Paula Bonhomme already had soft spot for firefighters, so when she met the life-saving, animal-loving volunteer firefighter Jesse Jubilee James on an online message board in 2005, it didn't take long for sparks to fly.
Within a couple of months, the pair was exchanging "love" letters via email and handwritten notes, including personal photos and sentimental gifts. She developed relationships with his family and friends, speaking to them by phone and showering them with presents. By April 2006, though they had yet to meet face-to-face, the couple agreed that Bonhomme should move from Los Angeles to James' home in Colorado.
But just three months later tragedy struck, when James died without warning from liver cancer. Bonhomme mourned the man she called "the one" with a trip to the Southwest to visit his favorite places, accompanied by one of James' close friends.
A few months after she returned home, Bonhomme learned the shocking reality: James and all of the family members and friends she had met online through him had never been real. They were all fictitious characters in what Bonhomme says is an epic online charade concocted by a woman in suburban Illinois -- the same woman who accompanied her on the Southwest trip after his death.
Now, the bogus Internet romance has become an ongoing legal battle. In 2008, Bonhomme, 48, filed a lawsuit against Janna St. James, a 58-year-old woman in Batavia, Ill., alleging that St. James fraudulently misrepresented herself as Bonhomme's online lover and more than a dozen other characters.
Illinois courts have twice dismissed the suit, which previously included several counts. But last month, a divided Appellate Court of Illinois reinstated the case, saying that the trial court erred in dismissing the count of fraudulent misrepresentation.
Through her attorney Phyllis Perko in Chicago, St. James declined to comment. But Perko said they are still considering the next step and may petition the Illinois Supreme Court to review the Appellate Court's decision.
Online Relationship Starts on HBO's 'Deadwood' Message Board
When she looks back at her relationship with "James," Bonhomme now says she can spot a few red flags that might have revealed that he didn't exist.
"I know it sounds like a soap opera, but people have crazy soap opera lives sometimes," Bonhomme said. "When it builds up slow, I just don't think you see the forest for the trees."
At the time, she was not only exhausted from 100-hour work weeks and a struggling marriage, she just never believed someone would create such an elaborate hoax.
"A couple of my friends were iffy about it," she said. But "why would anyone go through the effort of inventing a person and a dozen of their friends and family? It was too ludicrous. Who has time for that?"
Bonhomme says St. James first contacted her in April 2005, on an online chat room for the HBO show "Deadwood."
St. James allegedly said that though she currently lived in Chicago, she had been "James'" editor at the Associated Press in Aspen, Colo., and urged "James" to join the message board because of Bonhomme.
The fictitious James then allegedly reached out to Bonhomme through the show's message board in June 2005.
Immediately drawn to the Colorado man with whom she seemed to share so many interests, Bonhomme said their relationship quickly moved from the message board to emails and letters to the telephone.
"It seemed like we had a lot of things in common," she said. "He was a very kind person. He loved animals. He was an EMT and saved people's lives. He seemed to be pretty self-aware of his problems. ...Someone who had a sense of humor and enjoyed life despite all its slings and arrows."