Don Lowry And The Lonely Hearts Con Job

“Who knows what true happiness is? Not the conventional word but the naked terror. To the lonely themselves, it wears a mask. The most miserable outcast hugs some memory or some illusion.” —Joseph Conrad, “Under Western Eyes”

In A Nutshell

Don Lowry was a con artist with a pretty despicable plan. He’d create a fake pen pal service, pose as a series of beautiful women, and write romantic letters to lonely men in exchange for cold hard cash. But when Lowry was finally arrested, many of his victims came to his defense, testifying on his behalf at trial.

The Whole Bushel

Don Lowry was a pretty sleazy character. Like most con artists, he preyed on the lonely and the vulnerable. But unlike his criminal peers, when Don was finally busted for his crimes, his victims actually came to his defense. Why would anyone stick up for the guy who conned them out of thousands of dollars? Well, if you ask Don, it’s because he was providing a valuable service. He was making people happy.

The bizarre Lonely Hearts con job got started after Don wrote a travel guide called Mexico, Bachelor’s Paradise. At first, the book was a major flop. Nobody was interested in Don’s advice on living it up below the border. But when Don republished the book under a pseudonym—a female pseudonym—it sold like hotcakes. Don realized there were a whole lot of lonely guys out there who were interested in hearing what women had to say about romance. And that’s when he came up with the Angels.

The idea was pretty simple. Don would create a magazine full of stock photos of attractive models. He’d then mail these catalogs out to single men. When his prospective marks opened up the magazines, they’d find pages full of women looking for a pen pal. And each woman went by the nickname “Angel.” There was Angel Pamela, Angel Linda, Angel Kristina, etc. Some were sweet, some were raunchy, and all wanted someone to write to.

Needless to say, quite a few men took the bait. They’d send the Angel of their choice a letter, and Don would write back. He’d create fictional backstories for his Angels, write about their daily lives, and most importantly, butter up his victims. Of course, after a few letters, the Angel would ask for a bit of money to pay for paper and ink. After all, letter writing is a pretty expensive hobby.

And for the most part, the men gladly forked over their change.

Eventually, Don decided to expand his little scheme, and that’s when things got crazy. Don came up with an incredibly elaborate story about a fictional paradise called Chonda-Za. This was where all the Angels lived, frolicking about in various stages of undress. According to Don, the Angels were all running from troubled pasts and abusive boyfriends. They were at peace in Chonda-Za, cared for by the saintly and magical Mother Maria (who was actually Don’s wife, Esther).

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The Angels were at peace in Chonda-Za, but they needed support to keep the place running. If the “Knights of Chonda-Za” would only send more cash, one day they could come to live at Chonda-Za where the beautiful (and naked) Angels would take care of them forever.

Sure, it sounds absolutely ridiculous, but over 30,000 men in the US, Mexico, and Canada fell for the scheme. Between 1982 and 1985, Don racked up over $4.5 million in donations which he used to open his own publishing office (where he mass-produced the Angel letters), hire employees, and buy some pretty snazzy cars. He also started selling Angel coffee mugs, Angel pillows, and recordings of the Angels laughing and flirting. A few of Don’s employees posed for photos and lent their voices to his audio cassettes. Occasionally, Don would even hold “Gatherings” where his best victims would get to meet these “actual” Angels.

Of course, all good con jobs must come to an end. Don got a little too greedy for his own good when one his employees got a little drunk, crashed into a tree, and wound up in the hospital. This particular employee was the woman who posed for photos as Angel Susan, and Don could smell a golden opportunity.

He took pictures of her injuries and mailed the snapshots to his 30,000 victims. He explained how Angel Susan had been struck by a drunk driver and needed help. Of course, when the money poured in, he didn’t use any of that cash to pay for the woman’s medical bills.

Understandably ticked off, the woman went to the police and exposed Don as a crook. Soon, Don, his wife, and an employee named Pamela St. Charles (who’d posed as Angel Pamela) were charged with mail fraud, conspiracy, and money laundering. When the so-called “Knights of Chonda-Za” heard about the fraud, many of them showed up at Don’s trial. A few even testified on his behalf, claiming that his letters had improved their lonely lives.

Despite their testimony, Don was sentenced to 10 years behind bars. Eventually, the con man passed away in 2014, but before he kicked the proverbial bucket, he shared his only regret with NPR reporter Shankar Vedantam. Did Don feel sorry for bilking lonely men of all their money? Did he regret leading on so many poor souls? No, not really.

According to Don, “I think I did something very wrong. I suppose I made it a little bit too real.”

Show Me The Proof

NY Times: Thousands of Men Bilked In Lonely Hearts Scheme
Chicago Tribune: Knights of Chonda-za
This American Life: The Heart Wants What It Wants