This is an absolutely fascinating story that appeared today on ABC News (via Nightline) titled Uncovering Dying Daughter Hoax That Lured in Several Celebrities, and will be featured late this evening on Nightline.  It details the story of a woman who deceived many, including several celebrities, into believing that she had a daughter who was dying of an illness.  Also caught up in her hoax were the real families who had lost children, whose online photos the woman used to pass off as being associated with her own “dying daughter.” It’s a hoax not unlike some you may have heard before, but this was more elaborate than the usual fare, and far more personal.  And what’s most surprising about the hoax is the reason behind it – as ABC News puts it, “it was a far cry from a financial scheme.”

The story emphasizes the dark side of online communication and reminds us that it’s not that difficult to fall victim to such deception.

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Here is an introductory excerpt from the ABC News article:

It all started on an autumn evening in 2012 at a charity event on the rooftop of a Los Angeles hotel. I bumped into “Wipeout” host John Henson, and introduced myself as a “Nightline” producer and therefore a distant cousin from the same ABC family.

“You work for ‘Nightline.’” he said, leaning in, “Then I have a story for you.”

Little did I know that the story that I was about to hear would send me on a year-long journey to discover complex and multi-layered truths tangled up in a web of lies.

The story went like this. Henson had just spent two weeks in an emotional email back-and-forth with a distraught mother about to lose her daughter to a severe type of childhood cancer called neuroblastoma. She said her daughter Scarlet, a “Wipeout” fan, had begged her to get in touch with the show’s host.

Later on, when Henson shared the email correspondence, I saw how personal it had become. There were photos of a beautiful little girl in the hospital. There were pictures of journal pages and drawings created by 8-year-old Scarlet just for him. And some of the emails even came from the dying girl.

“I have cancer very bad and the doctor cant [sic] fix me so i [sic] get to get angel wings and go to heaven,” Scarlet emailed.

But then the story started to unravel when Scarlet’s mother, Katherine, was unable to provide information about the doctors involved with Scarlet’s care that Henson, growing cautious, asked her to share.

“I am sorry if we gave you reason to doubt,” the mother wrote. “I can’t imagine someone making up something like this but then again I am not in your line of work. … I’m exhausted and emotional. I will email you the contact information for her oncologist as soon as I speak with him, until then I will ask Scarlet not to contact you. I will tell her you’re busy. I need to protect her heart as well.”

Once the red flags went up, Henson turned over the emails to an old family friend who is now a private investigator. Almost immediately, the private investigator saw that it was a hoax. The photos of the sick girl were, in fact, of a real girl who lost her battle with neuroblastoma in 2007 at the age of 9. The photos had been lifted straight off of memorial blogs.

“But why?” I asked Henson. He told me that while the woman he had been communicating with had not yet asked for money, he could only assume that the end game was a nefarious financial scam. He told me that he had learned that the scam was so sophisticated that some of the metadata buried in the photographs even pointed to a location in Mongolia.

Armed with dozens of emails and photographs, I decided to try to find the person or people responsible. The IP address from the Yahoo email account belonging to the mother seemed to show that the emails came from Wyoming, but that did not seem to help much. I retraced the private investigator’s footsteps, extracting metadata, including GPS coordinates, from the newer images, including the journal entries.

When I first entered the GPS coordinates into Google Maps, Mongolia turned up. But then I discovered that certain types of longitude numbers require a negative sign to register correctly, and I tried again. And bingo, there was an exact street address: 206 Walnut St. in Douglas, Wyo., about an hour outside of Casper.

As it would turn out, Henson’s story was merely one of many other victims.  And it would lead the article’s author to local police, then to a county prosecutor and eventually to a helpful district court clerk who was able to share information from a case file.

What was in that case file revealed a far more involved and elaborate web of deceit, one that had gone on for about four or five years, perpetrated by a woman named Hope Jackson who admitted there were other victims.

Country music star Brad Paisley and his wife Kimberly Williams-Paisley were also among those victims. You can hear their story in the clip above, as Brad Paisley recounts singing to what he thought was a dying child over the phone. But when Paisley and his wife were later told by Jackson that the little girl had died, they became suspicious because the woman refused to provide an address where they could send flowers for the funeral, and then she sent an indignant email.

As ABC News/Nightline revealed, Jackson’s arrest on theft of services “resulted from the fact that Paisley had sung “Amazing Grazing”[sic] to her over the phone under false pretenses.”  Jackson had not directly asked for any money.

Also among the victims were the band Little Big Town, the American Idol contestant and Grammy winner Mandisa, Christian recording artist Natalie Grant, and reality TV star Kate Gosselin, according to ABC News.

The deception wasn’t limited to emails and texts.  As with Paisley, once some of the victims were drawn in, there were phone calls.  In some of those calls, Jackson is said to have played different parts – sometimes the mother, sometimes the daughter.  While some had doubts, the realness of it all and nature of the situation made it more difficult for targets to doubt the authenticity of the woman’s claims.

And then of course there are the other victims.  Those whose children had actually died, and whose photos were used in such a deceptive manner.  ABC News/Nightline personnel contacted some of them.

Other calls were far more difficult to make. There were the other people who got caught up in this hoax, the real families who had lost children only to have their tragedies and photos stolen by Jackson. The Skees family of Florida and the Thomas family of Ohio generously shared their stories with us and welcomed us into their homes so that we could learn about two of the real children in the photos, Ellie Skees and Christi Thomas.

Angela Thomas, Christi’s mother, said her daughter was a luminous child who spread love and joy to total strangers.

“She just had an infectious smile where people would just fall in love with Christi,” Thomas said.

She hopes that, despite the hoax, celebrities will continue to reach out to others.

“I hope they haven’t had their hearts hardened … so that they won’t do those things that a sick child would certainly ask for or would want,” Thomas said.

In all, it seems financial gain was never Jackson’s intent. Rather, it all seemed some sort of twisted plea for attention.  Nightline eventually caught up with her.

Reaching the woman behind the hoax, even after we learned her identity, was not easy. Jackson posted bail and got out in January, but it was hard to get in touch with her because she used multiple phone numbers that she changed frequently. But after a couple of in-person visits to the courthouse during her legal proceedings — she pled guilty and got five years probation — Jackson agreed to talk to us on camera.

“I can look back on it now and see how much pain all my actions have caused,” she told “Nightline’s” David Wright, “but it’ll never make it right.”

[...] She insisted that her stories were not about gaining material goods but instead “love” and “acceptance” that she went about trying to get “in the wrong way.”

Nightline invited a University of Alabama psychiatrist to view its interview with Jackson, and he described her behavior as exhibiting what he coined in 2000 as “Munchausen by Internet.” From the ABC News article:

“The person is embroiled in the day-to-day minutiae of telling their stories to others on the Internet,” he said, describing the typical Munchausen by Internet patient, “but they’re overlooking the deep-seated emotional pain that may be a depression.”

The last time we spoke to Jackson in late October, she said that she is in counseling twice a week in Douglas and on several medications for depression and anxiety. Court documents had also revealed a diagnosis of depression. She said that there are issues from her childhood that she is now working to resolve.

The full story is a fascinating and disturbing read, I’m likely not doing it justice in my summary, so go read the whole thing.  You can also view the special edition of Nightline tonight at 12:35 am ET.

 
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