By Mick Le Moignan
Missing persons tend to turn up, sooner or later, dead or alive – usually the former.
Australia has 64,000 times as much land as Jersey, with only 250 times the population so it is not surprising that some who go missing never return. Picnic at Hanging Rock runs deep in the Australian psyche: as unlicensed intruders on this ancient continent, perhaps we fear that one day we may disappear, as swiftly as we came.
Nationwide, 38,000 people a year are reported missing. Most are found but 2,600 are listed as ‘long-term missing’ (over three months). Attractive young women and cute kids attract the keenest media coverage but absentees come in all ages, shapes and sizes.
Between 2007 and 2019, Jersey had almost 700 missing-person reports a year but only two remain unresolved. Many will remember the parents who disappeared in 1987 after a convivial birthday celebration with their sons. Six years on, the sons confessed and showed police where they buried them, in a valley at Grève de Lecq. Further back in the mists of time, I recall a butcher who chopped up his little sister. The most gruesome stories seem to stick fast in the memory.
Sydney’s latest high-profile disappearing act is Melissa Caddick who, dressed in running gear, left her $6 million home at Dover Heights, above Bondi Beach, at 5.30am on 12 November 2020 and has not been seen since. The best guess is that she threw herself off the cliffs at the Gap, a well-known suicide spot on the South Head of Sydney Harbour. Or is that answer just too obvious?
The previous morning, she and her husband and her 14-year-old son had been rudely interrupted by Australian Federal Police agents, who spent the next 12 hours searching the house for evidence of financial crime and removing all her designer clothes, handbags, shoes and expensive jewellery – so she had ample cause for alarm.
For ten years, Caddick lived an ostentatiously extravagant lifestyle with all the trimmings, fast cars, luxurious houses, private jets and several overseas holidays each year. A successful financial planner who claimed to earn up to 30% a month for her clients on their investments, she and her family lived ‘high on the hog’.
Between 2012 and 2020, Caddick operated a classic ‘Ponzi scheme’. Over 60 people handed over $30 million of their personal and family savings to her. None of it was invested and only $7 million was returned. She frequently turned down would-be investors, telling them her ‘books were full’. Later, when she found a space for them, they were grateful to be included and thought themselves lucky.
On 21 February, campers at a remote beach on the south coast of New South Wales found a running shoe, washed up by the surf, containing a decomposed human foot which DNA tests revealed to be Caddick’s. The coroner has not yet ruled on the matter but some suspect this might be the latest and most audacious hoax attempt by a consummate conwoman.
The doyenne of The Sydney Morning Herald’s investigative journalists, Kate McClymont, has spent months piecing together Caddick’s extraordinary story. I am hugely indebted to her impeccable research, which she has generously allowed me to pillage.
In her early 20s, Caddick fell for a rogue who stole from her parents’ house, maxed out her credit cards and left her an emotional and financial wreck, suffering some sort of breakdown. As McClymont observes: ‘While she’d learnt a valuable lesson, it wasn’t the one her friends and family imagined.’
In 1998, aged 27, she was managing the Sydney office of a boutique investment company when someone at head office spotted flaws in the accounts. Caddick was accused of forging signatures on cheques and she was sacked on the spot. She was not forced to repay the missing $2,000 and the police were not called so she escaped the criminal record that might just have saved some of her future victims a lot of money and heartache.
Five years later, happily married to a British builder’s labourer from Essex, having borrowed $750,000 to buy 25% of a financial planning business, she was already a high-flyer, featuring on the cover of trade magazine IFA (Independent Financial Adviser).
She moved to England, persuaded the builder to retrain as a solicitor and had a son. While pretending to go to a financial conference in Switzerland, she went to Paris instead, where one of her husband’s friends spotted her in a bar, canoodling with her Sydney hairdresser. That was the end of the marriage – but she managed to empty both bank accounts and the marital home on her way out.
The story moves back to Sydney. The husband lives in a humble flat while Caddick marries the hairdresser and moves into a five-bedroom, five-bathroom house, living well beyond her apparent means.
She claims to be making money from buying and selling shares and offers to do the same for an old school friend, with the funds from the friend’s superannuation account. The ‘returns’ on monthly forged share trading accounts are so dazzling that the friend ropes in other members of her family.
Caddick sets up Maliver Financial Services, using another friend’s licence number, and accepts more ‘investments’ from her own parents and brother and a group of surgeons in Perth, introduced by her brother. Business is booming. Hardly anyone asks to withdraw their money.
In August 2020, by chance, one lucky investor meets the actual holder of the financial adviser’s licence in a dentist’s waiting-room. When she tells her about her investments with Maliver, the real adviser tips her off: the licence fraud has been reported to the authorities and the net is closing.
The investor calls Caddick to say she needs her money back to buy a house. Caddick says she would make more leaving it with her but returns the original $2.5 million as well as $300,000 of fake ‘profits’. Others were less fortunate and lost everything.
Did Caddick have an exit plan? Is she hiding out in Brazil with a prosthetic foot? Or did a furious victim exact revenge on the cliff tops? The story is not over. For the moment, Melissa Caddick is still missing – but not exactly missed.