Sunday, January 01, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Another One Bites the Dust

Whoopee!

On December 21, 2005, literary scammer Lisa Hackney (a.k.a. Melanie Mills, Elisabeth Von Hullessem, Roswitha Von Meerscheidt-Hullessem, and several others), lost her fight against extradition from Canada to the United States. She was wanted in Arkansas on multiple charges filed in 1999, including battery in the first degree, aggravated assault, theft, possession of stolen property, passing bad checks, forgery, and failure to attend court. Hackney also has multiple felony warrants in Missouri, and was under police investigation in North Carolina, where, as "Melanie Mills," she ran a fraudulent literary agency and engaged in a number of other scams.

She was delivered by US marshals to Arkansas from Vancouver, BC, and transported to Fayetteville, where she was officially booked into the Washington County Jail on Dec. 22, 2005 (her 51st birthday). She's being held on $750,000 bond on her failure to appear on the original charges.

We have a lot of strange stories in our scam archives, but the saga of Lisa Hackney is right up there at the top of the weird-o-meter.

In late 2000, Writer Beware began to receive reports of upfront submission fees charged by a new agent, Melanie Mills, d.b.a. M.W. Mills Literary Agent, of Myrtle Beach, SC. Despite the fees, the agency appeared to be sincere--its contracts and other materials were reasonably professional, and it did make publisher submissions--in fact, it actually managed to sell a couple of books to commercial publishers. Based on this, we concluded that Mills was well-intentioned but inexperienced. We kept an eye on her, hoping that as her agency built a track record, she might stop asking for upfront money.

But those initial sales were the only ones Mills ever made. At some point, she must have decided that it was just too hard to run a real literary agency, even with the cushion of an upfront fee. In 2002, we began hearing from clients and potential clients who'd been offered the agency's paid editing services at a cost that ranged from $500 to more than $1,500. In many cases, the suggestion to edit was purportedly spurred by an expression of interest from a major publisher--but writers who paid for editing invariably discovered that the publisher wasn't interested anymore. Or else they waited in vain for their editing to be completed. One writer was angry enough to follow up with the publisher...who'd never heard of Melanie Mills or her agency.

In early 2003, Mills announced that she was organizing a writers' conference, to be held in May in Myrtle Beach. Believe it or not, Ann and I were not only invited, and offered an honorarium--which we found pretty odd, in view of the fact that Mills, who knew we were providing warnings about her, had several times contacted us to angrily protest. We were tempted to accept just to see what she'd do, but our legal counsel told us that wouldn't be a terrific idea (poo. It's annoying to have to be sensible all the time). Not entirely to our surprise, the conference was abruptly canceled. A promised reschedule date was never given, and writers, who'd paid around $400 to attend, never got their money back (nor did several reputable editors and agents, who had agreed to be speakers and had already bought plane tickets).

Then, in June, clients of M.W. Mills were shocked to receive an email from someone identifying herself as Mills’s assistant, announcing that Mills had been killed in a car crash while visiting family in Germany. The agency was closed; writers would have to look elsewhere for representation. No materials would be returned.

Ann and I were suspicious, and not just because no one had heard of this supposed assistant before. The lack of sales, the editing scheme, the canceled conference--it was clear to us that the agency was in trouble, and Mills's "death" just seemed a bit too opportune. It wouldn't be the first time a scammer pretended to die in order to get pesky clients and/or creditors off her back. We resolved to keep an eye out--literary scammers, having discovered how incredibly easy it is to deceive inexperienced writers, are seldom able to go cold turkey, and often turn up again under other names and in other places.

Shortly after the death report, I got an email from a North Carolina woman who claimed she’d been scammed by Melanie Mills. I assumed she was a writer--but when I phoned her, she told me she wasn’t. She’d run into Mills not through the literary agency, but on eBay, where Mills was selling jewelry. The woman had put in a bid on a necklace; after the auction closed, Mills contacted her to let her know that the high bidder had dropped out, and, as the next high bidder, she could have the necklace at her original bid price. The woman sent Mills the money...and never got the necklace. When she contacted the North Myrtle Beach Police Department to file a complaint, she discovered that the police already had a file on Mills.

She gave me the name and phone number of the detective in charge. He informed me that he was investigating Mills not just for eBay auction fraud, but for real estate rental fraud. Apparently Mills had been advertising vacation rentals in New York and New England newspapers; she'd accept deposits and give happy vacationers nonexistent addresses, so when they arrived with suitcases and sunblock in hand, they'd find themselves standing in front of a vacant lot. The detective had been aware of her literary agency--apparently the dumpster behind her now-empty office was filled to overflowing with discarded manuscripts and other materials--but not that it was a scam. I was able to fill him in. Like Ann and me, he was sure the death report was a fake; he felt that things had gotten too hot for her in Myrtle Beach, and she'd done a bunk.

Which in fact turned out to be the case. Mills had actually left North Carolina some weeks before the death report, and was alive and well and kicking up her heels in Alberta, Canada.

And that's not even the strange part.

This post is getting long, so I’ll pause here and make you wait for Part 2 (visitors to Writer Beware already know the punch line, but there’s some strange tidbits you haven’t heard). Just call me Scheherezade.

3 comments:

Simonbun said...

Looking forward to the rest of the tale...especially after buying and reading Jim Fisher's "Ten Percent of Nothing."

When do you find time to fight literary crime AND write? :) Grateful that you do.

Anonymous said...

This woman is on myspace under the profile name "Sea Angels". She has a picture of her novel "Sins" which she says she wrote under her "pen name".

Rosie said...

These comments have been invaluable to me as is this whole site. I thank you for your comment.