in Hollywood. Parents were charged for costumes, personalized teaching and other fees, while the company promised to potentially cast their children in an upcoming movie.
Roland Jon Emr
Roland Jon Emr had only one television credit when he passed himself off as a producer in the 1980s and stole millions from investors. His con career came to a violent conclusion in the summer of 1991, when Emr and his son were shot and killed at a stoplight in Culver City by a former bodyguard whom he had promised to make an associate producer on a biopic about James Dean.
Aaron Tonken, a high school dropout from Detroit who went from living in an L.A. homeless shelter to organizing charity galas attended by Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt, Bill Clinton and Whoopi Goldberg, stole millions from well-heeled investors who believed they were donating to charity. After he was sentenced to more than five years in prison on charges of mail fraud and wire fraud in 2004, Tonken published a book that alleged that during his time as a charity organizer, stars demanded and accepted money to appear at his benefits (he later lost a $400,000 defamation case brought by David Schwimmer).
The Hollywood "Con Queen"
The FBI has opened investigations into a scammer who gained renown (and a THR cover story) for impersonating powerful industry executives including Kathleen Kennedy and Amy Pascal to industry workers over the phone. Promised employment, victims travel to Indonesia and are asked to fork over thousands in reimbursable expenses that are never repaid. Initially assumed to be a woman due to the impersonations of female executives, the "con queen" — who has bilked hundreds of victims — is now suspected to be a man.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.