After two years investigating one of the longest-running frauds in history, we finally met its central figure: Maria Duval. What would she have to say?
By Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken, CNN Investigates
Videos by Jordan Malter, CNN
Callas, France — The gate opened slowly, offering a glimpse of overgrown gardens, weathered statues of naked mythical figures and a large white house with pale green shutters. We tried to soak it in quickly, not knowing whether the gate would snap shut as it had once before.
This time, we were allowed inside.
At the top of stone stairs leading to the house stood an elderly blonde woman we recognized right away: Maria Duval, the woman we had been investigating for more than two years.
We had never before laid eyes on her. But we’d seen her face many times. In old news articles about her miraculous rescue of missing people. In videos of her talking about her psychic abilities. On letters sent around the world.
It was the letters that brought us here.
They were written to elderly, sick and lonely people, and they promised that Maria Duval would use her powers as a world-renowned psychic to help solve their problems. They could recover from ailments, avoid terrible misfortune, win the lottery.
All they needed to do was send money.
At least 1.4 million Americans fell for the scam, as did countless others around the world. Some wiped out their retirement savings. Others lost money they had hoped to leave to their families.
On its face, this ruse sounded like so many others that prey on the elderly and take advantage of people with conditions like dementia.
But there was something special about Maria Duval.
The letters appeared to be handwritten and signed by the psychic. They contained personal details, like a recipient’s name, age or hometown. It seemed as if the psychic had intuited this information. It had actually been pieced together from “suckers lists” sold by companies known as data brokers and from information the victims themselves unknowingly provided in the past.
Seduced by Duval’s promises, US investigators say, people paid around $40 each time they corresponded with her in exchange for her guidance, lucky numbers and talismans. This seemingly simple scheme became one of the longest-running mail frauds in history – infiltrating more than a dozen countries, spanning more than 20 years and raking in more than $200 million in the United States and Canada alone. In America, it ensnared 60 times more victims than Bernie Madoff’s infamous Ponzi scheme.
In 2014, US officials renewed earlier attempts to shut the scam down. At first, they questioned Duval’s existence, and other investigators hypothesized that she was an invention, her photo a stock image.
We learned otherwise. Not only was she real but she was larger than life – having built a career as a local psychic in the south of France long before letters were sent in her name.
Two years ago, we’d hoped to confront her but failed to get past the ominous white gate to her home. We tracked down her middle-aged son, Antoine Palfroy, and convinced him to sit for a long and eye-opening interview.
He told us his mother lost control of her name, that she entered into an ill-fated business deal. She had once been a local psychic, he explained, who was paid for her consultations and sometimes worked with police to find missing people. That all ended, he said, when European businessmen approached her many years ago and she agreed to sell the rights to her name. At first, the business peddled astrology charts, he recalled. But the business model changed and a new scheme was born: the mass mailing of letters penned in Maria Duval’s name.
He claimed she never intended to defraud people and hadn’t written a single letter. She was too scared, he said, to break her contract and was herself a victim of the scam.
We were skeptical of this portrayal. It was possible she’d entered a deal that spiraled out of her control. But she’d continued to sign new contracts. And it wasn’t a question of whether she’d made money – only how much.
For a time, we accepted that her son was the closest we would ever get to the elusive psychic. But in the months and years that followed, we worked on a book about the scam and renewed our attempts to meet her face-to-face.
Now, we were standing inside the gate, in the same place where the key US investigator had stormed in with French police just a few months earlier.
They were searching for money and documents. Like us, they also were interested in the businesspeople behind the scam.
Our initial investigation showed that Duval was not operating the business or mailing the letters – as so many victims had been led to believe. Instead, a complex network of international shell companies and front operations had been used to hide the letters’ true origins from investigators. Eventually we identified ringleaders on the beaches of Thailand and in the secrecy havens of Switzerland and Monaco – and determined that the operations had passed through an endless number of hands over the years.
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This complicated business web made it difficult to determine the scope of Duval’s involvement, though there was concrete evidence connecting her to the scam. Her signature not only appeared on the letters but on trademark applications and on a recent document from a civil case that finally shut down the scam in the United States. We uncovered business filings showing she received at least one payment for around $200,000. And she traveled the world promoting the letters.
It was Duval’s name and face that made the fraud possible.
What would she have to say?
As we walked toward the stairs to her house, we noticed her perfectly dyed blonde hair was still styled as it was in the videos we’d seen. But her fashionable and expensive-looking clothes were replaced with bright blue Crocs, cartoon-covered socks, faded leopard-print leggings and a worn black sweater. Her eyes looked confused; her plumped lips almost deflated; her lipstick was drawn outside the lines.
We mentally ran through the questions that had driven our pursuit for two years:
How much money have you made from the letters? Where is that money now? Why did you sign that first contract? If you didn’t agree with how your name was being used, why did you promote the letters and appear in YouTube videos? Why should we believe that you are the innocent victim your son claims you are?
If you are truly a psychic, how did you not see this all coming?
We never thought this moment would arrive, and we continued to doubt the meeting would occur even as we deplaned in Nice for a second time and drove the winding roads to Callas.
Two years ago, the first time we stood outside her gate, we knew a lot about the scam but little about Duval. This time, we had a picture of who she was, gleaned through interviews with people who knew her well or simply crossed her path. But we wanted to know more.
Businessman Jean-Claude Reuille, whose former mail-order company had long overseen distribution of the Maria Duval letters, still claimed he had nothing to do with the creation of the scam (and he hasn’t been charged with any wrongdoing). He acknowledged that he knew Duval, however, saying he believed in her powers and remembered her as an honest woman – but one who was business savvy and knew what she was doing.
We also heard from a man claiming to be Reuille’s childhood friend. Reuille said the man gave us a fake name and could not be trusted, though he acknowledged he had introduced him to Duval many years ago. The man told us he knew Duval well, that she had been very wealthy and spent much of her money on “stupid things and young men.”
“To be so high, and go so low”
An Argentinian man, Luis Alberto Ramos, claimed Duval had conned him in a land deal. Decades ago, he said, he sold her a plot of farmland with cows, machinery and a waterfall on it, but she stiffed him. The few payments she made, he said, came from strange bank accounts around the world. “She was a quite good-looking, charming woman,” he wrote. But she used this charm in devious ways, he said, likening her to a tricky character – a “scaramouche.” Palfroy would later tell us that as he remembered it, it was his mother who lost money on a land sale gone wrong, though he wasn’t sure if it involved Ramos.
The most detailed depiction of Duval came from Françoise Barre, her former private secretary who also had served as mayor of the small town where they lived. At her home in Callas, right around the corner from the town hall, she still kept a number of mementos from Duval, including photos, letters and a pendulum.
From what Barre said, it seemed Duval may have understood the gravity of the scam perpetrated in her name – at least as it evolved over the years. She said Duval mentioned her concern about getting in trouble with the law because of the letters’ exaggerated claims.
She gave as an example the assertion that Duval had met with the Pope. “She’s been to the Vatican, yes, but on a normal trip, and she certainly did not meet with the Pope. She told me, ‘One of these days I’ll get in trouble for the things they say about me.’”
According to Barre, Duval often said she had never seen the “color of the checks”—suggesting she believed she should have made more money than she did. Barre said Duval was always very entrepreneurial and showed us a letter the psychic wrote her in 2014, the year the US government attempted to shut down the scam, asking Barre to be her partner in a new business venture which she described only as a “project” that wouldn’t take much of her time. Barre didn’t pursue the offer, so she never learned more.
Barre was also deeply concerned about her friend and former boss, who she believed was a true psychic who had used her powers for good. She said she was devastated to see her old friend get wrapped up in such a destructive scheme.
“She was really important to a lot of people,” Barre said. “And now she is reduced to—to a state of being elderly… so we need to let her be. To be so high, and go so low.”
Beyond family and acquaintances, there was another group of people who thought they knew the real Maria Duval: her victims.
We hoped to tell Duval about Doreen Robinson, an elderly Canadian woman whose story was like so many others we heard. She once was fiercely independent and practical. But the letters arrived in her mailbox as she adjusted to life without her husband of more than 40 years and began a painful struggle with dementia. She secretly wrote “help me” over and over in her address book, ordered junk from catalogues and responded to every single solicitation she received – including the Maria Duval letters. She amassed tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt and sent several thousand in response to the Duval scam in a single year, according to her daughter, Chrissie Stevens.
Doreen Robinson died in 2014. Years later, we asked her daughter what she would say to the psychic behind the scam.
“Shame on you. You’ve taken advantage of a sick, old, lonely woman,” she told us. “Shame on you, Maria Duval.”
The 81-year-old psychic wore a blank stare as we approached. “Here is my mother, Maria Duval,” said her son, Palfroy.
Instead of berating us for our critical stories about her, she stuck out her hand and greeted us with a smile.
Her son soon cut through the uncomfortable silence, beckoning us to follow him inside for a tour. Joining us was his daughter, our camera crew and our interpreter.
A sliding glass door opened directly into Duval’s personal office.
This, Palfroy explained, was where his mother had worked on her books and other writings. The room was crammed with three-ring binders on cheap metal shelving, each labeled in sloppy cursive or capital letters. Projects. SEX. Moscow. Brigitte Bardot. VATICAN.
A gold Hindu statue sat in one corner; in another, three small clocks displayed the time in New York, Paris, and Tokyo, though they appeared to be set to the wrong hour. On her desk was a vase of fake roses and a large calendar for 2017. Documents were piled everywhere. A drawing of a naked man and an ape hung on the wall behind a stuffed kangaroo. There were two photos in the room, identical shots of a middle-aged Duval, her chin resting on her hand as she peered into the camera.
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Palfroy led us into a more spacious office where Duval once gave personal psychic consultations. We immediately recognized the room from the YouTube videos used to promote her letters, with the same aging statue of a young, robed woman staring out from behind the desk. “People very often ask me how I can work by correspondence,” she said in one video, staring straight into the camera. “You can rest assured that I look at the great majority of your letters.” She spoke clearly and confidently – almost as if she were reading from cue cards.
Like her personal office, this room was a time capsule. There were photos of Duval as a young girl and as a young woman traveling the world. A Reagan/Bush 1980 campaign button leaned against a plaque from the 1979 World Congress of Science and Religion in Rome.
Glass shelves held books about astrology, sexuality and philosophy, including “Astrology and Personal Development for Dummies.” Strange spiritual paintings lined the walls. Pots of fake flowers dotted the floor. On the other side of the room, sliding glass doors opened onto her sprawling backyard, filled with countless statues.
A money-sniffing dog had roamed for hours in the overgrown gardens, Palfroy told us, on a Thursday morning in March after French police and a US investigator arrived with a warrant to search the property. Duval’s family was there taking care of her, so they quickly ushered her to her room and attempted to learn exactly what was going on. “They told me that there had been a complaint filed in the US regarding the US mail, and that’s all I know,” he told us. “That’s all I know.”
The Department of Justice and US Postal Inspection Service wouldn’t comment on anything Duval’s son told us, but the USPIS acknowledged a criminal investigation into the scam is ongoing. Palfroy named the agency’s chief investigator, who he said came to the house, and he showed us the business card of an attorney he said also traveled to Callas. We recognized the name as the lawyer involved in the earlier civil case.
Police rifled through drawers and tore through files, Palfroy said. They looked under rugs and mattresses and garden statues, though some of the statues were too heavy to lift. They seized stacks of documents – seemingly interested in anything that might point them toward Duval’s dealings with the businessmen running the scam. They also took her computer.
Palfroy believes authorities came in search of money, but says they found nothing but pocket change in Duval’s purse. He also says they went to the bank to check Duval’s accounts and a personal safe where she had once kept valuables like jewelry. They even searched his family’s accounts, he told us.
But, according to Palfroy, the accounts held little money, the safe was empty, and so was the house.
“Everyone thinks she had millions but no, she didn’t,” he said. “The companies had a lot of money, that’s true, but my mother didn’t even have 1%.”
We had found that the hundreds of millions of dollars generated by the scam had been spread among countless shell companies and businessmen behind its day-to-day operations. The one payment we could identify as being made to Duval was for around $200,000, and even her son acknowledged that she had received others. If her earnings even came close to 1%, they would have amounted to several million.
Palfroy recounted this dramatic day to us as we walked from room to room. He then excitedly changed topics and brought us to Duval’s desk, where he pulled out a pile of folders stuffed with press clippings. Duval’s face was everywhere: in horoscope columns, on the pages of French Vogue, on clippings about TV and radio shows throughout the 1970s and 80s.
As we looked through the articles, Duval watched us silently. Eventually, she slowly flipped through some, too, proudly pointing to old pictures of herself.
We’d once thought the claims made in the letters – about Duval’s media appearances, television fame, and international celebrity status – were nothing more than a copywriter’s wild creations. Eventually, we determined she had achieved some notoriety as a small-town psychic. But until we saw all the press clippings, from different countries and spanning decades, we hadn’t grasped the magnitude of her fame.
Whether or not her psychic powers were fake, her celebrity was real.
She’d already become famous – and wealthy enough to buy this large estate – before she sold her name. As predatory as the letters were, there had been some semblance of truth in all the lies.
Duval was led to her bedroom upstairs to rest while we explored the property. We battled a thick cloud of mosquitos as we wandered through the long grass surrounding her house, peered at a pool (which Palfroy said was damaged in a storm last year) and encountered a series of strange black-and-white paintings in a run-down guest bathroom. They appeared to depict ghosts having sex.
When word came that Duval was ready to talk, we joined her and her family in her office.
She sat down in a chair across from us.
Duval seemed unfazed by what was happening. She rattled off a basic sound check, counting upward with the ease of someone who had appeared on camera before.
We were far more anxious, and not only because this was our one opportunity to speak with her.
For months, as we pursued an interview with his mother, Palfroy would occasionally engage but mostly evaded us. He would go dark for weeks and months. He threatened to sue us for invading his family’s privacy. He told us his mother was sick.
But after the raid, he’d changed his mind and invited us to visit. He said his mother wished to speak with us.
We feared it might be too late.
In recent months we’d begun to suspect that Duval had dementia – based on the accounts of people close to her and the 2014 letter to her friend Barre in which she said she was taking a dementia medication.
Two attorneys from the Department of Justice, we learned, had also made the trek to Callas in March. They wanted what we did – to question Duval.
The problem, according to Palfroy: Duval was unable to speak with police. She could not even tell them her name.
“When she speaks it’s very difficult because she mixes the future, the past and today,” he told us in English.
This was the first time he’d admitted that she had dementia. She suffered a stroke in 2010, he said, and was first diagnosed with dementia in 2013. He said it had recently worsened.
It seemed convenient: The woman whose name and image helped propel a massive scam could no longer recall her own name – much less the details investigators needed. According to Palfroy, police insisted on taking his mother to a physician for an independent assessment.
“Shame on you. You've taken advantage of a sick, old lonely woman”
After this consultation, Palfroy said, Maria Duval was deemed unable to sit for a law enforcement interview.
Instead of sitting face-to-face with the woman they had flown to France to interrogate, investigators were forced to pose their questions to her son.
Palfroy said he spent most of a six-hour meeting defending his mother. He said investigators also zeroed in on the three businesspeople we identified in our investigation. Would he be willing to testify in any legal proceedings that may take place in the US, they asked. Yes, he told them, he would.
He wanted desperately for the focus to turn from his mother to the people who he felt used her. And we suspected he wanted us to see his mother as he did: another frail and elderly victim of the scam.
The soundcheck ended, and it was time for us to begin. We hoped Palfroy had exaggerated the severity of his mother’s condition, that we would be able to get the answers we were seeking. He told us she was assigned a judicial proxy, which is essentially a legal guardian, and, citing privacy concerns, he would not reveal who it was. Those records are not public in France but the guardianship law does not limit a person’s ability to make decisions – including the decision to be interviewed.
We decided to proceed cautiously.
We began by asking Duval to state her name. She did. Then we asked her the date. She didn’t know and turned to her family for help.
We asked about her psychic powers. In her books, she describes in detail the bestowing of these powers from her uncle, a priest in Italy.
Where did they come from? How was it she received this gift?
She couldn’t say.
And she had no idea what we were talking about when we asked about one of her most celebrated rescues, in which newspapers said she used a pendulum to direct a helicopter to the exact spot where a missing person was found barely alive.
The only name she brought up was that of Brigitte Bardot. She repeated a story we had seen in the letters: that she had found Bardot’s missing dog. We would later reach the actress, who talked to our French colleague in the hope of promoting her book about animal abuse. Her dog was found drowned in a pool, she said, and the psychic had nothing to do with the discovery. Duval’s claims, she said, were false.
Duval spent most of our conversation sharing her thoughts about love. She said she loved life and hoped the world would remember her for doing everything with love.
She seemed unaware of the pain the letters had caused or why we had been so desperate to speak with her.
We asked if she had any regrets.
“Regrets, I certainly have some,” she said. “We can always have regrets but currently, I can say that I think I’m really good. I’m good. I’m good in my life, good in everything I’m currently doing.”
We’d wanted to give Duval the chance to tell her side of the story. But the concern we had about her state of mind and her ability to defend herself deepened as we talked.
The articulate, confident woman we had seen in videos – the woman with the answers to our questions – was gone.
It was clear we would never know the full story about Maria Duval. How much money did she make, and how could she not have known what she was signing up for when she sold her name? If only we had gotten to her earlier, before her illness progressed and the answers became locked inside.
Two years ago, we had tried. On that visit, a woman briefly opened the gate to tell us Duval was in Rome. Our French-speaking colleague, Julia Jones, was the only one to get a glimpse of her before the gate slammed shut. The next day, we’d returned to the house and heard the same story from a man claiming to be Duval’s gardener.
This time, after our talk with Duval ended, we sat across from Palfroy and his daughter, Solène, and asked whether Duval had really been in Rome when we came knocking.
“She’s the one who answered,” Palfroy said as he and his daughter looked at each other and laughed. “She didn’t want to receive you.”
We were expecting him to say she was hiding inside, not that she was the one who answered the door.
“Wait – she’s the one who came to the gate?”
We remembered the calm voice on the other side of the wall.
Two years ago, her mind was sharp enough to concoct a lie and throw us off her trail. Maybe she knew that we had uncomfortable questions for her, or maybe she had something to hide.
All of this made it even harder to believe she was just a victim.
We told Palfroy and Solène we had something we wanted to share. And with our laptop facing them, we pressed play.
The tearful voice of Chrissie Stevens, the victim’s daughter who had a message for Duval, spilled from the speakers.
“Shame on you, Maria Duval.”
Palfroy looked away; tears filled his eyes.
“Unfortunately, my mother has nothing to do with this,” he said. “She’s not involved… that’s terrible but… that’s the only thing we can say.”
Does she know people feel this way about her?
“No. No she would have never agreed with this… We can’t do this, stealing money. There is no word for this.”
What would she say to these people?
“Today she wouldn’t understand and yesterday if she had seen that kind of thing, she would have been revolted… Even for money, you can’t steal people’s money like this.”
We asked how it felt to know that the letters preyed on people suffering from dementia, just like his mother.
“It’s not tolerable,” Palfroy said.
He continued to defend his mother, but finally acknowledged that she wasn’t entirely innocent and had trusted the wrong people.
Her wealth and fame had not been enough for her. She’d wanted more. And that’s what the scam was built upon: a desperate desire for more, and a willingness to believe in promises too good to be true.
The victims believed in the promises of the letters. Duval believed in the promises of businessmen. She trusted people who wore fancy suits and drove expensive cars, and hoped that signing on the dotted line would bring more fame, more fortune.
She didn’t need it, but she wanted it. That was her decision, and hers alone.
“She actually loved to be flattered,” said Solène, who, after reading our investigation, embarked on her own search for answers about her grandmother and others involved in the scam.
“That was… that was a sin,” Palfroy added.
Has she talked about regrets?
“Yes, about what happened, yes, yes,” Palfroy said quickly. “Sometimes, she has told us that she completely disagreed with what was happening but that, unfortunately, there was no way to end this, to slow things down.”
Finally, we asked the question to which we already knew the answer.
What will Maria Duval’s legacy be?
Palfroy pointed to the audio recording on the computer.
“That’s her legacy, the picture she will leave,” he said. “It’s Maria Duval. The letters: It’s Maria Duval. It’s Maria Duval who stole money from this poor lady. It’s Maria Duval.
“Whatever we say today, it will always be Maria Duval… I think that’s terrible. Terrible for the victims, terrible for my mother, too… The same idea will stay: Shame on you, Maria Duval.”
The psychic was in her bedroom when our interview with Palfroy and Solène ended. We roamed Duval’s offices one more time, desperate for any final clues.
On our way out, we noticed what looked like a newspaper headline taped to the wall.
“Exceptional lives have their price,” it said in French.
Tacked below it was another clipping.
“Don’t tell anyone.”