He Modeled Himself After Trump and Scammed Women for Millions
The new Showtime docuseries “Love Fraud” traces the hunt for Richard Scott Smith, a sociopath who would romance/marry women and then make off with their life savings.
The women of Love Fraud have many pejoratives to describe Richard Scott Smith. “Sleazy” is one. “Scumbag” is another. “Liar” and “cheat” and “con man” are also frequently employed. So when Carla, a Kansas City bounty hunter who tracks down fugitives for a bail bonds service, calls him “a piece o’ shit,” well, it doesn’t come as a great shock.
Even so, there are plenty of jaw-dropping surprises delivered by Love Fraud, the latest from acclaimed directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (One of Us, Jesus Camp), which might best be described as a docu-manhunt populated by people who seem to have leapt out of an Elmore Leonard novel. Ewing and Grady’s four-part Showtime series (premiering Sunday, Aug. 30) tells the wild tale of Smith, a professional grifter who steals women’s hearts and then takes their money, ruins their reputation, and leaves them in tatters. He’s a ladies’ man who preys upon individuals whose desire for love has left them vulnerable to deception, and he’s the prime target of Ewing and Grady’s non-fiction effort, which takes a unique tack by throwing objectivity to the wind. As disgusted by Smith as their subjects, the directors opt not to be passive observers to their story, joining forces with Smith’s victims to track him down and bring him to justice.
Love Fraud is thus a portrait of not only misogynistic villainy, but of a real-time pursuit carried out by those exploited by Smith—who alternately goes by Rick, Scott and Mickey, and whose record lists 10 Social Security numbers and dozens of home addresses and phone numbers. Smith is a serial predator, and though Love Fraud begins with a recap of his romance with Tracy, and Ellen, and Sabrina, it quickly expands to reveal countless more girlfriends, fiancées and wives who fell into his trap (some of whom were married to him at the same time). His ruse, it turns out, was simple. With an abundance of charisma and sensitivity, and using online dating sites as his preferred method of locating targets, Smith would put the full-court press on middle-aged, middle-class women eager for a relationship, wining and dining them, showering them with protestations of love, and promising them that he’d make their dreams come true. To do that, he’d often claim that he was about to receive a huge medical malpractice settlement—a lie that both excited his partners (since it meant the lap of luxury was imminent) and caused them to let down their guard and grant him interim access to their own funds.
No sooner had he gotten his hooks in Tracy, Ellen, Sabrina, Sandi, and Jean—often via holy matrimony—than Smith’s personality would change and he’d vanish with his former companion’s life savings in tow. Jean says he made off with upwards of $700,000, although in most cases, Smith was a small-timer, swindling just enough to keep his lifestyle afloat (i.e. with new motorcycles, trucks, and capital for the next scheme). What Smith didn’t count on, however, was that one of his victims would create a blog that outed him as a wicked con man. That online compendium of crimes—and forum for discussion—helped unite many of the women he’d mistreated. It also caught the attention of Ewing and Grady, who soon joined the search for Smith at the same time that they decided to document it.
Love Fraud is a canny blend of expressionistic cinematic storytelling and first-person activism, discarding any notion that those behind the camera must stay detached from that which they’re filming. Ewing and Grady’s formal approach is sharp and evocative, be it framing figures in narrow doorways and tight close-ups to convey their isolation and constricting all-walls-closing-in circumstances, or providing snapshots of rundown main streets and storefronts at night to illustrate Smith’s fondness for quiet, non-descript small-town hunting grounds. They also embellish their action with blooming, bursting pop art-infused pop-up book-style collage animation sequences that further capture a sense of their subjects, most specifically Smith, whose narration about his childhood is regularly set to gloomy scenes populated by silhouette cut-outs.
Through these devices, as well as cheeky closing credits songs (“One Way or Another,” “I Don’t Care”), Ewing and Grady afford insight into Smith, whose duplicitous cut-and-run modus operandi appears to have been born from an upbringing with a father who abandoned him (and then repeatedly remarried and started new families), and a mother who abused, discarded, and then abducted him. In that context, it’s no wonder that Smith turned out to be a creep who likes to swoop into women’s lives and then bolt in the dead of night with the contents of their bank accounts. Still, Love Fraud’s comprehension of Smith doesn’t translate to empathy, which is reserved for those he robbed and, in the case of Sandi and ex-wife Michele, physically assaulted. The fact that law enforcement isn’t overly concerned about Smith (his crimes are treated as relatively petty) further binds the directors to his former flames, not to mention stokes their ire against Smith. Before long, Ewing and Grady’s own voices are heard in phone calls, aiding the investigation spearheaded by Carla, a roughneck badass who’s as hilarious as she is intimidating.
Following Carla and company—including two teams of private investigators—as they track Smith’s movements and perform video surveillance of him with a collection of new girlfriends (including one whom he convinces to leave her husband, much to that man’s righteous anger), Love Fraud proves an up-close-and-personal thriller. Better still, it’s a saga with a satisfying conclusion.
As foreshadowed by introductory audio comments from the crook, Smith’s evasion of the law (he’s running from outstanding federal warrants) doesn’t last forever, and there’s great, satisfying excitement to both the climactic chase to nab him before he once again disappears, and the directors’ ultimate sit-down with him.
Suffice it to say, Smith does not come across well during that chat, denying all responsibility for his fraudulent behavior and the female carnage he left in his wake, and casting himself as a victim of adolescent trauma and a lifelong desire for family. He’s a sociopathic liar and manipulator with a persecution complex and a wholesale disinterest in others. Which is why it’s all-too-fitting that, in Love Fraud’s closing moments, the figure he equates himself to as a kindred spirit is none other than our dangerously narcissistic commander-in-chief, Donald Trump.