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The scam of the false duke and the inheritance that never existed

Dozens of victims in Colombia lent money to a mother and son who led them to believe they were going to be invited to a royal reception in Spain

The scammers
The scammers, Alejandro Estrada and his mother Olga Cardona.
Inés Santaeulalia

The big event in this story was going to be a reception with the king and queen of Spain in Madrid, where Alejandro Estrada, a Colombian national, would become a member of Spanish nobility thanks to his grandfather’s wealth and connections. Estrada was going to become the Duke of Cardona in the presence of witnesses who had been preparing for this moment for months. On one occasion, these witnesses gathered at a restaurant in the Colombian city of Medellín to receive protocol lessons, since nobody wanted to look bad in front of a monarch. Another time, they went to a Carolina Herrera fashion boutique to choose their wardrobe. Photos of their outfits were taken to send to the Royal Palace, since it was important that nobody show up with the same dress as Queen Letizia. All these stories are told with a mixture of embarrassment and anger by the purported witnesses, who were in reality victims of an incredible scam uncovered by the podcast Radio Ambulante.

The friends

In her 14 years teaching at the University of Medellín Law School, the lawyer Kelly Córdoba had seen hundreds of students come and go. Alejandro Estrada, who is 29 years old today, was just one among many. But that was until one day in 2019, when she ran into him near her office. The young man was with his mother, Olga Cardona, a very elegant woman who did not pass unnoticed. They asked her for advice about a legal case and Córdoba put them in touch with the law firm of her husband, Andrés Vasco, who handled the case. In barely a year, the young man who called her “teacher” would be playing at home with her daughters, while Olga was going on lunch dates with her mother, as if they were part of the family.

The circle of trust was widening. María Angélica Rendón, closer in age to Alejandro (whom everyone affectionately called Alejo), also worked at the firm. He seemed like the perfect friend, a soul mate. Alejo’s tastes were the same as María Angélica’s: they were both interested in fashion, they loved the same TV shows. “He studied me perfectly, but I didn’t realize it at the time,” she says now. After the pandemic, she introduced him to her group of friends. Even her boyfriend liked him.

My grandpa, the duke

The relationship was no longer one of teacher-student, nor one of lawyer-client. The friendship became so strong that Kelly felt Alejo was “like a son.” When she and the others showed up at Olga’s birthday party, they were let in on a secret: Alejandro’s grandfather was Venancio Cardona, Duke of Cardona, a Spanish nobleman who had accumulated land, companies and hefty bank accounts in his lifetime. This man had decided to leave all his wealth to his only male grandson, Alejandro. But there were many conditions attached. Alejandro had to be financially independent, he had to create a company from scratch, and above all, he had to have known true friendship. If and when he ever managed to meet all these requirements, he would be handed the dukedom by the Spanish royals and the inheritance by a Spanish court.

According to the tale, his mother Olga was a millionaire with apartments in Paris and New York, but she couldn’t give her son a cent. The conditions of the inheritance prohibited it: Alejo had to get it by his own means. And who better than his new friends to help him in his quest. Córdoba and her husband lent him 20 million pesos ($4,300) so he could start a business.

The first trip to Spain

In the summer of 2021, Alejandro and his mother said they had to travel to Spain so that the regional Economic Administrative Court of Madrid, which was supposedly handling the case, would release some accounts in his name. He asked the couple to come with them. Once in Madrid, Alejandro entered the court alone while the others waited for him in a downtown Starbucks. On his return, the young man told them that he had had a fantastic stroke of luck and that a so-called court adviser had offered to help him confidentially to meet his grandfather’s conditions. This is how Iñaki Cortés y Valenzuela entered the scene, an individual whom nobody would ever see, but who from that day on would write hundreds of emails and WhatsApp messages to the entire group.

Cortés y Valenzuela had new conditions: Alejo had to have a series of witnesses in order to receive the money. Kelly Córdoba, Andrés Vasco, María Angélica and other selected friends became part of that circle. Back in Colombia, the group prepared for months for the great trip to Spain, which would include several hearings before the court as well as a royal reception. By then, the loans to Alejandro were multiplying. The accumulated debt with his witnesses/friends/victims was increasing.

The fear

Alejandro made his friends believe that the Prosecutor’s Office was investigating him, and the rest of the witnesses as well. None of this makes much sense, but at the time everyone felt genuine fear because the young man sometimes reproduced conversations that others were keeping private. “We were being subjected to emotional terrorism,” explains María Angélica. Everyone put their phone on airplane mode or left it in another room, under the constant idea that someone was watching them. If it ever crossed their minds to do some research because Olga and Alejo’s explanations did not add up, they would immediately be paralyzed by fear.

Mother and son were playing their cards. On one occasion, they returned the money that Córdoba and Vasco had loaned them in order to regain trust, but soon after they asked for more. And then more. In total, the couple lost about 140 million pesos ($30,300); they also took on another 90 million pesos ($19,400) in debt incurred by their relatives “out of ethics, because we put them in touch with [the scammers].” To this day, they continue to make repayments on a loan they had taken out in their favor. In total, among the 18 known victims, mother and son defrauded some 1.2 billion pesos ($259,850).

The second trip to Spain

The climax of the story was the second trip to Spain, in January 2022. Eight witnesses came along with Olga and Alejo. Everyone stayed at a hotel — paid for with their contributions — and enjoyed a tourist program allegedly organized by the court that included a visit to Toledo, where the Cardona family purportedly owned a castle. They all took group photos on Madrid’s Gran Vía, to show that their friendship was true.

The court hearings never took place, much less the royal reception. The group was getting increasingly nervous. Alejandro appeared to be devastated. He would cry and break down and ask them for one last effort. There was so much love and money invested that it was easier for everyone to keep believing than to stop doing so. Alejandro had become an expert forger of documents. He gave them phony court papers that the witnesses innocently presented at work in order to travel, as well as official-looking documents notifying delays in the hearings. They returned to Colombia with the promise to return in just eight days.

The realization

At that point, nothing made sense anymore. Suspicions were growing. The hearings were still delayed in Spain and the explanations were confusing. The certainty that something odd was going on became greater than the fear of being monitored, and they began to investigate. Neither Venancio Cardona nor Iñaki Cortés y Valenzuela existed in real life, nor was any Spanish court working on any inheritance relating to Alejandro. They were simply the victims of a scam.

On May 6, 2022, mother and son were on a trip to New York. Andrés and Kelly decided to set them up. They told them that they should return to Medellín because they had managed to get someone to raise the money to start paying off the accumulated debt. In a video call, mother and son showed them Olga’s New York apartment, which hours later Kelly would find advertised on Airbnb. They promised to return, but they never did — perhaps they already suspected that they had been found out.

It was the last time they spoke with their victims. Since that day, no one has heard again from the “Duke of Cardona” or his mother.

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