'Fake' Online Love Affair Becomes Legal Battle

Illinois woman sued for allegedly creating fake online romance.

April 28, 2011, 10:26 AM

April 28, 2011— -- 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 andarrows."

Bonhomme: $10,000 Spent on Gifts

During regular phone calls, which Bonhomme claims St. James managed with the help of voice-altering technology, Bonhomme learned that "James" had a 6-year-old son named "Rhys," an ex-wife named "Krista" and a sister named "Alice."

Not only did "James" talk about his friends and family, Bonhomme alleged that St. James also took on their personas in emails and sent her packages and letters appearing to be from them. "Rhys," Bonhomme said, sent her drawings, and "Alice" sent her several emails.

They also traded several gifts which, according to her suit, cost Bonhomme a total of $10,000.

Bonhomme said that among the "little trinkets" she received from "James" were a kazoo, because he had been llama rancher and played the instrument for the animals; a rubber duck with a firefighter's hat, picked out by his son; and a piece of wood in which he had carved their initials.

In return, she said she gave him an iPod, bath products, assorted DVDs and CDs, wine and other nicknacks. She also sent his "family" gifts too, like a fire truck quilt for his son and a silver necklace for his ex-wife.

At the same time, Bonhomme said she and St. James (as herself) were becoming friends online, frequently exchanging messages about James.

In an email included in Bonhomme's lawsuit she says that in August 2005, St. James sent her an email saying, "I hooked up with Jesse [James] this afternoon. …He looks FABulous. …He talked Paula, Paula, Paula, Paula, More Paula, Paula, and Oh This about Paula for 45 minutes and it wasall so good."

The lawsuit claims St. James wrote in other messages, "Whether they LIKE it or not, I'm hooked up to everyone he [Jesse] know[s] somehow" and "he wants you."

Over the course of their relationship, Bonhomme said that she and "James" tried to meet face-to-face, and that she purchased plane tickets to visit him. But as each potential meeting approached, she said some misfortune -- often elaborate -- would befall him.

Plans to meet over Easter fell through when James learned about his long-lost father and wanted to fly to Pakistan to see him, Bonhomme said.

Bonhomme's Friends Confront St. James in Video

When Bonhomme learned of "James'" sudden death -- through a "blunt" email from his sister Alice, she said -- it was St. James who was there to console her. (Although "James'" son "Rhys" sent her a condolence letter and his sister "Alice" sent her emails.)

The day after his supposed death was the first time the two women spoke on the phone and, soon after, they traveled together to Colorado to visit what the lawsuit calls "Jesse-related sites." While there, Bonhomme said St. James produced a letter apparently written by "James" that detailed his "dying wishes" and professed his love for her.

It wasn't until February 2007 -- nearly two years after they connected on the "Deadwood" message board -- that Bonhomme said she learned the truth.

Suspicious of her all-consuming online relationships, Bonhomme's offline friends did some digging. When St. James flew to California on a separate trip to visit Bonhomme's home, the friends confronted St. James about the alleged Internet ruse on video camera.

Now posted to YouTube, the video appears to show St. James responding to the friends' accusations. When asked if she'd apologize to Bonhomme, a woman identified as St. James says "it wouldn't be taken the right way." Later, she says, "I'm not destroying anyone's life." St. James never directly admits to creating a hoax on the video.

After seeing the videotaped confrontation, Bonhomme, who was not present in the video, said she was "in shock for probably the first hour."

"I couldn't understand it. ... Once I had time to think about it, I got really freaked out because I didn't know what would happen," she said. "I was suspicious of everyone, even my new puppy. ...Nothing appeared to be what it was."

Since sharing her experience -- both on a blog and through her lawsuit -- Bonhomme said she's been contacted by at least five other women who claim to have fallen victim to St. James' alleged deception. Bonhomme said one woman, who claimed to be a former roommate of St. James, said she was similarly tricked into a romantic relationship with fake lover through letters in the 1980s.

Lawyer for St. James: 'Case Was Not Well Pleaded

Bonhomme's lawsuit seeks compensatory damages above $100,000, as well as punitive damages significant enough to stop St. James from "conducting similar future schemes."

While St. James' lawyer Perko said she does "not think it's appropriate to try the case in the press," she emphasized that the suit was initially dismissed at the earliest possible step.

Documents filed by previous attorneys hired by St. James said Bonhomme's complaint lacked specificity. And, pointing out that the relationships were born in an Internet chat room where people with fictional screen names talked about fictional characters, the defense attorneys argued that Bonhomme didn't sufficiently show "material misrepresentation of fact."

"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," the document said.

But Daliah Saper, Bonhmomme's attorney, said the case has been especially frustrating to litigate because the laws and awareness surrounding online relationships and behavior are so embryonic.

"This was before the wave of cyberbullying laws that were passed, just before it being such a hot topic," said Saper, whom Bonhomme met online and has never met face-to-face. "The court struggled to even recognize the set of facts to be traditional causes of action."

But she said they continue to persevere because this kind of online harassment "is more common than people think."

"[Bonhomme] wants justice. She doesn't want Janna doing this to other people," she said.

But Bonhomme said she wonders if even the law can can put a stop to the alleged deception that she thinks stems from a need for "attention" and "love." Still, she said she hopes the ongoing legal dispute eventually brings her the resolution she's looking for.

"Every time there's a court decision, I get a lot of blog action. …It brings it back like an old war wound when it's raining," she said. "I'm hoping at some point this will all go away."

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