I left fraud and jail behind when I met Jesus
The high-profile case with a surprise ending
Trigger Warning: This story contains references to suicide and sexual abuse.
“I still every day wake up and say, ‘Thank you, Jesus.’ You know, I tried to to take my own life on a few occasions before I went into jail. And obviously that wasn’t what he had planned for me. So, I look forward to seeing what he does have planned for me in the years to come …”
Mel Wells sits on a park bench as she speaks to Eternity over Zoom. Behind her, a Norfolk Island pine stands majestically, framed by blue sky above and a graceful river below.
Less than two years ago, from behind the walls of Emu Plains Correctional Centre, Wells could never have imagined sitting in such peace – not only because of her surroundings, but mostly because of a new outlook on life.
Those who read her story back in 2018 – splashed across the media here in Australia and even overseas – also would not have envisioned this as her future.
In March 2018, the then 35-year-old mother of four was charged with fraud offences related to making financial gain from a fake illness. Between 2014 and 2016, Wells (then known by another name) received thousands of dollars in community donations for cancer treatment – an illness she never had. She pleaded guilty. In 2018, she was sentenced to two years and nine months in jail, without parole.
“Growing up, I had my first son at 16, so I was quite young.” – Mel Wells
When asked about her background and the experiences leading up to her imprisonment, Wells speaks frankly and matter-of-factly. She doesn’t seek sympathy – in fact there are several key details about her childhood and her adult life that she leaves out altogether, until they unravel themselves later in the conversation.
“I grew up down in Sydney’s west,” she begins. “There was myself and I have an older brother who’s nine years older than me. I lived with mum and dad, a normal family life I guess, in a few certain ways.
“I played a high level of cricket. I went to a sports high school, and was the first girl selected [to go there] in a boys cricket program. So that was a pretty big accomplishment.
“Growing up, I had my first son at 16, so I was quite young. And then it sort of went from there and four kids later, now I’m from the [NSW] North Coast.”
The power of lies
Wells fills in some blanks, such as receiving no support from the father of her first child, as it was not a lasting relationship.
A little reluctantly, Wells circles back to this monumental challenge of becoming a mother at such a young age, especially when she had a promising future as a cricket player: “I didn’t realise I was pregnant until I was probably about 16 weeks, I think … So yeah, having a pregnancy at that age and playing a lot of sport and being active all the time did have a big impact on me. I suffered a lot mentally because of that.”
“Also, I think everybody had very high expectations and I tried to live up to that. I think the more I tried to live up to that, the more I sort of became a person I wasn’t, so to speak. So having him at 16 and thinking that everything was normal for me, and just becoming a mum at that age and giving up a lot of things, I think that was sort of the start of alarm bells for a few people throughout my journey of life.”
“Looking back now … there was a lot about me that wasn’t ‘right’.” – Mel Wells
The alarm bells became clearer after Wells fell pregnant with her second son three years later, to a man she married (although later separated from).
“I was sort of in and out of jobs. I couldn’t find my feet. Looking back at that now, and watching me growing up, as an early adult and being a mum, there was a lot about me that wasn’t ‘right’.”
“I was a compulsive liar. I was lying all the time about anything and everything, just to get out of trouble. The thought of me letting someone down or the thought of me doing the wrong thing, I just couldn’t bear that, so it was easier to lie about it.
“But I think as I got older, as a compulsive liar, you believe your own lies, don’t you? It’s one of those things where you start to lie and you believe what you’re telling people.
“So up until probably three or four years ago, that was what I did. That was normal. And so what then happened … it started from little lies. I’d ring in to work and I’d say, ‘Oh, I’m really sick’ or something like that, whereas me being who I am today, I won’t do that. It’s a big thing for me to not lie now.”
Wells maintains that the lies which landed her in prison – saying she had recurrent episodes of cancer – were ones she actually believed herself.
“At the time, I didn’t realise I was lying about it. I honestly thought I had the illness, which I suppose made things a lot harder for me to try and come to terms with. Because once people said, ‘No, you weren’t sick’, it was like, well, what was wrong with me then?”
It’s not until much later in the conversation that Wells opens up about her mental health at that time.
“I never believed in mental health, and I think a lot of the problem is that I wasn’t educated in it either …”
“I’ve learned that it’s OK to talk about stuff, where before I never did. I used to just sort of bury a lot of the problems that were really going on inside me. And that’s what caused me to what they call dissociate. So instead of realising what was really going on with me, my brain decided to make another lie.”
” … Two detectives rocked up to my door and confronted me …” – Mel Wells
And so, Wells says when “two detectives rocked up to my door and confronted me with what had been going on, I was like, I’m not really sure what’s happening at the moment, but I had this big weight lifted off my shoulders.”
The day after Wells was sent to jail in April 2018, her oldest son turned 18. Her middle son was 15, her daughter 12 and her youngest child was only eight. Wells and her partner were due to be married that June.
“So obviously that all got canned. I didn’t know if he was going to be around after the charges,” says Wells, noting that only a very small group of people were willing to remain associated with her.
She started her time on the inside at Grafton prison, but was soon moved to Mid North Coast Correctional Centre in Kempsey.
“Kempsey was really good. I was working in the laundry there. A few of the girls that I lived with were really nice,” Wells recalls.
“But then, the day before Australia Day in 2019, it all came to a halt because I was assaulted. I was rushed to hospital.
“I had delayed concussion. I didn’t hit the ground when they first assaulted me – it was nearly 24 hours later. I was going to the toilet and I walked out of the bathroom and that was all I remember, then waking up at Kempsey hospital.
“Because of that I was deemed as not safe at the jail, so they then had to move me again. Two weeks later I was put in what they call ‘seg row’. So I was isolated from everybody for two weeks in this tiny little room. From there, I got moved down to Sydney, to Emu Plains.”
At first, Wells says she was “distraught about going to Sydney because I was further away from the family. I’d gone from being an hour away to three hours away and then nine hours away. That was really hard.”
“I actually had family that literally lived around the corner from Emu Plains, but because of what was going on with me, they didn’t want to see me. So, that made things a little bit harder.”
But just two days into her time at Emu Plains Correctional Centre, Wells’ life began to turn around.
The power of love
“I had a call over a microphone go to an office. I knocked on this office door and this older man answered the door with a big smile on his face and he said, ‘Oh, you must be Melissa. I’m Bernard. I’m the chaplain here,'” Mel recalls
‘I said, ‘Alright, well, you call me Mel and I’ll call you Chappie.’ So we formed this really, really special relationship him and I.”
Prior to this, Wells’ only experience with faith was her contact with Catholic cousins.
“I remember walking into Bernard’s office and he had a couple of Bibles and all these different leaflets. I was thinking, ‘OK, these are interesting’, but I wouldn’t take any to start with.
“I was just adamant that I was OK the way I was, and didn’t really need God in my life …
“Then, about a week later Chappie mentions about this Wednesday afternoon meeting, where Kairos [prison ministry] ladies come in from the outside. He made it sound really easy and simple, and he said, ‘Why don’t you just come? It’s in the [visitor] area.’
“So I said, ‘Alright, well it can’t hurt.’ So I did …
“We walked in there and sat down. And the next thing you know, we’re singing these songs and reading these things out of the Bible. I’m like, this is all new to me. I’ve got no idea what this is all about. The ladies were absolutely lovely though. So when it finished, I thought I really like those ladies, but I ain’t going back.
“But the next Tuesday, Chappie said to me, ‘I’ll see you on Wednesday’. So I kind of felt obligated to go. After that second visit, I never doubted that I would go back. I just naturally did, it was a routine for me. I enjoyed it.”
“The big thing with the Kairos course is forgiveness … That had a really big impact on me.
“Chappie” loaned Wells a Bible to read and she started asking him questions about it. Then about a month later, in May 2019, Wells agreed to take part in the Kairos Short Course – a four-day intensive course that explores a possible new identity in Christ.
Wells says that without this course, she “wouldn’t be the person I am today.”
“The big thing with the Kairos course is forgiveness and learning not just how to forgive yourself, but how to forgive other people and how [to let] other people to maybe forgive you. That had a really big impact on me.
“There’s a certain part where you have to do something to help ‘release’ forgiveness, and I had written people’s names down that I had never mentioned, [related to my] childhood trauma.
“I was sexually abused a couple of times as a kid by different people over the course of three to five years.
“It was something that was rarely talked about. So for me to actually sit there and write these names, it was like,” Wells pauses, before continuing, “That was the day that I felt Jesus next to me.
“And that was it. It was like a chapter had closed and I was forgiven – that was a big thing to me because [before that] I could never forgive myself. That was my issue.
“I kept saying to people, ‘I can’t expect people to forgive me for what I’ve done when I can’t forgive other people, and I can’t forgive myself for what I’ve done to other people.’
“So for me to be able to do that and for other people to also watch that,” again she pauses, lost for words. “… I still have them say to me today, that it was great I could do that. But I wouldn’t have done that without the Kairos Short Course and the ladies’ support that you get on the inside.
“It was truly a time that I will never forget. It holds deep to my heart. There’s a few [Kairos] ladies I’m still in contact with today and it will stay that way for the rest of our lives I hope.”
“I knew I had Jesus with me … It completely changed my perspective on life.” – Mel Wells
The rest of Wells’ prison sentence was different. She still kept to herself (to avoid negative attention in a dangerous place), but she says, “I knew I had Jesus with me. And after that I was more inclined to read the Bible and I was praying more. I just had a different outlook on life in general. Like I looked forward to things, I made plans. I wrote down goals for when I left and what I wanted to achieve. It completely changed my perspective on life.”
When Wells was released from jail on August 30, 2019, her partner Rod was there waiting for her.
“We actually went and had breakfast with Chappie and a couple of my friends before we headed home. So that was good,” she recalls.
There was still anger about her past actions among her small community, but Wells linked into a Christian church in a nearby suburb. Six weeks after she was freed from jail, she went on an Emmaus Walk – a spiritual pilgrimage that further strengthened her faith. She was invited to join the Emmaus team to help lead walks for other people.
Today, at 38, Wells does Bible study every Friday night with a group of older ladies. She also volunteers a few times each week with the same group at a local soup kitchen.
On Sunday morning, at the soup kitchen premises, they all go to church together at the soup kitchen premises.
Wells also is involved in running online church for Beyond Church. In addition, Wells has started her own small business which she runs with Rod, who she married in January. Her two youngest children live with them, while the oldest two – now adults – have moved to Sydney for work.
Wells still encounters reminders of her mistakes from people who knew her before.
“It’s not all positive as you can imagine,” she admits.
“I’ll be honest with you, I’ve had a few people make snarly comments and say, ‘You know, she thinks just because she’s found God that everything’s OK now and she can move on.’ I’m the sort of person now who doesn’t like confrontation, where the old me used to never fear it. Now I try to avoid it at all costs.
“You’ve just got to find a way [to forgive].” – Mel Wells
“You know, it’s not that I’m expecting people to forgive me. But it’s more of a fact that I’ve found forgiveness, and that’s up to everybody else whether they find forgiveness or not. One of the things we learned in Kairos was that by not forgiving people and by holding resentment and anger, it’s not healthy for the person who’s holding it.
“You’ve just got to find a way [to forgive]. And just because you forgive somebody doesn’t mean you’re going to forget it or you’re going to be best friends with them again.
“I’ve got all that understanding now, where I never used to have that.”
She adds: “Another big things I’ve learned is that you don’t need to be popular. I don’t need to have a million friends like I did, and it’s OK to just have a small circle of friends.
“You know, my life is great now. I couldn’t fault three-quarters of the things in my life. There’s always going to be something that you’re not happy with in life, but I try to take the best out of everything now.
“And on a bad day, I reach out to the people I know who can help me with whatever’s going on, whereas before I never used to do that either. So it’s important for people to realise that it is OK to ask for help.
“It is OK to say that something is wrong and you need that help.”
Wells has only shared her testimony a few times in local churches, but she is keen to take more opportunities to share it.
“I’ve always said to the ladies at Kairos, if there’s ever anything I can do to help with Kairos or if my story is going to help somebody, even if it’s only one person, it’s worthwhile.”
“You don’t go through everything I went through to just continue on with life and not plan to impact at least one person – to help them not go down the same road I did.”
If you or someone you know needs help, please call the Domestic Violence hotline on 1800 737 732 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.
If it’s an emergency, dial 000.
You can find other support services here.
Mel Wells’ story is Part Two of Eternity‘s series on Kairos prison ministry. You can read Part One here.