Is Samantha Azzopardi a criminal or a victim?

A tragic, dysfunctional childhood is overshadowed by her notoriety as an international con artist.
Collage of con girl Samantha Azzopardi

Samantha Azzopardi’s story is confronting, baffling and heartbreaking in equal measures.

Samantha shot to infamy as a serial con girl with seventy five aliases (with bizarre back-stories to match) across three continents. But what did Samantha Azzopardi do? And why?

A new documentary Con Girl airing on September 17 and 18 on Channel 7 and 7 Plus aims to find out who Samantha Azzopardi really is.

The Women’s Weekly ran an investigation into the tragic truth behind her decade of deception in 2021. Read on for the full report.

Samantha Azzopardi

When Chris Nunes hired a new waitress for her busy pancake restaurant in 2011, she knew she was taking a risk. There was something peculiar about “Sammy”, but she seemed like “a lovely girl”, and Chris wanted to give her a chance. Pancakes on the Rocks in Campbelltown, in south-west Sydney, was a bustling restaurant where families would pile into big, orange booths to eat pancakes with smiley faces drawn on in whipped cream. 

The new waitress, however, “didn’t fit in”. More concerningly, she sometimes failed to turn up and Chris realised she needed to dismiss her. When she did, the young waitress made the strange comment that she was going to “travel the world to donate a kidney”. “I just said ‘that’s nice’. I knew she had issues – that’s why we let her go,” Chris said two years later, in an interview with the Irish Independent newspaper. “She was a lovely girl. There was nothing I could say that she was a horrible person or anything – that’s why I gave her the opportunity.”

Chris relayed these observations after Sammy made headlines as the centre of a police investigation into a suspected international sex trafficking ring. Police had found her in an agitated state on a main street in Dublin’s CBD one chilly autumn afternoon in 2013 and had launched a global appeal for information. Chris saw Sammy’s face on the news and recognised her. “I called my sister and said, ‘That’s Sammy’,” she told the Independent.

At this point, members of Ireland’s police force had spent more than 2000 hours going door-to-door around the area where the then-unnamed girl was found. She had barely spoken since they’d helped her off the street, but because of her slight build and recently fitted braces, the authorities had deduced she was 13 or 14 years old, and child protection protocols had snapped into place.

She was appointed a guardian, Orla Ryan, who said she was “extremely concerned about the welfare circumstances of this young person”. The general opinion was that the girl was Eastern European. She communicated a little via stick-figure drawings that indicated she’d been brought to Ireland by plane.
In another drawing she showed herself in a bed surrounded by men. Running out of options, the Irish police (the Garda) took the extraordinary measure of applying to the High Court to release an image of the young woman, in the hope someone would recognise her.
“She was put in a children’s hospital, not eating or talking. It wasn’t fun,” Detective Superintendent David Gallagher told the BBC. After her image was released, the police received information from Interpol. The girl had more than 40 aliases, but her real name was Samantha Lyndell Azzopardi, and she was a 25-year-old Australian.
“When the truth of her situation and age became known, this divided opinion,” Det Supt Gallagher told the BBC. “There were calls from some to move to a criminal investigation for wasting police time by making a false report, while others, including myself, felt that in a legal sense she in fact never made any statement or false report as she had never spoken. The matter should be treated as a mental health and welfare issue.”

Tom Jervis and Jazze Jervis pose during a photo shoot in Melbourne, Victoria. The family employed Samantha Azzopardi, who posed as au pair Harper Hernandez.

Samantha was deported but in the coming years her notoriety grew as she was caught in far-flung places, telling strange, untrue stories: that she was a kidnapped Swedish royal, or a Russian gymnast whose family had been murdered.
In May 2021, she turned up in court in Melbourne. She’d convinced two families in Australia that she was a teenage au pair so they’d hire her as a live-in nanny. She was simultaneously masquerading as a talent agent, “mentoring” another family’s 12-year old daughter via a series of strange, guerrilla-style acting tasks.

But when Magistrate Johanna Metcalf was presented with the psychological analysis of Samantha’s fantastical stories, she found herself facing the same question Irish police had asked eight years ago. Did Samantha Azzopardi need to be punished, or helped?

Where did Samantha Azzopardi grow up?

Samantha was born in Campbelltown in south-western Sydney in 1988. Like so much about her, the exact truth of Samantha’s childhood is hard to nail down. She is reported to have grown up with one brother, and to have attended Mount Annan High School, where she had the sort of intelligence that made her stand out to her classmates as one of the smart kids.

But she’d also earned a reputation for telling outlandish tales. In a 2016 interview, Samantha’s high school friend Juanita Levi said Samantha once tried to persuade her classmates she was Lindsay Lohan, dying her hair red to support the story.

Another time she called the police to say she had found a dead cat, but there was no dead cat. “She was a really smart student,” Juanita said. “She always did her work and was conscientious. I guess she was a bit of an attention-seeker. She would walk out of the classroom sometimes and the teacher would have to go after her.
I never met anyone from her family. I found it strange because we would always hang out. She would always say, ‘My dad is in America’.”

She wasn’t long out of high school when she first came to the attention of authorities. In 2010, when she was in her early 20s, she was fined for using fraudulent documents to enrol in a Brisbane high school under the name of American actress Dakota Johnson. 

The following year, a Perth couple nearly adopted her, believing her to be Emily, a 16-year-old gymnast.
In 2012, Samantha attracted the attention of the Major Fraud Squad in WA after enrolling in a Perth school as a Year 11 student, and the following year, she made headlines as a result of the Irish incident. But she didn’t stop.
In fact, her stories became far darker. On September 16, 2014, Samantha, then 26, walked into a medical clinic in Calgary, Canada, and said her name
was Aurora Hepburn, and she was a 14-year-old victim of abduction and sexual assault.

The medical staff took her to hospital and called Child Protection Services. Investigators and health care workers spent hours with “Aurora”, trying to establish the extent of her abuse and aid her recovery. 

Aurora told investigators she’d endured “years of violent sexual abuse and torture”, Alberta Police said. As was the case in Dublin, many of those working closely with her were deeply affected by her ordeal.
Calgary Police eventually heard from the Irish Garda and established that Aurora Hepburn was Samantha Azzopardi. She was charged with public mischief and spent two months in prison in Canada before being deported to Australia.

Samantha Azzopardi
Police pictures of Samantha Azzopardi in Canada.

She wasn’t home long before she enrolled in the Good Shepherd school in Sydney’s inner west as Harper Hart, 13, using a birth certificate from San Francisco. Again, she claimed to be a victim of human trafficking and sex abuse.

However, when Family and Community Services looked at the abuse claims, her story raised suspicions. Detectives finger-printed one of Harper’s school assignments and discovered a match with Samantha Azzopardi, who by now was 28.

Samantha was charged with obtaining financial advantage by deception and jailed for a year. Her mother spoke with local media outside the Sydney court, saying her daughter’s situation was “heartbreaking”. 

Growing up, Samantha was a “sweet, adventurous and independent” child, said her mother, who asked not to be identified.

Samantha as an au pair and nanny

In June 2018, former Perth Wildcats basketballer Thomas Jervis and his wife, Jazze, received a private message on Facebook regarding their search for an au pair. The man said he had someone he could recommend to care for their toddler. 

Her name was Harper Hernandes and she was 17 years old. Thomas and Jazze hired Harper and moved her into their Brisbane home. Harper was given parental control over their daughter and paid $250 per week on top of her room and board.

When the Jervis family relocated to Melbourne in December 2018, Harper came with them, and continued to work for them until June 2019, when Jazze became suspicious of Harper and told her she was ending her employment. Five days later, Jazze noticed her driver’s licence was missing and an iPad had disappeared.

Then on July 5, Jazze received another unsolicited Facebook message, this time from a woman asking if Jazze knew someone named Coco. The woman, Tiarnna, was staying at a hotel in Melbourne’s CBD where, she said, “Coco was presenting herself as a talent scout.”

She forwarded a video to Jazze, who recognised her former au pair. Jazze posted stills of Coco/Harper on social media and was swamped with messages from people who recognised the woman as Samantha Azzopardi. “My daughter hadn’t yet turned two when Samantha first came into our lives,” Jazze said in a statement to the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court. “On the day we found out who she really was, we’d spent a year with her in our house. I couldn’t understand how I’d let this happen. I wonder every day if my daughter will come to me when she is six, 12, 22 or 40 and tell me things that happened I don’t know about.” 

But the strangest things that Samantha got up to during her time with the Jervis family didn’t happen in their home. In February 2019, while Samantha was still nannying for the Jervises, she met with another family and claimed to be a talent scout named Marley. In this new guise she offered to mentor the couple’s daughter, an aspiring actress, for a role in an upcoming production of the hidden-camera show, Punk’d.
The family agreed and soon after, Marley told them an acting opportunity had come up in Sydney. They allowed their daughter to travel to NSW with Marley to audition, where the girl noticed staff members at their accommodation were calling Marley “Samantha”. Marley took the girl to a nearby Centrelink office and said her assignment was to give a woman inside a piece of paper on which she had written a message claiming she was seeing ghosts of people from the woman’s past. Soon after this, the couple severed ties with Marley.

Posing as a talent scout, Samantha offered to mentor aspiring model Georgie Bevege, pictured here with her mum and sister.

Then, in the spring of 2019, a French couple, Michael and Camile, employed an au pair named Sakah. She moved into their home, and soon after asked permission to take their two children, aged one and four, to a nearby picnic spot. Camile agreed, but instead of going picnicking, Sakah took the children to Bendigo, more than 100km away.
On the way, she met up with another young woman, and changed out of her clothes into a blue checked school dress, a blue jumper and blue felt hat. With the children in tow, Sakah went into mental health centre Headspace and said she was a 14-year-old who had been assaulted by her uncle and was pregnant. A Headspace staff member recognised her and called police. 

Samantha left, but police spotted her walking with the one-year-old strapped to her chest in a baby harness. When she caught sight of the uniformed officers, she ran and tried to hide in a department store, but the police were upon her. Still dressed as a schoolgirl, Samantha said her name was Emily and refused to say who the children were. Police learned the young woman with Samantha was a French national who had responded to an ad on a backpacker’s website. 

Samantha was using her to communicate with the children. Police finger-printed Samantha, now 31, confirming her identity and she was taken into custody. 

The tragic truth 

In May this year, Samantha faced the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court via video link from prison on several charges, including child stealing. News of her arrest had made headlines around the world and she had received menacing threats and been assaulted in jail. The media interest in Samantha’s story created problems for others too. Camile said journalists were knocking on her door at all hours of the day. 

“My elder daughter keeps asking questions about why some people lie and she does not understand why her nanny Sakah lied to her about things she was doing,” Camile said in her victim impact statement. Her husband, Michael, said that up until the point her bizarre scheme was revealed, Sakah had been a “perfect” nanny. 

But once they discovered the truth, they felt unsafe, and moved house. Defence barrister Jessica Willard filled in some of the gaps in Samantha’s life. News reports have painted her as cunning, but Ms Willard, quoting from a psychological report, said this was simply a “superficial veneer of functionality”. 

The court heard Samantha suffered serious abuse as a child, and in her teenage years would self-harm. Forensic psychologist Jacqueline Rakov, who conducted two assessments of Samantha, said she had developed a severe personality disorder, and a poorly understood condition called pseudologia fantastica, which is “essentially an extreme type of lying that is internally motivated”. 

“The distinguishing factor is that the lying can have an unconscious drive as opposed to people who lie to acquire things like fame, money, notoriety,” Dr Rakov said. “That was a consistent theme in Ms Azzopardi’s presentation, in that it always involved the acquisition of basic human rights that don’t need an elaborate narrative. Housing. Shelter. Food.” 

Asked why Samantha had developed the personality disorder, Dr Rakov told the court, “I do believe that it is the profound experience of childhood trauma in formative years.” Samantha had been reluctant to reveal too much during her assessments with Dr Rakov but historical reports, tendered to the court, spoke volumes. 

A report by Dr Susan Pulman, dated April 29, 2015, revealed that two separate males had abused her as a child. Notes from a session with a psychologist involving Samantha and her mother in June of 2006 reveal Samantha “suffered severe physical abuse at the hands of her mother.”

Quoting from Dr Pulman’s report, Ms Willard said, “It’s evident from medical records that she’s suffered a tragic history of extensive and severe child physical and emotional abuse … “It says in a report she directly presented to Campbelltown hospital due to self-harming behaviour, memory loss, confusion and suicide attempts. She was diagnosed with major depression complex, post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociative conversion disorder and borderline personality disorder.” Dr Rakov’s report explains that Samantha’s sense of self is “remarkably unstable”.

“Virtually all of her interpersonal relationships seem to be born in deception,” Dr Rakov said, adding that Samantha’s personality disorder impairs her judgement and is severe. There’s not really an aspect of her functioning that it does not affect.

“The bizarre nature of her offending indicates just how unwell she is,” Ms Willard said. “There’s no real discernible motive. There has been significant childhood trauma and Dr Rakov is of the opinion that it’s trauma that caused these conditions to develop.” 

She added, however, that with the right psychological help, Samantha may have a chance at a more normal life. “If someone is able to establish and maintain a therapeutic relationship with her, it can be that the historical trauma is worked through, a sense of self is developed and some other meaning to her life attributed.” 

Ms Willard made the point that Samantha never meant to deprive the families of their children nor harm them. However, prosecutor Kristie Churchill said that masquerading as an au pair was a gross breach of trust. “This is somebody who went into the homes of families with young children and deceived them and lied to them,” she said. “She is able to make choices. She knows right from wrong. She can exercise judgement and she proceeds nonetheless.” 

Samantha pleaded guilty to the charges. At the time of her arrest, she was homeless but had been in prison for 570 days. Ms Willard, Ms Churchill and Magistrate Metcalf discussed how to ensure she would be appropriately punished, but also connected to psychological support services. “It’s unrealistic to expect this accused to take on her own mental health rehabilitation. That’s the dilemma for the court,” Magistrate Metcalf explained. 

In sentencing, she concluded that jail time was necessary due to Samantha’s gross breach of trust. Her “bizarre” actions had deeply affected the parents of the children entrusted to her care. “They feel that they somehow let their children down by trusting you,” she said. 

She sentenced Samantha to two years in prison, with a minimum of one year, which meant Samantha was immediately eligible to apply for parole, but only on the condition that she seek appropriate help. Dr Rakov said if Samantha is able to connect with the right mental health support, her risk of re-offending is low and she has a good chance of recovering. 

“There is well evidenced treatment for borderline personality disorder on the one proviso that the individual engages,” Dr Rakov explained. SANE Australia says most people with borderline personality disorder recover after diagnosis and effective treatment. It’s not known if Samantha has yet applied for parole, but if and when she does, her release will be conditional on her engaging with mental health help. Samantha has previously told Ms Willard that, once she’s out of jail, she intends to travel to northern NSW to live with her aunt. But who that aunt is, and where exactly she lives, Samantha refused to say.

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