Real Life

What it’s like to fall for a con man

When Tracy Hall fell for Max Tavita, she didn't realise she was the latest in a long line of women whose life savings he’d stolen.

Falling in love takes a leap of faith. When you meet someone new, putting your heart in their hands requires trust, and just a little bravery.

In 2016, when Tracy Hall first downloaded the dating app, Happn, she wasn’t feeling particularly courageous. She was 40, newly single and trying to imagine what her life would look like post-divorce. Tracy and her daughter, Asha, then six, lived on Sydney’s northern beaches, where Tracy loved to unwind from her demanding marketing job by running along the shoreline or plunging into the ocean. She is, she says, a positive person, and so when the Romeos on the dating app slung her profane pics or described themselves as “married but looking for other opportunities” they were fodder for stories to make her friends laugh, rather than a cause for genuine despair.

“I have an optimism bias. I just think the best of everyone and everything,” she says.

Yet, after she laughed off her disappointments over cocktails, she couldn’t deny the sting of loneliness she felt when her friends went home to their husbands, and she was left swiping.

“When you go into the dating apps, you have to open yourself up,” she says. “I say to my daughter, if you go into every situation just looking for the red flags, love and kindness can’t actually exist in that world.” But she was still careful and critical. Or so she thought.

Max Tavita had platinum blond hair, a career in finance, a flat in Bondi and had just returned from a 16-year stretch working in New York, via a brief stint in London. He wasn’t the first promising prospect, but he quickly became Tracy’s favourite. Despite his flash credentials, he struck her as humble and attentive.

“The more times we spoke, and the more we connected, the more we seemed like we were aligned,” she says thoughtfully.

“We had a similar sense of humour. Our values were aligned. We liked doing the same things on the weekend – being in the sunshine, in the ocean, surfing, paddleboarding, walking, running. We liked eating the same food.”

Tracy Hall and Hamish McLaren.
Tracy Hall and Hamish McLaren.

In the early get-to-know-you phase, he’d send her rapid-fire questions: ‘Snow or sun?’ ‘Italian or Japanese?’ ‘Top Gun or Dirty Dancing?’ His cultural references made Tracy feel like she was talking to someone who’d had the same formative experiences as she had. “There was this combination of intelligence, banter, humour and the Aussie-ness that I could relate to,” she says. Messages turned to long, engrossing conversations. “He was just a phenomenal listener,” Tracy says.

Things became serious. They committed to each other and started taking holidays together. Max and Tracy discussed buying a house in Byron Bay. Then things become really serious – culminating in a terrifying day that ended with Tracy calling Bondi Police and begging them to do a welfare check, because she feared Max could be dead.

In a way, she was right. Max Tavita did not exist. The man Tracy Hall thought she was in love with was a fictional character created by serial conman, Hamish McLaren. For much of Tracy’s relationship with “Max”, detectives had been investigating Hamish in connection with financial fraud. Max had disappeared because police had swooped on Hamish’s flat and taken him into custody.

Ultimately, Hamish McLaren was convicted of defrauding 15 victims of $7.6 million, including more than $300,000 of Tracy’s savings and superannuation.

Tracey with Hamish McLaren on a date.

Yet years later, sitting in a Sydney café, Tracy can’t pinpoint a single attribute of this man that was his alone. Everything she knows about him was a calculated reflection of something she had said to him. He built a persona out of information she gave him. He was a projection of her ideal man. The few things that weren’t, were outright lies. For example, he told her his parents had died in a plane crash when he was just six years old. Later, he added the detail that he was in the plane with them.

“I believe they’re still alive,” Tracy says quietly. “He was a total shape shifter. I found out, for other people, he was someone completely different. It’s weird when you think that somebody can change themselves so much. He was so calculated. He leveraged every piece of information. He had a plan.”

But all this hindsight lay ahead of her when she agreed to meet him for dinner at a fashionable restaurant back in May 2016.

Ms G’s is a hip Asian-fusion restaurant in Potts Point with an industrial interior, brightened with touches of neon and views of the bridge. Hamish McLaren booked it for his first date with Tracy. Their pre-date chat had been so engrossing that Tracy found herself feeling nervous it wouldn’t translate into real life.

Straight off, things looked bad. Max was short with Tracy when she wasn’t ready for him to pick her up – even though he arrived early. Once they got to Ms G’s he parked in a no-parking zone, saying any fine would only be $100, so he’d just pay it. However, Tracy put her misgivings aside as they relaxed into the evening, and the conversation flowed. Max regaled Tracy with tales of his professional conquests, and listened attentively when she described her work.

Tracey with her mum and daughter.
Tracey with her mum and daughter.

“Mensa? MIT? NASA? The United States Treasury? Sure, it all sounded a bit fantastical but there are actual people working in these fields … Why not Max Tavita? And more importantly, why would he lie?” Tracy writes in her new book, The Last Victim.

By the end of the night, she felt reassured that Max Tavita was the kind and empathetic human she had expected him to be. “Everything that had come out of his mouth had been the perfect combination of flirty, interesting, caring and insightful,” she wrote. “As far as first dates in your forties go, this one felt like a success.”

On date two, Tracy discovered Max always liked to sit with his back to the wall. He explained this was a quirk he had picked up in 2001 in New York. He was just a block away from the World Trade Centre when the first plane hit. In fact, he had been waiting for his friend Sal who worked on the twenty-sixth floor. She was just about to get married, Max told Tracy. “I need to know where the exists are,” he said.

There were 15,000 Australians living in New York during the 9/11 terror attack. “Did I find it hard to believe that Max could have been one of them? Absolutely not,” Tracy admits. “Did I consider that Max was strategically telling me this sob story in an effort to gain my sympathy and trust? Also no.”

As her relationship with Max progressed, Tracy had niggles of something approaching doubt. She googled Tavita air crash and got nothing. He didn’t exist online, and she grew frustrated when he cancelled plans that involved meeting her friends. But she never found a reason to seriously question the things Max told her.

Hamish McLaren asleep with Tracy's cat.
Hamish McLaren asleep with Tracy’s cat.

He invited her into his home. His flat was “as clean as a hospital room” and decked out in a clinical, colourless style. His dining room table held a bank of computer monitors, all pinging with what looked like trader information.

In some ways, the relationship moved slowly, but Max was earnest in his pursuit of Tracy. One evening, while watching the State of Origin, he told her he couldn’t be happier than drinking beer on the couch with her.

“I reckon you’re my girl,” he said.

Tracy knew then that she felt the same way.

When she thinks back to how his persona morphed to match her desires and expectations, she can see clear examples of him course-correcting to be more aligned with what she was looking for.

“That was him mirroring me. The more I spoke, the more questions he asked, and I responded with references from my life or my values, my morals, or my work ethic. He just matched it,” she says.

“One of the examples is, at the beginning, he had all these cars,” she says. “I was like, ‘What single 40-year-old guy living in Bondi needs five cars?’ and he’d kind of laugh it off. Then within a month, he’d be like, ‘You know what, T? I’ve been thinking about it. I don’t need five cars, it’s ridiculous. So, I’ve sold the Porsch. I sent the Range Rover back.’”

At one point, when Tracy was feeling particularly stressed, Max offered to buy her a first-class round-the-world airfare. She made it clear she wasn’t comfortable with that kind of excess.

“Had I been a different person and was impressed by that, or wanted that, he would have found a way to make that happen,” Tracy says. “But because I’m pretty knockabout and I just wanted someone to hang with, and someone to love, and someone to love me, that’s what he created. Instead of fancy dinners, we just sat and ate chips with chicken salt on the grass.”

He hid his criminal intentions behind wholesome activities and a healthy lifestyle. He didn’t drink. He ate a paleo diet. A big part of their bonding took place running along Sydney’s many beaches on Saturday mornings, with Max, a former Iron Man, encouraging Tracy and helping her to improve her fitness. On their first ever morning run, they cooled off by the sea, and Tracy saw a large scar on his left shoulder. When she asked what it was from, he told her he had been stabbed in the subway.

“There were some things that he said, where … I didn’t disbelieve him, but I was kind of like, really?” Tracy says. But also, “he was quite jovial. Sometimes I just couldn’t tell if he was taking the piss a little bit. Then things would move on or something else would happen, so there was all of that.”

Tracy and Max had been together for about five months when he first raised the idea that he could help manage her investments. On this occasion, it was a one-off opportunity linked to the US and there was a possibility, he said, that Tracy could double her money. After some thought, she sent him $10,000 to invest.

Shortly after, he told her she had doubled her money on the investment. And why not? Max lived a life that suggested considerable success. He wore suits by Tom Ford and had a box of designer watches.

Following the success of her first investment, Hamish began talking to Tracy about shifting her superannuation out of her current account into a self-managed fund. “There’s a reason high net‑worth families have specialised investment people like me working for them,” he told her.

Early in December 2016, she signed a stack of documents, and on February 10, she gave him a cheque for $187,000. A few months later, she transferred $80,000 from the sale of her shares to Max.

Tracy Hall.
Tracy said Max was able to shape himself into her ideal man.

“I thought he was helping me out because of his line of work in the same way that if he was starting a small business and came to me, I would say, ‘Let me help you with your marketing because that’s my line of work,’” Tracy says.

She has, over the years, wished she’d been more critical of his motives. But she had no reason to be.

“Why wouldn’t I trust that his name is Max Tavita? Why wouldn’t I trust that he was an investment officer with the family office?”

There were three Bloomberg monitors set up in his flat that he was “constantly tinkering on, making trades.” She frequently overheard him having phone conversations about “trades”.

“There was so much that he created that was all fake to make me believe that he was an investment professional,” she says.

Among Max’s props were regular email updates sent out to his clients. Tracy read them all and they reassured her that she had made the right decision. During a family holiday in Byron Bay, Max organised surfboard rentals and beach toys for her kids. He horsed around in the water with them and built sandcastles.

“Sunshine, waves, friends, family, Max … I don’t think I’ve ever been happier,” Tracy wrote in The Last Victim.

Max showed Tracy a report on her investment indicating strong returns. After a tough few years, it felt like her life was falling into place. Then Max Tavita disappeared. The next time Tracy saw the man she had given her heart and all her money to, he was in the dock at the district court.

Hamish Earle McLaren was prosecuted for defrauding 15 victims, but Tracy was the only one who believed he was in love with her. None of Tracy’s money was invested. Some of it was used to “meet the repayment demands” of the earlier victims he had swindled. Court documents show that Hamish McLaren was running a Ponzi scheme.

The Last Victim, book by Tracy Hall and Summer Land.

Tracy’s encounter with Hamish was financially devastating but it was the emotional betrayal that was the hardest for her to reconcile.

“Getting my head around the fact that I had lived a fictitious life for the last 18 months, it felt so destabilising to me,” Tracy says. “Every glance, every comment, every touch. Every conversation, every email, every text message, every photo. Every everything was a complete and utter lie and that was so hard for me because I’ve never come across anyone like that before.”

She felt she could no longer trust herself.

“I was flattened. I couldn’t get my head around how someone could be so vicious. The year following Hamish’s arrest I was a mess. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t think.”

The court process revealed a glimpse into Hamish McLarens’s mind. Hamish’s brother-in-law Chris, who Tracy had met, gave a character reference for Hamish but admitted, under cross-examination, that Hamish lived in a fantasy world.

“A strange thing about him is that he will watch a James Bond movie and then will dress like James Bond. He will drive cars like what James Bond drives,” Chris told a psychologist in a report read to the NSW District Court.

After having his 16-year sentence reduced to 12 years on appeal, with a minimum of nine to serve, Hamish McLaren could be eligible for parole in July 2026. A total of $5.4 million remains unaccounted for. Hamish’s barrister, Gabriel Wendler, suggested it had gone “on lifestyle situations”.

For a long time, Tracy blamed herself for what happened. She wishes she’d been more critical but has come to accept that she was the victim of a crime. That she was groomed, and that Hamish went to extraordinary lengths to deceive her.

As she points out, Max/Hamish McLaren didn’t even have a job. Conning people was his job. She just hopes that by sharing her story, others can learn from her experience.
“I was just unlucky to meet him. I was unlucky enough to fall into his trap,” she says. “Ninety-nine per cent of people are amazing, so that’s what my mindset is.”

The Last Victim by Tracy Hall and Summer Land is available now through Hachette.

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