True Crime Tuesdays: Love Fraud
Helen Archer | On 08, Jun 2021
True crime documentaries can get more than a little repetitive. The usual format, to a greater or lesser extent, involves police interviews, reconstructions of the crime, and talking heads (generally male), while the victim (generally female) remains pretty much voiceless. Love Fraud, the four-part Showtime series, turns all that on its head, by putting the victims front-and-centre, allowing them to track down their tormentor and take back control of their narrative. What ensues is something of a road movie, a thrilling detective film in which the women join forces to achieve the justice that law enforcement simply isn’t interested in. It should come as no surprise, then, that the series is directed by two women, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who previously worked together on the 2007 Oscar-winning documentary Jesus Camp. They take the viewer sleuthing along with the production, as they try to track down the titular “love fraud”, via the hot, deserted carparks of the American midwest.
In the first episode, we are introduced to some of the many, many women Richard Scott Smith (aka Ricky aka Scott aka many other aliases) has targeted; love-bombing them, moving in with them, in many cases marrying them – despite not divorcing previous wives – before becoming abusive and ultimately disappearing with their life savings, leaving some of them in outrageous debt. Having created a blog to share information about his whereabouts, and to warn others of his history, the women enlist the help of a no-nonsense, bad-ass Kansas bounty hunter called Carla in an effort to track him down. As they explain his MO, Karla advises them to trade Plenty of Fish for Farmers.com, while in an interview to camera she says: “I’d have slit his throat and watched him bleed to death.” One tends to believe her.
After agreeing to help, pro bono, Carla is hot on his trail. The camera is right beside her as she chain-smokes her way through stakeouts, while a soundtrack plays the various self-pitying voicemails Smith has left for his victims. Stylistically, the whole thing plays out like a particularly Gothic episode of Catfish. Shopfronts are lit up by brightly coloured fluorescent lights; there are long, still shots of phone boxes as Smith’s voice wheedles, coaxes, and abuses. We look into the lights of one woman’s house as crickets and cicadas chirrup outside, her daughter does her make-up and their dog looks on silently. It’s reminiscent of a supremely evocative 1970s film noir, cut up with animations that mirror the style of the opening credits.
So often, women who are conned in the way that Smith conned these women are portrayed as sad-sacks, so desperate for love they’d believe anyone and anything. Here, we are invited in to these women’s lives as they describe their loneliness but also their sheer, unadulterated boredom, and the way in which Smith both recognised and targeted that. He romanced women with motorbike rides, he took them out to eat. He wooed them at the local karaoke bar. He promised them riches, via some elusive settlement, and encouraged them to look for beachside properties in Florida. He was, as one woman says, “everything that I’d been asking for”. Another, Karla, was tempted away from her husband of 39 years with karaoke and crab cakes. Her husband tracks her down to Krab Kingz, a seafood restaurant she and Smith set up after spotting a gap in the market for fresh seafood in Wichita. Upon reuniting, Karla sings him Knights in White Satin and they slow-dance in a sunlit bar. It’s the little segues, brimming with significant detail, which make this series so appealing.
As we gradually build up a picture of Smith through the testimony of his victims, we also hear from high school friends and family, who speak of someone who was damaged by his upbringing and went on to inflict that damage on everyone who had the misfortune of knowing him. Ultimately, he is tracked down via a sunken pleasure boat – one of his many scams – and the series ends with a face-to-face interview, where he attempts to manipulate both interviewer and audience in the same way he has manipulated his way through life. His voice, though, is framed by everything we have come to learn about him over the course of the series, and his pleas for mercy (he sees the blog the women created about him as life-ruining) don’t land.
Throughout, there is the feeling that the viewer is finding out things at the same pace as the production team, of being intimately involved in the search for Smith. For those of us who watch true crime because we like to imagine ourselves as detectives, this is infinitely satisfying, and makes the pay-off that much more delicious. Although it’s a dark story at its heart, it’s one which also gives hope, as the women involved are able to act out the revenge fantasy of having the world know the exact ways in which they were wronged. Love Fraud feels like a truly collaborative affair, an odyssey through the American midwest with some form of justice as its holy grail.
Love Fraud is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.