Senate Bill 1003 was recently introduced in the Virginia General Assembly by Senator Ben Chafin at the request of Wise County Commonwealth's Attorney Chuck Slemp. The legislation was inspired by a 2019 case involving an adoption hoax that was prosecuted by Slemp's office. The bill would close a loophole in current Virginia law that allows an individual to maliciously use an internet-capable device to perpetrate costly and potentially devastating fraud on unsuspecting victims.
Senator Ben Chafin said, "I am proud to sponsor this legislation to close the loophole that currently exists in Virginia law. The Internet is an important tool that allows for instant communication and commerce across the country. Unfortunately, it also is a tool used by criminals to inflict pain and suffering on innocent victims. It is my hope that this bill will provide additional protections for victims like Matt and Laura Trayte against computer crimes in the Commonwealth."
Last June, Elizabeth Ann Jones pleaded guilty on the Scott County Circuit Court for an elaborate scheme and fraud she perpetrated on a California couple in 2018.
Like many couples, Matt and Laura Trayte, from Orange County, California, wanted to have a baby yet struggled with miscarriages and infertility. They sought the help of medical experts and adoption agencies without success. Thus, in early 2018 the Traytes created a website to achieve their goal and complete their family.
In 2018, Elizabeth Jones contacted the Traytes via the Internet and told them that she was pregnant and looking for an adoptive placement for her unborn child. Jones sent pictures of an ultrasound and a stuffed unicorn with a recording of what she said was their baby's heartbeat. After lengthy correspondence, plans were made and paperwork drafted to complete the adoption.
The Traytes traveled from California to Scott County multiple times in November 2018. Jones took Laura Trayte on tours of birthing centers at local hospitals, took Mrs. Trayte to an obstetrician appointment, visited an attorney and drafted legal documents, and took professional photographs for birth announcements. The Traytes bought Jones meals, gifts, and other items.
In late 2018, Jones informed the Traytes that she was in early labor and that something was wrong. She sent photographs of a bloody toilet and bloody bed sheets to the California couple. Matt and Laura Trayte, and their six-year-old son, flew from California to be present for the birth of the baby and to help if anything was wrong. Tragically, as the anxious new parents waited and prayed for the health of the baby at the birthing center and emergency room of Holston Valley Hospital in Kingsport, Tennessee, the elaborate scam was finally exposed. Jones admitted that she was never pregnant.
In early 2019, Jones admitted to her probation officer that she made up the entire scheme for attention and because "I wanted someone to feel pain other than me."
Commonwealth's Attorney Chuck Slemp said, "The hoax perpetrated by Elizabeth Jones against Matt and Laura Trayte is unimaginable. She intentionally inflicted pain on a vulnerable family and took advantage of their trust, kindness, and generosity. They expended enormous sums of money as a result of Ms. Jones's deceit."
Slemp explained the importance for the legislation, "Jones was convicted in June 2019 of obtaining money by false pretenses because the Traytes bought meals and gifts for her. However, if Jones had not benefited financially from the hoax, she would have escaped prosecution despite her intentional acts to harm others. That's why this bill is needed. It prevents others, like Jones, from slipping through the loophole in the computer crimes laws of our Commonwealth."
Matt Trayte said, "We desperately need laws that will help protect our citizens from predators that are waiting to take advantage of vulnerable people online. It happened to us when a supposed birth mom reached out to us in 2018 and we falsely believed that she was making our dream come true. The emotional turmoil that has resulted from her predatory, malicious, and deliberate actions has had a lasting impact on our family and this type of crime is happening to countless others. It is our hope that this bill will send a clear message to those that intend to use the internet to hurt others in Virginia will be held accountable for their actions."
Larua Trayte said, "The day we waited in the hospital for the baby that never existed could have easily broken us, and understandably so. We could have returned back to our home in California defeated and suffering in silence. But, in our grief and shock, we picked up the phone and started making calls to law enforcement, press, and anyone else who would listen. Our mission was to make sure that Elizabeth Jones was held accountable for her actions. We also wanted to turn something horrible into something good by bringing awareness to this type of adoption fraud. Now, we hope that this legislation will become law so that no one else suffers the pain and heartache that we have experienced."
The bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. Senate Bill 1003 would create a class one misdemeanor for any person who maliciously uses an Internet-capable device as part of a hoax to cause another person to expend monetary funds that would not have been expended if not for the hoax. It requires that the perpetrator know or should know that the victims would expend funds as a result of the hoax. The bill further provides that it is not a defense to the crime that the defendant did not actually receive any direct or indirect financial benefit from the hoax.
A copy of the bill is available online:http://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?201+sum+SB1003.