A different journey than bride bargained for
I knew her only as Amanda, and the more I learned about her life, the more surreal it seemed.
Part of it read like a fairy tale: A smart, pretty girl flees her Alaska home, meets a Scottish aristocrat and falls in love. They marry, move into a manor house and have three children.
But that was only one of the lives she’d led.
Her incarnations were varied: Hollywood screenwriter. Concierge to the stars. Rental agent for exclusive Hawaiian vacation homes.
Acquaintances say she had butter-smooth charm and uncanny powers of persuasion. But her most valuable asset may have been the anonymity of the Internet, at least until an electronic forum enabled those who had crossed paths with her to trade information.
One of her alleged victims, a bride intent on her own fairy-tale wedding, spent a year following leads and piecing together Amanda’s past.
I was that bride, but in the end, I took no pleasure when she landed behind bars.
Mine was a later-in-life attachment, with none of the trappings of royalty. Carl and I met at a Christmas party in 2003, and a romance developed, slowly but steadily. We continued to live apart until a health scare prompted us to take the plunge. We set a May 2008 wedding date and asked a wedding planner to find a venue close to my childhood home on Oahu.
About three weeks before the big day, plans for the place we had chosen fell through, and the planner asked the caterer for help. The caterer’s assistant surfed the Web and found an ideal setting.
When I saw pictures of Kailua Palm House on Oahu, I immediately fell in love. Coleman Wiggins was listed as the rental agency, and the agent’s name was Amanda.
In e-mails and phone conversations, Amanda told us that, because time was short, I would have to wire the money to the homeowner’s bank account in Tyler, Texas. I sent the funds -- $2,750 for a two-day rental, plus a $2,000 cleaning deposit.
A few days later, I e-mailed Amanda to ask for the address of the house and a signed copy of the rental agreement.
“Of course,” came the reply.
Then silence. Our wedding planner e-mailed Amanda but got no response.
By May 4, 12 days before the wedding, I was getting queasy. The planner called Amanda, who said she was in a taxicab in New York and her cellphone was about to go dead. She said she would call back.
On May 9, the planner sent an e-mail threatening legal action. The planner and the caterer got Amanda on the phone. She hung up on them.
Four days before the wedding, we found another venue, and I put the bill on my credit card, despite a 2% premium. If I had done that earlier, I would have been protected by the Fair Credit Billing Act and wouldn’t have lost my money.
On our wedding day, the humiliation of having been ripped off hung over Carl and me. I wondered how I could have been such a fool. As travel editor at the Los Angeles Times, I constantly counsel readers to keep their wits and wallets about them. I had failed to follow my own advice.
After our short honeymoon, I contacted the Honolulu Police Department, the Internet Crime Complaint Center and Southside Bank in Tyler, which turned my case over to the Smith County Sheriff’s Department.
There was little to go on. The address for Coleman Wiggins was a Honolulu hotel, where no one knew anything about a vacation rental agency. I didn’t have a last name for Amanda, but I did have her cellphone number. I Googled “Amanda” and the number.
Up popped a news release for Do Concierge, a service for “Hollywood’s A-listers” that “provides upscale, personal assistant services to clientele who desire extraordinary, specialized attention.”
Co-founder Amanda Movius was quoted as saying her clients “are busy people who understand the value of their time and want to spend it focusing on the things that are really important.”
Below that was the phone number that was on my rental agreement.
Entering “Amanda Movius” in a database of media coverage, I found articles from the Sunday Mail, the Sunday Mirror and other British tabloids describing her marriage to and subsequent estrangement from a Scottish lord.
Who was this Amanda, anyway?
She is the youngest of three children of Jim and Toni Movius, a Colorado couple who moved to Alaska in the 1960s.
Jim was an electrical engineer. Toni was a stay-at-home mom. Theirs was a household in turmoil.
Toni became addicted to alcohol and pills, said Jim, now 72 and still in Fairbanks, Alaska. Rehab and family counseling failed.
Through it all, Amanda maintained she was unaffected, her family said. “She had a way of distancing herself,” said her older sister, Alwynn, 45, a certified public accountant.
Once, on the way home from a vacation with family friends, she disappeared in Salt Lake City International Airport. Security found her in a restroom and put her on the next flight home.
“Whenever she gets in a tight spot,” her father said, “she bolts.”
By high school, she had grown into a beauty. She was a “rock star,” said Lisa Coulter, a childhood friend.
But at home, things were ugly. Returning from a weekend camping trip, Amanda, her father and her brother, James, found the house in disarray. Toni had been drinking heavily. Jim cleaned up and put Toni to bed.
The next day, Dec. 16, 1985, Amanda called him at the office. Her mother, she said, had drowned in the bathtub. She was 46.
A few months later, Amanda left for Hawaii, her father said. In the spring of 1990, she turned up in Scotland. She was not quite 22.
If the British tabs are to be believed, she had traveled to Scotland at the behest of a company celebrating the centenary of a bridge that one of her ancestors had designed. In truth, her sister said, she was there on vacation. Either way, she met Lord Charles Bruce, a descendant of Robert the Bruce, known to movie fans from Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart.”
After a whirlwind courtship, the couple married in Alaska in July 1990. In December, Charles and Amanda welcomed their first child, a girl.
Six years and two more children later, the marriage was foundering. Amanda left, and a custody fight followed. In the end, the children stayed with their father while their mother tried to start a shop in Edinburgh.
The business failed, and she returned to the United States owing creditors, the tabloids said, about $200,000.
In the fall of 1999, she met David Grimes, a real estate developer in suburban Seattle, who said he fell in love with an intelligent and cultured woman. After her divorce from Bruce, she and Grimes married in October 2000.
Grimes said the first year was blissful, including a Christmas trip to Tuscany. Then she began to travel on her own, he said, and was vague about her destinations and her reasons. She disappeared for days, sometimes weeks, at a time.
“Everything about her was a mystery to me,” he said.
They divorced in 2004.
On a hunch, I asked a colleague to check court records in King County, Wash. In May 2007, an Amanda Leigh Grimes pleaded guilty to second-degree theft for skipping out on a Seattle hotel bill and using stolen credit card information. She didn’t appear for sentencing, and a warrant was issued for her arrest.
Was this the same Amanda? I asked Det. Sgt. Jim Whitham of Smith County, Texas.
Based on the booking photos and other information, he thought it was.
So I settled into married life and waited for the phone call from police telling me she was behind bars.
One night in late February, I Googled her name again and stumbled on a website with discussion threads about an Amanda Bruce. It wasn’t the same person, but as I scrolled through the postings, I found a message asking whether this could be Lady Bruce from Britain.
Robert Schambach III of Austin, Texas, was one of the participants in that forum. Responding to my post asking for information, he told me that a woman calling herself Amanda J. George -- A.J., for short -- had befriended him one autumn day in 2008 in a coffee shop in Austin.
She told him she was a scriptwriter and had just sold a work for a hefty sum, Schambach said. She showed him a photograph of herself with Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson and Keanu Reeves on the set of the 2006 movie “A Scanner Darkly.” She also showed him photos of a home she said she owned in Carmel.
She asked whether he wanted to write a movie treatment with her. They became writing partners for several weeks. But Schambach was puzzled by certain aspects of her behavior.
She paid for everything in cash, he said. She didn’t have any ID; she said she had lost her driver’s license. She said the man from whom she was renting a room had locked her out for reasons she didn’t understand.
In early 2009, Schambach invited A.J. to stay in his house for a couple of days. One morning she left an e-mail on the screen of his computer, he said. It was from a man who had recently broken up with her. “I know you have been in jail,” it said, “and your real name isn’t Amanda George.”
Schambach contacted the former landlord, who told him her real name was Amanda Grimes and that Schambach could find more information on the Travis County court docket.
Schambach told her that other houseguests needed her room. They hugged goodbye.
Soon after, she was arrested on suspicion of theft after she allegedly left a hotel in Austin without paying. She had been arrested a month earlier on suspicion of giving police a false ID.
I flew to Austin for her March court dates in hopes of confronting her, but she didn’t show up. I headed back to California.
As usual, she was a step ahead of me.
In March, a San Diego couple trying to set aside some money for their wedding had posted a room for rent online. A woman who called herself Amanda George responded.
Like many who made her acquaintance, Brian Traichel and Shannon Bass thought she was smart and fun. But after a weekend away, they said, more than a dozen bottles of their liquor were missing. They asked her to leave.
She did, but not before taking Traichel’s credit card information and using it to buy a bus ticket to Salinas, the closest stop to Carmel, police said.
Traichel e-mailed one of the references Amanda had listed. “Well,” Traichel wrote, “it looks like I received your export. . . . Just thought you should know that my fiancee and I are now feeling the aftermath of her three-week stay with us.”
The recipient of that e-mail was her former landlord in Austin. He forwarded Traichel’s contact information to me.
Another blind alley, I assumed, as I dialed Traichel’s number and left a message.
Traichel quickly called back. I told him about the Austin warrants and that Amanda had told Schambach and others about a house she said she owned in Carmel.
Two days later, on April 17, Traichel called back again. Amanda, he said, was in custody in Carmel, where Police Officer Jesse Juarez had arrested her on suspicion of defrauding an innkeeper. Juarez said she had charged meals to rooms at the Cypress Inn, where she was not a guest. She had $16 in cash and Traichel’s credit card information on her.
Juarez called Traichel. Traichel told him about the court cases in Austin.
On April 22, Austin authorities issued two more warrants for the arrest of Amanda Grimes. One involved a rental home in Hawaii. Using the website Craigslist, the warrant said, Grimes had allegedly offered a vacation rental house on Oahu to a Vancouver, Canada, man. In February, he wired $5,000 to a bank account in Austin. The house was not hers to rent. A similar charge against Amanda was added July 31.
In May, Amanda, who is now 41, was extradited to Texas to face charges of identify fraud, theft and driving while intoxicated. A trial date will be set in January. In the meantime, she is being held in Travis County Jail in Austin, having failed to post more than $400,000 bail.
She has pleaded not guilty to all the charges. Through her lawyer, she declined to comment for this article. The assistant district attorney has requested documents related to my wedding experience, which I’ve provided.
I always assumed that people who got scammed were knuckleheads. Now I know they are people just like me.
I’ve talked to a lot of them who thought they were renting a house in Hawaii -- the same one I thought I was renting -- and ended up with a handful of air.
All of us believe we missed the warning signs: the urgency (“since this rental is on very short notice,” the e-mail signed “Amanda” said) and the demand for cash (“we would insist on a transfer directly to the owner”).
People believe what’s easy to believe. For me, it was easy to believe that the perfect wedding venue awaited me on a Kailua beach.
Before Amanda’s luck ran out, her brother, James, hoped she would be caught, for her own protection.
“I know she’s hurt a lot of people, including her family,” said James, 42, a biochemist in Seattle who, like his sister Alwynn, has spoken with Austin police. “I can understand wanting to seek some sort of measure of revenge.
“But I know this woman, Amanda Movius,” he said, “and I know she struggles and I know she suffers, and I want her to find her way to help.”
In my more forgiving moments, so do I.
Times staff writer John Horn contributed to this report.