By Tammy Murga
Signal Staff Writer
It was the infamous letters allegedly signed by a mysterious psychic, named Maria Duval, that brought Santa Clarita Valley native Melanie Hicken to Callas, France.
After a lengthy investigation, Hicken finally stood in front of the woman she had seen in those letters, which included a special invitation to send Duval money. In fact, 1.4 million Americans and others across the world sent over $200 million, some even emptying out their retirement savings. The scheme had duped more than 60 times the number of victims affected by Bernie Madoff’s infamous Ponzi scheme, according to Hicken.
“This is the kind of scam that your grandparents may receive, telling them that Maria can help them end medical woes and all they have to do is send money,” said Hicken. “You and I can see this is a scam, but others suffering from dementia or who are lonely would be more likely to fall for it.”
Hicken wanted to get to the bottom of this: one of the longest-running mail frauds in history.
Fast forward two years later, Hicken and her colleague Blake Ellis have their first book, “A Deal with the Devil: The Dark and Twisted True Story of One of the Biggest Cons in History,” on their journey to uncover the truth behind the scam, debuting next month.
The award-winning investigative journalists pick up narration where their reporting with CNN left off, detailing the effects of the scam on victims and raising questions like: Is Duval even a real person?
“This is a part-memoir, part-journalism exposé and a fun, light-hearted read. It’s not your typical non-fiction book,” said Hicken, who wrote the book with Ellis using their vacation hours.
While her trajectory delving into the world of mail fraud seemingly concluded with her very first book, Hicken said her investigative reporting continues. These days, she and Ellis are exposing sexual abuse in nursing homes and drug companies that target the elderly.
As she looks back and plans to connect with other local residents, she can’t help but recall her early start in journalism.
“I went to Hart High School and wrote for the school newspaper. Then I interned at The Signal in the summer of 2006, which opened doors to the next internship and jobs I would later get to get me where I am today.”
Now with a book release date of Aug. 7, the local reporter and author is looking to schedule a book event or book club visit to read from the book she and Ellis co-authored.
“I love getting to talk to other writers and readers in my community,” said Hicken, who works from her Santa Clarita home. “I’m hoping to get out into the community and share my experience.”
The book will be available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books A Million and Indie Bound.