How con artist scammed Aussie radio show
A former FM radio star has opened up about a wild catfishing story in which a mentally ill Canadian woman tricked hundreds of thousands of listeners in South Australia into falling in love with a supposed cancer victim on the other side of the world.
Now, this story has more twists and turns than an out of control garden hose, so buckle up and pay attention.
A BRIEF VERSION OF EVENTS
In 2008, the SAFM breakfast show received an email from a listener in Adelaide named Blaine who asked one of the hosts, Rabbit, to do a Gotcha call on his fiancee who lived in Canada and was soon moving to Australia.
Rabbit posed as an immigration officer and told the woman, named Sarah, that there had been an issue with her visa application to move to Australia.
The gotcha call on the 26-year-old yoga instructor went off without a hitch, and the bubbly Canadian kept in touch with Rabbit afterwards.
After a few months, Sarah told Rabbit that her plan to move to Adelaide had been dealt a giant blow - she had suddenly been diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer and was given just a few months to live.
Sarah agreed to tell her story on air, and over the following weeks SAFM listeners fell in love with Sarah as she gave regular updates about her declining health and yet somehow, she always managed to remain upbeat.
When Sarah said on air that her dying wish was to fly to Adelaide to marry Blaine in his hometown, heartbroken listeners who had followed the tragic love story rallied together.
Kids rang up and donated their pocket money - mums rang in and said they had to pull over their cars because they couldn't drive through tears - the calls kept coming with people chipping in what they could and by the end of that morning's show, more than $10,000 had been pledged to make Sarah's dream come true.
But before she could make the journey, Sarah passed away.
The SAFM hosts were devastated, as were the listeners, and there wasn't a dry eye in South Australia when the radio station aired a farewell message from Sarah which she had recorded before her death.
After Sarah passed, her Canadian best friend, named Sara (note there's no 'H' at the end of her name), made contact with one of the SAFM hosts, Amber Petty.
The two women quickly bonded over email and formed a friendship. Sara even introduced Amber to a handsome male friend of hers - again, over email - who worked in radio in Canada.
The man, Corey, started emailing Amber and they hit it off.
Later, Sara told Amber she was going to fly from Canada to Adelaide to spread Sarah's ashes in South Australia - the state that had offered her friend so much emotional and financial support before her death.
Sara made the journey and stayed at Amber's house and together they went to Glenelg beach where Sarah's ashes were spread in the water.
Sara visited SAFM and thanked the radio employees who had done so much for her friend - and then she flew back to Canada.
She stayed in touch with Amber who by this stage was in an online flirtation of sorts with Corey.
But after Sara left Australia, some of the radio station staff started to suspect something wasn't quite right.
The money that had been donated by the listeners was gone. No one could track down Blaine, Sarah's fiancee in Adelaide.
And then Amber did some digging and discovered the Corey she had been chatting to wasn't who he said he was.
Sara's web of lies quickly unravelled and the truth was revealed.
Yoga instructor Sarah never existed. She was made up by Sara, as was Corey, the man Amber was flirting with online.
The whole thing was fake. Sara had catfished not only the radio hosts but also an entire state and made off with the money donated by listeners - and there was nothing they could do about it.
This all happened back in 2008 on SAFM's then breakfast show, Rabbit, Amber and Cosi.
I was actually the producer of the breakfast show at the time, although my memories of the saga are somewhat limited. I was more preoccupied with the day-to-day running of the show and making sure everything was organised for each morning, rather than dealing with the big picture stuff. (I swear this is not just a convenient excuse, I honestly can't remember!)
I asked her why she had decided to speak out now, all these years later.
"My hope with this story coming to light, even though it's 12 years later, is that every single one of those beautiful South Australians who donated money, thinking they were donating it to a tragic love story, that they find out that the story wasn't what they thought and that all of them get the money that they donated back, and potentially with interest," Amber said. "That's what my hope is."
From memory, when it dawned on SAFM management that we had been catfished, we aired a short message which we buried during an ad break that informed people they could ring up and get their money back if they wanted to.
No one called.
MOST SHOCKING PARTS OF THE STORY
The whole story is quite shocking, but there are some elements of the deception that stand out as more horrific.
For me, it was when Sarah was on air talking about her dream wedding in Adelaide. She had grown quite close to Rabbit and the two would talk often on the phone.
During the segment, Sarah asked Rabbit to walk her down the aisle, and the host burst into tears before saying yes. I mean, who does that?
But for Amber, the most shocking part was the fact that Sara actually came to meet the people she had deceived.
"It's one thing to trick a radio station on the other side of the world - but it's a whole other thing to get on a plane, fly to another country and go and stay with one of the DJs that you've scammed and then come into the radio station and look everyone in the eye, shake their hands and say, 'Thank you for being so kind to my dead best friend,'" Amber said. "That's a whole other level.
"But ultimately, the really disgusting part is anyone making out as if they have cancer and being so flippant with something so horrific," she said. "To play on the compassion of people that took that part of her story at face value and reacted accordingly, that's the truly disgusting thing to me.
"This scam went on for nearly two years and she was playing me and also inventing extra parts to the story designed purely to hook me in - which was this handsome, single radio DJ that she created an account for and who was writing to me and who sent me flowers on my birthday. It's really playing people as if they're pawns in a really sick game, just to amuse herself."
SARA MAKES CONTACT 11 YEARS LATER
Last year, Amber received an email from Sara. She wanted to talk, to clear the air.
"To be honest, there was a part of me that really didn't want to speak to her," Amber said. "But I also have a book that needed an ending to this part of the story, so I pushed through a lot of anger to speak to her to find out what story she was now going to present me with."
Amber and Sara spoke over Skype, and the con-woman apologised for her actions.
"She claims that she is very sorry and that she's done years of therapy," Amber said. "She claims that at the time when she first contacted us and during the two-year scam, that she was undiagnosed with bipolar, that she was drinking heavily and that she was doing cocaine."
Sara explained that she was addicted to the lie and was continually trying to up the stakes.
"Her reasoning for coming to Australia was because she just wanted to see how far she could keep pushing it," Amber said. "There was no logic beyond seeing how far she could push it."
Amber has since spoken to Sara on several occasions, including for the Snap Judgement podcast, and slowly the former radio host is getting answers to the questions that have dogged her for years.
WHOSE ASHES WERE IN THE BAG?
One of the biggest questions Amber wanted answered was whose ashes Sara spread in the water at Glenelg all those years ago.
Amber drove Sara to the beach, but Sara went into the water alone to empty the contents of the bag.
Amber recalled the bizarre incident on the Love + Radio podcast, saying: "I can see she's got her back to me, but I can see that she's obviously undoing the bag and she's just, you know, emptying the contents.
"Out of nowhere this gust of wind picks up just around Sara and picks up some of Sarah's ashes and ends up depositing them all over Sara's skirt.
"I'm just going, 'Oh my god … sh*t!' I was too scared to laugh."
So what did Sara have to say about the ashes incident all these years later?
"She told me it was actually another dead friend," Amber said.
"When I was asking her about the bipolar, I asked if there was an incident that may have triggered it to get worse. She said it was in her 20s when she was very close to a work friend who died.
"She was actually honouring this dead male friend of hers that day down at Glenelg," Amber said.
"She's still blending the truth. I do feel she's still a bit addicted to the games."
HOW WERE WE FOOLED?
Looking back on it now, it might seem obvious that we were being catfished.
But who would ever suspect that a simple gotcha call nomination would ever result in a months-long scam that would swindle listeners out of their money?
Amber openly accepts blame for letting Sara into her life so easily, telling news.com.au: "The person I was back then, I didn't have strong enough boundaries, I was really struggling with mental health issues and self-esteem and that's just not me anymore.
"I've certainly grown a lot," she said.
And it's important to stress that Sara was convincing, like, Meryl-Streep convincing.
"Her personality is hard not to like," Amber said. "She is a very engaging, charismatic person and she has a great sense of humour.
"Even now, knowing what she's done, it's very hard for me not to fall into a friendly rhythm with her."
But Amber has ruled out ever meeting Sara again face-to-face.
"I don't need to extend this story between her and I," she said. "I am done."
This Is Not A Love Song, by Amber Petty, is a memoir intertwining two tales: the raw, personal soul-searching of a young woman with a 'stranger than fiction' psychological thriller. It is available for pre-order now.
Originally published as How con artist scammed Aussie radio show