Filthy Ritual: The Hunt for the Hampstead Shaman

  • 04.07.2023

With ingredients including money trees with healing powers and South American crime gangs, Filthy Ritual – the story of a 'shaman' who conned people out of their life savings in the upmarket London borough of Hampstead – has become one of Novel's biggest hits. Andrew Dickson got together with hosts Suruthi Bala and Hannah McGuire to learn more about a true-crime case like no other

Magic money trees, Suriname crime gangs, cursed monkeys ... the strange world of Filthy Ritual (Collage: Novel)
Magic money trees, Suriname crime gangs, cursed monkeys ... the strange world of Filthy Ritual (Collage: Novel)

On the face of it, the case of Juliette D’Souza is hard to credit. Could this self-styled shaman, living in the bougie north London suburb of Hampstead, really have convinced dozens of victims to hand her their life savings? Did she really tell them she was going to send the money – at least £1m and likely much, much more – to the Amazonian rainforest, and nail it to a magic “tree of life”? Did anyone really fall for this? And did it really take British police nearly two decades to catch up with D’Souza and finally bring her to justice?

The answer to all these questions is, astonishingly, yes. Yes, yes, yes and yes. In some ways, that’s only the start. D’Souza successfully conned a retired opera singer out of £350,000 between 1998 and 2005, and continued preying on the same victim even after her scams were unmasked. She persuaded a well-respected osteopath he had cancer, even when he didn’t. She had links to high-powered criminal networks in South America. And she was only brought down when an amateur sleuth – a nurse named Maria Feeney, desperately trying to protect a friend who’d been targeted – amassed dossiers of evidence and persuaded the police to take an interest.

It’s a cliche to say that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, but on this occasion the phrase seems, if anything, an understatement. It’s also at the heart of Novel’s new series, Filthy Ritual, in which hosts Suruthi Bala and Hannah Maguire (stars of the award-winning true-crime podcast RedHanded) attempt to track down D’Souza, speak to many of her victims, and tell this improbable yet true tale.

A bravura piece of investigative audio journalism, it zigzags across the Atlantic, from Hampstead to Suriname, and covers more than a decade, from the mid-1990s, when D’Souza first began to weave her manipulative webs, to her trial in London in 2014. The reception for the series has been magnificent: the Observer’s Miranda Sawyer described it as “a gripping show, excellently produced”, while the FT’s Fiona Sturges declared it “by some distance, the best podcast I’ve heard this year”.

To learn more about how the series came together, I spoke to Suruthi and Hannah about what it was like to work on this investigative project with the team at Novel, including producer Leona Hameed and executive producer Mythili Rao, the remarkable people and life stories they encountered en route, and about the true crime genre more generally.

Andrew Dickson: So tell me – why did you want to explore this story? You were already doing a hugely successful weekly true crime podcast, RedHanded, which has been running for six years or so – why delve into Juliette D’Souza’s?

Suruthi Bala: Hannah and I aren’t interested in every story we come across, but this one was so fascinating and extreme. At the centre of it all is a woman, Juliette D’Souza, who was just so incredibly adept at tricking and deceiving people. The people she conned aren’t in any way stupid, many of them are incredibly high-achieving and intelligent, yet she got away with it for years and years, and destroyed so many lives. It felt like the perfect coming-together of so many themes: money, social class in the UK, spirituality, the way we often believe in things that aren’t quite rational, and how that can be really dangerous.

Hannah McGuire: We’re both from London, and so we felt we could bring something to the story. And we found it so gripping. One of the people Juliette defrauded for hundreds of thousands of pounds literally ran a fraud detection company. Like, these are not stupid people. It can happen to anyone.

SB: Another thing that really caught us is the theme of coercive control. People so often don’t understand how it happens, how people get manipulated and fooled, and it was all right here. When we’ve covered cases of, say, domestic abuse or cults on RedHanded, people sometimes say, “Oh, that would never happen to me, why didn’t they just leave? Why on earth would you stay in that situation?” And in a way that’s what Filthy Ritual is about. The chance to delve into those themes in longform, over six episodes, rather than in a weekly show, was really interesting to us.

AD: When the D’Souza case was reported at the time, it was striking how a lot of the press reported it almost as comedy, right – these gullible, well-to-do Hampstead types being conned out of hundreds of thousands of pounds by a woman who literally told them she was nailing their cash to a magic money tree. Who’d be so stupid as to believe that? That was the tone.

HM: Oh, for sure. When I’ve talked to people about the case, so many of them are like, “Oh, what idiots, why would you even fall for that?” But the thing about this story is it’s so layered and nuanced. The number of people who were hurt by it, and the terrible things that happened to them; it’s so awful. It really isn’t a joke.

AD: Having delved so deeply into what happened, what do you think was driving Juliette? Without giving away any spoilers, why did she want to do it, do you think? Was it just about the money?

SB: People lost jaw-dropping amounts of money, absolutely. But what’s fascinating when you dig deeper is that she wasn’t spending it in particularly useful or interesting ways – OK, she’d buy antiques or whatever, but often she’d just hoard them in flats she was renting.

HM: Yeah, she would buy designer handbags and keep them in the box. She wouldn’t really do anything with them. Weird.

SB: And, for me, it goes far beyond money. There was one really upsetting story we covered, where a woman went to Juliette because she was desperate to get pregnant. She gave her tens of thousands of pounds and finally did get pregnant, but then Juliette persuaded her to have an abortion And, unbelievably, she went through with it. It’s absolutely awful. So I think it was really about power and control. It was about Juliette knowing that she could make people do whatever she wanted them to do, no matter how twisted.

HM: I still don’t understand how you could be that awful to someone, take advantage of them like that. But she was. And she did it because she could.

SB: Yeah. We interviewed an investigative journalist called Tim Rayment, who  first brought the case to light, and he said this one thing that’s stuck with me. People often think psychopaths have no empathy, but in fact it’s not that at all – they have lots of empathy, but they have no compassion. And I think that was Juliette D’Souza.

Hannah Maguire and Suruthi Bala
Hannah Maguire and Suruthi Bala

AD: What was it like making an in-depth longform series? Had you done this kind of investigative reporting before?

HM: We’ve always wanted to, but with RedHanded logistically it would never work. We’re a weekly show, it’s too fast. So Filthy Ritual was an amazing opportunity to actually go and sit in someone’s living room and talk about what actually happened to them. We were so lucky with the team we had behind us at Novel. Leona Hameed, who’s the producer of the show, is an angel and a superstar. We felt very supported the whole way through. Novel were there to hold our hand, they’ve done this kind of thing before, but we didn’t feel like we were being dictated to; it was still our show.

AD:How about you, Suruthi? Did anything surprise you about working in this way?

SB: Two things, I think. One was the problem that everyone faces when you’re doing this kind of project: how do you get people to talk to you? It took a very long time to convince somebody like Keith Bender, who was one of Juliette’s first victims in London and was really destroyed by her. The same with Maria Feeney, who was a pivotal person in the case and who made sure that Juliette got caught. Obviously these things are so difficult and sensitive. So we were amazed that we managed to get as many people to talk to us as we did. In RedHanded, we never have to really face the victims; the show’s not really about that, it’s more of a storytelling format. But here we had to do that. We were inside Maria Feeney’s house for hours. It felt like an entire day; it was so emotional.

AD: You’re both old hands at podcasting, and true-crime in particular. How has it changed over the years you’ve been working in that space? Are there any shifts or trends you’ve seen?

SB: One of the really interesting shifts in true-crime is that there’s been a move away from really graphic murder. That dominated for quite a few years, especially when we started the show. But we’ve recently seen more interest in stories about fraud, con artists, love rats, catfishing – not just in podcasting, too, of course, with Netflix shows like The Tinder Swindler. I’ve just been listening to two “cancer-con” podcasts, where people persuaded friends and others that they had cancer. I think the fascination for listeners is with the extremes of human behaviour. It’s about, “What kind of person could do this to someone else?” All of us ask that.

AD:Do you think there’s something more relatable in those stories, too? All of us have received phishing emails or texts, right; even if no one has managed to con us, it’s part of our world, in a way that really gruesome murder is – thankfully – not?

HM: Definitely. I think everyone’s had a text that’s read, “please send me your bank details, I’m your mum,” or whatever. So it’s interesting that true-crime has moved towards that; it’s a definite shift.

AD: How has the reaction to the show been? You’ve had some amazing reviews – that must have felt good.

SB: It’s felt incredibly gratifying. And what’s especially nice is that friends have texted me when they’ve listened to the show and said how it completely subverted their expectations. They had a 180-degree turn on what they thought it was going to be about. People have really responded to the characters we interviewed – Keith, who’s an amazing man for doing what he did, or Maria, who’s an angel, really. I felt so happy that people realised how deep and complex these stories and people are.

AD: When you look back on Filthy Ritual, Hannah, what do you feel it’s really about? Has your view of it changed?

HB: The common denominator here is that these people were desperate. And desperate people do desperate things. That’s why she preyed on them and was so successful.

AD:Suruthi, how about you? What’s ended up staying with you?

SB: I agree, I think it’s a story of people who were in extremely vulnerable situations. And of course it’s a story about a villain who’s operating almost without a motive, which is even more scary.

But – and maybe this sounds cheesy –  it’s also a story about family and community, right? Sure, Juliette wrought all this havoc among these people in Hampstead, but what’s amazing is that the community came together against her to make sure she was put in jail. I felt it was so heartwarming that people were still willing to do that for each other. I hope that’s something people take away from it. It’s like we say in the show: we all need to be more like Maria Feeney.

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