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.
It was the address for the historic Hotel LaBonte, which also rents out apartments for short- and long-term stays, often to people who are drawn to the area to work in the oil industry.