OPENING a news link on her phone, Tracy Hall was perplexed. The picture seemed to show the man she’d been dating for 16 months, 49-year-old Max Tavita, being taken to Waverley Police Station in New South Wales, Australia, by two officers.
She’d reported him missing 24 hours earlier on July 10, 2017, worried when he went off-grid after their house-hunting trip in Byron Bay.
Suddenly, there he was on screen with his peroxide hair and muscular surfer’s build. But it was the headline that shook her: “Bondi businessman Hamish McLaren charged over alleged multimillion-dollar super fraud.”
“Who the hell is Hamish?” she said aloud. Sure enough, Bondi Police confirmed that the man Tracy knew as Max had never existed.
Because Max, a Harvard graduate who had worked on Wall Street, was dreamed up by Hamish McLaren, a fraudster born Hamish Watson. By this time he had used as many as six aliases to commit large-scale investment fraud with victims including colleagues, close friends and even romantic partners. For three decades he travelled between Australia, Hong Kong, Canada and the UK, pretending to be a NASA advisor, a former MI5 agent, a business analyst and a barrister while on the run from those he’d defrauded.
It was a dating profile set up in the name of Max that first lured Tracy in, now 45, while she was settling her divorce in April 2016. Max told her all about himself, including claims that he was orphaned in a plane crash aged six and later went on to survive the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York. His stories were so detailed she swallowed every word.
“He talked in such depth about the past,” Tracy said in an interview earlier this year. “I asked questions, but he had these stories that went on for a long time.”
Tracy’s account of how she fell in love with one of the world’s biggest fraudsters is just one part of the gripping new true-crime podcast from the makers of The Teacher’s Pet. Told over an eight-part series called Who The Hell Is Hamish? by The Australian newspaper, it recounts the almost unbelievable story of the conman who was brought to justice in July 2017 for defrauding 15 victims out of £4.2million over six years.
Greg Bearup, features writer for The Weekend Australian Magazine and creator of the podcast, tells Fabulous: “I first heard about the case a few months before Hamish was arrested through Cath Coleman, a friend of Tracy’s who was growing suspicious about Max.
“None of his stories seemed to add up and he had no online presence. She became extremely concerned when Tracy told her she was investing money in a hedge fund opportunity with him.”
Not only had this stranger named Max stolen Tracy’s heart, he had fleeced £174,000 from her retirement fund.
Hamish was operating an illegal Ponzi scheme, which relies on investors’ money – and Tracy was his final victim. “Investors are fooled into believing their investment will drive high returns from the profits of a legitimate business, when really the fraudster is redistributing other investors’ money,” explains Dr Rasha Kassem, senior lecturer in accounting at Coventry University and certified fraud examiner.
“It’s what’s known as robbing Peter to pay Paul, because payments made to earlier investors rely on each new investor’s money.”
But Tracy says when she met Hamish, he never gave the illusion of having extravagant wealth. “We weren’t getting dressed up in designer clothes and going to fancy restaurants. It’s not what he wanted to do.”
Love letters written to Tracy from prison pleading forgiveness were the first time Hamish signed his real name. He is being held at Sydney’s Long Bay jail after pleading guilty to
18 counts of fraud. Sentencing has been postponed until June 13, 2019, pending psychiatric reports.
I had no concept of grooming, but it most definitely was.
Frustratingly, he could have been arrested as far back as 2007, when a New South Wales businessman, who remains anonymous, submitted a dossier of evidence to police alleging that Hamish had committed over £11million worth of fraud. He claims never to have heard back from them.
Growing up in Avalon Beach, New South Wales, in the ’80s, Hamish was described as popular. Privately educated, he lived with his parents Philip and Anne Watson, who now reside in a retirement village near Sydney’s Palm Beach. They refused to be interviewed for the podcast.
Hamish left school at 16 and worked as a landscaper then a ski instructor in the mountains of New South Wales. On a ski trip to Canada in 1988 he happened upon an Asian businessman, who helped him get set up as a floor trader. He returned to Australia to work at Sydney Futures Exchange, and by the time he’d gone solo in the mid-’90s, he could talk the financial talk and lie with conviction.
In December 1999, Hamish was living in the most expensive house on Sydney’s Palm Beach and dating British Playboy model Gabrielle Richens, then 24 and affectionately known as “The Pleasure Machine” after an acting cameo in which she played a stripper.
During the winter he escaped to a property in Silver Star Mountain, Canada. Yet Hamish raised eyebrows with the purchase of six cars – including three Ferraris – in a matter of weeks, around the same time he took control of £2.75million to “invest” from a company called Harts Australasia – a business that collapsed 12 months later with a staggering £51million loss.
The money was discovered in a bank account only founder Steve Hart and Hamish had access to. Hamish avoided jail for losing the money because the blame fell on the board of directors, including Steve, who was later jailed for seven years for tax fraud.
Hamish slipped away to his Canadian ski lodge in 2001 with a three-year trading ban under
the name of Hamish Watson, but continued to pose as a prosperous investor. During this time, he is said to have swindled money from middle-class holidaymakers by making more fake futures trades, including £1million from Neville and Joanie Summach. But when they took Hamish to the Supreme Court in 2003, they ran out of funds before he was charged. Besides, he’d already left the country.
In 2008, Hamish reappeared in Forster, New South Wales, and reinvented himself as Hamish McLaren, a hedge-fund trader. There he met Bec Rosen, a single mum of three in her early 40s, who had just escaped a bad marriage and moved to Blueys Beach, where her wealthy parents owned a house. Hamish would regularly visit the deli where she worked.
She believes he watched her for some time before getting to know her.
“I was a mess,” Bec told podcaster Greg. “My previous relationship still hadn’t completely finished, I was lonely, I didn’t know anyone, I had three boys to take care of and no money.”
Hamish “quietly crept up” on the family, helping out with her three sons Jack, now 23, Jet, 18, and Levi, 15, and romancing her with expensive wine.
“People tend to be more vulnerable to con artists in moments of transition,” says psychologist Maria Konnikova, author of The Confidence Game: The Psychology Of The Con And Why We Fall For It Every Time.
None of his stories added up and he had no online presence.
“Life changes throw us off-balance, and con artists know this. They provide a sense of certainty and hope for the victim when the victim’s own life may be lacking in those elements.”
Hamish proposed within six months of Bec’s divorce and they married in 2010. She was blindsided by him, and Hamish quickly zoned in on the family beach house, trying to persuade Bec that her father should sign over the deeds to her.
Yet whisperings in Blueys Beach about his son-in-law’s past at Harts Australasia left a sour taste for Bec’s father, and he refused the offer.
After Hamish was blocked from Bec’s family assets, he appeared to lose interest in her, and turned his attentions to her eldest son Jack’s 17-year-old girlfriend Jane*. Hamish, then 42, groomed Jane over several months, pulling in favours to get her a finance internship in Sydney and flying her to the US to visit Princeton University.
“It started with comments, like how fit I was,” Jane told Greg. “It was uncomfortable, then it seemed flattering with how confidently he did it.
I had no concept of grooming, but looking back it most definitely was.”
Hamish had his next investors in his sight. Jane was from a fractured family and her stepfather refused to take on his wife’s children, so she was living with her retired grandparents Lorraine, 67, and Peter Cross, 68. Her 15-year-old sister Harriet had recently died from cerebral palsy. Having gained Jane’s trust, Hamish set about defrauding her grandparents of more than £550,000 by convincing them to invest their life’s savings with him.
All the while, Hamish was tearing his own family apart. He and Jane denied that they were romantically involved, with Hamish convincing Bec she was “crazy” to suspect an affair.
With a young girlfriend in tow, Hamish adopted a new persona. Formerly greying and overweight, he started bleaching his hair, had Botox and began working out.
He drove Jane around in expensive cars leased in Bec’s name by forging her signature, and explained it to his wife with “bonuses” from the Financial and Energy Exchange (FEX) in Sydney, where he claimed to work.
Meanwhile, Hamish had a lucrative new investor – international fashion designer Lisa Ho, 58, a recent divorcee. In 2011 she gradually paid out £470,000, which she expected Hamish to invest for big returns. But when Lisa needed her money back around a year later, it was nowhere to be seen.
“He’s an evil person,” Lisa said on the podcast. “When I started smelling a rat he had every excuse in the book. He’d always say: ‘I’m working on it.’”
The self-made businesswoman went bust in May 2013, while Jane’s grandparents had invested so much money they couldn’t afford day-to-day expenses.
When police refused to step in, claiming they didn’t have enough resources to deal with the case, Lisa launched a highly publicised civil court case in Australia that December, paving the way for Hamish’s other victims. They came forward one by one, approaching Lisa with stories of their loss. She recovered £273,868 under a court repayment order, which ultimately made Hamish bankrupt in October 2016 and prompted the entire scheme to collapse around him.
“People had to remortgage their houses because they were destroyed,” Lisa said. “He has no conscience.”
With his name making the news, it was time for Hamish to create a new alias up the coast in Sydney. Bec had divorced him in January 2016, and dogged by her grandparents’ questions about their money, Jane also left him and moved to Europe to travel, having split from boyfriend Jack when news of the affair trickled out.
Hamish listed himself on a dating site as Max Tavita in April 2016, and that’s when he met Tracy. While he tried to create a new, quiet life with her, detectives from the Northern Beaches were conducting a six-month investigation. Hamish was arrested on July 11, 2017 and refused bail.
“I smile every day that I think of him locked up,” Lisa said. “I think I helped get him behind bars and he deserved it.”
Tracy is frustrated that more can’t be done to recover the money, as she joins the 14 other victims prepared to go on record to see Hamish sent down.
“Police say they can’t track it because there are so many transactions,” she says. “When you look at what he got from investors and what he said he paid back, there’s a discrepancy of more than £2.7million.”
Whether or not psychiatric tests will reduce his punishment remains to be seen, yet his victims refuse to be shaken by one man’s deceit, and many plan to be in court to see him sentenced.
“I’m a victim of crime, but I’m not a victim,” says Tracy. “This has not broken me. I’m an intelligent and worldly human.”
- *Name has been changed by the podcast to conceal her identity
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