By Simone Fox Koob
For several months in early 2019, Emma* would leave school early on Tuesdays to attend appointments with a woman she knew as Marlee.
Marlee was charming and confident, and promised Emma and her parents she could help train the 12-year-old to act and secure her an audition for a voice role in an animated movie.
During their afternoons together, Marlee took the girl around Melbourne, asking her to do tasks as part of her “training”.
At the Royal Melbourne Hospital, Emma was told to tell staff her name was Dasha and ask for help. At a shop on Bourke Street, she was told to go in and tell a woman that her mother had passed away, and that she was adopted. At a Centrelink office, her task was to pretend her name was Emily and write on a piece of paper that she was seeing ghosts.
Marlee even took her on a paid trip to Sydney, promising her an audition in an Australian version of the American prank show Punk’d.
Throughout, Emma was told not to tell her parents the bizarre things she was being asked to do.
But when her family began to look into Marlee, they could find no credentials online. The agency at which she said she worked had no trace of her. So the family confronted her, and as quickly as she entered their lives, she disappeared.
Within months, the woman who had conned them would be living with another unwitting family, spinning different lies under a different name and with a different backstory.
On Friday, Samantha Azzopardi sat in a bare room at a Melbourne prison, connected via a video link to a place she has become overly familiar with in the past decade: a courtroom.
The 32-year-old, once dubbed a “cunning, calculated fraudster” by a NSW judge, had spent the previous 574 days in jail after her arrest in November 2019.
Police caught up with Azzopardi in circumstances as bizarre as the offending she was later accused of.
Wearing a blue school uniform – complete with blue felt hat– Azzopardi entered a youth mental health service in Bendigo with two young children and told staff she was a 14-year-old girl who had been impregnated by her abusive uncle.
Irish police appeal for information about a teenager who told them she was the victim of the sex slave trade. It later turned out to be Azzopardi. Credit:Reuters
Social media posts warning people about the fraudster tipped off a staff member, who called police. Azzopardi was charged with stealing the two children in her care, both daughters of a French couple who had hired her as a live-in nanny a month earlier.
In the following months, Azzopardi would be hit with dozens more charges, including another child-stealing charge relating to Emma, and one of obtaining property by deception for $6500 in weekly payments she had received while a nanny for the Jervis family – Perth basketballer Tom and his wife Jazze.
Azzopardi’s pleas of guilty to these charges on Monday meant more offences added to what was already a long rap sheet spanning the globe.
Many recognised her from her time in Ireland, where she turned up in a distressed state near the GPO in Dublin in October 2013, telling police she was a teenage victim of the sex slave trade.
They struggled to identify her as she did not appear to speak English. After a month of police work costing an estimated quarter of a million euros, Azzopardi was identified and returned to Australia.
Police in Calgary, Canada, released this photo as part of an appeal to find out who the girl was.
A year later, aged 26, she turned up in Calgary, Canada, claiming to be 14-year-old Aurora Hepburn, a victim of abduction and sexual assault. After spending an estimated $US150,000 trying to help her, police determined her true identity. She was charged with public mischief for misleading police, and was deported at the end of 2014.
In the following years, Azzopardi again pretended to be a teenager, enrolling in schools in NSW and obtaining benefits from the government. A NSW Police investigation uncovered her deception, and she was charged and sentenced to a year in jail, with six months non-parole.
Over the years, Azzopardi had often refused to be in pictures unless they were taken on her own phone. She would use make-up to draw freckles on her face to appear younger. Throughout her life, she has clocked up more than 70 aliases.
By the time she was arrested again in November 2019, she had managed to dupe many Melbourne families.
“I felt relieved that she couldn’t do it any more and she was caught by the police finally,” Emma says.
“[Samantha] acted really nice around me. She was really nice and I thought that she was the real deal because she said she was my mentor and I believed it; she was doing all these things with me … She was really persuasive.”
Her father says the ordeal was frightening.
“It was really scary,” he says. “I felt gutted when I found out.”
He was mostly disappointed for his daughter, who believed she was on the path to becoming a professional actor.
“I don’t know how you could do it to the kids. It’s not the families, it is the kids that have been affected,” he says.
“The more we found out, she’s a professional. She knows exactly what she is doing and how to do it.”
Mel Bevege’s first contact with Coco Palmer was when the “talent scout” reached out to her daughter Georgia – an aspiring model – through Instagram.
They met Coco at a Sydney cafe, where she bought them all hot chocolates, and then took the teenager to department stores to do some role-playing.
Georgia Bevege was 13 and an aspiring model when her family met Samantha Azzopardi.
“She really sold it,” says MS Bevege.
In the following months, Coco become closer and closer to the family. She told them she had grown up as one of 11 children in a foster family, and that she had leukemia as a child. She had four mobile phones.
Ms Bevege says: “She was lovely. I invited her to my home that Christmas to stay for a week. She talked about not having a family orientation like we had and loved our connection, and I told her you have to come at Christmas.”
Meanwhile, she promised Georgia make-up, Doc Martens, and a new phone. During their time together, she made the teenager wear microphones, wiring her up so she could hear what she was saying during her bizarre tasks.
During one role-play, she drew a bruise on Georgia’s face, told her to enter a youth centre under the name River and tell them she had been physically assaulted.
Together with her mother and sister Tiarnna, Georgia travelled with Azzopardi to Melbourne in July 2019. Despite claiming to live in the city, Coco had no recognition of the streets, and didn’t know which tram to take. Alarm bells began ringing.
Mel Bevege with daughters Tiarnna and Georgia.
Several nights into the stay, it emerged Coco had used the driver’s licence of Jazze Jervis to book the room. The family confronted her.
“I couldn’t believe it, ” Ms Bevege says. “She still had me half-believing her while I was questioning her … She made me double guess myself and then I thought, ‘There is no way in the world this woman is who she says she is.’”
By the time police arrived, “Coco″ – the latest alias being used by Azzopardi – had fled.
Ms Bevege is still stunned by the ordeal. She says the number of similarities between Azzopardi’s fake backstory as Coco and her own life convinced her that the experienced con woman had done her homework on the family before reaching out.
“The facade she had to keep up, the memory … it gives me goosebumps when I think about it.”
Georgia struggled for many months after the ordeal, finding it difficult to trust people and sleeping next to her mother out of fear.
A child-stealing charge was laid over what happened to Georgia, but was not proceeded with during the court process. Azzopardi was, however, charged with handling stolen goods for using Ms Jervis’ licence to book the hotel.
Azzopardi in July 2019 in Melbourne.
Victim impact statements from two other families duped by Azzopardi were read out in the Melbourne Magistrates Court this week.
Jazze and Tom Jervis, who allowed Azzopardi to live with them for a year to care for their two-year-old daughter, said their lives had been changed forever. They both struggle to leave the house, meet new people, and trust anyone with their daughter. Both their careers have suffered as a result, they said.
“I couldn’t understand how I let this happen,” said Ms Jervis. “I feel guilt, embarrassed, ashamed and disgusted every single day.
“I dread the day we have to have a conversation with our daughter about what happened.”
The mother of the two girls found with Azzopardi when she was arrested in Bendigo said she had lost her confidence. She couldn’t leave her girls in the care of others, meaning she couldn’t get a job, and the family had had financial issues ever since.
The mother said she has been scared in her own home, worried that Azzopardi had given the house keys to someone else who would enter the house. Her eldest daughter kept asking questions, not understanding why the nanny lied to her.
“My daughter does not feel safe,” she said.
Called to give evidence in court this week, forensic psychiatrist Jacqueline Rakov said she believed Azzopardi suffered from a borderline personality disorder with a rare phenomenon called pseudologia fantastica.
Pseudologia fantastica, she said, was a poorly understood condition with limited treatment options. It involved an extreme type of lying that was “internally motivated” – an unconscious internal drive to create fantasies, rather than someone lying to acquire fame, money or notoriety.
Dr Rakov said Azzopardi’s lies almost always revolved around narratives involving children – whether it be herself having a second chance at high school, or saving and looking out for children as a carer.
If she was to be released, she needed to have long-term treatment, she said, otherwise, “if nothing changes, I suspect the risk [of reoffending] is high”.
On Friday, magistrate Johanna Metcalf rejected Azzopardi’s lawyer’s submission that she should be freed on a good-behaviour bond and sentenced her to two years in jail, with a year non-parole. This will mean she will have a set of conditions mandating treatment on her release.
The magistrate said there was “complexity and organisation involved in your deceptive behaviour”, and that Azzopardi understood, at various points, that what she was doing was wrong.
But she said the motive for the “bizarre offending” was still unclear.
Given her time already spent in jail, Azzopardi was immediately eligible for parole.
∗ Not her real name
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