The con artist, the investigator and the trophy
Investigative journalist Kate McClymont reveals how she exposed Melissa Caddick, the Sydney swindler who disappeared without a trace.
The disappearance of Dover Heights woman Melissa Caddick captivated the nation. Where had she gone? Why would she disappear?
Kate McClymont made it her mission to find out.
The Sydney Morning Herald investigative journalist spent hours digging through financial records, court documents and land title deeds, to reveal Caddick’s heartless ploy to steal millions from her family and friends.
McClymont’s exclusive insights into the fraudster’s heartless deception and astounding excess stood out to judges, who felt she was more than deserving of the 2021 Walkley Award for Print/Text News Report, her ninth award.
McClymont discusses her win with 2021 Jacoby-Walkley Scholarship winner, Ella McCrindle, following the Walkley Awards in February 2022.
You were the first to discover that Melissa Caddick had been using bogus trading accounts to defraud her clients. Tell me about the moment you realised you’d cracked the case.
One of the victims contacted me and said, ‘come and have a look at my accounts.’ She said other CommSec accounts had eight [digit account numbers] and hers had six.
When I reported that, I was deluged by victims.
It wasn’t until they read my story that all these people said ‘we’ve just gone and had a look at our paperwork, and we’ve all got six digits as well.’
It was the first time many of them realised that they too were victims.
It’s one of those times as a journalist that you feel really sorry to be the bringer of bad tidings.
While it sounds difficult to have to share the news, what do you think this story meant for Melissa Caddick’s victims?
I think it was good to get it out. It was also really important for me and for other journalists to report these victims as real people.
When fraud happens, people are so quick to jump on the bandwagon to say that they were greedy fools who deserved everything they got, which was so not the case. These were family and friends.
“They’ve lost everything.”
There was a particularly sad one where one of the victims, his entire family had lost about $10 million. He later told the court that seeing his elderly mother in the queue at Centrelink, to now try to get a pension to stay alive, was heartbreaking.
And I think as journalists, you have to try to put forward an accurate picture because in many ways, you’re telling their stories as well.
Was Caddick targeting the wealthy? What sort of people were they?
Just friends and family. Her very first victim was somebody she had been to school with since preschool. This friend was a single mother, working as a disability support worker, trying to do the best for her kids. Melissa stole everything. And you think, this was her friend.
I think Melissa was, at the very least, a narcissistic sociopath. She was somebody that had no empathy or feelings, but she could fake all those things.
I’m curious…what do you think happened to her?
I think she’s dead.
One of the problems with the investigation was that her husband, Anthony Colletti, did not report her missing until 30 hours after she disappeared. So in that time, if she had jumped off the cliffs, which I suspect that she did, the chances of finding the body dissipated because the tides had taken her away.
And to this day, there are still a lot of people who believe she chopped her own foot off and she’s hopping around somewhere living the good life.
It hasn’t been helped by the fact that the Coroner is yet to have an inquest into the matter.
So we just don’t know anything further really about her suspected death.
[Since the interview with Kate, Caddick’s husband Anthony Coletti has made written comments that indicate he too believes she is dead. But he maintains that she did not defraud her clients. A coronial inquest will be heard on September 12.]
A lot of work goes into delivering exclusive stories like this. What did it take to get the story out?
These kinds of things are difficult because you’re starting with nothing. Absolutely nothing.
The only reason I got on the story in the first place was that I was looking at another raid that ASIC and the Federal Police had done the same week.
When I rang to say, ‘did you execute search warrants at this place,’ they said, ‘oh do you mean Wallaroy Road, Woollahra or do you mean Wallangarah Road in Dover Heights?’
And I said, ‘oh, what happened in Dover Heights?’
And they said, ‘oh I don’t know…Some woman, some Melissa Caddick.
So I was just inadvertently looking at it. And that’s what happens with stories. It’s the incidental way you come across things.
What’s something most people don’t know about the process of forensic reporting?
In many ways, it’s no different to normal reporting. It’s just that the instinct is to follow the money. Where is the money coming from? Where is it going? What was she doing?
It’s surprising how often you are able to link events, and to link things that might not have occurred to you the first time around.
But it’s just a matter of being patient and being diligent and not everything comes to you at once.
Your feature “The Lady Vanishes: Melissa Caddick and the missing millions” was one of Good Weekend’s most read stories of the year. Why do you think it resonated with readers so much?
I just think it’s the case. It’s the case itself. It’s just one of those stories that has captured people’s imagination. It’s intriguing, it’s fascinating, there are victims.
It’s a whodunnit in some ways, except I think that shedunnit.
For some reason there is a fascination with this sort of sociopathic person who can look their friend in the eye and steal everything from them. And for what? To buy more jewels? To buy more clothes?
“It’s repulsive and fascinating at the same time.”
Kate, why did you become a journalist?
Like many things in life, completely by accident. I had been working as an editor at a publishing company and I ran into someone at a party who had just got a cadetship with the Sydney Morning Herald. And I just thought, “wow, that’s something I would like to do.”
So the next year when the cadetships came around, I applied. And I was really lucky and got the job.
I absolutely loved it.
What’s your message to people who say traditional journalism isn’t important in the social media age, where we all have the ability to produce and share stories?
Look, I don’t think you could do investigative journalism as a freelancer. The amount of work that goes into a story is just not viable to do.
Also, it’s the legal threats, the defamation threats. Trying to handle those on your own is just too daunting. I can remember Stephen Mayne, who was the founder of the website, Crikey, he lost his house in a defamation suit for one paragraph in a story that he wrote. So I sort of feel like we are protected by our employers.
What I do is also really expensive. Doing company searches and things like that aren’t cheap, and if you’re doing that on the fly by yourself, I just think it’s impossible.
And also, I think you have a responsibility as an accredited journalist. People look up to you to behave ethically, that your stories will be as factual as they can be. There’s a certain amount of trust in working with a major media organisation.
“It’s still really important, I think, to look at traditional media as a safety net for our democracy.”
This is your ninth Walkley Award. What’s going to help you get to number ten?
It’s just luck. When I won my Gold Walkley, which was 20 years ago, somebody had come to me with information that was completely different to the story I was doing. As part of the story, someone said to me that the Bulldogs were avoiding the salary cap by a million dollars.
And I remember walking ‘round to the sports department and saying to them, ‘is this something that’s interesting?’
And they went, ‘absolutely.’
And I went, ‘right, okay I’m on it.’
So, sometimes you don’t even know that you’re onto a good story.
Kate McClymont is one of Australia’s leading investigative journalists. Since the 1990s she has investigated fraudsters, uncovered corruption, and exposed scandals in politics, sport and among ordinary people for The Sydney Morning Herald. She exposed the salary cap scandal at the Canterbury Bulldogs NRL club and surrounding disgraced former New South Wales politician Eddie Obeid. She has won nine Walkley Awards and is an inductee of the Australian Media Hall of Fame.
See the full list of 2021 Walkley Award winners announced on February 25, 2022.