Devastated to learn that her fiancé, celebrity surgeon Paolo Macchiarini, has been lying to her, journalist Benita Alexander calls off the wedding and begins investigating the man she was planning to give up her career and move halfway around the world for. When she goes public with her story, she learns that a Swedish journalist, Bo Lindquist, is about to expose the deadly truth behind the doctor’s miracle surgeries.
[00:00:00] Bob: This week on The Perfect Scam.
[00:00:03] Benita Alexander: “We’ll still get married, my love, it doesn’t matter if we get married under a bridge, you know, even if it’s not the Pope, we’ll still get married. And once all this blows over, I’ll pay for everybody, all 300 guests. I’ll fly them all to Italy.”
[00:00:14] Matthew Christopher: We grabbed a glass of champagne, and we went for a walk. And she just starts to say, “You know, there’s something happening with Paolo.”
[00:00:26] Bob: A fairy tale romance followed by the wedding of the century, officiated by the Pope. Joining in wedded bliss, a prominent New York network TV producer and an Italian surgeon, a medical miracle worker who is fashioning body parts in a lab and putting them inside human bodies giving hope to the hopeless. It's all a magic carpet ride for Benita Alexander. When we left her, she had just quit her long-time job working for NBC so she and Paolo Macchiarini, a surgeon, could begin their new life together in Spain, but one day after she hands in her resignation, the magic carpet suddenly falls right to the ground. She gets an email from a work friend which shows her the Pope isn't going to be anywhere near the Vatican on the day their wedding is planned. He's going to be in South America. The impact of the email is so strong, Benita almost faints. It's as if the scales have been lifted from her eyes, and she suddenly feels the need to question everything about Paolo.
[00:01:34] Benita Alexander: I immediately called him, and "What the hell's going on?" And, you know, and you know, "Oh, my love, I just found this out myself. I don’t know. I'm going to go to the Vatican. I'm going to get it figured out. I'm so sorry."
[00:01:44] Bob: So, Paolo goes to Rome to fix the wedding. Meanwhile, Benita starts trying to figure out what's really going on. She goes to see her friend, designer Matthew Christopher, who had handcrafted the spectacular wedding dress Benita had planned to wear in just a few short weeks.
[00:02:04] Matthew Christopher: Benita and I met at her house, and we were getting close, and she's like, "Matt, something's up." And we grabbed a glass of champagne, and we went for a walk. And I'm like, "What's going on? What's happening?" And she just starts to say, "You know, there's something happening with Paolo." And she didn't like bring up a lot of stuff. And I think it was new to her, like it was all new to her. She's very, you know, we're very close, like she just talked to me and with me about things, and I started to like go, oh my God. Is this wedding going to happen?
[00:02:34] Bob: Paolo comes back to her with an explanation for the Pope's travel during the time their wedding was planned at the Vatican.
[00:02:41] Benita Alexander: And the excuse he gave me was after he supposedly went to Rome to try and get to the bottom of this, he tells me that this is internal Vatican politics at play, that the former living Pope, Benedict, who's very, very conservative, is so distressed that Pope Francis wants to marry publicly two divorcees, that he has gone behind his back, and organized this trip to South America to make it impossible for the Pope to be there for our wedding. And this is all internal Vatican politics. And, you know, Paolo's telling me he's so sorry, but he's going to get to the bottom of it.
[00:03:13] Bob: But really, it's Benita, the now former investigative journalist, who's really going to get to the bottom of it.
[00:03:20] Benita Alexander: At this point, I no longer believe him. And I, in short order, I, I mean I immediately put my journalist, kind of woke up out of my love haze, put my journalist hat back on, and went into hyper investigative mode. I also hired a private investigator, because even though I'm a trained investigative journalist, you know, this is my life, you know, and I wanted another set of eyes looking. And during this whole process I'm playing, not a game, but I, I made this very calculated move, because I know that he's not going to tell me the truth. I know, I now know he's a pathological liar. But I want all the information before I confront him. You know, I want, I want unequivocal, hard core proof that he cannot dispute. And so for...
[00:04:06] Bob: So you don't let on your suspicions.
[00:04:08] Benita Alexander: Correct. And, and that meant that I had to, and it was maybe one of the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life, that meant we're still talking on the phone. And he kept saying to me, "We'll still get married, my love, it doesn't matter if we get married under a bridge, you know, even if it's not the Pope, we'll still get married. And once all this blows over, I'll pay for everybody, all 300 guests. I'll fly them all to Italy." And I'm thinking, oh, what a bunch of nonsense, you know, but so I kept telling him, I'm, I'm talking to him, I had to still say I love you to him, and the whole time I'm investigating him.
[00:04:38] Bob: She has work to do to unmask Paolo's lie. But in the quiet moments, of course, it's hard. No princess wedding gown, no dancing with the stars costume trick that Matthew had planned, and she has to start telling everyone the bad news.
[00:04:56] Matthew Christopher: We, I mean we had the discussion over the phone. You know, 'cause she had to send out the, the emails. And I'm trying to remember exactly how that happened. My, my heart sank into a thousand pieces for everyone. It was really hard. I cried. We all cried because we worked so hard on it. It was so hard. And we were working on my collection at the same time.
[00:05:21] Bob: On what is supposed to be her wedding day, Benita goes to Barcelona with two friends who confront Paolo at one of his homes. A woman answers the door with children, probably his real wife and family.
[00:05:35] Benita Alexander: The truth about Paolo is I, he's a pathological liar at a minimum. I am not an expert, obviously I cannot diagnose him. I believe the man is some type of sociopath. He literally lied to me about everything. So nothing about the wedding was true. He told me he was divorced. He wasn't. He was still married. He's, he's hiding another family in a house in Barcelona where we were supposed to move. I would find out later about another woman that had a child with him in the middle of our relationship, who knows how many women there are, and yeah, ultimately, literally I mean literally everything about the wedding was a lie, you know, all the places he said were booked, all the venues, you know, the caterer, the everything, and I, I mean I have thousands of texts, thousands, no joke, where he went into minute detail about the wedding. He took this thing so far, like elaborate detail about the food and the wine and the, the decor and the, all these exercises that he had supposedly been through with the se--, the Swiss Guard and the police, you know, security things, and it's just insane. It was all a lie. There was not one single shred of truth to any of it. He made up this entire crazy, fantasy wedding in his head, you know, let me send out wedding invitations, let 300 people, almost 300 people think they're coming to this wedding, let them spend money on plane tickets, and you know, everything else. Let me give up everything and the whole time, he knows this wedding's never going to happen and can't happen because he's still married. I mean it's insane.
[00:07:08] Bob: At that moment, an even more ghastly realization hits Benita. Something much worse than a wedding that was called off.
[00:07:17] Benita Alexander: The thing about it was when I, when I realized all of that, all the personal stuff and the first thing that hit me was, oh my God, if he's lying to me like this, there's no way he's not lying in his medical and professional life. I, I, I just, it's impossible. You can't tell lies of this capacity and, and this just absurdity and not have it transcend to every facet of your life. And that thought was so horrifying to me because we're talking about people's lives. He, he's doing this groundbreaking pro--, procedure with, with people who have no hope left, who come to him because he's their last chance. And that meant people could be in danger. You know, this man, this super, so-called super surgeon is not who we think he is. You know, this man is a fraud, he's a con man.
[00:08:05] Bob: Realizing that Paolo may very well be hurting many, many more people, Benita makes yet another difficult choice.
[00:08:14] Benita Alexander: And I made the very difficult decision to go public. I didn't want to. I mean I quite frankly was really embarrassed, really humiliated. I mean I just got conned. You know, I'm a journalist, I'm not supposed to get duped, and I just got duped. And not only that, the, the guilt of dragging my daughter into this, all my friends and my family who all believed it, because I believed it, you know, I, I've got the weight of all that; I kind of wanted to disappear, you know, I, I wanted to crawl into the bed and just stay there, but I just felt this urgent responsibility to go public. And I thought at the time I might be the only person that had the means to expose him.
[00:08:55] Bob: She reaches out to a Vanity Fair reporter and tells him everything. Everything. She knows that means he's going to ask about their relationship while she was working on the story about Paolo, and that could really hurt her reputation as a journalist, which could make her post-Paolo life even harder. But she feels like she has to do it, and in February 2016, the Vanity Fair headline reads, "The Celebrity Surgeon Who Used Love, Money, and the Pope to Scam an NBC News Producer." When Benita Alexander fall for celebrated Dr. Paolo Macchiarini while filming a documentary about him, she thought her biggest problem was a breach of journalistic ethics. Then things got really interesting.
[00:09:45] Bob: Do you remember when the Vanity Fair article came out?
[00:09:47] Matthew Christopher: Yeah. I was like, holy cow! I was like this is, this is all starting to un--, unravel. You know what I mean? This is starting to come out. And it needed to come out, it needed to be, her story needed to be talked about. I mean people go through this stuff. I mean who does this stuff? You know what I mean? Like who does this stuff? There's, what is the deal with that crap, you know what I mean? So it's like, how does this happen to women? How does this happen to anybody? Do you know what I mean? It's just, it's just like crazy to me.
[00:10:22] Bob: The Vanity Fair story delves into the crazy wedding lies of Paolo, but it also digs deeper into Paolo's background and Benita's worst fears prove true. There are a lot of lies in Paolo's medical past too. The piece, written by Adam Zieralski does send shock waves around the New York media scene, around the medical community, and it reaches Bo Lindquist just a few days before his long documentary project on Paolo is about to air. We met Bo last episode. He's a filmmaker in Sweden, who'd been asking questions, hard questions, about Paolo's surgeries for a couple of years. Bo has no idea who Benita is at this point, and he has no idea Vanity Fair is going to scoop him just a little on his investigation.
[00:11:12] Bo Lindquist: But the Vanity Fair piece which published a week, maybe 10 days before my program, documentary series got to be aired, when somebody told me that I should really, should have a look at Vanity Fair's website, I at first ignored it because, because of what, I mean, what, what would they have to say that would be relevant for, for my series? And so I actually hesti--, I didn't do it for a couple days, and then when I finally looked up the piece, of course, I was astonished; that was really quite astounding.
[00:11:44] Bob: Bo had been romancing, if you will, Paolo for a long time to really get inside Paolo's head. And in a great irony, Bo hadn't let on what he was doing, at least not at first to Paolo. He let Paolo believe it was just another film about these groundbreaking surgeries.
[00:12:04] Bo Lindquist: Well I, I told him from the beginning what, what that, which is what I tell everyone, and which is true, that I really wanted to understand his world and his, his, his work and what he tried to achieve and what, how, what he did to achieve it, and uh how successful or not that he was. And the only thing that I could promise him is that I would really, really go to the depths, as deep as I could. And he accept that. And, he uh, University Hospital where he was doing his stuff, they knew about my work; you know, previously I've done investigative work for 40 years. And he was, he was well aware of what I was doing. And I thought that he, I thought that he actually appreciated the fact that I really tried to understand what he was doing, because that's rare when generally some, most of us don't have the time or perhaps not the interest to really go deep down or into some depth. And that's, that's usually something that people find interesting that they, they get questions that actually are interesting also to them, and to themselves.
[00:13:11] Bob: But their friendly reporter/subject relationship turns sour as the day of the airing approaches. And Bo starts asking harder questions.
[00:13:21] Bo Lindquist: He, he's very sharp, and he's very sort of acute at, at receiving what's going on in the room, so it probably took him 10 seconds to realize that, that things had changed, and that I actually had found facts and, and, and stuff that was incriminating and that I was going to confront him with it. So that was 2½ hours of, of um, very, very tense conversation.
[00:13:48] Bob: And, and how did you leave it at the end of that conversation?
[00:13:53] Bo Lindquist: Shaken actually, because he, he used sort of, he's very good at uh, manipulating people, and he used sort of all the methods in the book and he made me feel shaky by subjecting him to this terrible treatment of exposing him with confronting him with accusations of having lied in science and uh, almost kill his patients.
[00:14:16] Bob: When the film comes out, Bo unloads on Paolo. There are four whistleblowers, four doctors who claim Paolo has cheated science, he's conducted experiments on humans, and without conducting animal experiments first. He's lied about his credentials, but worst of all, many of his patients haven't enjoyed miracles at all. They died.
[00:14:39] Bob: Just to try to explain to somebody for whom this story seems just crazy, how could all these papers be published with, with lies in them? I mean what's the point of peer review if these papers can get published with all this mis--, misleading information?
[00:14:54] Bo Lindquist: Right, well the peer review system works quite often, but it, it's based on trust, and it's based on people not lying, basically. Because what, what it consists of is that if you, if you want to have a text published, then three of your peers will read the text and come for the judgment. But the peers are normally not paid for this, right, it's sort of an honorable job. So, they don't have much time to actually assess what's in the paper, and because science today is so specialized, and so, so narrowly focused, it's normally you, you, it's hard to find reviewers who are experts in the same field as, as the, the people who've written the article. So what you get is not, it's not really a very thorough review, it's, it's, it's actually quite hastily come, it, it's, it's produced quite hastily. And it's hard for the reviewers to actually assess the stuff. They never look at the raw material, for example. They just read the text. And the only way to really discover that, that Paolo Macchiarini's texts were false was to compare the actual data, the, from the patient records with what is written in this article, and the reviewers never get to see the patient records.
[00:16:20] Bob: And that is exactly what Bo did.
[00:16:22] Bo Lindquist: Well it was really central to our investigation. We had to get permission from the deceased patient's relatives to, to get access to their records, and that's what, that was when we could actually discover that Macchiarini and a couple of his colleagues had been faking the science and been lying about the true outcome of the surgeries. So that was really important.
[00:16:52] Bob: But the lies seem so grandiose. I mean he was basically saying that he had cured someone who ultimately died, right?
[00:17:01] Bo Lindquist: Uh, yes, well he wasn't dead at that, the patient wasn't dead at that point. Since he, he was producing articles very fast so that the first sort of scien--, scientific success story was published just four months, five months after the first surgery. So it was very much a work in progress when he was publishing his uh, scientific texts.
[00:17:24] Bob: So he rushed them out before his patients died. Wow.
[00:17:27] Bo Lindquist: Yes.
[00:17:28] Bob: Wow, that's crazy. Um...
[00:17:31] Bo Lindquist: Crazy, and of course, the only way to do it because it's, once the patient had been dead it would have been much more difficult to publish these things.
[00:17:38] Bob: He rushed out the papers before his patients died. It's hard to imagine. But when the film airs, the scales are lifted from the eyes of the medical profession too.
[00:17:51] Bob: So this man was able to evade some of the smartest people in the world and persuade them to do these things, and it was your documentary that lifted the veil and exposed him. What does that feel like.
[00:18:02] Bo Lindquist: Yeah. Well, uh, surprise was actually the initial feeling because, I mean we, I discovered these things and me and my teammates, discovered what had been going on, but it was so surprising, you know, and so hard to believe that, that when we aired, I was, I was still sort of half expecting that someone would say, no, but you, you misunderstood it all. That you, you overlooked this, this piece. And obviously this isn't, isn't true, but then nobody did. It, it, it dawned when when it became clear that we were completely right. And then I think of course, one of the reactions was that we became satisfied that we'd actually stopped the practice of inserting plastic tracheas. I mean there were other patients, patients to be queuing in line for, for a new plastic trachea. And so that was actually that feels quite satisfactory that there weren't any more such surgeries done.
[00:19:04] Bob: Bo and Benita, having exposed Paolo on opposite ends of the Atlantic Ocean, even though they'd never met, but they did not long after Bo's film airs.
[00:19:14] Bo Lindquist: I think we were both kind of astonished because she didn't know what I knew, and I didn't know what she knew. So we met in New York a couple of months after my programs aired, and her article was, the first article about her was published, and started comparing notes. It was quite fascinating really to see, to see this I think, I mean many things are fascinating, but one of them was the similarities in the deception in the hoax. I mean Benita, I think, I, I, she, it was a difficult decision for, for her because she felt alone. She had alone been duped this way, and, a--, along the way her daughter had been, had been duped, as well as her family, her parents, et cetera. But uh, when, when we spoke, she realized that were, there were many, many more, not just her. And if you look at the mostly main professors and directors of hospitals and universities that Paolo had similarly cheated but, you know, were matters of life and death, then it doesn't become so strange that he also managed to uh, cheat her.
[00:20:28] Bob: I'm sure she felt better knowing that again, the smartest people in the world were also misled by him.
[00:20:33] Bo Lindquist: Hopefully.
[00:20:35] Bob: The fallout from the film and the Vanity Fair story is swift.
[00:20:40] Benita Alexander: And this is a huge, huge scandal. I mean Paolo pulled the wool over so many people's eyes. He didn't just lie to me, he lied to famous institutions, doctors, scientists. I mean there's so many people on this list, you know, people that did research with him, people that wrote papers with him, people that funded his research. You know, all these people got fooled by Dr. Paolo Macchiarini. You know, he's a class A con man, and it was a huge scandal. So this experimental plastic windpipe that he was, he was putting into patients around the world; there were 8 patients that we know of around the world, including Hannah, and then there were, there was an American, Christopher Lyles, that got one of these transplants. There were people in Russia, people in Sweden. Seven out of those eight patients are dead. The only patient that's still alive had this experimental windpipe taken out. It turned out that he never did any animal experiments before doing this experimental procedure on humans. You are supposed to do experiments in animals before you try doing something radical in humans. He didn't do it. He broke all the rules, all the laws. He did get any of the ethical approvals he's supposed to get. He, I mean it's just, it's just... awful. It's so tragic. He was using people as human guinea pigs. This thing doesn't work. It never had a chance of working. And yet, he kept doing it. And even when he realized, I don't know, maybe going in, I'll give him the benefit of a doubt, maybe he had some crazy idea in this head that this thing was going to somehow work, but the worst part is, it was very evident very early on as the patients start dying that this thing doesn't work, and he was hiding the truth. You know, he's, he's doing, giving press interviews and doing press conferences and, and saying this is working beautifully and magically, and you know, this is the hope of the future, and meanwhile these patients are dying the most horrific, horrendous deaths. I mean the details are horrifying. This thing became dislodged in their throats. It started rotting inside them, you know, the mother of one of the patients in Russia that I talked to said, I mean it's horrific. She said she smelled like rotting flesh. You know, this, this thing just didn't work. And he just kept going. He, I just, I don't know what's wrong with him, but he doesn't care who he hurts.
[00:23:08] Bob: It takes a while, but eventually there are consequences for Paolo's lies.
[00:23:13] Benita Alexander: Oh, it's embarrassing for a lot of people. So people stepped down from the Nobel Prize committee in shame. People at Karolinska stepped down in shame. You know, he gets fired, and then all these investigations are opened, and ultimately, he was charged with aggravated assault in connection with the deaths of three of his patients, the ones who were operated on in Sweden, and he was just on trial this year in 2022, in May of 2022. I was there.
[00:23:39] Bob: In a full circle moment, Benita is back working as a journalist when Paolo finally has to face a jury for his alleged crimes. And Benita is there.
[00:23:52] Bob: When you first say him in the courtroom, I know this is kind of, probably a strange question, but the, the butterflies that you felt the first time you saw him, was there some kind of correspondingly awful feeling?
[00:24:07] Benita Alexander: That's an interesting question. I never thought of it that way, but I guess yes, because I had, I had this feeling of, it's disgust. It's just disgust and anger. I just, I just can't, to this day, sitting in that courtroom I felt this torrent of like, tornado of anger in my gut, you know, so where it was butterflies before, this time it was like a volcano of anger.
[00:24:31] Bob: Benita wasn't part of the trial, but she was still part of the story.
[00:24:37] Benita Alexander: It's a different court system in Sweden, than it is in the US. It's much more polite, I would say. Um, 'cause no, there's no screaming objection, this kind of thing. It's um, a very sort of polite scene. And he, we, nobody was sure if he was actually going to show up, and so on the first day of the trial, the courtroom was packed, and it's more like a conference room than a courtroom, but absolutely packed with journalists, and there was a swirl and buzz of activity around me, because once people realized I'm there, and I'm not just there to observe, I'm also there working as a journalist, so I, it had kind of come full circle. Because I started, I met Dr. Paolo Macchiarini as a journalist when I was covering him you know, fast-forward 2013, nine years later, and here I am covering him again under very, very different circumstances. I mean when I met him, he was a super surgeon, you know, he was at the top of his game. He was, people were clamoring to work with him, and there were nothing but glowing stories about him. Fast-forward nine years and he's had a complete fall from grace, and he's sitting in a criminal court. I haven't seen the man in seven years. You know the last time I saw him was when I found him in the house in Barcelona with another family, and seeing him in court was very difficult. And way, way more difficult than I anticipated. I thought I had prepared myself for it, and I thought because I was in journalist mode and I would be okay, but sitting 10 feet away from him, every day, through that, through that trial was very, very difficult. I just, it brought up so many feelings that I thought I had put, I was past, you know, and I thought I would be able to look past. And I, it just, the anger. I'm just, you know, I am, I am still incredibly angry at, at, at this man. And, and for me to sit there and I know him and I, I could see him lying in, in court. You know, he got up and he took the stand himself, and it was all I could do to hold it together in that courtroom.
[00:26:42] Bob: How did you not yell out in the middle of his testimony?
[00:26:44] Benita Alexander: Well exactly, exactly. I mean I had to do a lot of internal deep breaths because I, and there were, there were days that I wanted to scream. I came home from Sweden exhausted in a way I've never felt in my life, you know, mentally and emotionally, physically. I was just absolutely drained.
[00:27:02] Bob: Paolo was tried for the death of three of his patients. The results were, unsatisfying.
[00:27:09] Bob: He was convicted of one of three counts, but given a suspended sentence which I believe means he's, he's not been to jail for any of this. Is that your understanding?
[00:27:19] Benita Alexander: Yes, absolutely, that's correct.
[00:27:22] Bob: So it's again, it's a bit of a jaw dropper that somebody could conduct these medical experiments without patients' knowledge and not...
[00:27:32] Bo Lindquist: It's a, it's a jaw drop, yeah, it's a jaw drop for, for sure. I think so did the prosecutors think, so the prosecutors have appealed, and so the case will go to the next level of courts and, and we'll see what that, you know, what the next line of judges will say. The, the next level would be a more qualified court, more experienced and larger. So, I think there are many things to, to look at still.
[00:27:56] Bob: I guess that's what I was getting at with the, the broader tenet of my question which is um, you know, I don't know where I stand on it, and I try not to, this is not a political show, but people who are skeptical of um, you know, of national health departments, um, their skepticism doesn't come from, from nowhere. There are institutions that don't necessarily follow the, the standards that they claim to, right.
[00:28:14] Bo Lindquist: Absolutely, but I think it's not a matter of sort of private versus government-run. It, the, the impunity seems to be just as big in both places. And it's, it's sort of a lure of money and fame that, that drives it.
[00:28:27] Bob: The lure of money and fame is very powerful. But that's just what the scientific method is designed to block, and it's what laws are designed to punish. Unfortunately, well, in some ways, law often falls behind technology and medical innovation.
[00:28:46] Bob: He wasn't just hurting people, he was, was perhaps engaged in hastening their deaths. That's a very serious medical crime, right?
[00:28:52] Bo Lindquist: I assume so, I mean it, that, that's, that's why we have sort of the seat of law, and it, I'm not an expert, expert in that and I think these kinds of, I mean I would from a layman’s perspective call it a crime. I'm not sure that the prosecutor would because the, the laws haven't really been written, with, with these kinds of actions taken into account. I mean this is something that most country's legislations are, are, aren't constructed for, the supervising.
[00:29:22] Bob: It's been six years since Benita’s wedding of the century was cancelled. She's done a primetime TV special about it. She's got a website; she's talking to us at The Perfect Scam. She's still pursuing the story.
[00:29:36] Bob: What is it you want people to know?
[00:29:40] Benita Alexander: You know my initial goal was simply to expose him, you know, and I felt I, I needed to do this as kind of a service to the world, and that somehow this made, made it all made sense to me. I thought, you know, maybe this happened to me because I'm a journalist, and because even though I was on the floor in a heap of tears more times than I can count, and there were days when I didn't think I could get through this, and I knew that I had the skills and the tools at my fingertips to expose him and somehow that made it all make sense, that, that maybe this is why this happened to me and not somebody else. And okay, I can do this. And that was my initial goal, but then once I went public, what surprised me is I started hearing from women, not just women, most, mostly women though, from all over the world thanking me, which was so surprising to me and so humbling because they were thanking me for being brave enough and courageous enough to tell my story in such open, raw detail. And telling me that I made them feel less alone and less stupid, and I realized, oh my God, this happens way more, you know, way more than we think it does. I mean certainly not to the extreme of my story, and my story's just over the top crazy. But there are a lot of con artists out there, and there are a lot of people walking around who feel incredibly ashamed and humiliated and a lot of people are shamed into silence. You know, this is embarrassing. It's very embar--, embarrassing as a, as a successful, intelligent person to put your hand up and say, hey, I just got duped. And so people stay quiet. And they kind of count on us staying quiet, because if we stay quiet, they get away with it. This perpetuates. And so now I'm just on a mission to help other women, and help other women know that it's okay if you got conned. I mean what was your crime? You fell in love. That's not a crime. You wanted to trust the person you fell in love with. That's not a crime either. So I want people to stop pointing the finger at the victim. I want to end victim shaming. I want the focus to be on the con artist which is where it should be and on exposing them, and, and just trying to increase awareness about all of this.
[00:32:00] Bob: Benita has one piece of advice that, well all of us should remember.
[00:32:04] Benita Alexander: I tell people all the time now, it's one of, one of the key lessons is, it's a waste of time to try and figure out why con artists do this, because you're not going to get the why. You know, their minds just don't work like ours, and I always tell people not to waste their energy, you know, trying to figure them out. You know, there's this line that I can't, I feel like nothing will make you crazier than trying to figure out a crazy person.
[00:32:32] Bob: There's, there's so much insane to it, but I, I do want to go back, like literally you only had, in 24 hours you went from, I'm taking this immense leap of faith, I'm quitting my job, giving up my career, and then 24 hours later, you get an email that pierces the bubble and your whole world is turned upside-down. Is that right?
[00:32:51] Benita Alexander: Yes. And within 24 hours, you know, I... and it would take a few weeks obviously as I'm gathering information for all, for it all to sink in, but it was just like my life imploded, you know. He railroaded my entire life, you know, and I, so much was at stake. I, I am a single mother, you know, to a little girl that lost her dad, you know, and that was the thing that burned me up the most about this, and still does to this day, you know. How dare you. You know, you ride in on your fake white horse, like Prince Charming, telling me and my daughter that you're going to take care of us the, for the rest of our lives, that you love both of us, and you do this to a little girl that just lost her dad, her dad who adored her, and you know you're lying to her, to a little girl? You know, it's, it's one thing to do it to me, you know, I'm an adult, I'm a grownup. I'm going to, one way or another, I'm going to be okay. I'll land on my feet. But a little girl? How dare you, you know, how dare you! I mean that just incensed me, infuriated me. And I just, I still to this day cannot fathom what kind of person does that? How, how do you sit in front of a little girl that just lost her dad and tell these absolutely outrageous lies? You know, I mean he sat with her and talked to her about the school he's going to enroll her in in Barcelona, and what her life is going to be like in Barcelona. It's just the audacity of that is beyond anything I can imagine.
[00:34:27] Bob: We do a lot of scam stories here, a lot of romance scams even, but this story is unique both because the lies were so huge, and also because there was a sizable foundation of truth behind Paolo's lies.
[00:34:42] Benita Alexander: I mean that's, that's the thing, he's not a fake doctor. He, he is a surgeon, which makes it all the more tragic, really. You know, if, if he had used those skills, and he's extremely intelligent. I mean the man speaks 5 or 6 different languages, and he's from, everyone's account, a very skilled surgeon. He's so believable. He's so convincing. And he, he had all the credentials, you know, he had all the accolades, so people just didn't question him. That's why he's working at the place that awards the Nobel Prize in Medicine. You know, so people just didn't check. It would turn out that there are some lies and fabrications on his CV, but nobody dug into him, because he walks into a room, and he, he's one of those very mesmerizing people that, you know, he commands a room when he walks in, and I, unfortunately, I think a lot of these con artists are like that. They have this sort of mesmerizing power about them that people just believe them, and people don't question them, and people don't doubt them, and if you walk the walk and talk the talk and you look like the part, you know, people aren't going to question you.
[00:35:51] Bob: But looking the part doesn't explain how Paolo got away with cheating science. Instead, Bo says, Paolo was able to expose flaws in the way we practice science.
[00:36:04] Bo Lindquist: Paolo couldn't have pulled this off alone if, if the system had been working as it should. At the, he, he was seeing the cracks in the system, the fault lines where he actually commit a fraud. And, and if there hadn't been all, all these gullible and professors and, and directors of hospitals, and universities that very much wanted to have miracles happen at their, at their departments, then I don't think he would have given the opportunity to, to uh perform these experiments. It, he was dangling a carrot in front of the, all of these guys' eyes, you know, maybe a future Nobel Prize, big grants, whatever, and I think that's, they, they fell for it, and that's really is, it's, it's a system fault that we have people who are, who, that they, you know there's isn't, there isn't that sort of level of um, criticism and, and, and transparency within the medical world.
[00:37:11] Bob: But it's not lost on Bo, people did try to ring the alarm bells about Paolo. The people in power just didn't listen.
[00:37:20] Bo Lindquist: I mean, the, the four whistleblowing doctors in Sweden started to alert the management in Sweden at, at the hospital and at the university two years before my programs were aired, and the managements of the university and the hospital was actively suppressing this information, and that, that has never been looked into. So I think there are these, these, you know, really important, what's the word in English, omissions, I mean there was, there was a US patient that was a young toddler that was operated on in the US, that should be investigated, how did that, how could that come about, what, were the permission granted correctly? Um , there were, and there was an American gentleman who was operated on in Stockholm, and how did that come about? What was that, was that uh, how, how was he referred to Sweden, et cetera. I think there are many things to, to look at still.
[00:38:20] Bob: The more I talked with Benita and Bo, the more I couldn't help thinking about one thing.
[00:38:26] Bob: I have to just say this because it's burdening on my brain. That this man was already very famous when you met him, right?
[00:38:33] Benita Alexander: Yes. Yes.
[00:38:34] Bob: And yet, that still wasn't nearly enough for him.
[00:38:39] Benita Alexander: No, and I don't know, this has been the subject of much discussion, you know, about the why, you know, I mean why?
[00:38:47] Bob: As you say, yeah...
[00:38:48] Benita Alexander: Why do this? But I don't know if he, you know, got addicted to the attention and, and the, the fame, you know, and it, it just, he got carried away with it all. I don't know, or if he's just one of those people that just can't help lying about everything, and maybe doesn't even realize he's lying. I have no idea. I, I just know that he's dangerous, you know, the man's dangerous, and he's, he has ruined a lot of people's lives.
[00:39:17] Bob: And Benita, well, she's not going to stop talking about Paolo until justice is served.
[00:39:24] Benita Alexander: I have people say to me all the time, oh, come on, you've been talking about this for 7 years. When are you going to stop? And the answer is, I'm not. I'm not going to stop until there's justice. I mean this isn't just about me. This is also about justice for his patients, you know in my case. And, and so those families of those patients get some justice, you know, until that man is behind bars, I will not stop talking about this, and also, as long as I have women reaching out to me, which I do every day, telling me that I somehow helped them, then I'm also not going to stop talking about this.
[00:39:54] Bob: And as for the future, step one is healing. And that takes time.
[00:40:01] Benita Alexander: I try to encourage women to get, get their heads out of, out of the person that conned them, and focus on healing themselves, you know, and getting over this, which you can. Trust me. I know it feels like you can't, and there are days when it will feel like you can't, and it will feel like this has decimated your entire life, but you can recover. But the key to that is, is almost forgetting them, you know, and, and not focusing on them, and most importantly, not beating yourself up, you know, and knowing that you're not stupid, you know, it's, they are, again, I said at the beginning, they are very, very skilled manipulators, and there's all kinds of stuff that goes hand in hand with this, you know, the gaslighting, the, there is, the psychological manipulation. They can, they can almost break anybody down and they know who to target, you know, and the, the other thing that I always advise people is that if you are vulnerable, and it could be anything, maybe you just got divorced, maybe you just went through a difficult breakup, you know, maybe somebody in your life is sick or dying or whatever it is, like I was when my ex-husband was dying, or you lost a job. But whatever it is, if you are vulnerable, you have to be hypervigilant, you know, and aware, because it's like, these con artists have what I like to call a vulnerability radar. They know who they can target, you know, and they go for people who are vulnerable, and they kind of study you, like a serial killer studies his, his victims. And they get to know you, and they use that information against you. So if you're vulnerable, you just have to have your guard up and be very, very vigilant about protecting yourself.
[00:41:40] Bob: So I asked Benita, how is she today?
[00:41:44] Benita Alexander: Well I am okay, we are okay. We, we both have a, have maintained a good sense of humor. My daughter has kind of a dark sense of humor, and so she, she says, she says, "Mom, I tell people you dated a serial killer." And so we laugh about it. She also always says that if she ever sees him, she's like, "Mom, it's on, I mean I don't care. I'm going to punch him." I'm, okay, you know, but no, we're fine. I think I'm very, very lucky have incredible, incredible friends and family, and a vast network of very, very loving and supportive people. And I am just a survivor. And I also think you know this turned into this new mission in my life. I never would have imagined I'm on this, I'd be on this path, but it is, it is very rewarding to know that I'm able to make a difference by talking about this in other peoples’ lives. In the same way, I guess that I felt that I made a difference with the stories I was telling, now by telling my own story, I'm able, able to make a difference. And that gives me a lot of comfort and peace.
[00:42:52] Bob: If you have been targeted by a scam or fraud, you are not alone. Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Their trained fraud specialists can provide you with free support and guidance on what to do next. Thank you to our team of scambusters; Executive Producer, Julie Getz; Researcher, Haley Nelson; Associate Producer, Annalea Embree; and of course, our Audio Engineer, Julio Gonzalez. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP's The Perfect Scam, I'm Bob Sullivan.
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