Truth is indeed stranger than fiction, as this story drawn directly from the British tabloids can attest.
In April 2012, Elisa Bianco arrived with all her worldly goods on Sally Retallack’s doorstep in Cornwall, England. She had been beaten by her mother and nearly stabbed, she told her former lecturer, and she desperately needed somewhere to stay for a few days.
Until 19-year-old Elisa graduated as a star pupil from her college course a few days earlier, Mrs Retallack had been her tutor and sympathetic confidante. Elisa often talked to her about her traumatic life with alcoholic and abusive parents, about her serious health problems, and when she suffered her frequent panic attacks, it was Mrs Retallack she called for. On her last day at college, Mrs Retallack pressed a £50 note and her address into Elisa’s hand and told her, ‘If anything really serious happens, come to me.’
Sally Retallack was not to know that Elisa Bianco’s shocking tales about her mother and stepfather were all lies, that the medical reports she showed her were forged and that her panic attacks were staged. Sally’s compassionate gesture would place her and her family at the mercy of a ruthless fantasist and ruin her life.
Sally agreed to let Elisa stay for the weekend while she attempted to resolve her situation, but Elisa managed to thwart Sally’s efforts by forging cold and uncaring emails from her parents. Sally, her husband Ralph, their four children and Sally’s octogenarian mother felt terribly sorry for Elisa and naively believed the reasons she invented to stay with the family for several months.
During that time, Sally helped Elisa get a place at Plymouth University. In September 2012, relieved that her duty to the unhappy teenager was now fulfilled, Sally took her to the campus and paid for equipment and Elisa’s first month’s accommodation. Three weeks later Elisa was on the phone claiming to have blood in her urine and collapsed arteries. In truth, she was not enjoying the course and had spent most of her time and all of her student grant money partying.
Given Elisa’s ‘condition’, Sally felt compelled to let her stay on until, in February 2013, Elisa underwent a fake kidney removal. When, a month later, Sally suggested she was well enough to start looking for a job, Elisa claimed to have a benign tumour on her remaining kidney. Before too long Elisa announced that her tumour had turned malignant and she had only months to live. As usual her claims were backed up by forged doctors’ letters and medical reports.
The Retallacks were led to believe she needed daily treatment and for five months would take her on a half-hour drive to the hospital in her pyjamas every morning and pick her up every evening. They saw her lose weight and heard her refer to the renal medical staff by name. When they wheeled her through the hospital, the café workers would greet her by name and tell the family she was a lovely girl. But once they were gone, Elisa would sit in a café all day and con free meals out of the hospital’s three restaurants. She acquired a locker and often changed into her jeans and spent the day out on the town. She spent the money her unsuspecting mother sent her to buy bandages in which she would wrap herself up, and would squeeze a small plastic bottle to mimic the sound of her ribs breaking while she writhed in agony.
Elisa called Sally ‘mum’ and her daughters her ‘sisters’, but the overwhelming commitment she demanded was tearing the Retallack family apart. Believing Elisa would only be with them for a short time, Sally was neglecting her own children to care for her. Ralph tried to support his wife, but they would all too often find themselves arguing over the effect Elisa was having on their family. Eventually Ralph turned to another woman, but when, a few months later, he wanted to talk to Sally about returning to her, Elisa faked a medical emergency, which put an end to any rapprochement.
Devastated by the break-up of her marriage, Sally took compassionate leave of which Elisa took every advantage. Claiming she was in constant pain and needing 24-hour care, she slept in Sally’s bed and let Sally shower her, cutting her own hair at the roots so it came out in clumps in Sally’s hand. Even Sally’s elderly mother took turns at looking after the perfectly healthy young woman.
In a warped attempt to cheer her up, Elisa came up with the most devastating deception of all. She set Sally up with her ‘renal consultant’ ‘John’, a kind and compassionate man, she claimed, who had recently been widowed. Sally and ‘John’ started to correspond by email and talk on the phone. Over time, Sally developed deep feelings for ‘John’ and their correspondence became intimate. ‘John’ even asked Sally to send him sexy pictures, which, however, Sally refused to do. It was fortunate she did, for it was Elisa who was writing the emails, sometimes in the very room where Sally was reading and responding to them, and the voice on the phone was Elisa’s filtered through a voice modifier. When Sally queried the high timbre of ‘John’s’ voice, ‘he’ told her he had had throat cancer. When she began to talk about seeing him, he was suddenly diagnosed with lung cancer.
In July 2013, Elisa told Sally she wanted to arrange her own death at home and came up with a bucket list of 20 items. Sally paid £2,000 to fulfil them all including taking her to London Zoo for a private viewing of the penguins and to Southampton to see her pregnant sister who was devastated to hear of her sister’s impending death. Sally also organised Elisa’s ‘final birthday party’ for her 21st, on August 3, after which, Elisa claimed, she would take an overdose of pills. Elisa greeted her grieving friends enthroned on a couch, dressed like a cartoon princess, and spent the night dancing and downing champagne.
After she had shown such high spirits, Sally could not let Elisa take her own life and insisted on taking her to see her consultant, ‘John’. On the drive to the hospital, Elisa faked text messages from ‘John’s’ nurse announcing he had died. She even arranged for Sally, who was in deep grief over his death, to receive a posthumous gift of flowers from ‘John’ with a death-bed love note.
By now, the family had become suspicious and Ralph confronted Elisa, but her tearful lies were so plausible and convincing that he felt embarrassed to have questioned her. However, Ralph was finally to learn ‘something of the truth’ when Elisa made a fatal mistake. One day he found a mobile phone she had left behind when she went to the hospital. He phoned Elisa’s father, Leo Bianco, and told him his daughter was dying.
Shocked, Leo rang his daughter and told her he was coming down to Cornwall to get her and she had better ‘come clean’ to the Retallacks or he would. In a last desperate deception, Elisa rang Sally, shouting down the phone that her father had abused her and he must not be allowed near her. Sally rushed to the hospital to Elisa’s rescue, only to find that no one in the renal unit had ever heard of her. Instead she found Elisa sitting forlornly in the café in her pyjamas, and when Sally asked her if she had made it all up she could only say ‘yes’.
Sally Retallack is a broken woman now. Having lost her career, her marriage and her self-confidence, she has retreated to the south of France where she runs a bed-and-breakfast with her mother and young daughter.
Elisa Bianco was sentenced to two years and eight months jail in December 2015 after pleading guilty to several charges in the Truro Crown Court.
© Pauline Montagna 2017