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Online hoax leads to one conclusion: People are weird

Updated: July 3, 2012 10:51AM

People are weird.

But you already knew that.

To realize just how weird, though, you should get a load of this court case just decided by the Illinois Supreme Court.

The case involved a lawsuit brought by a California woman who says she was the victim of an elaborate hoax carried out over two years by a gal in Batavia who courted her online while posing as a male firefighter — and as 20 other fictional characters to help further the ruse.

In the end, the Supreme Court dismissed the case on the basis that the Illinois law against fraudulent misrepresentation does not apply to personal relationships.

Basically, in Illinois you can tell all the lies you want as long as it isn’t in a “commercial or business context,” the court reaffirmed. Good to know, I suppose.

But it’s not the law that makes this case special. It’s the facts.

According to court records, Paula Bonhomme of Los Angeles met defendant Janna St. James of Batavia in April 2005 through online conversations in a chatroom dedicated to the HBO television series “Deadwood.”

“Deadwood,” if you don’t know, was really one of the coolest shows ever, starring Timothy Olyphant and Ian McShane in a re-imagining of the classic western drama.

The television show has little to do with our story except that it makes me worry I have something in common with these two strange women.

St. James had registered as a user of the “Deadwood” chat site under the name “Ms. Magnolia.” A few months later, she registered again, this time posing as a man, Jesse James, with a user name of “Auboy.”

St. James, as Jesse, began chatting and emailing with Bonhomme. St. James also began emailing Bonhomme directly as herself, explaining she knew Jesse and many of the people in his life.

This developed into an online romantic relationship between Bonhomme and the fictional Jesse that lasted until July 2006. They exchanged personal photos, handwritten letters and gifts.

In one of the really bizarro twists, the two spoke regularly on the phone with St. James using a voice-altering device to affect the Jesse persona — which also enabled them to frequently engage in phone sex.

During the same period, St. James kept up her relationship with Bonhomme under her own name and created a universe of other characters involved in Jesse’s life including an ex-wife, son, various friends and family members plus a therapist. These characters kept in touch with Bonhomme through distinct email accounts and also sent photos, mail and packages, some of it from foreign countries.

Bonhomme was so swept up with her new “friends” that she sent them more than $10,000 in gifts, her lawyer Daliah Saper alleged. In September 2005, Bonhomme purchased round-trip tickets to Denver so she could finally meet Jesse in person. But wouldn’t you know it, Jesse canceled.

Shortly afterward, St. James informed Bonhomme that Jesse had attempted suicide. This so upset Bonhomme that she started to see a real therapist — and racked up $5,000 in bills.

Then the following April, Bonhomme and Jesse decided to move in together in Jesse’s Colorado home that July.

Alas, when July came, Bonhomme was informed by Jesse’s “sister” that he had died of liver cancer. St. James sent Bonhomme letters of condolence from several of the fictional characters.

You might have thought that would end things, but no, St. James kept milking it.

She met Bonhomme in Colorado for a tour of Jesse’s favorite spots, then drove to New Mexico to see more Jesse-related sites, where she gave Bonhomme a letter he’d written setting out his dying wishes.

Finally, Bonhomme invited St. James for a visit to her California home, where some of Bonhomme’s real-life friends sniffed out the scam and confronted St. James, causing her to admit just enough to bring Bonhomme to her senses.

One of St. James’ court defenses was that “it should have been obvious” to Bonhomme she was being misled. Maybe so.

There was a con woman character in “Deadwood.” As I recall, they beat her half to death, shot her and fed her to the hogs.

I guess they had yet to fully develop the law of fraudulent misrepresentation. We’ve come so far.

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