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from San Francisco Examiner, May 28, 2000

Encounters with Hope becoming S.F. legend
By Vanessa Hua

Alleged victims fight back online after cops fail to take action

She depends on the kindness of strangers. She's new to San Francisco, leaving behind a difficult past, says the wide-eyed, round-cheeked blonde. You feel an instant connection with her, part pity, part charmed by the tales about her life - fantastic, funny, and sad stories, but so detailed they must be real.

You lend her money for an emergency: car problems, she can't meet the deposit on her apartment, any number of calamities. She promises to pay you back, but never does. Or she moves in with you and her rent check bounces. Her gift for story-telling, what initially attracted you, becomes exasperating. You confront her, again and again, until one day she's gone.

Like a villain from an urban legend, Hope has haunted the imagination of scores of San Francisco twenty-somethings. But unlike alligators in the sewer, Hope is real, a true character in a tale playing out in The City's online community. Police reports, court documents, and interviews with alleged victims allege a trail of scams of "Hope Marie Ballantyne," "Hope Ferris," and "Masen Hope Ferris" that began early last year in San Francisco.

Often, suspected con artists escape getting caught because victims are too embarrassed or upset, or they think the damages too minor to report, police said. But this time, people who say they are victims of Hope fought back, using the popular community Web site Craig's List (www.craigslist.org) to warn others. Craig's List is a vibrant source for local digerati and urban hipsters trading information on housing, jobs, and San Francisco-centric issues.

The postings have taken on a surreal "Tales of the City" quality, a serial for and about the latest generation of young adults to settle into San Francisco, where everyone these days seems to be from somewhere else, where strangers can become fast friends.

The story begins

The drama surfaced online last fall with Hope's former roommate Leslie Nuccio. Frustrated by an unresponsive police department and district attorney, Nuccio began chronicling Hope's modus operandi, her taste for luxury services, even her fascination with pop singer Dave Matthews - details that others also found true to their experiences with Hope.

Titled with screaming headlines like "Beware: Hurricane Hope/Maire/Marie Ballantyne is back," a typical posting warns: "If you know someone with a new roommate, might wanna make sure she's not a 5'3ish Gap-clothed blonde with a rubber checkbook and sticky fingers." A photo of the woman known as Hope is also now online. Thus the Craig's List community - in which Hope found some of the people who now say they became her victims - has become an instrument to expose her.

"They're using the Internet in a positive way to get done what needs to be done," said Craig Newmark, founder of Craig's List, who insisted on seeing copies of bad checks and other documentation before approving the postings.

"Here we see a case where the bottom up solves problems for themselves," Newmark said, adding that Hope has never responded to any of the allegations via his online forum.

'Like a bad TV movie-of-the-week'

Nuccio, 28, led the search for Hope after finding spiral notebooks scrawled with names and phone numbers amid the woman's left-behind bags of designer clothes and make-up.

When Nuccio began contacting the people listed, she learned that complaints about Hope stretched back at least three years to Los Angeles - giving a frightening context to her own rental rip-off.

"I was naive to think that the deception was contained, never fathoming I could be living with a career con," said Nuccio, a Web professional who laces her words with an acid wit. "I mean, who does that? It's like a bad TV movie-of-the-week."

In the past, a group of Hope's acquaintances in Los Angeles loosely connected by their ties in the entertainment industry shared scam stories about the woman who'd held jobs at top Hollywood shops, Endeavor Talent Agency and International Creative Management.

"This is so hard to believe. You feel you've taken precautions about people, you've seen them at parties. You wouldn't think they'd do anything to you," said Tracy Brim, 29, a motion picture agent and former Los Angeles roommate of Hope.

Despite their powerful sense of betrayal, their effort to prosecute trailed off after Hope left town.

"What's frustrating about the whole thing is that she continues to screw people," said Mara Soucie, 30, who works in production management at cable music channel VH1 in Los Angeles. "She seems so normal, a bright girl. Always could think on her feet."

Nuccio has repeatedly contacted the district attorney and police with information on allegedly conned roommates, landlords, and merchants, and with Hope's current address and employers - but received no response. That Hope remains free in San Francisco, still sighted at popular nightspots such as the Elbo Room and Gordon Biersch, astounds her former friends.

In general, bad check and fraud allegations are hard to pursue, police said. "There's a lot of resources that would need to be put on this, with little return. And in cases like this, it's difficult to prove," said San Francisco Police Inspector Earl Wismer. Without documentation, the cases turn into a matter of "he said, she said" with no easy resolution, he said.

Investigator Janet Prieto of the district attorney's bad check division said the case is under inquiry. When asked if she had ever contacted any of the alleged victims on the list compiled by Nuccio, Prieto hesitated. "I really don't want to comment on an active investigation."

Saving the next person is what drives Nuccio to continue her watch. "When I find out that someone is able to rid themselves of this financial and emotional leech, it's worth it," Nuccio said. "But a renewed sense of cynicism springs anew every time I hear another account of her beastly antics."

'Bad things seemed to happen to her'

At first, Megan Benton was struck by how much they had in common. After Benton, 25, of San Francisco, met Hope at a party last spring, the two became inseparable. Hope called her almost every day, just to chat. A friend even penned a class essay about the two confidantes, about their shared looks, of the stories the pair would bounce off each other in laughter.

When Benton went out of town, she allowed Hope on occasion to stay at her apartment. Hope was having a tough year, and Benton wanted to offer her shelter, give her some place quiet with no interruptions.

"She seemed like someone who did not have good luck in life," mused Benton, as she warmed her slender hands on a cup of tea. "Bad things seemed to happen to her."

One day last October, Hope showed up at Benton's apartment, claiming she'd lost her keys. Could she stay overnight? One day turned into a week.

Then a friend alerted Benton to the latest Craig's List posting. Benton confronted Hope, who denied the allegations but whose intricate stories began to unravel.

Told to get out, Hope left - but not before allegedly stealing Benton's driver's license, which she later used as identification when taking out a $5,336 loan and renting an apartment in the Mission District, according to police reports.

"The woman was so glib. She had a whole rap going," said Ron Beauregard, the Mission apartment manager who rented the place to Hope. When Hope was looking at the apartment she'd given him a detailed, credible description of her job as an architect - Benton's line of work.

"I felt violated. I put myself out there and trusted her as a friend," said Benton.

When the story is good

By all accounts, Hope seems a skilled huckster, sweet, articulate, well-groomed, and adept at tapping into other people's interests and sympathies as she weaves her convoluted schemes, in the fine tradition of con artists.

"If the story is good, if average people can identify with some aspect of it, reflect and think back to their own predicaments, they're gone," said Jay Robert Nash, crime expert and author of "Hustlers and Con Men: An Anecdotal History of the Confidence Man and His Games." "That kind of con artist preys upon the emotional goodwill of others. It's all about the heart-jerk reaction."

To friends, Hope would spin stories about "crazy" old roommates, her artist mother, past adventures. So outrageous they were believable, the stories included Dave Matthews giving her a foot massage and being forced out of her apartment because authorities had quarantined the place for chicken pox. Hope often told people that she had just moved to San Francisco, to explain why she did not have a local checking account or current form of identification. Retailers allegedly hit in San Francisco include the Metro Hotel, hair salon Marie Rua, and Therapy furniture store, according to police reports and interviews. Such behavior chips away at the easygoing atmosphere of the City's neighborhoods, business owners say.

"I have a good relationship with clients," said Mickey Muhawieh, co-owner of Isa Salon and Day Spa in Noe Valley, who says Hope defrauded her business out of $200 worth of services. "I trust them to pay me back if they don't have the money. I don't make them feel criminal. She took advantage of that."

Though their financial damage is small-time, hustlers rob people of their faith in others.

"This city has a reputation for being community-minded, a place where you can welcome folks into your home," said Jude Hoffner, 28, a fund-raiser for nonprofits and part of a circle of San Francisco friends bamboozled by Hope. "This is a setback to that. I resent her for not being able to trust my neighbor."

Online following for the story

Hope's alleged mischief has even attracted a cult online following, the tale resonating in a city where rising rent costs have forced more people to live with roommates who are strangers.

"I wish that in this housing-starved city, there was a way to weed out people like Hope so that decent, hardworking people that don't make huge amounts of money can afford to live here," said Francisco Ayala, 24, a Mission strategic planner and saga follower who says he empathizes with the people behind the Craig's List postings. Other fans say they're drawn to the fable's entertaining twists.

"I have to be honest and admit that it is the Melrose, soap opera type quality that has kept my interest in this story," said Tracy Chiatello, 29, a biotech worker living in the Mission.

Reporter finds Hope

Tipped off by a source, this reporter recently found the elusive Hope - at least, the one identified in photos by people who say they were conned. She was busy stripping the thorns off roses at a Cow Hollow florist.

Stylishly clad in a shirt adorned with climbing flowers, plastic-framed glasses, and New Balance running shoes, she could have been any dot-com denizen, save for the Web postings slamming her reputation, the police reports, and the dozens of angry acquaintances alleging scams. On that sunny, windblown day, the woman denied being the Hope in question and denied the online allegations.

"That's not me," she said.

Minutes later, Kim Nishimoto, a co-worker at the florist's, confronted Hope about the $1,000 she'd borrowed back in January, with a signed promise to pay her back in a month. A week earlier, Nishimoto, 33, had learned from a friend of a friend about the posting on Craig's List. Around the same time, a former employer of Hope's warned florist owner Cathy Cowden to watch out. Though neither of them wanted them to believe the allegations, the posting had a terrible tang of truth.

"Why haven't you called me? You promised you would call me yesterday about the money," Nishimoto said. "You could have called me from here, or from a pay phone."

Then Cowden joined in, asking why Hope's social security number didn't check out.

"I must have written it down wrong," said Hope, who began digging through her bag. "I don't have my driver's license or social security card with me right now. I can go get it." The three of them decided to walk back to Hope's apartment around the corner.

"Why are you ganging up on me?" Hope asked. She stood apart from the other two women as they waited at the red light.

"It's just that we've heard some disturbing things," Cowden said.

"You're the biggest liar I've ever met," said Nishimoto, her eyes hard beneath her black cap.

Hope claimed innocence, then told Nishimoto in a solicitous tone: "I thought I should tell you that you've got coffee on your nose."

Turning her head away, Nishimoto ignored the comment, no longer willing to believe in Hope's friendship. She also didn't believe Hope's excuses back at the apartment, on why she could not find her ATM card, on why she had no identification. Cowden told Hope to return to work when she could produce proof of self.

Hope has not appeared back at the florist's since then, nor has she answered Nishimoto's phone calls.

"I was scared," said Nishimoto, reflecting on the experience. "I mean, she's a little girl. But I realized I didn't know her at all. Everything is suspect."

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