Greg Bruce speaks with the investigator behind the hugely popular new podcast Chasing Charlie.
Eight years ago, when a woman approached private investigator Julia Robson with a dark and astonishing story of financial, emotional and sexual manipulation, Robson had no idea of the rabbit hole that was opening up before her. If she'd known, she says, she would have thought harder about becoming involved. "But," she says, "I am a sucker for punishment."
The woman, Vivian, had already been turned away by the police, which Robson says is not uncommon, particularly for issues that have begun online - police deciding nothing criminal has occurred or that they don't have the resources to help.
"This is something that I feel really passionate about," Robson says, "that if I've got the skills to help them get to that next stage where the police do take an interest in it, then I will. And I think Vivian's case was a perfect example where, if I didn't get involved, nothing was going to happen."
Vivian, a smart and educated woman, emotionally and sexually confident and in control in all her relationships, had become obsessed with - and increasingly subservient to - a man she'd met online, who she knew only as Charlie. When they'd eventually agreed to meet in real life, he'd set all the rules, which were as follows: It was to be at her house; she was to leave the gate unlocked, the house was to be lit only by tea lights, there was to be music playing, and she was to be on her bed, blindfolded, on her hands and knees, naked.
On the podcast, Vivian says: "What woman in her right mind would do that?"
He arrived wearing a mask, they had oral sex, he chainsmoked at her kitchen table for two hours, in near silence, then he left, and that was the beginning of the relationship that all but ruined Vivian's life. Charlie told her he was a millionaire and part of New Zealand's super-rich Giltrap family, which, had it been true, would have meant he didn't need her money but he was nevertheless able to scam her out of all of it.
The podcast opens on Vivian's story, then digs into Charlie's. Robson, who started her career with the New Zealand Police before moving to Melbourne, quickly uncovers Charlie's real name and identity, his family and work background, his various early scams, his New Zealand court records and even his appearance on Fair Go, during which Kevin Milne has to apologise to viewers after calling him some bad names. Once she has the details of his background, she starts to track Charlie and to uncover a series of Vivians around the world.
"The reason he went online," Robson says, "was because he used to be really handsome when he was younger. As his looks fade, he works out: 'Okay, well, I'm really good in bed and I'm a con artist – I know the art of the con – so I can groom them without them seeing what I really look like, make love to them and they'll know I'm a good lover, so by the time they work out what I really look like, that's not important.'"
The podcast is surprisingly sexually frank. Charlie, missing two front teeth, described by various women in the podcast as "craggy", "wrinkled", "ugly" and "old" is also presented as a master of sex. The series contains discussion of bondage, group sex, masturbation and various sexual fantasies conceived and executed. But the sex is really just a side dish to all the crime: petty crime, not-so-petty crime, serious financial crime and intercontinental crime; with victims strewn across New Zealand, Australia, the United States and the French Riviera. The crime, is driven by lies. Everywhere Charlie goes, underlying everything, are the lies: such a phenomenal quantity of lies. To tell so many lies so convincingly, to woo and deceive so many smart and successful women; even just to remember all the lies, to keep them straight in one's head - at one stage Charlie was using 12 different aliases - hints at a type of genius.
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"Charlie came from a stable family and he was well educated," Robson says. "He's very talented at his line of work. He had every opportunity he could have had given to him but his problem is that he wanted everything now – he didn't want to do a normal hard day's work – and he's realised, 'Okay, yes I've developed this skill, or I can take at least shortcuts and get everything really, really quickly rather than doing the long game of a nine to five job.'
"And, if that's what people want to think is being a genius. I guess when you look at it, you think, 'What have you got, mate? You've got nothing.' Didn't really work out for him, did it?"
The first six episodes of Chasing Charlie are available now on Spotify, iTunes and other good podcast providers.