Oxygen.com interviews filmmaker and reporter Benita Alexander, an executive producer of the 90-minute documentary “Seduced by Evil,” about con man Derek Alldred. Alexander is well-known for her career in production and film — and was also in a relationship scam that made headlines and fueled her documentary, “He Lied About Everything.”
Picture this: You meet your ideal partner. He’s not just attractive. He is sweet, he is kind, and he treats you to the works: rose petals, lovely dinners, deep intimacy. He wants to marry you, he says. And then, you find out everything you thought about him was a lie.
Is it a dating, or romance, or relationship scam? Or simply put, a love con? Fraud goes by many a name (and, sometimes, as it was in the case of Derek Alldred, so do the actors). That attachment, forged on lies, turns odious, and most people don’t know what to do with that pain.
Do you try to hate the person who lied to you, and sever all connection, even memory? Do you retreat to the shadows to lick your wounds? Or do you try to do something about it, even at the risk of embarrassment, career turmoil, and the completely horrific prospect that nobody might even believe you?
Benita Alexander was an NBC News producer with a storied career when she met a glamorous, internationally-renowned doctor who wooed her with his charm, which would have been enough. He was tall, dark, handsome, and, as one of her friends called him, the “Most Interesting Man In The World.”
But he lied. About his resume for job applications, found Vanity Fair. About his experimental artificial trachea, which was later investigated for research fraud. About their wedding — he said the Obamas were attending, and the Pope would officiate.
Benita caught on.
The Pope? He was going to be in Mexico the day they were to be married in Rome. She started taking notes, and, in a way, preparing for her own big expose on the man she thought she would call her husband and her daughter’s stepfather.
“To this day, all my friends and family will tell you that my ex-fiance was crazy about me,” said Benita in this exclusive interview for Oxygen.com prior to the premiere of “Seduced by Evil” on Oxygen on February 9 at 7/6c. “Seduced by Evil” is about a man named Derek Alldred who conned at least 27 women, many of whom banded together to seek justice. He’s currently serving a 24-year prison sentence.
While Benita’s ex left her in the hole for more than $50,000 related to their wedding planning, his game was unclear. He was already a star surgeon, reputed, dashingly handsome. Why did he want this duplicitous life of multiple relationships — he had at least two others families— and fantasies spun around him. He told Benita that he was among a secret, international group of doctors who attend to VIPs.
“One of the most frustrating things of having somebody like this walk into your life is you don’t have answers. You don’t understand why. And I still don’t know why.”
Her loved ones had a hard time, too.
“They have a lot of difficulty accepting that maybe it was just an act.”
Benita, who thought she was starting a new chapter in her life with the star surgeon Paolo Macchiarini, did end up in a new act of her life: “work became a salvation.” She had quit her job at NBC News, but she moved on quickly. She made the documentary “He Lied About Everything,” about her own experience with relationship fraud, opening her life, and subsequently, inbox, to thousands of women who were also defrauded. Not by Macchiarini, but by the wealth of scammers out there. Perhaps the movie was one way of finding out the “why.”
“It’s like the ground just falls out from underneath you,” said Benita, comparing the the feeling to an “ultimate betrayal.”
A Google search for Paolo Macchiarini will lead you down a rabbit hole. Once a huge name in regenerative medicine, Macchiarini’s star is closer to setting. Seven out of eight recipients of the artificial trachea are dead now, reports Yahoo; the eighth has had the transplant removed, according to Science Magazine. After a documentary by Bosse Lindquist called “The Experiments” renewed public attention to Macchiarini’s alleged misconduct (rumors had been circulating for a few years before), he was found guilty of research misconduct at the Karolinska Institute, which is responsible for awarding the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine — but the surgeon “disagreed” with the disciplinary findings, reported Nature.com.
Macchiarini, along with other researchers, was found guilty of misconduct by the Karolinska Institute by external review in Stockholm, Sweden in 2018, threatening “the future of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or medicine,” as the New York Review of Books put it. Swedish prosecutors have reopened the investigation on Macchiarini in connection with the cases of at least two patients, reported US News in December 2018.
(Macchiarini hasn’t, to our knowledge, publicly responded to Benita’s claims.)
Romance scams are a burgeoning problem, fueled by the advent of online dating. The FBI categorizes it as an Internet crime, and estimates around $220 million in losses due to relationship or confidence scams in 2016, making it the second-most lucrative fraud, though at 14,546, it ranks eleven in victim numbers. The Justice Department, however, estimates that only 15% victims report love scams because of embarrassment or fear. (Here are tips on how to stay safe from scammers.)
She woke up from the “love haze” and began making the documentary on her own life. Her home videos are particularly poignant — and that resonated with the women featured in “Seduced by Evil,” a documentary unique in its entrée into the lives of the scammed.
It was an “instant connection” between Benita and the women scammed by Derek Alldred.
(Benita Alexander poses with women on their way to Derek Alldred’s sentencing)
“I wasn’t just some journalist calling,” said Benita of her outreach to people like Cindi Pardini, who launched a social media campaign to unite the past victims of Alldred in their pursuit of truth, and eventually, justice. Benita reached out after Alldred had been arrested in Texas — the women, who had already gotten some press, were nervous.
“They were hesitant, and they were feeling very vulnerable.”
Missi Brandt, heavily featured in the April 2018 Atlantic report on Alldred’s fraudulent antics, had already seen Benita’s documentary: “Oh my God! I just watched you on TV last night!” But Cindi was a tougher sell. Benita flew out to San Francisco to meet her in person.
Benita conducted the interviews with the women — some of whom she believes exhibited classic signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder — which was, in her words, “very, very critical” in the making of the documentary. If the women cried, more often than not, so did Benita. “I became very connected to all of the women. It was emotional for me, too.” She was able to share their experience, and even, advocate for them. She reminded them “the end would be worth it.”
It was a roller coaster for Benita, too, who began working on the documentary a year ago.
“I was angry and outraged when Derek Alldred got up and gave this feeble apology in court,” she said. “I was almost as angry as they were.”
Benita recalls seeing how altered the women looked the day Alldred was sentenced on August 27, 2018 on charges of mail fraud and aggravated identity theft. “They were standing taller. They were smiling, They realized they had accomplished something.”
Alldred, who took on overly masculine personas such as Navy veteran or lawyer, was aided by well-designed props like navy uniforms and business cards. He stole thousands of dollars from his victims, and from some, in the hundreds of thousands. His victim count is at least 27, but one investigator estimated that Alldred might have conned up to a hundred women, said Benita, who ended up interviewing about a dozen. Nine of the women Alldred conned are featured in the documentary. Others didn’t want to be named—or even interviewed.
The love con is having a moment, both in terms of sheer numbers as well as in the media. The “Dirty John” story, first broken by the Los Angeles Times and told again in “Dirty John” on Bravo and then “Dirty John, The Dirty Truth” on Oxygen, is among a spate of big love cons that has struck a chord in recent popular culture.
Love cons are fascinating in “a sad way because you just can’t believe it’s real,” said Benita to Oxygen.com. “The brazenness of it, the audacity of it, and the lengths that these people go to. The absolute lack of remorse and caring for whom they’re hurting.”
Derek Alldred’s MO was simple: Through online dating sites, he would meet women who were often vulnerable after a bad breakup or divorce, and slowly show them that he could be their savior. Oftentimes, that would be, as they say, by robbing Paul to pay Peter. “Seduced by Evil” covers how he sometimes dated multiple women at a time and allegedly paid for dates with the money circulating from his multiple frauds.
“These women are very smart and successful. Strong. Not the kind of women that you would think something like this would happen to, that they’d be taken advantage of,” said Benita. Alldred scammed a tech executive, a nuclear scientist, even a doctor. “But that’s the whole point.”
Benita’s ex-fiance was “fooling, literally, some of the world’s top doctors and scientists.” Maybe, she conjectured, “there’s something in the high of it — the smarter the woman, the less likely you’d be able to pull this off.”
Does Benita regret that she met Paolo?
“I would rather go back and have it not happen, but I’ve formed incredible connections with other women who have been through similar things. It feels good to be able to be a voice for these women and be open, and honest, and say: ‘Look, it happened to me. If it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody, I promise you. It really can.”
The women conned by Alldred might have been vulnerable, but they were also very smart.
And, as Benita fondly emphasized, “incredibly brave.”
Hear their stories this Saturday in the 90-minute special “Seduced by Evil” on Oxygen, 7/6c.
[Photos c/o Benita Alexander]