Australia’s Queen of Con, Jody Harris
IF CONWOMAN Jody Harris had used her extraordinary nous and talent for good instead of criminal gain she could have been anything.
Dubbed Australia’s greatest con-woman by police for good reason, Harris committed an amazing con-job spree along the eastern seaboard; fleecing women’s bank accounts and stealing policemen’s hearts.
Police who investigated Harris – and those who slept with her – have grudgingly admitted she is the best female confidence swindler this country has ever seen.
Her methods were so impressive, and her vixen-like persona so elusive, that one senior Victorian police officer likened her to the famed US conman Frank Abagnale – the man who inspired the hit film Catch Me If You Can.
As a young man, Abagnale cashed millions of dollars’ worth of fraudulent cheques while posing as a pilot, doctor, lawyer and professor.
A major thorn in the side of the FBI, he seduced a handful of women before he was finally arrested.
During her run, Harris (now known by the surname Harding) posed as an air hostess, doctor, psychiatrist, policewoman and even the niece of slain Melbourne underworld figure Mario Condello as she befriended women and gleaned documents and information necessary to impersonate them and plunder their banks accounts.
Born in Queensland, Harris was the daughter of a violent father and now well-known human rights activist turned lawyer Debbie Kilroy (nee Harding).
Harris had an abused and disrupted childhood.
Conwoman Jody Harris bled victims’ bank accounts dry in three states.
Judge Felicity Hampel would confirm in Melbourne’s County Court: “You were denied in your childhood the safety and stability which family life should provide children.”
Debbie was only 17 when she gave birth to Jody.
After she and her daughter were assaulted, Debbie left her violent husband.
“(Jody’s) father had always inflicted violence on me and I stayed in that, but the day that he hit her with a broom handle in the chest because she was crying, I actually left the relationship,” Debbie explained in the County Court.
Barrister Julie Sutherland told the same court that, after being abused by an uncle, Harris started committing crime at the age of 14.
She was even able to change all my personal details on the cards to hers to the point where, when I tried to change them back to mine, I could hardly prove who I was any more
“Even at 14 she’s making out she’s a policewoman and committing frauds, and so it goes on – year after sorry year,” Ms Sutherland said.
Years on, and using clever cover stories – while sometimes disguised in wigs and sunglasses – Harris got chummy with chosen victims and stole their identities before making a mockery of bank security by withdrawing thousands.
Jody Harris used all her charms to rack up debts under other peoples’ names.
She lived it up, sating her taste for luxury goods buying jewellery, designer clothes and accessories (her favourite brand was Louis Vuitton).
She stayed in five-star hotels where, on occasion, she stole personal documents from staff and guests at the gym facilities.
On one occasion on the streets of Melbourne, she pretended to be a detective and pulled over a 21-year-old woman named Alysha Searle.
Flashing a badge, she tricked Ms Searle into handing over her licence.
“She was very convincing,” Ms Searle would later say in court.
Using the licence, Harris withdrew $3000 from Ms Searle’s bank account and changed the password.
That was not the first time Harris had successfully posed as a copper.
According to court testimony from Victoria Police internal affairs investigator Det-Sgt Frank Torcasio, there was an allegation that Harris impersonated a policewoman and gained access to the Roma Street police complex in Brisbane in 1998.
Det-Sgt Torcasio also confirmed an allegation that Harris had lived with a Sydney detective for about six months.
Jody Harris is arrested in Sydney in 2006.
He also told the County Court that Harris had socialised with Victorian policemen in 2001 while pretending to be a visiting detective from New South Wales.
The Victorian cops had not doubted her story.
“They took it on face value on the flashing of a badge,” Det-Sgt Torcasio told the court.
About 12 years before she hooked up with Acting-Sgt Andrew Twining, Harris had met another Victorian policeman who worked at the Russell Street police station.
Harris told that officer that she was the daughter of an advertising executive and had attended a prestigious Brisbane girls’ school.
A relationship blossomed between the two; a relationship that ended that policeman’s career.
“I think she just had a fixation with me because I was a copper,” that former officer told the Sunday Herald Sun.
Harris became the focus of Victorian detectives in early 2006.
On May 19 that year, detective Paul Bertoncello spoke to this author and provided full details of Harris’s crime wave for a front-page story.
Jody Harris looked much more innocent in her pictures, even when she was snapped at Brisbane’s Correctional Centre in 2000.
“It’s like chasing a phantom,” Sen-Det Bertoncello said.
“She’s using different names and has proved very hard to track down.”
Victims included women such as Anita Mulligan, who fell and hit her head in the Melbourne CBD one night.
Harris swooped and drove Ms Mulligan to hospital, where she stole her licence and credit card before ringing her father to glean personal information.
“She told my dad she was a nurse and that her de facto was a police officer,” Ms Mulligan later told the Herald Sun.
“She conned my father and got whatever information she needed out of him.”
Harris changed Ms Mulligan’s bank account password and stole $10,500 from her account.
Posing as the daughter of a wealthy businessman, the “Queen of Con” tricked boutique clothing store owner Nova Gordon.
Using Ms Gordon’s stolen licence, Harris stole $37,870 from the bank – despite Ms Gordon freezing her account.
Police seized a huge array of photos of fake licences, credit cards and other IDs in the possession of Jody Harris, aka Jody Pearson-Harding and Jody Kilroy.
“She had all the trappings and pulled up outside my shop in a new four-wheel drive Lexus, dripping in jewellery,” Gordon would later say.
“I found out that Jody had been in the branch and convinced them she was me, and had the block removed. Her systems were better than ours.”
Another of Harris’ victims told police: “She was even able to change all my personal details on the cards to hers to the point where, when I tried to change them back to mine, I could hardly prove who I was any more.”
Another victim, Amanda Urquhart, stated: “You can remove yourself from it if people are using your ID, but if they start pretending to be you – that’s when it starts getting creepy.”
Less than a week after the first Herald Sun story appeared in May 2006, Harris rang Sen-Det Bertoncello’s office to bait her hunters.
She told investigators that she had been living in South Yarra.
It was a taunt: catch me if you can.
Detectives raided the vacated unit and found a Queensland police badge, a Victoria Police shirt and a Virgin Blue hostess outfit along with name tag, pin and crew bag tags.
Andrew Twining was on a cruise-ship holiday when a mate of his informed him about the true identity of his girlfriend.
Frank Abagnale (Leonardo Dicaprio) surrounds himself with stewardesses, who have no trouble believing he is an airline pilot in the film Catch Me If You Can.
Upon his return to Melbourne, Mr Twining helped a joint interstate police operation arrest Harris.
On July 6, 2006 he drove to Sydney to trip the trap.
Police swooped and netted the conwoman.
In Harris’s possession they found wigs, police property and more than 100 items of identification including a false Australian passport, driver’s licences, bank and credit cards, birth certificates, Medicare cards and even two Californian driver’s licences.
In the custody of NSW detectives, a drab and defeated-looking Harris spoke her mind to her captors, saying she must have been in “f—ing Hicksville full of f—ing two-headed c—s.”
“No offence,” she added facetiously.
In September 2006 at the age of 28, Harris pleaded guilty to 43 charges in NSW where she had bought more than $175,000 worth of goods and services using credit and bank cards stolen from 33 victims.
Items included a $3950 TAG Heuer diamond watch, a $1600 designer “bichoodle” poodle pup, bags, expensive clothes and shoes, hair extensions and a pearl necklace.
In sentencing her to four years’ jail with a minimum of 3 1/2, Magistrate Allan Moore said: “There is little doubt you are a person of intellect; a person of skill. One would have to suggest strongly that this was a matter of greed.”
In the Melbourne County Court, Harris pleaded guilty to a 36-count presentment relating to 15 victims.
Between January and May 2006, she stole a total $120,180 cash from various Victorian banks.
She used that money, in part, to purchase plane tickets, fancy dinners, hotel rooms, Louis Vuitton gear, clothing and lingerie.
Judge Hampel was told that Harris wanted to change her ways and replicate the shining example of her mother – a prisoner support advocate and solicitor with an Order of Australia honour to her name.
Harris also provided police with a video interview revealing her methods of operation for fraud investigators to study.
Just like Frank Abagnale, she had shared her criminal expertise with law enforcement agencies.
In sentencing Harris on December 19, 2008, Judge Hampel told her: “Your (record of) interview makes it clear that you took pride in the audacity of your activity, that you revelled in the publicity and that you used the money and credit to provide yourself with an ostentatiously luxurious lifestyle.”
It was a lifestyle that cost Jody Harris much more than she gained during her reign as the queen of con.