The definition of “deception” is quite broad and can describe a wide range of behavior. It includes people who tell white lies, those who do not necessarily lie but withhold important information, and people who maliciously engage in trickery for their own personal or financial gain. The act of deception can have devastating and tragic consequences for both deceiver and deceived.
10 Roxanne Janel Jones
Roxanne Janel Jones of Kansas City, Missouri, committed one of the most elaborate adoption frauds ever, conning over 23 couples and five adoption agencies across the US and raking in thousands of dollars in the process. The con was quite simple: Jones would contact adoption agencies saying that she was pregnant and needed to find a home for her baby. The agency would then put her in contact with hopeful couples. After agreeing to place her baby with the couple, Jones would ask for money for living expenses. Her scheme began to fall apart when one of the prospective adoptive parents, a news producer for CBS, became suspicious. The producer told the network, which began to investigate.
The network had another producer pose as a prospective adoptive parent and contact Jones, who was now going by the alias “Cindy Stevens.” Within weeks, Jones began to ask for money, saying she needed it for rent or she was going to be evicted. During a face-to-face meeting in a hotel room, the undercover producer pressed Jones for details about the baby. When Jones started to become evasive, an investigative correspondent entered the room and advised Jones that they were with CBS News. Jones tried to flee but was met by police, who arrested her.
Jones had an accomplice, Taj Isaiah, who sometimes assisted her by pretending to be her landlord. He was sentenced to two years in prison and ordered to pay $99,354 in restitution. At her sentencing, Jones addressed the court, saying that she began her con in 2009 when she relapsed into drug use. She was sentenced to seven years and ordered to pay $107,697 in restitution.
9 Sam Israel III
In 1996, Sam Israel III founded the Bayou Hedge Fund Group and served as the company’s CEO. He quickly became a rising star in the investment world. He traded through Goldman Sachs, one of the most prestigious firms in the industry, and his clients were some of the most respected investors on Wall Street. By the early 2000s, the company had amassed a fortune of $450 million.
Unfortunately, these profits were fictitious. Israel was actually running one of the most elaborate Ponzi schemes in US history. On top of that, Israel and his CFO, Daniel Marino, were also misappropriating funds for personal use. In order to hide this from investors and maintain the appearance of a profitable business, the men created a phony accounting firm, which they used to audit the company.
In 2004, with debts increasing and investors looking for their money, Israel suspended trading activity and began to wire millions of dollars into various bank accounts. This caught the attention of officials, who began an investigation.
In April 2008, Israel was sentenced to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to fraud. He was also ordered to pay $300 million back to his investors. After sentencing, the judge allowed Israel out on bail to get his affairs in order.
On June 9, the day he was supposed to begin his sentence, Israel’s SUV was found abandoned on Bear Mountain Bridge in New York, with “Suicide is Painless” written on the window. Investigators were skeptical, so when his body failed to wash ashore, they launched a manhunt. On July 2, Israel surrendered to police. He was sentenced to an additional two years in prison.
The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority ordered Goldman Sachs to pay $20.6 million to scammed investors, saying they should have known about Israel’s Ponzi scheme.
8 Belle Gibson
Australian Belle Gibson created a large financial empire when she claimed to have beaten the odds by surviving inoperable brain cancer. According to Gibson, she was diagnosed in 2009, but through a combination of natural therapies and eating whole foods, she was able to stabilize her illness. The young woman became a social media celebrity and wellness expert, creating the app The Whole Pantry, where she shared her tips for healthy living and eating. In addition, she also had a cookbook published and started a charity to help others with cancer. Unfortunately, it was all a hoax; Gibson never had cancer.
Her claims began to unravel in March 2015, when it was discovered that she’d never made the promised charity donations. Once this was revealed, doubts about her cancer diagnosis arose. Facing public pressure and backlash, Gibson admitted that none of her story was true.
Two months later, Gibson changed her story, saying that at one point, she really thought she had cancer, but in 2011, a brain scan revealed that she didn’t. This still doesn’t explain why she created her Whole Pantry app in 2013 and why she continued to deceive the public. Gibson maintains that she still plans to donate a portion of her business profits as promised, but right now, her accountants are still figuring out her finances.
Although prosecutors decided not to charge Gibson, she could face civil action. Both Apple and Penguin Publishing have canceled their business partnerships with Gibson.
7 Michelle Gopaul
In December 2010, Sejal and Viral Patel of Toronto saw an ad on Craigslist that seemed too good to be true. The ad claimed that a Bollywood producer was seeking an Indian baby girl for an upcoming production and was paying $15,000 for a one-day shoot. Though the couple was skeptical, after much urging from a friend, they responded to the ad.
After several email exchanges with a talent scout who called herself “Dianne Miller,” Mr. Patel agreed to meet. He brought his one-month-old daughter, Roma, to Miller’s office, which was located in a local strip mall. Miller gave Mr. Patal some forms to fill out, and while he was completing them, she asked to hold the baby. With the newborn in her arms, Miller stepped through the door into an adjoining room. Mr. Patel waited for several minutes but grew increasingly worried when Miller did not return. He entered the room and discovered that both Miller and his baby were gone. Realizing he had been duped and his baby had been kidnapped, he contacted police.
Kidnapping the baby was just one of many steps for Miller, who needed the little girl to complete the final stage of her elaborate con. Miller’s real name was Michelle Gopaul. Gopaul was a 25-year-old model from New York who moved to Toronto to be with her boyfriend. The relationship didn’t work out, and in an attempt to win her former boyfriend back, Gopaul told him that she was pregnant.
She even posted pregnancy updates on Facebook, often including photos. After stealing baby Roma, Gopaul took a taxi to her former boyfriend’s home in nearby Scarborough, where she presented the baby as his. He and his sisters were skeptical of her story, and they called the police.
Gopaul was arrested and charged with abduction of a person under the age of 14. She was sentenced to two and half years in prison. Roma was safely returned to her parents.
6 Joanna Leigh
On April 15, 2013, Boston was shaken to its core when two brothers, 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev, bombed the world-famous Boston Marathon. The horrific terrorist bombing left three dead and more than 260 injured. The people of Boston, choosing triumph over tragedy, rose up in the face of adversity and made “Boston Strong” their rallying call. By order of the governor, the Boston One Fund was created to help victims’ families and survivors. One of those survivors was Joanna Leigh.
Leigh was watching a friend run at the marathon when she heard the first explosion. Being trained in emergency response, she made her way toward the explosion to help. Suddenly, a second bomb detonated only 3 meters (10 ft) from Leigh. She was sent flying against a barricade and knocked unconscious. When she came to, she assisted the injured, helping them into ambulances. She somehow managed to walk home, where she stayed for the next several days, feeling ill. She finally went to a doctor almost two weeks after after the bombing and was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury.
Claiming traumatic brain injury, hearing loss, vision loss, and PTSD, Leigh was able to get $8,000 from the Boston One Fund, over $9,000 from a GoFundMe page, almost $2,000 from a school fundraiser, and received an additional $18,000 in cash and services, including cosmetic work. However, this wasn’t enough money for Leigh, so she began an aggressive campaign against the Boston One Fund, seeking a seven-figure payout. Her greed would be her undoing, as questions about her injuries were now being raised. After an investigation, it was revealed that while Leigh was at the marathon, she was not injured.
Leigh was arrested and pleaded guilty to five counts of larceny over $250 by false pretenses and one count of making a false claim to a government agency. She was sentenced to one year in prison (which was switched to three years of probation) and 300 hours of community service. She was also ordered to pay full restitution and to undergo a mental health evaluation.
5 Elizabeth Coast
In 2007, 17-year-old Hampton, Virginia, resident Elizabeth Coast was caught viewing pornographic material on her computer by her parents. They became angry and demanded an explanation. Fearing that she was about to be grounded, Coast told her parents that she was viewing the material because she had been sexually assaulted. Her parents began to press her for details. Thinking there was no way out, she concocted an elaborate tale.
Coast told her parents the incident occurred when she was 10 years old. She stated that while visiting her grandmother, she was outside playing with the boy who lived across the street, 14-year-old Johnathan Montgomery, when he molested her. Coast’s parents contacted police, who interviewed Elizabeth. After hearing her story, police launched an investigation into the allegation.
Montgomery was arrested. Although there was no physical evidence Elizabeth’s testimony was enough to convict him of aggravated sexual battery, forcible sodomy, and sexual penetration with an object. He was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison.
In 2012, Elizabeth, who now worked for the Hampton police department, came forward to recant her story, admitting that she’d made the whole thing up. She was sentenced to five years in prison for perjury and ordered to pay $90,000 in restitution. Her sentence was reduced to two months. Montgomery was released from prison. On December 20, 2013, he was given a certificate of innocence.
4 Linda Taylor
In 1976, Ronald Reagan was on the presidential campaign trail for the Republican Party. His main platform was that the welfare system was broken and he was the man to fix it. In several of his speeches, he told the story of an unnamed woman from Chicago who defrauded the government out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, referring to her as the “Welfare Queen.” Though many thought it was nothing more than an anecdote, the woman was real, and her deception was even greater than Reagan claimed.
Martha Miller was born in 1926 and often went by the name “Linda Taylor.” Using 80 different aliases, 30 addresses, and 15 different phone numbers, Taylor was able to collect several social security checks for 28 years, receive welfare checks for 27 nonexistent children, and receive benefits for three dead husbands.
She was finally caught when she reported $14,000 worth of cash, furs, and jewelry missing from her apartment. The lead investigator didn’t recognize her name or face, but her mannerisms and robbery story seemed familiar. He was able to sneak a glass out of her home and send it for fingerprint testing. It was revealed the fingerprints belonged to the same woman who, under a different name, was charged with filing a false burglary report. He decided to investigate further and discovered the depth of Taylor’s fraud. In 1977, Taylor was arrested and charged with 31 counts of fraud. She was found guilty and sentenced to 2–6 years in prison.
Although Taylor died in 2002, her story didn’t end there. During her trial for welfare fraud, Taylor was also under investigation for kidnapping. In 1964, baby Paul Fronczak was abducted from a hospital by a woman posing as a nurse. Police received many tips that Taylor was involved, but they weren’t able to make a case against her. In 2014, Taylor’s son, Johnnie Harbaugh, came forward with new evidence against his mother, prompting the FBI to once again look at Taylor.
3 Jorge Dominguez
From a young age, we’re taught to trust and respect police officers. In general, when we are given an order or see their flashing lights on the highway indicating that we are to pull over, we comply without thinking twice. Unfortunately, some predators take advantage of this blind trust to prey on their victims.
On September 26, 2005, 53-year-old Luz Heredia of Melrose Park, Illinois, was waiting for her coworkers to pick her up for work. As they pulled up, Heredia was approached by a man. She got in the car before he was able to reach her. The man flashed a badge and tried to open the passenger side door and remove Heredia from the vehicle. Realizing that something wasn’t right, she told the driver to drive away.
The man got in his truck and followed them. When he flashed his high beams, the driver pulled over. Once again, the man approached the vehicle and flashed his badge, ordering the occupants to show him identification. He told Heredia to come with him and pulled her from the vehicle. When he took off with Heredia in his truck, her coworkers called 911.
Heredia was found less than two hours later. She was partially clothed and had been viciously beaten. She was taken to hospital but died from her injuries a few days later. Police were able to link the murder to 32-year-old Jorge Dominguez. A search of his vehicle revealed a badge as well as bloody women’s pants and underwear. In addition, Heredia’s pocketbook was located in his home.
Dominguez pleaded guilty to murder, robbery, and aggravated kidnapping. He was sentenced to 47 years in prison.
2 Linsey Cotton
Linsey Cotton’s tangled web of deception was extremely complex. It all began in 2012, when she created a fake profile on an online dating site, pretending to be a woman named “Stephanie.” She began an Internet relationship with 33-year-old Michael McDonough, exchanging thousands of messages with him.
Over a one-year period, Cotton spun an elaborate tale that Stephanie had fallen ill and had to undergo trial medical treatment that required confidentiality agreements. Michael would be able to see Stephanie if he agreed to maintain confidentiality and to get engaged to her. She further stated that she needed money to help with care and support. Cotton also dragged Michael’s 52-year-old mother, Margaret, and 23-year-old sister, Nicola, into the con by contacting them, pretending to be either Stephanie or someone who knew her. The McDonough family felt sympathy for Stephanie and decided to help the sick young woman. In total, they gave Cotton £6,685 in money and gifts, including an engagement ring.
The con took an even more dramatic twist when Cotton threatened Margaret and Nicola, saying that they had broken the confidentiality agreements. Cotton stated that unless they gave her money, she would go to the authorities. Cotton then began a campaign of threats and harassmentagainst the women. On May 10, 2013, Margaret and Nicola were found in a hotel room in Greenock, Scotland. They were rushed to hospital with self-inflicted wounds. Both women would later die of their injuries.
Cotton was arrested and pleaded guilty to threats and attempting to extort money. She was sentenced to three years in prison.
1 Gwen Araujo
Dating can be complicated and difficult, especially for transgender people. They are faced with the difficult decision of when to tell their prospective partners that they were born a different sex. If they disclose this information too early, they run the risk of scaring off a potential mate, but if they tell them too late, they might have to face the wrath of someone who feels that they were deceived. This is exactly what happened to Gwen Araujo.
Newark, California, resident Gwen Araujo was born Edward Araujo. Growing up, she identified as being female. After many discussions and with the support of her mother, she changed her name to Gwen, began hormone treatments, and started living as a female.
In the summer of 2002, Gwen started started hanging out with a new group of friends, which included Michael Magidson, Jose Merel, Jason Cazares, and Jaron Nabors. With the exception of Cazares, Gwen had sexual encounters with each of the men, not disclosing that she was born male. Gwen took care to hide the fact that she had a penis, only engaging in anal and oral sex. However, the men began to have suspicions about Gwen’s gender.
In October 2002, Gwen was invited to a party at Merel’s home. At the party, the group began to discuss Gwen’s gender. She was taken to the bathroom and forced to prove that she was female. When the men found out that Gwen was actually born a man, they flew into a rage. Gwen was hit with objects, including cans and a frying pan, savagely beaten, and strangled. Finally, her “friends” smashed her head in with a shovel. Her body was dumped in a shallow grave.
The men were arrested and charged with first-degree murder and committing a hate crime. Cazares, age 26, and Nabors, age 22, agreed to plea deals and were sentenced to 6 and 11 years in prison, respectively. Magidson, 25, and Merel, 26, were found guilty of second-degree murder. However, both men were found not guilty of committing a hate crime. They were sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
10 People Who Conducted Devastating Deceptions