SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:
Welcome to HIDDEN BRAIN. I’m Shankar Vedantam. I did a story this past weekend for the public radio show, “This American Life.” The story was in an episode titled, “The Heart Wants What It Wants.” We’re going to take the whole podcast today to share this unusual story with you. It’s a little longer than usual and best heard in a single sitting, so we’re going to give it to you without any interruptions. The story is about a con that folded very slowly over two decades. The thing that fascinated me about this story is that when the con was finally exposed, many of the victims were heartbroken. They wanted it to go on. They wanted to go keep believing.
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VEDANTAM: So here's how the con worked. Guys around the country signed up for a pen pal service. It would put them in touch with women they could befriend and correspond with. And then they'd start to receive letters.
JESSE: And they come from Hillsdale, Ill. Some of them are white, pink, green.
VEDANTAM: Jesse is a sweet, soft-spoken man with fake plastic aviator glasses. He started receiving the letters in 1985 when he was in his 30s. Back then, he was overweight. He'd never had a serious girlfriend, always lived with his parents. After his mother died, he spent most of his time taking care of his sick dad and working at his family's restaurant. Jesse's favorite letters came from a woman named Pamala.
JESSE: Yes, I usually took it at the end of the day when I got them in the mail, went into my room, and laid on my bed and just sat there and read them. Dear Jesse, deep down, you know as well as I do that you could be a lot better off than you are if you only had someone on your side, someone who would help you, encourage you, work with you, and stick with you even when things get bad. What I'm talking about, of course, is a true friend. But that kind of person is hard to find today, isn't it?
VEDANTAM: Jesse had never met or talked to Pamala, but he was curious. He wrote back, telling her a little about himself. And Pamala replied again and again. The letters were typed in a girlish font and signed in a blue pen with big, loopy letters. In another letter, Pamala wrote, just before I sat down to write this letter to you, I was thinking how lucky I am that in this great, big, crazy world I found you. I hope I can be part of your life for a long time, darling. And I hope, as time goes by, I'll be able to make you happier and happier. This mystery woman seemed to know him. She made Jesse feel understood. She made him feel loved.
JESSE: You can tell when you meet a person that they're not superficial, this is coming from their heart. Everybody's looking for that perfect love and everything. And this pops up. So I thought, well, could this be something different?
DON LOWRY: (Laughter).
VEDANTAM: This was Pamala. He was middle-aged, balding, and had a small, gray mustache. His real name was Don Lowry.
Was any of it difficult to come up with these characters? Did the characters bore you? I mean, tell me about it as a writing project.
D. LOWRY: (Laughter) No, no, I'd look at a photograph of the girl, and say, what kind of girl is this? Where is she from? What does she like to do? It was fairly easy after a while. The first 20 were a little bit rough, but the next 80 were not hard at all.
VEDANTAM: And you enjoyed making up these characters?
D. LOWRY: I loved it (laughter). Yeah, I loved it. I meant that (laughter).
VEDANTAM: Don died in 2014, but I met him in 2011 in a rundown house in Butler, Pa. He was 82. If you have trouble understanding Don's voice, it's because he was a lifelong, heavy smoker. The desk in his living room was covered with ash. His sofa smelled of smoke.
Don told me he always wanted to be a writer, but his real talent was in being a hustler. He always had a scheme going. In his early 30s, Don visited Mexico and wrote a traveler's guide where he explained how American men could live cheaply there, pick up women, and get by with rudimentary Spanish.
D. LOWRY: It was called “Mexico, Bachelor’s Paradise.”
VEDANTAM: It didn't sell. And then he tried something most writers would never consider. He changed the name of the book's author to a woman's name. Sales skyrocketed, he said. Apparently, lonely American men didn't want tips from a guy. They wanted tips from a girl.
Don realized there was a market waiting to be exploited. He rented mailing lists from magazines that catered to single men and started writing letters to them, posing as different women. Men like Jesse were invited to join a club where, in exchange for a small fee, they could receive love letters. In a moment of inspiration, Don decided to call the women who wrote the letters angels - Angel Linda, Angel Kristina, Angel Pamala. He purchased stock photos of models and printed catalogs with photos and bios for each angel. Angels came in different flavors. Some were compliant, helpless and pure. Others were raunchy and sent nude photos of themselves. Most were young, and all were eager to please, dream women for a certain kind of man, dreamed up, of course, by another man. In one brochure, Angel Linda Scott is pictured in a one-piece swimsuit on her hands and knees. Angel Kristina looks like an idealistic woman. She's shown hugging a tree and holding a flower. I prefer a certain type of man, Christina says. He can pick up a handful of dark, rich soil and feel a kind of reverence and joy. But he's awfully hard to find. Don mailed these brochures to men like Jesse. If a man wrote back, Don began sending letters to him as Angel Kristina or Angel Linda. Don told me he didn't want members who were just looking for sex. He wanted men looking for meaningful relationships who would be in it for the long haul. He thought this would be better for business and better for the marks.
D. LOWRY: A guy, his wife died, you know, and he was living alone. He didn't have any friends, you know, that kind of thing. He needed this. He didn't have anything or anybody else to cheer him up, nobody. We did it. These girls would boost their egos, you know, things like, oh, your handwriting is so masculine, things like that, little things. It gave the guy a boost. And they loved it.
VEDANTAM: After a few letters to Jesse, Pamala let him know that the only thing she wanted was a little help. Darling, I want you to know that I really love writing you every day. It has filled a great need in my life, and I know I'd be very sad if I had to stop writing you and being your friend. I hope you feel the same way about me and my letters to you. I think it's fair and reasonable for me to ask you to help with the expenses of paper, envelopes, postage, photos and the other things I'll be sending you. If you could send me just $10 a week for my letters, I could continue writing every day as I have been. Jesse was fine with that. He figures he sent in $4,000 or $5,000 between 1985 and '88. It wasn't a big deal to him.
JESSE: My business was prospering pretty well. We ran over $100,000 three years in a row, so it was no problem for me to be sending money and stuff, so…
VEDANTAM: Pamala often sent Jesse stories about the two of them for a little extra money. In one, Pamala and Jesse go on a picnic together. In another, he literally rescues her as a knight in shining armor. There's one story that has them both lying on a bearskin rug in front of a fireplace. And of course, it goes where you think it will go if two people are lying on a bearskin rug in front of a fireplace. But it's romantic, not explicit. The language is tame. The letter concludes, I lay beside you and whispered, good night, my sweet darling. Let us drift away to paradise in our dreams and wake up together to a new and wonderful day. I kiss you gently and fall asleep in your arms. OK, obviously cheesy, Don Lowry was not a gifted writer, but he was a gifted manipulator. When I first heard about the story, I assumed the men who signed up for the letters from the angels must have been such easy marks, so naive. Who else would buy such absurd fantasies? But then, I read the dozens and dozens of letters that Pamala sent Jesse. He saved them in a large binder, each letter in its own plastic sleeve. And as I read the letters, I started to understand the power of the psychological tools Don used to hook men like Jesse. Most of the letters aren't epic fantasies. Most are about the minutiae of Pamala's life. She goes to the bank. She talks to coworkers. She tells Jesse her thoughts on televangelists.
Over and over, Pamala tells Jesse how much he means to her. She praises him, encourages him. When you read the letters one after the other, like Jesse did day after day after day, it paints a picture that feels real. I felt the Pamala in the letters was a real person. And I knew Don was writing them. There were other tricks. In one letter, Pamala asked Jesse to keep a picture of hers nearby as he read her letters so he would feel she was in the room with him. Jesse put up two photos of her on the wall. She once sent him a dime. In that letter, she told Jesse she had just had a strange day. Another driver bashed her car but didn't leave a note. Just when it looked like the day couldn't get any worse, she lost her purse. Depressed, Pamala spotted this very dime on the street. She picked it up, hoping it was a lucky charm. Later, a little boy showed up with her purse. A woman called and took responsibility for the car. Pamala told Jesse she was giving him her lucky dime. Here’s Jesse reading from the end of that letter.
JESSE: (Reading) Keep this dime, darling. Let it always remind you that good people can still come into your life, and good things can still happen to you. And also think of this as a small token of my affection for you. If you hold it in your hand and squeeze it hard, you'll feel the warmth of my love coming out of it.
VEDANTAM: Did you actually do that, Jesse?
JESSE: Yes, I think I did do that and everything.
VEDANTAM: Like I said, Jesse's mother had recently died, and his dad had heart trouble. He spent a lot of time looking after him. He wrote letters to Pamala, confiding in her about his depression. She sent him heartfelt letters about bad relationships she'd had. And she told him about visiting her grandfather, who was suffering from dementia.
JESSE: That really took its toll on her, so I kind of bonded with that, knowing that she was going through the same thing that I was. Me and her kind of more or less bonded more than any other person I've ever talked to. It was kind of like a beacon from outside. It was like if you were a ship out at sea and you were looking for a lighthouse, which they used that in the deal, to look for the light and everything and guide yourself towards it, where you know that you'll have safe haven.
VEDANTAM: I'm not sure I'm exactly following you. Is this something from one of the letters, where they basically talk about the lighthouse?
JESSE: Yes, and, in fact, I got a little wooden figure of a lighthouse that she sent to me at one time and everything. It said, let this beacon know that somebody's out there looking out for you and everything.
VEDANTAM: If Jesse had wanted to see it, there were plenty of signs the letters were mass produced. They look typed, but the paper doesn't have the indentations that come from typewriter keys. The signatures look like they've been stamped or printed. All the specifics in the letters are about Pamala's life.
In the letters, did Pamala ever ask you how you were handling your mom's death?
JESSE: Not that I remember, no, I don't think so.
VEDANTAM: Did she ask how your dad's health was?
JESSE: Not that I remember at this time, no.
VEDANTAM: In fact, when I read Pamala's letters to Jesse, she never mentions any of the things he's told her. When Pamala talks about Jesse's life, she switches into generalities. I know you're sad. I know you're lonely. I know you're having a hard time. The only way the letters are personalized is that Jesse's name is sprinkled throughout, auto-filled, like a Mad Lib sheet. To Jesse, it didn't matter. He saw what he wanted to see.
JESSE: At the time, I wasn't really fully absorbing all of that. I had a lot more on my plate, kind of in a turmoil with everything that was going on. So I just read them, and I kind of took some encouragement out of it.
VEDANTAM: Did you ever have doubts about what was going on as you were receiving the letters?
JESSE: Well, no, not at the time and everything. Like I said, I was glad to be getting letters from somebody and even though you're paying money for that because you have blinders on and not really paying attention to all of that. And like I said, when you're not the best looking person in the world, that somebody out of the blue that writes to you and tell you things and kind of build up your spirits and everything and stuff because everybody looks at you and stuff, it's kind of like the deal with the hunchback of Notre Dame. You'll never find anybody that will care for you, but there at the end, he wound up making a friend with the people that befriended him and everything.
VEDANTAM: At a certain point, Pamala became the thing that kept Jesse afloat when he had to work long hours, when he had to close his restaurant and rush his father to the hospital.
JESSE: Yes, there was one thing that really kindly touched me and everything. I was telling her I'm ready to give up and everything. And she just told me, get back on your feet and everything. So that really was a word of encouragement and everything.
VEDANTAM: As Don went on, he realized his members were hooked, and he could take the fantasy further, much further. He invented an epic world for his angels with a magical backstory and a fantastic future. Here's how it worked. The angels supposedly live together in a retreat hidden away from the world. Most were lost souls, escaping drugs and bad men. These were women who needed a steady hand and a strong shoulder. As he invented more angels, Don came up with interweaving backstories. Some angels were good, some bad. Angels helped one another, backstabbed each other. All the men who signed up to join the Lonely Hearts Club understood they were joining an organization of goodhearted men who were devoted to taking care of the angels. The organization was known as The Call. Don promised members of The Call that they would one day move with the angels to a valley paradise into a giant building shaped like a naked woman lying down on the grass. This lady-shaped building would house meeting rooms and auditoriums. The paradise was to be called Chonda-Za. In exchange for their contributions, the members would have their needs looked after at Chonda-Za, all their needs. At the center of the entire fantasy was a matriarch, a saintly woman named Mother Maria. Maria collected and managed the money from the members, and she organized and disciplined the angels. She was said to have mystical powers and could revirginize fallen women. There were photos of Mother Maria. She was beautiful. Maria's photos were actually of a woman named Esther. She was Don's wife. Not all the members of The Call believed in Chonda-Za. Jesse stuffed the letters describing Chonda-Za in the back pocket of the binder. He figured it was just some wacky idea Pamala had and just ignored it. But there were other fish who found this hook tempting.
KEN BLANCHARD: In my mind, you know, I always held this area of - tried not to be convinced, you know, 100 percent about it, you know. Surely, you know, this was too good to be true.
VEDANTAM: This is Ken Blanchard. He's a big, gentle man, and was another member of The Call for many years. He was single when he joined, and he was still single when I met him in 2012.
What was the draw? What did you tell yourself when you said, you know, this is too good to be true?
BLANCHARD: Well, I think with me it was the prospect of maybe at least having some sort of communication with some women, you know, maybe my age, maybe, you know, maybe a little bit too much – too young for me, maybe, you know, even then. But it sounded like a kind of a neat idea, you know, to, you know, be kind of on the leading edge of something like that, you know. Oh, jeez, I don't know. It’s, you know…
BLANCHARD: You know, like I say, I don't know what else there - how else to try to explain my part of it or, you know, belief in it or anything. They got me hooked, you know, on what they were saying and everything, and I believed them, so…
VEDANTAM: Don got hundreds of new sign-ups every year. Millions of dollars flowed back to Don's headquarters in Moline, Ill. He bought himself expensive cars, a Rolls-Royce and a Mercedes. He bought his sons and Esther everything they wanted. He got a big office in downtown Moline and operated a print shop. He hired assistants, salespeople and ghostwriters to expand his operation. By the mid-1980s, Don was writing love letters to more than 30,000 men.
D. LOWRY: We had lawyers, doctors, professors, mechanics, bakers, you name it. All kinds of people were members. We even had a priest join The Call, really.
VEDANTAM: Wait, that's not a Catholic priest.
D. LOWRY: Yeah, a Catholic priest.
VEDANTAM: What was he hoping to get out of it?
D. LOWRY: Who the hell knows? He was probably just bored.
VEDANTAM: To exploit this growing market, Don constantly experimented with new schemes and products. He started selling cassette tapes where the angels flirted with the men. He got into merch - mugs, puzzles, commemorative coins, all with angels' faces printed on them.
D. LOWRY: And we sent out a pillow case with Angel Terri's face on it. And it said, now you can sleep with Angel Terri every night (laughter). We did a lot of things like that.
VEDANTAM: The members weren't just sending in cash and checks. They were sending gifts. Ken sent Angel Vanessa a windbreaker. Others sent coats and shoes, even gardening equipment so the angels could grow vegetables at their secret retreat.
Did you encourage them to send personal items?
D. LOWRY: Oh, god, no, no, I hated that. Here's a guy. His wife died, and she left all kinds of jewelry and dresses and so on. He put them in a big cardboard box and mailed it to us. What the hell are we going to do with it, huh?
VEDANTAM: Now what you wanted, of course, was you wanted them to send a check.
D. LOWRY: Yeah, of course, or a money order or cash or anything (laughter).
VEDANTAM: Did you tell them not to do it?
D. LOWRY: Very subtly, I didn't want to hurt their feelings. They thought they were doing a great thing for the angels by sending these clothes. Yeah, I didn't want to hurt them.
RICO LOWRY: My dad would blazingly just - he would have sidewalk sales, lingerie and gifts and jewelry.
VEDANTAM: This is Don's son, Rico Lowry.
R. LOWRY: And my dad would blazingly just – he’d be selling the lingerie on racks in front of the print shop.
VEDANTAM: He would actually put up racks on the sidewalk in front of the print shop?
R. LOWRY: Yep, yep, my dad had a very sarcastic and wicked sense of humor.
VEDANTAM: A local police officer told me men from all over the country started showing up in Moline asking where they could find the angels. If they found their way to the print shop, Don called the cops on them. Dumbfounded police tried to explain to the men that there was no Angel Vanessa, no retreat, no Chonda-Za. But occasionally, if Don was in the mood, he'd actually allow them to meet female employees whom he had asked to pose as angels in photos. In time, Don even set up events for his most loyal members to meet the angels. He called them gatherings. At the gathering in Chicago, an advice columnist offered dating suggestions. A comedian told jokes. Angels in yellow-green dresses leaped around onstage in an interpretive dance. Jesse went to the Moline gathering. He was excited to finally meet Pamala. She looked just like she did in her pictures. In fact, she was one of Don's employees. And her name really was Pamala. She greeted Jesse warmly. But Jesse's excitement was tempered by the fact that there were a dozen other men at the gathering. Jesse was shocked to find that every man thought he was in a personal relationship with Pamala, too. They crowded around her, vying for her attention.
JESSE: And then that's when it dawned on me. And I said, hey, this is not what I thought it would be or anything, that it was a rip-off. Well, that was like getting a kick in the stomach. It was upsetting and everything. We sent all that money and this and that and the other. And it wasn't what it was meant to be. It got you down to reality and stuff, so…
VEDANTAM: Jesse knew that Pamala liked music boxes, so he bought her an expensive one with a tiny record on it that played “When The Saints Go Marching In.” Pamala loved it. He said she stared at it and let the record play. It went on and on and on. The other men stood around them and looked at Jesse. They looked at Pamala, then back to Jesse. He liked that he was making them jealous. Jesse didn't blame Pamala. He wasn't exactly sure how the scam worked, but he was sure that the woman standing before him was the same woman who wrote to him, that she was the one who had read his letters. The proof, Pamala's dog jumped into his lap.
JESSE: She jumped on my lap twice and everything. That really surprised Pamala and that. So I guess she smelled my scent on the letters I was writing to her and everything and stuff, so…
VEDANTAM: We got in touch with Pamala to see if she remembered any of this, but she declined to be interviewed on tape for the story. She did confirm that she hadn't written the letters. Jesse made friends with a couple of other men at the meeting, particularly two guys named Lenny and Al. They were all like strangers who had independently watched the same soap opera for many years.
JESSE: When we got to talking about it, I said, well, why did you write on to this and everything? Instead of bonding with the girls, we ended up talking each other and meeting new friends and talking about the troubles we had. So we kind of - well, they were just like me and everything. So we stayed in correspondence like they said. They wrote me letters, and they even called me at my restaurant to ask me how things were going and everything and finding out, asking about my dad and everything. So that kind of was encouraging to hear somebody calling to want to check on you and everything.
VEDANTAM: In other words, they asked about all the personal stuff Pamala never asked about. Lenny and Al stayed in touch until they died. What finally brought Don Lowry's scam to an end was a woman named Susan Rasso. She was a model that Don had worked with. She had gotten into a car crash and called Don for help. He showed up at the hospital with a photographer. They unbandaged her wounds and took pictures. They sent these to all the men who were corresponding with Angel Susan and asked them for help in paying her medical bills. But, Don didn't give Susan the money. She went to the cops.
KENNETH REXROTH: And she came to our office. She revealed the promises Mr. Lowry had made to her and broken. The return that Mr. Lowry received was staggering in terms of dollars and cents.
VEDANTAM: This is Lt. Kenneth Rexroth of the Moline Police Department. He’d been aware of Don Lowry for years. He' turned away many men who'd come to the police station in search of the angels. And he'd been looking for a way to lock Don up.
REXROTH: He was very diabolical. He's a sinister person. I consider Mr. Lowry to be an evil man.
VEDANTAM: But thanks to Susan Rasso, the police finally had evidence to obtain subpoenas. They raided Don's print shop. They found out that some men sold everything in order to give their life savings to the angels. One man lived out of his car and forwarded his social security check to his angel. When the police got in touch with these guys, many of them realized for the first time that their treasured letters were written by a man.
BLANCHARD: Well, what I was turned out to be angry about and more embarrassed about more than anything was the fact that he was even involved, that any man at all was even involved.
VEDANTAM: Again, this is Ken Blanchard, who spent years receiving letters from Angel Vanessa.
BLANCHARD: When I found out that these letters I had been getting all these times that I thought was some girl sharing something, you know, with me, well, then I find out it was him writing the darn thing, you know, I thought, my god, what the hell am I getting into? But I can laugh about it now, but I think at the time, I did have some feelings about that that weren't very charitable.
VEDANTAM: Don's lawyer said that if members believed the angels were real, that was on them. As Don told me many years later…
D. LOWRY: People believe what they want to believe. You cannot dissuade them. Most members believed the angels lived forever in a never-never land called Retreat. We told them they live forever. They never grew old. Does that tell you anything, huh?
VEDANTAM: Wait, you're surprised that they believed you?
D. LOWRY: Yeah, yeah, and it helped them. I mean, it made them happy, so big deal.
VEDANTAM: Don and Pamala were charged with mail fraud, conspiracy and money laundering. The press mobbed the trial. Don was shamed in the press, called a snake oil salesman at People magazine, which brings me back to what got me interested in the story in the first place, the thing that really surprised me. Many members flew from all over the country to show up at the courthouse in defense of The Call. Some stood outside with picket signs defending the brotherhood. Jesse and his friend, Al, were both there. As they waited outside the courtroom, Jesse saw Pamala come up. He rushed over to her.
JESSE: She was walking up, and I noticed she was cold, so I took off my jacket and draped it over her shoulders, and we walked all the way up to the courthouse. I was kind of like a security guard. And after she went indoors, I took my coat off, and I backed off and everything.
VEDANTAM: Did she say anything to you at that point?
JESSE: No, not really.
VEDANTAM: Members testified on the stand and said The Call had been a critical, beautiful part of their lives. One man said letters from the angels saved him from alcoholism and thoughts of suicide. Jesse testified, too. This is him reading a court transcript of what he said on the stand.
JESSE: (Reading) Well, it gave you, like I said, inspiration to continue them no matter what the circumstances that you were going through, that if you persevered, you could make it.
VEDANTAM: Do you remember saying this at the trial?
JESSE: Yes, I do.
VEDANTAM: Would you say that you still stand by what you said at trial?
VEDANTAM: So here's the thing, Jesse. You know, Don Lowry lied to you and sent you letters on behalf of someone else for many years. And you formed an emotional connection with this woman who was writing to you, when at the same time, you showed up at trial to essentially defend Don Lowry. And I'm trying to understand how and why you did that.
JESSE: Well, like I said before, it wasn't actually defending him, but it was actually Pamala that was the one that we were all - we turned our attention to help her. And that meant helping Don also and everything.
VEDANTAM: I understand that Don was really the mastermind of the operation, but when she showed up at these meetings and she presented herself as the same Pamala who was the Pamala in the letters, wasn't she lying to you?
JESSE: Well, I guess you could think about that that way, yes.
VEDANTAM: Did you ever think about it that way?
JESSE: No, not until now and everything when all of this has been re-brought out and everything.
VEDANTAM: Don and Pamala were both found guilty. Pamala served two years in prison. Don was in prison for 10 years. When I met Don, I asked him whether he felt he did anything wrong.
D. LOWRY: I think I did something very wrong. I suppose I made it a little bit too real, you know. I did. I made it too real.
VEDANTAM: Jesse lives alone now with his dog, Chewbacca. He's in his 60s and is still single. He's had some complications from diabetes recently and had parts of his foot amputated. It hasn't been easy. My producer, Stephanie Foo, visited him at his house in Texas.
JESSE: I was in the hospital after my amputation, running around on my knee scooter. I said, you can still do this, keep going, and everything. So and I remember those words she told me. Get on your feet. So I do that and everything and keep going.
STEPHANIE FOO, BYLINE: Wow, even now, even today.
JESSE: Even today and everything and stuff, so…
FOO: So but basically that line, you know, get on your feet, it doesn't really matter who wrote it.
JESSE: No, you think back, but it brings back fond memories of way back when. And you could be in your 100s and everything or older, and I hope to have this on my mind on down the line and everything and stuff, so…
VEDANTAM: Jesse still has the little wooden lighthouse Pamala sent him. It's on his dresser in his bedroom. And he still has two photos of Pamala in his den, one on the wall, one on his desk. In one, she's sitting in an office chair, hands in her lap, not glamorous or sexy or anything. Jesse says she's just sitting there, being herself. It's just a little something to say I made a friend.
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