Monday, January 8, 2024

The Strange Life and Death (?) of Al Seckel (Part 2)

(Continued from Part 1)

Seckel was enjoying a lot of success posturing as an “expert,” or at least as a “collector,” of illusions, primarily visual. He spoke before many audiences, wrote (or plagiarized) articles and books, and traveled across the globe to share his presentations. Many of the illusions Seckel presented were invented by the magician Jerry Andrus (1918 – 2007). Andrus was a well-known and well-loved figure in the skeptic community, as well as with magicians, and often spoke at skeptic conferences. I learned that, following Andrus' death, Seckel's Eye Wonder wanted to buy the rights to all of Andrus' illusions and other works. I recommended against it.

In 2004 Seckel was invited to give a TED talk on visual illusions. His Bio calls him an “expert on illusions.” It notes,

"A previous version of this biography described Seckel as a "cognitive neuroscientist," which was not accurate".

However, Seckel’s 2010 TEDxSCS talk “[Y]Our Mind's Eye” describes him as “Cognitive neuroscientist Al Seckel, formerly of the California Institute of Technology.”

Denice Lewis, 1988



After two divorces, in June, 2004 Seckel married Denice D. Lewis, who was reportedly "Europe's highest paid catwalk model" for over a decade. They move into a custom home in Malibu that rented for $13,500 a month. She files for divorce just four months later. (Probably he told her “I’m a scientist” and “I’m rich,” both of which were false.)     

Seckel successfully postures not only as an “expert” on illusions, but also as a futurist and visionary, giving many talks. His financial status was always rather dodgy, but he somehow managed to keep borrowing enough from Peter to pay Paul.  


Al Seckel and Isabel Maxwell speak at the
World Economic Forum (WEF), 2011

In 2007 Seckel married Isabel Maxwell, daughter of the late billionaire fraudster Robert Maxwell, and sister to Ghislaine Maxwell. She had many connections in the world of high tech.

In January, 2011 Seckel organized a “Mindshift Conference” on Jeffrey Epstein’s infamous private island. The participants were Murray Gell-Mann, Christof Koch, Catherine Mohr, Gerald Sussman, Frances Arnold, Leonard Mlodinow, Paul Kirkaas, Brock Pierce, Ron Reisman, Pablos Holman, Dan Dubno, and Reichart Von Wolfsheild. Isabel was there with him.

"Jeffrey Epstein and Al Seckel have assembled a diverse and eclectic intimate group of exceptional thinkers and achievers to discuss various topics...."

Sometime around 2010, Seckel and Isabel moved permanently to France, living for a while in a Chateau that was owned by a friend, and moving around to other places. Seckel and Isabel  repeatedly use the excuse that they are "destitute" to avoid traveling to the US for court depositions and hearings involving their bankruptcy filings and other ongoing court cases.

Al Seckel & family join Stephen Hawking
for a Zero-G flight.

Seckel had been suing skeptic Tom McIver for "libel," i.e., revealing some of Seckel's frauds and impostures. In 2013 McIver contacted journalist Mark Oppenheimer, who had interviewed Seckel a few times previously concerning atheism, humanism, etc., and had attended some of Seckel's parties. In 2000 the interview was for an article on atheist history. Seckel was one of the early officers of Atheists United in Los Angeles, which is still active today. Seckel was with that group when it broke off from the atheist group founded by Madelyn Murray O’Hair, who was very much a control freak.

McIver suggested that Oppenheimer interview Seckel again, to look into the many accusations of financial impropriety. Seckel apparently did not like the questions that Oppenhiemer was asking, and the article's October, 2014 publication was cancelled because of legal threats from Seckel. Seckel realized that Oppenheimer would not be writing a puff piece (like most journalists nowadays do), and cut off all contact with him.

The Article that Ended Seckel's Career as a Con-Man, and Perhaps his Life. (July 20, 2015)

Finally, On July 20, 2015: Tablet online magazine publishes Mark Oppenheimer's article on Seckel, "The Illusionist."  Tom McIver describes the significance of this article:

Article focuses on Seckel’s obsession with befriending, socializing with, and gaining the confidence of celebrities and powerful and influential people in science, academia, entertainment, media, and the entrepreneurial world, often hosting them at his eclectic parties.  Among his guests not mentioned elsewhere on this timeline: biologist David Baltimore (Nobelist, Caltech president), billionaire Elon Musk (PayPal, Tesla Motors, SpaceX), actress Sharon Stone, and musician Slash.  Mentions that Gell-Mann, Koch, and Shimojo no longer endorse Seckel, and that Pearce Williams' wife was pleased he has been exposed as owing money to them.  Also mentions that it is "remarkably easy to find people who believe Seckel took their money," naming several. Quotes Gerald Sussman as saying "I don't feel good about it" when asked if he'd given money to Seckel, implying he had.  Mentions that Seckel now trying to sell Robert Maxwell's papers, without success.  Includes quote from Denice Lewis that their divorce was never finalized (and Seckel denying they had been officially married). Notes that Seckel's attorney in Seckel v. McIver (Nicholas Hornberger) admitted that Seckel never paid his legal fees.

After publication of the Oppenheimer article, Seckel’s career as a wheeler and dealer among the rich and famous would be over. After reading this account of one person after another complaining that Seckel had cheated them of significant sums of money, no serious person would ever again enter into a business deal with Al Seckel.

The Oppenheimer article dropped an even bigger bombshell – Denice Lewis told him that she and Seckel were still legally married! Their divorce was never finalized. Therefore, Seckel’s marriage to Isabel Maxwell was never valid, a fact she apparently did not know until then. You can imagine how she reacted to this!

The world didn’t hear much about Seckel for a while after this. Then suddenly on Sept. 19, 2015, a memorial website appears for Seckel, saying

Al Paul Seckel, who died at the age of 57 near his home in France, is best known for helping to make optical illusions a household name throughout the world.

No time or place of death, or cause of death, is given in this anonymous announcement. Who wrote it? Isabel? Possibly even Seckel himself? Seckel’s alleged death was noted in various internet postings, but not in any actual news reports. As time passed, the paucity of details on the fate of Al Seckel became widely noted and remarked upon. No death certificate was ever presented, even to this day (and many people tried to find it). It was widely speculated that Seckel did not die but went into hiding, perhaps with the assistance of Epstein’s circle. But apart from rumors, there was no evidence whether Seckel was alive, or dead.

Then, finally on April 14, 2022 the Daily Mail headline blared,

EXCLUSIVE: 'A hand and a foot were missing, probably eaten by wild boars.' Mysterious death of Ghislaine Maxwell's con-man brother-in-law is finally declared a suicide SEVEN YEARS after he jumped to his death from a 100-ft. cliff in France
Al Seckel's disappearance in 2015 has finally been solved – he flung himself off a high cliff outside a picturesque French village
Seckel claimed to be the husband of Ghislaine Maxwell's older sister Isabel, but in fact he had not divorced his third wife
It was originally believed that he might have faked his own death when a major expose about how he conned buyers of rare books was about to be published
His body lay unnoticed for weeks before it was finally found on July 1, 2015
'It was the smell of putrefaction that eventually led to the corpse,' former deputy mayor Roland Garreau told
 'A hand and a foot were missing, probably eaten by wild boars or foxes,' Garreau told

PUBLISHED: 10:52 EDT, 14 April 2022 | UPDATED: 10:52 EDT, 14 April 2022

Seckel eaten by pigs? Maybe I do believe in Karma.
But this is the only news source to offer any information about Seckel’s fate. The article contains what it calls Seckel’s “death certificate,” but it actually appears to be a statement from the Mayor’s office, partially handwritten, based on a police report. It is not a formal certificate as is found in vital records.

At present I would say that the “preponderance of evidence” suggests that Seckel probably did die in France in 2015, but I wouldn’t say that it is established “beyond a reasonable doubt.” On the one hand, it is entirely reasonable to think that a person who has just suffered a devastating , irreparable setback might become suicidal.On the other hand, remember that Seckel's reported death was inexplicably kept secret for two months, then reported anonymously. There is also the lack of a formal death certificate. When dealing with the likes of Jeffrey Epstein, Al Seckel, and the Maxwells, it is reasonable to believe that somebody might have gone to a lot of trouble to deceive you.

During the 2021 trial in New York City which found Ghislaine Maxwell guilty of sex trafficking and other charges, Ghislaine's sister Isabel was seen, faithfully attending every session and supporting her sister in every way.

I’m wondering when we will see a Netflix documentary series about Seckel, maybe “The Great Illusionist?”
Isabel Maxwell arrives at her sister's trial, 2021.


[Much of the material used in this report is drawn from Tom McIver’s exhaustive "Seckel" compendium]

Friday, January 5, 2024

The Strange Life and Death (?) of Al Seckel (Part 1)

This article veers just a bit from our usual dose of UFOlogy to talk about a man who was both a skeptical activist and a con-man, whose exploits sound like the script of an implausible movie – except it all really happened. Al Seckel was (or perhaps still is?) a very strange and interesting character. He founded the Southern California Skeptics in 1985, as a local affiliate of CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, now just “CSI”). He claimed to be a “physicist,” sometimes a “cognitive neuroscientist,” but never completed even a year of college. He claimed to be a graduate student working on a PhD in physics (and History of Science) at Cal Tech in Pasadena, but had actually just been ‘hanging around’ there (during which time he became friends with the famous physicist Richard Feynman, and arranged lectures for the Southern California Skeptics at Cal Tech). Soon accusations of financial improprieties were swirling around Seckel, although CSICOP didn’t pay much attention, and reflexively defended ‘their guy’ from attacks. The attacks mostly came from critics of CSICOP - Erik Beckjord, James Moseley, George Hansen - but in this case the critics were correct. When Seckel’s deceptions finally led to the collapse of the Southern California Skeptics, he disappeared from sight (supposedly because he was dying of leukemia, or else cancer). Seckel did actually have leukemia, although his illness didn’t occur until after SCS had already collapsed. He later made a complete recovery.

Seckel surfaced again a few years later as a TED talker and a famous scholar of optical illusions, writing (and sometimes plagiarizing) books and articles, again claiming bogus degrees and affiliations. He rubbed shoulders with many famous people, and after two divorces Seckel (somehow!) married supermodel Denice D. Lewis, who previously had dated George Hamilton, Dodi Fayed, and Pierce Brosnan, among others. (The marriage only lasted a few months.) Later Seckel married Isabel Maxwell, the daughter of the billionaire media mogul (and disgraced fraudster) Robert Maxwell, who has a more famous sister named Ghislaine. Seckel became an associate of the notorious sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, in 2011 organizing a science-related conference on Epstein’s (in)famous private island (although no sexual improprieties have been alleged concerning this conference). About 2011 Seckel and Isabel moved from California to France, apparently to better escape creditors and avoid testifying for their pending bankruptcy. Then in September, 2015, Isabel publicly announces that her husband Al Seckel was dead, having fallen off a cliff in France two months earlier. (Why she would wait two months to announce his death has never been explained.) However, no documentary evidence of Seckel’s reported death was then produced – although we may have something like that now.

From Jeffrey Epstein's Website

And that, in a nutshell, is the crazy story of Al Seckel. Skeptic Tom McIver, who had been sued and harassed by Seckel’s lawyers for exposing Seckel’s frauds, maintains a complete chronology of Seckel-related events at, from which much of this information is taken.

I first met Al Seckel at the 1984 CSICOP Conference, held at Stanford University. He was then an enthusiastic young man of twenty-six, claiming to be a graduate student in “physics” and “history of science” at Cal Tech. He sought me out because I had been a co-founder of the Bay Area Skeptics (along with magician Bob Steiner) just two years earlier. Seckel explained that he was in the process of founding a similar group in Southern California, and wanted to discuss our experiences, and get my advice. Soon afterward, he invited me to come down to Pasadena (I was then living in San Jose) to deliver the very first lecture for Southern California Skeptics, held at Baxter Auditorium on the Cal Tech campus in Pasadena. To motivate me, Seckel told me that his friend Richard Feynman was very interested in hearing what I had to say about UFOs! I certainly could not turn down such an opportunity. My talk was well-received, but there was no sign of Feynman. Oh, something came up, Feynman couldn’t make it, Seckel said.

The flyer Seckel made to promote my inaugural talk for the Southern California Skeptics

On a later trip that I made to Los Angeles, I visited Seckel in his home, in Pasadena or thereabouts. It looked ordinary from the outside. However, the inside was filled with a dazzling assortment of valuable antiques. Not 1920s furniture, or anything like that. Instead, furniture pieces that were apparently hundreds of years old, looking like they were imported from castles and estates in Europe. I had not seen anything like that before (or since!). Seckel explained that he was an antiques broker, buying and selling such pieces for clients. Of course I was impressed.  Later it turned out that Seckel was embroiled in many lawsuits concerning ownership of these valuable antiques.

I was among the many people plagiarized by Seckel. I wrote an account of a "clever dog" tested by the Bay Area Skeptics, published in their July, 1987 newsletter.  "Clever animals" - a horse, or a dog - can supposedly do arithmetic and answer questions far beyond the mental ability of any animal. But invariably, they can only perform when in sight of their trainer, as we found was the case with the Clever Dog Sunny. Seckel called me, saying he wanted to use that story in the newspaper column he was than writing for the Los Angeles Times. I agreed, but I had no idea that he was going to write me out of the story completely, presenting it as his own (which was impossible, since he was not there). Seckel also appears to have appropriated a story from James "The Amazing" Randi, published without attribution. I also understand that Seckel swindled Randi out of a sum of money, although I never inquired about the details.

One of Seckel's articles in CSICOP's Skeptical Inquirer. He claimed credit for organizing this statement of Nobel Laureates. 

For several years Southern California Skeptics (SCS) seemed to be a big success story, and CSICOP gladly trumpeted Seckel’s apparent successes. Seckel publicly debated creationist Duane Gish, and claimed to have soundly boxed his ears. He claimed to be the inventor (later, claimed co-inventor) of the Darwin Fish (like the Christian fish symbol, but sprouting legs). But soon problems became evident. In December, 1987 the State of California revoked SCS’s nonprofit status because Seckel had failed to file the required financial forms. Nonetheless, Seckel continued to represent SCS as a “nonprofit” organization for years. SCS’s checks bounced, and money disappeared. Pat Linse (1947-2021) was a volunteer with SCS, later working as an artist and editor for Skeptic magazine. She warned CSICOP about Seckel’s shenanigans, but was largely ignored. After SCS had collapsed in 1990, two years later Michael Shermer founded the Skeptics Society, based at that time in Pasadena, and bringing in many of the same people who had been part of SCS, even continuing the monthly lectures in Baxter Hall originally organized by Seckel. However, by this time Seckel had moved on from skeptics’ organizations, finding bigger fish to fry. Seckel had nothing to do with Skeptic magazine or with Shermer, who has always run the Skeptics Society as a proper organization.

Soon, Seckel had re-branded himself as the “world’s leading authority on visual and other types of sensory illusions”, claiming, at various times, academic affiliations with Cal Tech, or Harvard. He founded IllusionWorks, and later EyeWonder publishing. During his career as an expert on visual illusions, Seckel wrote (or plagiarized) many articles and books, gave many lectures, and rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous, including Murray Gell-Mann, Marvin Minsky, Nathan Myhrvold, Larry Page, Arno Penzias, Steve Wozniak, Stephen Hawking, Matt Groening, Mike Farrell, Arianna Huffington, Paul MacCready, Burt Rutan, Craig Venter, Richard Branson, Robin Williams, Sergey Brin, Peter Diamandis, James Cameron, among others.

Famous guests at a party in Seckel's home

About this gathering in his home, Seckel wrote,
This was one of the great intellectual gatherings that I held in my home in Pasadena in the 80s. In the back row (starting from the left) was the distinguished microbiologist Dr. Elie Shneour, then Manny Delbruck (wife of Max Delbruck, the "father of molecular biology") and noted comedian and former late night television host Steve Allen. Bottom: Legendary engineer Paul Macready, myself, Nobel Laureate Francis Crick (co-discoverer of the structure of DNA) and my friend John Edwards.

I knew Elie Shneour (1925-2015) from skeptic meetings in San Diego and elsewhere. He was obviously a very brilliant man. Yet he defended Seckel’s reputation until his death. And he was not the only one – several other skeptics have somehow continued to defended Seckel’s reputation. The Dean of UFO skeptics, Philip J. Klass, defended Seckel almost reflexively, until finally admitting in 1994 that Seckel had lied about his academic background. Michael Shermer had written to Klass, "If I never hear from him or about him again it will be too soon. I have never met anyone who can evoke such venom from so many people. A week does not go by that someone doesn't tell me another horrible Seckel story."

Seckel leased a Ferrari (but ended up owing $70,000, which was never paid). He rented expensive houses in Pasadena, Malibu and elsewhere, and ending up owing $100,000 for the one in Malibu. The list of people suing Seckel for non-payment was quite long. One of Seckel’s biggest legal battles was with Ensign Consulting Ltd., in which an investment fund claims it was conned by a self-described "master illusionist" who persuaded it to invest in rare books and art—including a portrait of Sir Isaac Newton—and then absconded with more than $543,000 and a bunch of the loot.