You know how one time in high school you made up a fake boy and IM'ed some girl you didn't like as "him" and asked her out on a date, but then you couldn't figure out how to keep things going so you just told her he moved to Florida? That, on a much grander scale, is what happened to Paula Bonhomme.
According to ABC, Bonhomme, who's now 50, started chatting with a woman named Janna St. James on a Deadwood message board in 2005 (Bonhomme was apparently married at the time). St. James then e-introduced Bonhomme to her "friend," one Jesse Jubilee James (guess that name wasn't as bad an idea back then) who said he was a firefighter and who soon professed his love for Bonhomme. He also introduced Bonhomme to several members of his family, and she says she sent them gifts worth $10,000. In 2006 Bonhomme agreed to move to Colorado to be with James — but then his "sister" told her James had suddenly died. St. James remained friends with Bonhomme, even accompanying her on a trip to Colorado so they could mourn. It was only when St. James visited Bonhomme in California and Bonhomme's friends confronted her (video of which is at left) that the truth came out — James had never been real.
Bonhomme says that in hindsight "James" raised a few red flags. Just from the ABC coverage, we can see a couple — like the time he gave her "a kazoo, because he had been llama rancher and played the instrument for the animals." Or the time they were supposed to see each other, but he pulled out at the last minute because he "learned about his long-lost father and wanted to fly to Pakistan to see him." However, Bonhomme says she simply never thought someone would try to pull off such an elaborate ruse. She's now suing St. James in the Appellate Court of Illinois for fraudulent misrepresentation.
St. James, for her part, has said she did nothing wrong. Her lawyers previously stated that Bonhomme was just being gullible: "Basically, the Plaintiff's allegations amount to nothing more than stating that she saw darkness because she refused to open her eyes and see the light." And in a 2007 blog post, St. James says she was actually acting on behalf of mysterious third parties who apparently wanted to communicate with Bonhomme without revealing their real identity:
For the record, yet again, I have never said I did not have anything to do with helping individuals beyond myself mask and protect their true identities from Paula Bonhomme. That was their choice and their right, understanding the nature of honesty and agenda on the Internet and the inkling of one of them. [...] People have a right to reveal themselves or not. Not respecting that speaks.
Basically, she seems to fault Bonhomme for wanting to know the truth. She also refers to previous accusations, mentioning "the last fake man I supposedly was 10 years ago" — and indeed, Bonhomme says that since news of her lawsuit went public, she's been contacted by other women who say they were deceived by St. James.
If in fact it was a deception (and we're having trouble buying the "mysterious third party" explanation), St. James's scheme is reminiscent of, though less evil than, Steven Demink's repugnant online fraud — he posed as a therapist on dating sites and convinced moms to abuse their kids. Demink's scam had more terrible consequences, but both affected the lives of their victims — Bonhomme essentially entered a relationship for many months with someone who didn't exist. And though both she and the mothers in Demink's case arguably should have known better, it's clear that the Internet is offering new and scary ways of playing on people's vulnerabilities, and both law enforcement and prevention efforts need to catch up.