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‘Highway Heartbreaker’ Revisits Road to Ruin : Movie: The television film, airing Sunday, tells the story of playboy Joseph (Mac) Duffy and the victims of his scams.

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A dapper man in a red Porsche pulls alongside an attractive woman driving a Mercedes. He waves, smiles, jokingly challenges her to race and tosses her his car phone number so they can talk, cellular-to-cellular.

In film-speak, that might qualify as a cute meet, a prelude to romance among the rich and well-coiffed. But in “Highway Heartbreaker,” the CBS movie of the week airing Sunday, the meeting between Mickey (John Schneider) and Catherine (Linda Gray) sets the stage for a string of swindles and betrayals.

Mickey, it turns out, is a con man, and by end of “Highway Heartbreaker” he has not only bilked Catherine out of tens of thousands of dollars, he has also hoodwinked an ambitious young stockbroker (played by Heather Locklear) and a churchgoing business owner (Tracy Nelson).

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Charming, always dressed in his GQ finest and claiming to be an international trader, Mickey extracts money from the women for imaginary investment schemes and uses the cash instead to finance his lavish lifestyle, including a collection of expensive cars.

If the scenario sounds familiar, it should: The story is based on the exploits of Joseph (Mac) Duffy, whose case became a cause celebre in the local press. Duffy pleaded guilty in 1990 to four counts of grand theft for con schemes in Orange County, where he was dubbed in one news report “the Playboy of the Coast Highway.”

A ccording to investigators, Duffy left a long line of victims in his wake, four of whom finally succeeded in bringing him to court. Duffy was given a two-year suspended state prison sentence and agreed to make partial repayment to three of the women (one already had been repaid).

Producers Marcy Gross and Ann Weston bought the stories of three of the women and launched the TV movie project, which was called “Highway Casanova” before being retitled. Gross said in a phone interview that her main interest in the story was its value as a cautionary tale.

“These were not naive, sheltered women,” said Gross, noting that all three were successful in business. “This can happen to anyone.”

Although Duffy became notorious, Gross said that his case was by no means isolated and that con men (and women) are a widespread problem. In addition to warning people of the dangers, Gross hopes that by portraying the victims in this case sympathetically, the movie will help overcome an attitude that they somehow deserved their fate.

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“The problem is the system tends to laugh at this kind of behavior,” Gross said. “Generally speaking, people don’t take this kind of thing seriously.”

Duffy succeeded, Gross said, by preying on the vulnerabilities of his targets. In the movie, one character is shown as starved for love, another is blinded by a drive to succeed and the third is taken in because of her tacit trust in human goodness (Mickey pretends to help out with a church charity).

Certain “licenses” were taken in shaping the stories, Gross admitted, such as the church angle (an invention) and the way in which the victims, working together, entice Mickey to return to California. Also, the setting of the movie has been moved south to San Diego County.

Overall though, Gross said, the story hews closely to the real tale. Sylvianne Lestringant of Laguna Niguel, who provides the model for the Linda Gray character, saw the completed film Thursday and vouched for its accuracy. “It was so much near the truth,” said Lestringant. “They respected everything that happened. It’s very accurate.”

Divorced and forced to walk with a cane as the result of an auto accident, Lestringant met Duffy on the road, just as depicted in the film. A shareholder in a small aerospace business, she eventually gave Duffy her entire savings of $17,500, for what ostensibly was to be a stock-market investment. When she demanded it back, he disappeared, and she hired a private investigator.

Eventually, the four victims learned of each other and began to work together, and Duffy was arrested Dec. 18, 1989. But Lestringant (who has said Duffy appealed to her “maternal” nature) had a change of heart and agreed to marry him on the eve of his preliminary hearing in the mistaken belief that the wedding would excuse her from testifying against him.

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Lestringant put up Duffy’s bail and helped him with other expenses. Their marriage eventually dissolved. She won’t estimate the total amount she lost, but the $25,000 she said she got for the film rights to her story doesn’t cover it. After Duffy’s arrest, police received calls from women all over the world claiming that he had bilked them out of more than $160,000.

Watching “Highway Heartbreaker” was an emotional experience, Lestringant said. “I had a few tears, a few laughs.”

Rehashing the case on network TV is a positive step though, she believes. “When it happened, I wanted to keep it quiet and not tell anyone,” Lestringant said. Now, she thinks the film is “going to help, because when you see it, it’s like a warning.”

“Highway Heartbreaker” airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBS.

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