How ‘Leonardo DiCaprio’ Scammed a Houston Widow Out of $800K by Claiming He Was Trapped in Scientology

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty

In the summer of 2018, a 54-year-old woman living in a Houston suburb—a woman I’ll call Denise—decided to expand her social media horizons.

“I’m not a social media butterfly,” she tells me. “I’m typically lurking on Facebook to see what my daughters are getting up to, but 2018 was a politically charged year. Twitter seemed like a good forum to pop in and blow off some steam.”

Denise was working as a freelance writer, which included articles for business publications as well as writing corporate manuals. She was also working on a manuscript that was part memoir, part acerbic take on current events. Her politics were mainstream and generally in the middle of the road, and she was open about not being religious in a very religious part of the country. Her writing showed that she was smart, funny, and loved sarcasm.

Two years earlier, her husband of 28 years had died after a battle with colon cancer. He’d built a company that constructed apartment complexes in Texas and they had done well together, amassing nearly $1 million in savings. Denise was still recovering emotionally from his death, and she wasn’t looking for a new relationship. But with her two grown daughters out of the house, Denise had some time on her hands and was looking to interact with others.

“My Twitter profile wasn’t exceptional. My picture certainly wasn’t glamorous. Setting up my account I followed some politicians, some of my favorite rock bands, animal rights activists, nonprofit organizations, and environmental groups,” she says.

And she also followed some celebrities, particularly if they had expressed pro-environmental views.

About a month after creating her account, she received her first private message through the app. It appeared to be from one of the celebrities she had followed, Leonardo DiCaprio.

“Hello, Denise,” she remembers the message saying.

“So what’s your real name?” she responded.

“Leonardo DiCaprio,” they replied.

“Yeah, right,” she messaged, and logged off.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty</div>
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty

Over the next few days, she continued to receive private messages from “DiCaprio,” who explained that Fridays and weekends were his busiest time, but he was free to chat on other days.

“He was working with Quentin Tarantino at the time, but he was polite and never disclosed too much. I did, however, know about his filming schedule and a New York and European trip,” Denise recalls. “I learned of these trips well before the information hit the internet.”

Comparing what she was learning from “DiCaprio” in the private messages with what was published about him in the press only cemented for her that she was really chatting with the Oscar-winning star of The Aviator. Soon, their conversation spilled over from Twitter to texting each other on their phones.

“He learned that I loved to cook. We were texting one night when I was making homemade ravioli, and he said that Camila needed to learn how,” she says, referring to DiCaprio’s girlfriend, Camila Morrone, who in summer 2018 had just turned 21. (DiCaprio was 43.)

“We developed a terrific friendship within a couple months and he always insisted that I call him ‘Leo,’” Denise remembers. And before long, she got to speak to him directly.

“Our first phone call was brief, almost as if he placed it to ensure me that it was him. There was no mistaking his voice,” she claims.

But phone calls were difficult for him, she adds, and not only because he said Camila was nosy and tried to listen in.

Soon enough, she learned that there was a far more troublesome presence in “Leo’s” life that made talking on the phone difficult, and just about everything else as well.

“Leonardo DiCaprio,” Denise discovered, was allegedly being subjected to enslavement by the Church of Scientology.

Denise was born in England, the daughter of a U.S. Air Force airman and a British mother. She had grown up on air bases in places like New Zealand and Turkey, but she always considered Texas home.

She was raised Catholic but drifted away from it. She attended college for a couple of years but left before finishing her degree. She had met her husband in a bar in Austin and a few years after they were married and started a family, she embarked on her freelancing career. Besides the corporate writing and the memoir, she was also working on a graphic novel with her oldest daughter when “DiCaprio” began messaging her.

Inside Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s Scientology School for Kids

They were soon burning up several different platforms in their long conversations: Twitter private messages, Gmail hangouts, and email. He even squeezed in a few rushed phone calls, but she preferred the online chats.

“We had a lot in common and some great laughs. I jokingly called him a ‘pedophile’ because of the children he dates. But he quickly corrected me,” she says. “Leo” told her he had actually had one of his most meaningful relationships with an older woman.

Denise shared with him some of her daughter’s artwork on the graphic novel, and he was taken aback. “I was unaware that Leo’s father, George DiCaprio, had a background in comics, because Leo kept most personal details close to his chest. He was, however, extremely open with his feelings,” she recalls.

“This guy grew on me quickly and it stunned me. I believe it was August when he first said that he loved me.”

Most of their conversations, however, were kept light.

“We discussed frivolous things like our favorite foods, his being pasta. His favorite color was green, mine was purple. I told ‘Leo’ goofy things that I rarely share with anyone, like whenever I wanted my daughters to know that I loved them I texted them with two heart emojis. A purple heart represented me and the second heart was their favorite color. ‘Leo’ thought this tradition was endearing and asked if he and I could use it. We did. Subsequently, green and purple hearts peppered our chats. ‘Leo’s’ favorite symbol was infinity—a sideways figure eight. He would often use the infinity symbol.”

Later, that symbol took on a much more sinister aspect, she says, when “DiCaprio” told her for the first time that he was deeply involved in Scientology. (In some Scientology texts by founder L. Ron Hubbard, the use of the infinity symbol is prominent.)

“My stomach recoiled,” she remembers.

And then, Leo leveled with her: He produced for her a letter written to him on church letterhead.

“It demanded that he pay $750,000 to fulfill his obligations,” she says. “Leo” soon revealed that all of his own personal wealth, hundreds of millions of dollars, was actually being controlled by the church, and he couldn’t get access to any of it unless he paid the $750,000 sum.

“That’s when my nightmare began,” Denise says. “‘Leo’ confessed that he needed my assistance and had nowhere to turn. He loved his parents, claimed to have issues with his half-sister, but said he had to make his ‘big’ move. He asked if I could possibly get a loan to help him start paying the church off. I was shocked. The church and his management team had control over his financial affairs and his entire life. He couldn’t do anything without their approval, including traveling or making any major purchases. They organized and paid for his existence. He admitted then that his relationship with Camila Morrone was arranged by the church.”

She was stunned by what “DiCaprio” told her about the extent of his bondage to the church, which he referred to in messages as “the CSI,” for Church of Scientology International.

“‘Leo’ called the CSI a ‘brotherhood’ and said his management team and staff were mostly Scientologists,” she says. His cash was being held in secret vaults that were buried on one of Scientology’s California properties. “He said the CSI was guilty of human trafficking, slavery, rape, and every financial crime under the sun.”

“Leo” informed Denise that high-ranking members were known as “delegates” and referred to church leader David Miscavige as “his Holiness.” And he let her in on the secret way that Scientologists identified other delegates.

“‘Leo’ said that male delegates often receive a small circular scar or divot on their forehead —typically situated above the left eye but not always. This small divot isn’t obvious unless you’re looking for it, but it resembles a deep chicken pox scar, but it is more unique. The divot allows higher delegates to easily identify their counterparts,” Denise says. And once she knew to look for the mark, she began spotting it on numerous male celebrities who haven’t been publicly linked with the church. (Leonardo DiCaprio and the Church of Scientology did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)

“Leo” frightened her with descriptions of ritual torture carried out by Scientology, which was recorded on video. “He described pagan, paleolithic-type rituals and ceremonies. He participated, though he claimed he was drugged. The rituals included animals as well as humans,” she says.

What he said disturbed her so much, she began to worry not only for his safety, but her own as well.

“What he described prompted me to purchase my first gun for protection,” she says.

Despite her initial refusal to help DiCaprio, as September 2018 began she was becoming convinced that this man who said he loved her truly needed her aid.

“Leonardo DiCaprio” wanted to break free of Scientology forever, but he couldn’t do it without the financial assistance of a suburban Houston widow.

On September 7, Denise sent $6,000 in a wire transfer to a man named Kenneth in Woodstock, Georgia, who “Leo” said was one of his trusted aides.

It was the first payment of many.

Putting together a paper trail of Denise’s involvement with “DiCaprio” has been difficult because the computer she was using in 2018 and 2019 crashed and she lost years of data. She gave the machine to a recovery expert and hopes to retrieve its information.

But between records she was able to access from her bank, as well as other documents she supplied to multiple FBI agents and that she freely turned over to me, I was able, with her help, to piece together a fairly detailed accounting of her payments.

That accounting shows that by the end of 2018, Denise had made payments to six different people totaling $256,000.

Her communications at the time reflect that she was terribly conflicted about it, convinced at times she was being scammed, but more often believing that she and “DiCaprio” were the victims, and that Scientology was the culprit.

Today, for example, she says that a simple phone call from “DiCaprio” proved that he was who he said he was. But an email she sent him in November 2018 that I observed shows something different.

“Your only telephone call to me was from a man with a very strange accent, who immediately hung up on me,” she wrote then. “You lied to me several times and you refuse to prove who you are to me, not even through snail mail. And your story continues to change, almost daily. You’re not consistent, at all.”

But she was repeatedly startled to see “proof” of his veracity in other ways. He sent her a screenshot, for example, showing that he had dared to, very briefly, post Denise’s photo on his own blue-check public Twitter account before taking it down.

And in December 2018, DiCaprio was photographed while visiting Art Basel in Miami, and in one of the photographs published in various magazines he has a slightly brooding look. For Denise, it was stunning proof of what “Leo” had been telling her in their chats—that Scientology’s stalking had become unbearable, and that he was near a breaking point.

“These images convinced me that I had to help ‘Leo’ escape the Church of Scientology. I couldn’t imagine anyone being so tormented,” she says.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty</div>
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty

She also saw meaning in the amounts that he was asking for, always multiples of $5,000 or $50,000.

“I learned that the Church of Scientology charges $5,000 for a Lifetime membership and the Patron-level memberships were $50,000. I accused ‘Leo’ a few times of paying church fees for members that he had recruited, but he neither denied nor confirmed my accusations.”

After Denise had sent him more than a quarter-million dollars by the end of the year, in January 2019 DiCaprio was spotted flying commercial, and he told the press that it had to do with his environmental concerns. But for Denise, it confirmed that Scientology controlled his purse strings, and he was forced to economize.

By March 2019, she was making her largest payments so far, sending a couple of $71,500 cashier’s checks to a company in New Jersey that “Leo” said was run by a friend of his. But then there was a problem: “Leo” said he didn’t get the money. When Denise checked with her bank, they assured her that the cashier’s checks had been delivered and cashed.

This would then become a running controversy, and added to the bewildering situation for Denise. “DiCaprio” increasingly complained that he was only receiving part of her payments, as they both suspected that, once again, Scientology had found a way to intercept the money.

On March 21, 2019, “Leo” asked Denise to sign and notarize a strangely worded letter which asserted that she and the New Jersey business had a formal arrangement regarding wildlife conservation: “We write to inform you that my company wishes to go into wildlife conservation with your company with the aim of having an understanding in the act of breeding animals of different kinds for human benefits. We will need to work out the terms and agreement of the business in due time but first we will have to get the budget in acquiring some certain things such as the cost of animals, machineries and other materials which will include the land space.”

When I told Denise that it appeared “Leo” was having her sign and notarize a false business arrangement in order to hide the purpose of her payments, she objected, saying once again it was to protect “Leo” from Scientology’s interference.

But even she, by this time, knew that something was very wrong.

In April 2019 she made her first inquiry with the FBI, speaking with a special agent in Newark—not, she tells me, because she intended to turn in “Leo,” but because she insisted that she and “Leo” were being ripped off by the Church of Scientology in the guise of the third parties that she had been sending the money to in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.

Denise told “Leo” about the FBI agent, and she told him she was done sending money.

“Leo” knew that she needed some reassurance. On April 24, he sent her a lengthy message in a curious approximation of American English:

To the woman who owns my heart. I started flirting with you because you were the hottest girl I had ever laid my eyes on despite seeing millions and thousands around my profession and my environ [sic] the #HOLLYWOOD. Now I have fallen in love with you because you have the most beautiful heart I have ever felt. I love you. If I could be anything I would be your tear, so I could be born in your eye, live down your cheek and die on your lips. My thoughts are free to go anywhere, but it’s surprising how often they head in your direction. Your love is the only armor I need to fight all of this life’s battles. Before I was in a relationship with you, I was suffering from commitment phobia. After being in a relationship with you, I am suffering from an addiction call [sic] love.

In order to make sure that their communications were secure and not being intercepted by Scientology, on May 1 Denise ordered more than $6,000 in special iPhones and Apple Watches to be sent to a man in Georgia, again a person “Leo” said was a close friend.

Then, later in the month, Denise experienced a moment of clarity. In an email she told him, “We hit it off almost instantly but you were the one who approached me, not vice versa. You selected me and I’m curious why you did. You are notorious for dating very young women. I’m not exactly your type. I’m having a difficult time understanding why all of a sudden your taste in females changed so drastically. It makes no sense whatsoever unless you needed a more mature woman, with some financial solvency, for other means. Our online discussions are amazing, most of the time. However, they always end up with you needing money and my giving it. This has and still does make me feel like I’m being scammed… I will, however, admit that you do know very much about the intricate details of that cult.”

Then, just a few days later, she admitted to him that she wasn’t being entirely truthful with the Newark FBI special agent in order to protect “Leo.” And on June 7, she opened up to him in a remarkable statement:

I just had to get this off of my chest. [My husband]’s deathbed was set up in our living room. I was his caretaker 24/7 and the last words he said were, ‘I love you.’ His beautiful blue eyes remained opened but I, of course, closed them. I don’t recall how long I sat on that rented hospital bed holding him tightly. I don’t even remember who I called first. I was completely catatonic— in shock. [My husband] was far from perfect, but he was perfect for me. If I had my druthers I would rather it have been me who died, leaving him to deal with this wretched thing called life. But I’m tough and somehow I’ve gotten through it— even though I still cry daily because I miss him so much. He wasn’t just my husband—he was my best friend. Then you entered my world in a very unusual fashion—online. You and I have never met in person. We’ve never hugged, kissed, made love, or even had long, heated, overly sexual telephone conversations. The word ‘fraud’ has come up around you many times, too. And if you think being under FBI investigation has been pleasurable, you’re dead wrong. I opened my shattered heart to you, fell in love with you and I still don’t understand how that’s even possible. Maybe it’s because I’m just too giving and I am far too vulnerable. Yet, I did send money to your staff or criminal friends on your behalf for over a year. And, yes, I did lie for you several times, including to the FBI, which goes against my every grain. And DAILY you still ask for more money from me, as if I haven’t already done enough or I’m STILL not doing enough for you. I keep trying to tell you that I have no more money to offer. You don’t believe me and it hurts my feelings greatly. You claim this is all for the sake of ‘us’ and ‘our’ future. How am I to believe that, when I’m still having a very difficult time convincing myself that you are who you say you are.

Two weeks later, Denise made a transfer of $50,000 to a Navy Federal Credit Union account in the name of a woman named “Celestina” for “wildlife conservation.” And then another transfer the same day for $20,000.

By the end of 2019, Denise had sent “DiCaprio,” through his go-betweens, $620,455.

A source I have known for several years, a former Scientologist who has given me nothing but solid information about the church in that time, had a question for me when I told them that I was working on a story about Leonardo DiCaprio and Scientology.

“You know about the pussy posse, right?” they asked.

They were referring to a notorious 1998 New York magazine article by Nancy Jo Sales that exposed for the larger world that young actor Leo DiCaprio was surrounded by a scrum of other young guys on the make who were mowing down women like time itself was about to run out.

My source was well acquainted with that scene at the time, and reminded me that one of the members of Leo’s posse was Scientologist-actor Ethan Suplee.

Through Ethan, my source says, Leo had regular contact with other Scientologist Hollywood types.

But my source says it was very well-known in the group that if Leo and his “wolf pack” had few rules, there was one that dare not be violated: Leo would have none of that Scientology horseshit.

“Everyone knew it,” they say. “Ethan was in the posse and Leo was around a lot of Scientologists, but we all knew that the rule was, he didn’t want to hear anything about it.”

Another of my sources witnessed the same thing herself, but from inside Scientology’s Hollywood Celebrity Centre.

The Bloody and Tragic End of Scientology’s Biggest Pop Star

She was physically present when Suplee was asked by the Celebrity Centre’s then-president, Karen Hollander, to target DiCaprio for recruitment.

“Ethan said no fucking way,” says my second source.

As far as I have been able to ascertain, DiCaprio has managed to keep Scientology at arm’s length.

In their years of conversations and financial transactions, both Denise and “Leo” used Scientology to explain any discrepancy or misunderstanding.

For example, “Leo’s” writing style seemed to change over the years, like it was the work of four or five different people. But he explained that away by saying he had to disguise his work because Scientology was watching. Denise, meanwhile, dismissed what FBI agents told her by reasoning that they didn’t understand the extent of Scientology’s reach.

But even with those justifications to fall back on, in 2020 and 2021 Denise became more wary and sent “Leo” less money. As a result, “DiCaprio” and his agents started to get more aggressive. One woman in particular, “Merlinda Guzman,” who claimed to be an agent of the Church of Scientology, was downright abusive.

“I am Merlinda Guzman of the Church of Scientology of Love, Intellect, and Luminous,” she had introduced herself in August 2020. Later, she threatened Denise that if she didn’t send more funds, she would never get any of her money back. “Guzman” messaged a photo of herself holding a cashier’s check made out to Denise for $878,000—what Denise had sent and then some—mocking her that she would never get it unless she cooperated.

“Leo” said he was upset about this and in September 2020 sent Denise a copy of an email he had written to Scientology leader David Miscavige, complaining about “Merlinda’s” duplicity.

“Hello my dear worthy,” Leo’s message to Miscavige began, asking him to convince “Merlinda” to apologize to Denise for her behavior “on behalf of the brotherhood as the sole chairman of the board and Holiness.”

By March 2021, and with the help of a second FBI special agent, Denise told “Leo” that she had finally realized that “Leo” and “Merlinda’s” emails were originating from outside the U.S. In response, “Leo” gave her an ominous warning: “You have no idea what the brotherhood is truly capable of.”

The second half of 2021 and first months of this year were filled with increasingly nasty exchanges about how Denise’s total payments had reached $813,000 and that she was expecting him to make good on it.

Her most recent exchanges have been with a man named “Derek” who says he works for “Leo” and who claims he is trying to send Denise the entire amount she’s owed in a box full of cash.

Denise checked with one of the FBI agents who confirmed that it would not be a good idea to accept a box with nearly a million in cash inside, as she could be charged with money laundering. She told the Chinese company that was supposedly asking to send the money to cancel the delivery.

“Derek” has continued to send Denise emails, telling her now that he could deliver the $813,000 she was owed by “Leo,” but she would first need to send $5,000 to cover fees that would “release” the funds.

She had been hearing that for almost two years.

Finally, on March 17, Denise sent an email to me, saying that she had information about “Leo DiCaprio” trying to leave Scientology, and that she had texts and emails to prove it.

A few weeks ago, after more than a month of gathering Denise’s hundreds of documents, I called her and told her that within minutes of first hearing from her, I had formed two strong impressions. And after weeks of gathering more detail and records, those impressions hadn’t changed.

First, I told her, I knew that it wouldn’t do any good to tell Denise what she had already heard from two FBI agents and another Department of Justice specialist: that she wasn’t, actually, talking with Leonardo DiCaprio, the actor.

Instead, I wanted to focus on my second impression. Denise had reached out to me because she knew that I had spent years writing about the Church of Scientology. I’ve talked to hundreds of Scientologists and I’ve communicated with them in writing, and I’ve read hundreds of founder L. Ron Hubbard’s original writings and lectures.

I have never been a Scientologist myself, but I have a good feeling for how Scientologists speak and write, and am familiar with its special jargon.

And I told her that the people scamming her didn’t know the slightest thing about Scientology.

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All the talk about a “brotherhood,” and “delegates,” and “his Holiness” was all wrong, I told her.

Yes, she had been sent letters on what appeared to be Church of Scientology letterhead, but it was badly faked. The scammers, who had done some homework on DiCaprio, had clearly done almost none at all when it comes to Scientology.

But they didn’t really need to. It was obvious that Denise was filling in the gaps for them.

Time and again, I pointed out to her, she was the one coming up with the details and associations and justifications for what the scammers were saying and proposing.

The sad truth was, she wanted to believe it was all real.

Denise told me she wasn’t aware that in March 2020, the Department of Justice announced the arrest of 24 scammers in the Atlanta area, many of them Nigerians, for running various internet schemes, including romance scams.

I pointed out that three of the men in Georgia Denise had sent money to between 2018 and 2022 had Nigerian last names, something she tells me she didn’t notice.

Another impression I formed, after poring through hundreds of her text conversations with “Leo,” was that she was filling in a lot of the gaps there too.

Her contributions in those conversations were witty and warm, or playfully sarcastic. She was a well-educated woman with a healthy sense of humor who would bring warmth and light to any relationship.

But the guy (or rather, team of guys) she’d been conversing with? He had almost nothing interesting to say. He had pat answers, probably drawn from scripts, and no sense of humor.

She was filling in all of the things she said she saw in him. The “Leo DiCaprio” that she had fallen in love with was a creation of her own mind.

I wasn’t sure how Denise was going to react, but she didn’t sound defensive. She had come to me because I had some understanding of Scientology, and she accepted what I said—that Scientology had nothing to do with what she’d been going through.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty</div>
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty

She made it sound like a weight was being lifted off her shoulders, but I didn’t expect that she could so easily shake off something that had become a major part of her life for four years.

After giving “Leo” a grand total of $813,000, the vast majority of her life savings, she still had some money, and an expensive car she could sell. She wouldn’t lose her house or anything like that. But her ability to help out her daughters financially had been seriously undercut. She knew, with more certainty than before, that she would never get her money back.

While she absorbed the news, I sent texts to both “Leo” and “Merlinda,” and emailed “Derek,” the most recent agent, who had been asking Denise for $5,000.

I never heard back from any of them.

Seven days after that conversation, I asked Denise if she had heard anything from the scammers.

“Nope, I haven’t heard anything from them. There might be a God after all,” she replied.

She said she was ready to move forward, which sounded positive, even if she still had some nagging doubts. There was the way “Leo” seemed to always know where DiCaprio was. How did he manage that? And she was still puzzled by the accent she heard when they spoke, which wasn’t Nigerian as far as she knew. “It was more Italian, and often German.” She wondered about the way he had wept when he talked about a Scientology initiation ritual.

“I guess I’ll never get these answers,” she says. But she’s thankful she was able to get some help.

“This has been a nightmare that I desperately needed to wake up from.”

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