Saturday, April 21, 2012

Internet Con Artists: A Cautionary Tale

This is the story, the stories, about a woman that I met on the Dr. Phil website, back when I thought a support group for chronic pain was a good idea.  (It sometimes was.) She goes by many names, but they're all similar.  She is a con artist and she persists, oozing beyond the tough talkin' Texan's website that was once her primary hunting ground.  She is rascally.  She has her own section in the North Carolina criminal data base, where the charges and the many dodges of the justice system that are apparent there give the strong impression that she has mad con skills.

Personally, I think she is dangerous.  I've absolutely no evidence that she has ever encroached on anyone's actual personal space.  She has not shown up at my door.  The last I heard from her, in fact, she said:

I don't want any further contact with you!!!!
Do I make myself clear!

I tend to have that effect on people, particularly those I meet through that big, bald entertainer, Phil McGraw.

Most of what follows has been published here before, but for some reason, maybe because it is ongoing, Shawnna's story always ends up as a draft. Well, it's a quiet, cloudy Saturday morning and I am determined to rid my inbox of as many unfinished pieces as possible. The several posts dedicated to Shawnna the Internet Con Artist just need a bit of unification, and some updates.

The most important update to "Shawnna's Con" is that she has switched monikers again.  Occasional name changes, usually due to some technical gaffe, are not unusual in our online lives, but someone who does it frequently needs to be viewed with skepticism.  Or, if you have one handy, a jaundiced eye.

One jaundiced eye, courtesy of
Ohio State Univ. College of Nursing

In a fit of major clever, Lashawnna Burney is going by Lashawnna Willamson-Smith (as well as Williamson-Smith).  For having made that swift play with the Letter I, she gets a sticker!  And a half-point for full-fledged trickery:  She likes to present the misspelled Willamson-Smith as a first name, because that is really gonna throw people off, eh wot?

So, anyway.   If you participate in any sort of self-help or support group on the interwebs, you will eventually meet your own Lashy Shawnna Shawna Lashawnna Lashawna Lashonda Burney Willamson Williamson Smith Smythe.  I am sure there are other incarnations, as well, suitable for other cons.

Please don't be incredulous.  Rather, laugh at my discomfiture, sure!  But be vigilant, as well, protect your personal information, and consider referring your virtual friends to organizational help in the event of Big Troubles, in lieu of, for example, writing them a check.  The bad apples in the big internet pile of fruit are few but they're everywhere, they're talented, and most likely sociopaths.  You cannot convince them to come clean or go straight.  You cannot elicit an apology or make them feel guilty.  If you offer any sort of gift, material or immaterial, make sure it is something you give freely, with no strings attached, no expectation of acknowledgement or change in behavior.  It just won't happen.

Shawnna seems to enjoy reeling people in on her fishy lines of drama and trauma. She invades your heart, heartlessly, and does it in such volume, with such volubility, that she can make you forget what you know.  One of her more mundane arrests came on the same day she claimed a fabulous thrust-and-parry with Death -- an Easter Sunday.  Even knowing this, she grabs my attention when she writes that, in her version of the Resurrection Day, "they had to Life Flight me..."

Resurrection Jealousy.

I may as well confess, not for the first time here, that I am the World's Easiest Mark. It is great sport among my family and friends to see just how much junk they can get me to believe. I melt at a low temperature, cooing "Oh no, really?" upon hearing their sad, implausible sagas.

But I think I am wising up! At least with Fred. He has some "tells" that I can now identify, chief among which is the statement: "This is a true story." But, oh, how it delights him when he, too, can reel me in.

My former best friend in the whole wide world is a Gorgeous Iranian Lesbian. We met as undergrads, roomed together for a while, and -- even though I screwed up our relationship in recent years -- had a wonderful life together. She just could not believe the extent of my gullibility. One day, we were working on homework in the French Dept. lounge, trying to come up with paper topics for our 17th century literature class. She hit on something she thought I would like -- having to do with that famous classicist Oussama Mon Chénier.

The Shah-Meister regaled me with fond memories of her relationship with this naturalist of the Grand Siècle, and how she spent many a rainy afternoon stretched out on her bed in Téhéran, thumbing through his great and marvelously illustrated work:  L'Histoire Naturelle des Animaux Sauvages (The Natural History of Wild Animals).  She had never understood why it was such a beloved reference work in Persia but rarely known among Unenlightened Westerners.

By the time she convinced me to go and interrogate our Professor Aronson là-dessus, I was frothing at the mouth at the thought of the academic wealth awaiting my investigation.  I will just let you imagine my horror at the kindly sad smile which my respected professor assumed about 10 seconds into my presentation of this awesome paper topic... Truly une idée "reçue."

And then there was the Incident on the Berkeley Pier.

But "Shawnna"?  She's on a whole other level, tending toward malevolence, not the gentle joshing of friends.

Here is her tale, updated from the original version, published here in January 2009.  Though I'm able to piece more of the puzzle bits together, I've not gained many insights into her behavior.


It's beyond disconcerting: beyond it, though, to I don't exactly know what.

The popular initial reaction seems to be "disappointment." That surely was the killer reaction that worked best on me as a child -- nothing hurt so much as when a beloved adult would calmly (with maybe a Touch of Glum) express disappointment in me and in whatever behavior I had perpetrated.

For 18 months, this woman Shawnna interacted almost daily with me and several other people in an online group that dealt with living with chronic pain.

There is another woman in this group who keeps me sane. Her latest daily adventures include stealth feeding of her neighbors' horses -- or, in one of the instances, the girlfriend of a neighbor who is billeting her horses there for the duration of the love affair. My friend is an animal lover.  These horses were not being fed daily and did not have access to fresh water -- and she has reacted as most of us would. Well, not quite. I would be on the phone reporting them, neighbors or not, for the talking-it-over approach has obviously been tried several times.  I do not, apparently, understand the dynamics of life in rural Wyoming, as such an act might well, she tells me, push her neighbors over sanity's edge... and then what would she do?  It'd be a shootout and it'd be all my fault.

So, she does the only logical thing:  She and her 80-something mother take hay to the two separate pens. I don't know the story of the other neighbor. They wait for the cover of darkness and deliver hay and water. The horses apparently go ape shit every time they see either of the two women, or even their truck.

She has a good heart.

So I am going to go way past "disappointment" and charge on down the path all the way to ANGER. Not at this caring Wyoming gal, no!

At the woman who has fooled her, and me, and lord knows how many others. We nicknamed her Shawnna. She was thrilled when she was given a nickname. It made her "one of us," one of the gang, party to the inner circle, whatever -- it marked the moment when she had definitively snookered us all.

I spent part of the day digging up every post she had ever published at the web site that hosted our laughter-loving chronic pain support group. Somehow, she never expected anyone to piece all the disparate parts together. Well, I got right to it, didn't I? It just took me a year and a half.

This is the story she has written, in bits and pieces, some meant for one group, some for another:

She is in her late 40s. She recently lost the triplets she was carrying -- made it to 6+ months, though. There are several posts about her inability to go into the nursery and pack up the tiny clothes and take down the cribs, maybe throw a little paint on the walls, scrape those silly stencils off, try to sell that stupid rocking chair on eBay.

That was mostly for Phil McGraw's online grief support group that rallied around her as she faced the anniversary of the triplets' death, and with whom she went on to share her childhood experiences of incest. Eventually, I guess, there was a strong sense of incongruity, and she moved on to the more appropriate Childhood Sexual Abuse Survivors Group, never speaking of the dead babies again.

About that same time, she approached us, the Chronic Paineurs, with a need for advice about having, or not having, a hysterectomy. The reason given was "pelvic pain." For reasons that I could never figure out, her surgery was supposed to take between 6-8 hours and might result in her death, or a colostomy. (Tonight, I relish that symmetry: her death or a colostomy. I like those odds.) She said she'd had 15 previous abdominal surgeries.

Let's see... She suffered from cardiomyopathy and a well-controlled seizure disorder, although she had a seizure on the operating table during her last operation and... you got it! Almost died.

"I almost died" could have been the chapter heading for most of her revelations.

She had three adult children. Her son was in prison for murder. Oh. As it happens, her brother was going on trial as a serial killer, and she lived in dread of having to testify. Her oldest daughter was a heroin addict with two small children. She popped into the narrative as a regular character when Shawnna decided she should have AIDS, abandon her kids (the long suffering Shawnna and her husband Rudy dedicated themselves to raising them, of course), and run off to New York with a no good man.

Shawnna's youngest daughter was a straight-A student, finishing her first year at college, and had never caused, or been in, any sort of trouble, ever. With the now added burden of two toddlers to raise, we suggested to Shawnna that her "good" daughter might be able to help out on the weekends. "Oh no," we were told, she did not want to be a burden to this young one who was doing so well.

Not even after her surgery went awry and she was mostly bedridden and living on methadone and percocet (Hey! I resemble that remark!) would she consider asking her daughter for help. She would carry on, somehow -- taking care of those two grandchildren, volunteering at their schools, working at the funeral parlor (part-time) and taking care of what she called her "wifely duties" with Rudy. [Prior to working at the funeral parlor, Shawnna said she owned a Home Health Agency, which she loved, as it allowed her to use her training as a *nurse*! I guess that is not an altogether uncommon move, to go from the healing arts to the death business?]

Of course Shawnna's surgery did not go well! This was surprising, as it took place at UNC-Chapel Hill (those slouches!). Would you believe that the numb nuts left a sponge inside of her? She ended up needing more surgeries because of their horrid oversight.

Then began the Saga of the Vaginal Bleeding. I know that it stretches the bounds of your credulity, but it was only at this point that she lost me as one of her dedicated cheerleaders. Because she kept bleeding and bleeding, going in and out of the hospital several times a week. I have also had a total hysterectomy and my crude understanding of anatomy informed me that there just are not that many sources for such bleeding... Somehow, I assuaged my suspicions with the reassurance that I apparently did not know everything, and that Shawnna was surely cursed and being used by God to do a rewrite of the Book of Job.

(Book, shmook! I forgot to mention that she is an author of two books. No, I haven't been able to find either one.)

Oh, I grow weary.

Well, what is left to Shawnna's Tale? Ah, yes. Rudy almost passed away about 2 years ago -- he had a major stroke at the age of 33. A few months later, he up and died -- he was out mowing the lawn and had a massive heart attack.

My tenderhearted Wyoming friend prepared herself for service -- a plane ticket, her own home and hearth in order -- and waited for details. Waited and waited. Shawnna was impossible to reach.

Suddenly, she posted a message saying that she was going to relocate to Memphis, Tennessee. I had begun searching for a death notice, checking obituaries in her area, then anywhere, then under any mistaken spelling of the poor dead man's last name. Nothing, nada, zilch. I asked her about it, finally, and was told that her world was turned upside down (understandable, nod nod...) and that Rudy's adult son from a previous marriage was handling those details.

Okie-dokie, then!

After a bit, she reappeared, reintroducing herself this way in an email, afraid, it seems, that the various plots of her story might have become stale:

I know that it's been a very long time, I'm fine. I have 4 grandchildren now, and all by the same daughter. I have three of them. I had a stroke on this past Easter Sunday but I must say that with some physical, and speech therapy I'm doing much better, I have been missing both you and M but I almost lost my  mind girl after my husband passed away. I'm much better know, and I've learned to cope with it. I love you just the same as I did one year ago girl!


Finally, a period of relative calm, with only occasional hospitalizations for congestive heart failure interrupting. She was off to her new life in Elvis Land.

Except that we heard nothing and could not reach her. Finally, we received a message that she had suffered a major heart attack while driving...

With a familiarity that suddenly *was* breeding a major pile of contempt, we could not contact her at the hospital she was supposedly at and so on and so on and so forth.  In the past, her "good daughter" would appear online at these times of crisis, and promise to relay messages, etc.  There appeared to even actually be such a daughter that my friends were able to reach by phone.  Something in that precious mother-daughter relationship became irrevocably strained at this point, however, because Lashy wrote, out of the peculiar blue:

She  is  doing well, she is studying at The University of Winston-Salem now. She is in her 5th year of schooling. She is still studyimg to become a Psychologist. But guess what? She doesn't even call me, come to see me. She didn't even come to the hospital after I had the stroke, and I had been life-flighted there to Winston-Salem!!!!! I was sooooo hurt. I just couldn't believe that she didn't come to see me. I haven't heard from her now in almost a year. I just this information from her father. But  I am not going to sit and worry about what is going on, I love her, have done not one thing for her to treat me the way she's been, and one day she'll regret the time that we didn't share together.

There is, of course, no University of Winston-Salem, so I assumed it a reference to Winston-Salem State University.  But it, of course, has no graduate program in psychology, but does have a good-looking undergraduate BA degree in the field.

It was a great set up.  Now Good-Daughter-Turned-Mean-Child could not be relied upon as a benevolent player in Shawnna Land.  You can't trust her or believe a word she says!  Curses, though, that the little demon spawn now has training in psychology and will trick us all with her wily ways!

That fix was apparently not enough, however, because Shawnna went on to have Good-Daughter-Turned-Mean-Child suffer a stroke, herself, and be put, herself, on the "transplant list." Again, Lashy was kind enough to provide all sorts of contradictory written information, though she never seems to completely hoist her own petard.  This is a letter she sent to my good friend during Scene 4 of Act 3, or whatever we are to call this internet con drama.  It's one of her more elaborate, and the construction is interesting, particularly the opening gambit.  Hi, it's been forever, my dying-with-AIDS daughter is such a whore... my Good-Gone-Bad-Now-Redeemed-Again daughter is in ICU... all summed up by the telling, "Oh my God girl!!!! What more can I deal with huh?"  It's all about Shawnna.

I don't know the requirements for receiving hospice care, but apparently they are not as stringent as I believed!

----- Original Message -----

Hey Girlie,
I know that it's been a while that we've spoken. How has everything been going for you? I have some very disturbing news. I just found out very recently that my last granddaughter is not my daughter's husband's daughter!!! No, her father is some other low-life piece of shit that roams the city of Fayetteville! The DNA test just came back last week. I am so through with my daughter do you hear me! So now we've got to try and find this someone to let him know that he is now a Father. I spoke with my daughter and asked her what the hell is she thinking? Not only were you unfaithful in your marriage but you had unprotected sex with someone that you really don't even know!!!! She tells me that she's been knowing this man for a year! whole year!. Please, give me a break!

Plus the fact that T (my youngest daughter) is in ICU and has been for the last past four days, we found out that she has inherited my cardiac condition. She has an enlarged heart and went out to the emergency after feeling very ill. She was having difficulties breathing and was having some swelling in her legs and hands. Oh my God girl!!!! What more can I deal with huh? But the good news is that she's doing better and the Physician told me that he'd be able to step her down off of the milirinone lactate and put her on an oral medication at this point. So hopefully she's be discharged at some point this coming week. 

I always feared one of my three children inheriting my cardiac condition and the one that has her shit together is the one that has been crippled with this enormous problem. I'm very afraid that this will limit her ability to have children one day when she's ready. All I can do is guide her and show her how to deal with this cardiac problem. They have put in a picc line so that she can be administered the milirinone, the same medication that I use on a continuous basis here at home. My picc line has been sewn in place though.

**[Lashy simultaneously posted elsewhere that Good Daughter Gone Bad was comatose, had had a stroke and suffered severe neurological deficits.  Milirinone (sic) lactate?!  Yowza!  In the little bit of reading I did about the drug, one thing was pretty doggone clear:  "treatment with this drug usually does not exceed 5 days..."  This archived drug label made it clear that this warning against longterm use was not lightly made:

Whether given orally or by continuous or intermittent intravenous infusion, milrinone has not been shown to be safe or effective in the longer (greater than 48 hours) treatment of patients with heart failure. In a multicenter trial of 1088 patients with Class III and IV heart failure, long-term oral treatment with milrinone was associated with no improvement in symptoms and an increased risk of hospitalization and death. In this study, patients with Class IV symptoms appeared to be at particular risk of life-threatening cardiovascular reactions. There is no evidence that milrinone given by long-term continuous or intermittent infusion does not carry a similar risk.]**

I was in the hospital for my birthday, (7th January). I was in CHF and renal failure. I am better now and hopefully I won't have another hospitalization for some time.

I allowed my daughter to come over to spend a few hours with all of the children during the holiday and she didn't even think or consider buying either child anything for the holiday! I was very disappointed in that too. I have just come to realize that my daughter will always be selfish, bottom line. 
Have you talked with M lately? I would like to go and see her for my 1-week vacation this coming April once the kids are out for Spring-break but I haven't heard back from her to confirm. I would like to come see you one Spring/Summer as well.

I really miss you guys so much. I feel so bad sometimes girl that it takes all I have just to get up and move around each day. My cardiac health is slowly declining, and I can really feel the change. I have hospice coming in each day and they've helped me aloft as far pain relief, and making dr's appt's for me.  And I have a CNA to come out each day for three hours. She helps with laundry and running errands for me.
I just wish that I could feel 30% better. [This is, I think, my new Lashy/Shawnna favorite.  In my mind, I hear it à la languishing Scarlet O'Hara:  "I just wish that I could feel 30% better..."]

I had a difficult time yet again this year during the holidays because as you remember Rudy passed on the 6th December. I must admit that having friends and family here for the holidays did distract from the depression that I was feeling but, It was still difficult and I guess that it will never really go away. 
Well Sweetheart, I've taken up enough of your time with my whining so I just want to let you know that truly I love you very much and because I may not post or send messages as often as I did before, doesn't mean that you're not on my mind. I look forward in hearing from you soon....Talk later 
P.S Have you heard from Prof? If so, please give her my hello's.......................
[Prof, here, chuckling...]

Somewhere in all the chaos, Lashawnna began to mention LVADs, though it was never clear whether she had one.  It became something of an obsession.  Still -- as you might expect -- the LVAD stories came with their own healthy quantity of red flags.  Small flags, maybe more of a bled pink than a screaming ninny of a cerise.  Things like continued smoking, something that I'd think one might give up if faced with left ventricular failure.

I was contacted by a very nice guy who is an authority on LVADs and whose blog is dedicated to helping others learn about the life-saving devices.  Shawnna was driving him a bit mad, writing, then calling him repeatedly with requests that he call her, and performing her typical zero-to-sixty insistence on intimacy and instant friendship.  She glosses over the normal periods of making acquaintances so as to rapidly insert herself and her confusions into the mark's life.  Unfortunately, she just came off sounding weird to him and he did an internet search... finding, eventually, my previous post, "Shawnna's Con."

An aside:  What a wonderful guy, what a wonderful attitude!  He is steeped in gratitude, and it shows -- well beyond words, it shows in pictures and videos, it shows in how he reaches out to give others a hand up.

My capacity for playing the fool has amazed me. I still want the thousand dollars back that I gave to someone I "met" online in an osteonecrosis support group.  I did not hesitate to help her pay her electric bill so that the utility could be turned back on, keeping her young children warm. One of her sons was very ill, she said, and she couldn't afford to take him to the doctor.  Are you sitting down?  Turns out she had other uses in mind for my money, uses that were more in the line of "entertainment."  Well, we are all deserving of fun... Right?

I still wonder whether I had any right to expect my osteonecrotic friend to use those bucks for her overdue bills. Did I have any right to know what she used the money for, at all?  The answer is clearly "no." But the emotional truth is something different.  And ugly.

I never gave Shawnna anything material.

No, I cried with her, listened, tried to help and advise, pitied and prayed for her -- and for "hers," who were always so deep into trouble, lost without her able help and guidance.

I cannot even laugh at myself as I begin to seriously fret over who is taking care of those beautiful, innocent grandkids.  Even after all of this, I believe in the existence of those children, mostly believe the stories that accompany them, and fear for their welfare.

Because I cannot know what tidbits are true, which are false, which are more properly interpretations.  She may have a failed heart, her daughters might be equally ill -- one sticken with Lashy's own disease, an inheritance, the other with AIDS, Lashy's emblem for "bad."

The proliferation of grandchildren, all born to an HIV+ woman, is at the heart of this con's tale.  Babies, some of them dead (her opening at Dr. Phil's, remember, was that she had just lost triplets), all of them displaced, are what's the matter.

I wish I understood.

It turns out that Shawnna may have an online accomplice. So I -- and others, especially one kind spirit in Wyoming -- are waiting for the other shoe to drop in the saga of Shawnna's con.  She wants to set a trap, and has, probably.  I just want to issue a Public Safety Announcement -- which is what I suppose this post was supposed to be.

But oh, Dear Readers, there was one wondrous development, just a few months ago, and I will end this rambling "cautionary tale" by copying below a rare moment of love and warmth between myself and this con artist.

You can imagine how thrilled I was to be able to notify Shawnna, in January 2012, that there had been a resurrection, good news of the miraculous sort:

lashawnna wrote: 
"Morgan and Dianah I know that it's been a while since I last spoke to either of you, I have been really having a hard time dealing with the death of my husband, so much so that I had to relocate to another home, too many memories.[...] Prof, I have really had you in my thoughts and prayers and I hope that all is well with you. I have had to really dig deep for my sanity, for a time there, the walls started to close in on me and I felt as if I was losing sight on reality. I couldn't sleep because I was in constant thought of Rudy. I have lost 39 pounds. When I first started posting, I wore a size 14 pants, now I am wearing a size 5/6."

i, profderien, wrote: 
hi lashy,
long time, girl, long time!
but i am so glad to be able to come to you with good news.  
heck, it's great news!  
are you sitting down?  no?  well, take a second and sit yourself down, because i don't want you to faint and hit your head, thereby sustaining a life-threatening subarachnoid hemorrhage or possibly fracturing the medial epicondyle of your humerus (the "funny bone"!).  heck, the joyful shock of what i am about to disclose to you, our dear loving lashy, might cause your cardiac muscle to shift into overdrive.
it's PHENOMENAL news!  it's put-it-on-the-doctor-phil-show-it's-so-good news!  (seriously, my friend, you would make a fascinating guest.)
ready?  are you sure?  okay, here goes:
no, i am not pulling your tiny size 5/6 leg!  it's time to have a really big, fattening meal in celebration -- but cardiac-friendly, of course, maybe an arugula salad dressed with balsamic vinaigrette, some poached salmon over a lovely parsnip purée. (i'm hungry.)
you probably don't believe me, i know what a stickler you are for truth, justice, and the american way -- and here i am, saying rudy (by whose grave you wept and loss scads of weight) -- that scumbag who pretended to stroke out while mowing the lawn -- here i am saying that your husband rudy is flaunting his status as a living organism... all over facebook!
i wasn't sure, and again, out of respect for your reliance on honesty, i asked someone who knows what rudy looks like to take a gander at his profile picture.  i was assured that "yep, that's him!  the no-good pretending-to-be-dead bozo!" 
i know, this news is really a mixed bag.  part pure relief (He Lives!) and part ultimate frustration (How Could He Let Me Grieve and Waste Away to a Size 5/6?).
but you are nothing if not a strong woman, accustomed to adversity (good lord, when i think of the tragedies your family has suffered... the loss of your triplets, your brother's murder conviction, your son's murder conviction, your daughter's HIV, your other daughter's cardiomyopathy, your own cardiomyopathy, your multiple and simultaneous needs for a heart transplant... why, it boggles the mind, if not one's credulity!).
i gotta say, though, lashy... i believe i would divorce the bastard.  no doubt you have moved on in these intervening years, and some other lucky man has scooped you up.
well, that's about all.  i hope you can get over the shock of it.  this is a great place to vent, though, you know? everyone here is like FAMILY, gullible as all get out, willing to lend you sympathy, understanding, love, and probably a ten spot or two.  you can say *anything* here.  it's a safe place, where no one trolls for victims to exploit, where no one even considers playing a con.
all the best,

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