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Banff

Is this a flair for fictions?

GAYLE MacDONALD, ALEXANDRA GILL and DAWN WALTON

Published Saturday, Nov. 22, 2003 12:00AM EST

Last updated Wednesday, Apr. 22, 2009 06:47PM EDT

When Elisabeth von Hullessem blew into Banff last summer, some locals in this posh Alberta ski-resort town found her a bit odd. She had a big nest of bleached-blond hair, didn't wear fleece and crested through the streets - almost always alone - imperiously.

Little did they know how truly bizarre her story really is.

In Banff, she is known as Von Hullessem, the 49-year-old organizer behind an allegedly bogus writers' conference, who is to appear in court on Monday to face seven counts of fraud under $5,000, two counts of false pretences and one count of theft under $5,000.

In other lives, she is known as Elisabeth Roswitha von Meerscheidt-Hullessem, one of 16 aliases. In Arkansas, where the Madison County Sheriff's Department is seeking extradition, she was allegedly Lisa Hackney, the woman who mowed down her mother with a car and then went on to write a novel based on the alleged assault.

She is also wanted in Lafayette, Ark., Galena, Mo., and North Myrtle Beach, S.C., where allegedly she ducked out of another phony writers' conference by faking her own death.

Russ Burton says he first met Von Hullessem at the end of June. The Banff resident was looking for someone to sublet a room. He says she gave him cash for the first two months' rent and moved into his apartment, above the Sundance Mall on the town's main drag.

Burton says she was private, and very particular - she insisted on her own satellite-TV, phone and Internet connection. For up to 10 hours a day, he says she holed up in her room, tapping away on the computer. He says he figured she was a workaholic, busy with the fancy writers' conference she was planning.

The Banff Writers Conference (not to be confused with the well-established Wordfest, the Banff-Calgary International Writers Festival, though many did) was originally scheduled for the end of August, along with the Celebrity Autism Charity Fundraiser, which promised to bring Elton John, Rod Stewart, Barbra Streisand and Celine Dion to town.

The website advertised an idyllic venue - the venerable Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. Registrants, who were asked to pay fees ranging from $569 to $1,699 (U.S.), were promised group workshops and one-on-one consultations with influential editors, agents and well-known writers.

Holly J. Wood, a spokeswoman for Fairmont Resorts and Hotels, said staff in Banff did receive a call last summer inquiring about rental space for the conference. They sent a proposal with costs, but never heard anything back. The next thing they knew, the hotel was being advertised on Von Hullessem's website. They contacted the local RCMP unit.

The authorities were suspicious, but the conference date had yet to pass, so technically, no Criminal Code offenses had been committed. Then they began hearing from participants who were worried that they might have been ripped off.

Joan Baier was one. The 72-year-old children's-book author from Rochester, N.Y., says she received an e-mail advertising the event. She checked and found it listed on shawguides.com, a credible on-line directory of literary events.

Baier says she sent Von Hullessem a cash transfer for the registration fee and bought herself a non-refundable plane ticket for $815.

Then, Baier says, days before she was set to leave for Canada, she received an e-mail that the conference had been postponed until late October because of smoke from nearby forest fires. The celebrity fundraiser had also been cancelled. Von Hullessem's alleged crimes in Banff are tame compared to the matricide Lisa Hackney is alleged to have attempted in Madison County, Ark., where she is wanted on charges of battery in the first-degree, aggravated assault, theft and failure to attend court.

The charges date from 1999, when she lived in the small upscale community with her mother. About a decade earlier, the wealthy Countess Greta von Meerscheidt Hullessem and her husband (since deceased) moved to the United States from Germany and purchased a beautiful estate. Hackney (a surname acquired from a previous marriage) lived in a trailer on the property.

According to police, in the fall of 1999, Greta went away on vacation. A tearful Hackney told neighbours her mother had died while away. She even applied to a probate court to become executor of the will.

Police say that on Nov. 13, her mother unexpectedly returned home. She called her daughter from the airport to ask for a ride. When they got to the house, a furious Hackney tried to run her mother over with the car, police say. She pinned her up against a cement table, crushing her pelvis, alleges Capt. Robert Boyd of the Madison County Sheriff's Department, the first officer on the scene.

Hackney was apprehended a few months later in the resort town of Eureka Springs, Ark., where she worked in telephone sales. She posted a $50,000 bond through a bonding agent and allegedly skipped bail.

After recovering, Hackney's mother sold almost everything (except for the items it is alleged her daughter stole while her mother was in hospital) and moved back to Germany.

Boyd, who discovered that Hackney was born in Quebec, says she still has a $500,000 trust fund somewhere in Canada.

Back in Banff, Von Hullessem must have been feeling the strain, according toSharol McLearn, owner of the Body Concepts spa, who says she made the frantic woman's acquaintance in late August, when Von Hullessem rushed in, demanding an appointment for a manicure.

"I found her kind of odd and flighty," McLearn recalls. "She walked in here, all rich and mighty, but she wasn't well put together."

The salon was booked solid, so Von Hullessem left a $20 deposit and returned for her appointment on Sept. 5.

McLearn says after her nails had dried, Von Hullessem scooped up a handful of products, so her bill totalled $54.90, but she didn't have cash or a credit card. Would a cheque do the trick?

Noticing a local address and phone number on the cheque and figuring Von Hullessem was a new resident in town, McLearn says she accepted it as payment. McLearn alleges that the cheque bounced.

Meanwhile, Burton alleges that her rent cheque for September and October had also bounced. Then, while he was out of town, his roommate vanished, leaving a few pieces of furniture and a note.

"I'm sorry," it read. "Had to leave for Ontario."

After a three-week search, the RCMP tracked her down on Oct. 28, in Oak Bay, a suburb of Victoria. She was returned to Banff, where she remains in custody at the Calgary Remand Centre. She is scheduled to appear in Provincial Court on Monday for a bail hearing. At the very same time Von Hullessem was alleged to be carrying on the charade in Banff, police in South Carolina were investigating one Melanie W. Mills.

"She's a very intelligent lady," says Detective Carl Farmer of the City of North Myrtle Beach Public Safety Department. In June, he began investigating a cancelled writers' conference similar to Banff's.

Farmer heard from more than a dozen people Mills had allegedly fleeced. He said one woman sent her $1,100 (U.S.) for jewellery on eBay and others lost out on non-existent vacation rental properties she had booked. Most of the complaints, however, came from writers who alleged they had lost their manuscripts to the literary agency she had set up three years earlier.

Toward the end of June, according to Victoria Strauss of WritersBeware, some of Mills's clients received a death notice, by e-mail. "Last week, during her trip to Europe due to a death in the family, Melanie Mills died in a fatal car accident" read the abrupt statement signed "Kat Baker, assistant to Melanie Mills. "It just seemed a bit too opportune," says Strauss. WritersBeware, a literary watchdog group, had been watching Mills with suspicion for years, after receiving complaints about her alleged unethical practices as an agent of charging clients up-front and offering her own editing services for pay.

Shortly after Mills's apparent death, the Banff conference story hit the news. Farmer says he found a photo of Mills taken in Texas. It matched a photo from the RCMP.

Strauss says, "She had literary aspirations herself. Her contracts were better written than those of the average amateur agent. And she did make an effort to send clients' manuscripts to appropriate publishers. "She even sold a couple," says Strauss, " her own included."

In 2002, Hackney published Sins, a mystery novel written under the pseudonym L.R. Thomas.

"What would you do when your mother, who leads you to believe she has died, shows up months later and tries to kill you?" Hackney once wrote in a letter to a publisher pitching an idea for a book.

"And how would you feel if suddenly you are the trustee of a multimillion-dollar estate and you now controlled stock in the very company your boyfriend owns? That's what happens to my novel's main character, Megan MacBeth."

Her credentials? "This novel is based on actual events that occurred in my life and have been fictionalized," she said in the letter, signed Elisabeth von Hull.

"P.S.," she added, "I am currently working on the sequel."