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Online ‘scam’ results in lawsuit

Published: Wednesday, May 11, 2011 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, May 11, 2011 3:37 p.m. CDT

A woman, who claims she was deceived in an online relationship spanning 18 months, is suing a Batavia woman for fraudulent misrepresentation, seeking $100,000 in punitive damages.

Paula Bonhomme, of California, said she believed she fell in love with a man online in 2005, and she was befriended by a collection of 21 of his friends and family online, even being comforted by them when he “died” of liver cancer in 2006. But Bonhomme, 50, never met Jesse Jubilee James in person, though she talked to him on the phone, sent him gifts valued at $10,000, planned to move in with him and then mourned his “death.”

Bonhomme was introduced to her online love – said to be a Colorado firefighter – and his online entourage, through Janna St. James-Priggie, 58, who lives on the 800 block of Washington Street in Batavia.

Bonhomme’s suit claims that St. James posed as Jesse James and his extended family and friends in an elaborate online bamboozle that ultimately damaged her financially. Outside of the gifts she sent, Bonhomme spent money on therapy for depression, medical costs, legal fees and plane tickets, according to the court papers.

“Paula was vulnerable,” Bonhomme’s attorney Daliah Saper said. “This was like having a pen pal. There were things being sent to her [Bonhomme] from friends in Australia verified by somebody else in the network. There was no reason for her to think it was a scam ... This was an emotional Ponzi scheme.”

They ‘met’ online

The two women met in an online chat room dedicated to the HBO series, “Deadwood,” where, “St. James said, ‘I have this friend Jesse James, and you [two] have a lot in common,’ ” Saper said.

And after they “met” online, St. James reported to Bonhomme, “Jesse really likes you,” Saper said.

But St. James herself was Jesse, playing the role so thoroughly she used voice-altering technology to sound like a man when she talked to Bonhomme on the phone, according to the suit. Bonhomme’s real-life friends unraveled the deception, confronting St. James when she came to visit Bonhomme’s home.

“This was the soap opera of soap operas,” Saper said. “Janna was using photos of real people, using facts and calling on the phone, sending packages from other countries. Paula was susceptible to the scam. ... This could happen to even the most typical cynical person.”

Saper said since the case has become public, five more women have come forward who said they were similarly involved with St. James on online relationships.

“There are grounds to sue,” Saper said. “If you’ve been scammed, shouldn’t the victim get his money back? There is evidence. I have binders of it. What I hope this will do is put a law on the books, case law, that will deter others from manipulating and deceiving others.”

Saper said her client is no longer giving media interviews. St. James did not come to the door when a reporter knocked, but responded in an email.

“Because to date there has been no trial, no evidence, no witnesses, no facts pertaining to me, only hearsay and the only issue being considered by the court at this time is whether or not the plaintiff has grounds to sue,” according to St. James’ email. “On the advice of counsel, I have nothing to say at this time. To do so would be attempting to try this case in the media, as it’s best left to the courts.”

The case

The case was first filed in Cook County in 2008, then in Kane County, and dismissed both times. The Second District Illinois Appellate Court court ruled recently that Bonhomme’s claim of fraudulent misrepresentation could proceed in Saper’s third amended complaint.

“Plaintiff was enmeshed in a web created by defendant [St. James] and deceived on all sides,” according to the appellate ruling. “We cannot say she merely closed her eyes and allowed herself to be deceived. The allegations show an extensive masquerade to deceive.”

One appellate judge disagreed, saying fraudulent misrepresentation should not be expanded to personal issues, particularly those involving the Internet.

“The reality of the Internet age is that an online individual may not always be – and frequently is not – who or what he or she purports to be,” Appellate Judge Mary Seminara-Schostock wrote in her dissent. “The plaintiff cannot show that she justifiably relied on the defendant’s misrepresentations.”

St. James’ attorney, Phyllis Perko, would not speak to any specifics alleged in the suit regarding St. James and her online universe of characters. Because of legal wrangling over whether Bonhomme has standing to sue, the allegations themselves have not been answered, she said.

Perko said she will attempt to appeal the appellate decision to the Illinois Supreme Court and have it dismissed.

“A very fundamental definition of a tort is a civil wrong,” Perko said. “Wrongs happen every day ... it may not be an actionable wrong. This idea of this expansion ... is a legal determination of whether or not something should be an actionable wrong.”

SFlbResearcher: People lie in relationships

Sean Horan, a communication professor at DePaul University who specializes in relational communication, said research shows that deception in relationships is common.

Without commenting specifically on the Bonhomme-St. James case, he said studies and research show that:

• Humans have an inherent need to belong, and some are getting those needs met online.

• People lie to each other in their closest relationships with family, friends and those they are dating.

• Human beings are not good at detecting lies in general.

“I’m a deception researcher,” Horan said. “We teach courses in deception. We often assume people are honest with us. But someone we are dating, in a romantic relationship, we lie to the most. One of three interactions with a non-married romantic partner contains a lie.”

Who should bear the responsibility?

Laurel Rigertas of St. Charles Township, a law professor at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, said the case could expand the legal definition of fraud from the commercial to the personal.

“Is that where we want the law to extend, into personal relationships?” Rigertas said. “The court’s opinion focused on economic lines drawn around this case. They haven’t thrown the doors open. They are trying to keep it within the world of where the plaintiff parted with money, not ‘I had my heart broken.’”

One example of how it might be applied: A boy asks a girl to prom – with no intention of taking her – and she buys a dress and gets her hair done and then is humiliated when she is stood up. Would she – should she – have standing to sue for fraud to be reimbursed for her costs?

“Things like that happen in life all the time,” Rigertas said. “Sometimes life is cruel and unfair. The law can’t provide a remedy for everything.”

In the current case, Rigertas said the court will have to consider the reliability of electronic relationships as a new aspect of daily life.

“Some people say it was her own fault, that she was naive,” Rigertas said of Bonhomme. “But the other side of the equation is, if you are intentionally lying and deceiving, who should bear responsibility? The one deceiving or the one deceived?”

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