Folks Who Fooled Everybody
(“Family Interrupted,” Forensic Files)
Back when I was a teenager, a charming woman named Sylvia started attending services at the local Jewish Community Center my family belonged to. At that time, our hometown had a general population of about 18,000, which included around 50 Jewish residents.
So, naturally, everyone was delighted when a new person materialized at the center. I was away at school and only saw Sylvia once, while I was home on vacation. She was smiling and wishing everyone a nice night at the end of some Friday evening services. “It’s amazing how upbeat she can be,” I overheard my mother saying. “She’s in such a heart-breaking situation.”
It turned out Sylvia had told members of the congregation that she was dying of cancer and could no longer work. In addition to having financial problems, she was worried about her 11-year-old son, Noah.
A story they couldn’t refuse. Sylvia planned to have a non-Jewish relative raise Noah and his sister after she died, she said, but there was a problem. “Noah still wants to be Jewish after Sylvia’s gone,” my mother related. “Sylvia doesn’t know what to do.” Mom looked heartsick whenever she talked about her.
Sylvia’s family couldn’t help her financially, although she had a brother who was building a coffin for her, Sylvia let it be known.
The lady knew how to tell a good story, and soon members of the center convened a meeting at which each person donated $100 for her. One member paid for a cleaning woman to do some work at Sylvia’s place.
The cleaning woman reported back that Sylvia’s house was filthy and in disarray. There were pieces of clothing stuck to the floor.
Lone doubter. Of course, people figured Sylvia was too ill to keep up with her cleaning — despite that she herself appeared well-groomed and healthful. (The time I met her she looked like someone you’d see hosting a morning coffee-and-news TV show.)
One member of the congregation didn’t buy any of Sylvia’s story. “She’s full of crap,” said Mr. Cohen, a local junkyard owner. But Mr. Cohen had always been a bit callous. No one entertained his theory.
He didn’t have to wait long to be proven right. A radiologist who belonged to the congregation bumped into Sylvia’s doctor and started commenting on what a shame it was that this poor mother of two was dying.
Apparently, the other doctor didn’t take patient-physician confidentiality too seriously because he immediately said, “What are you talking about?” — and then gave the real story of Sylvia’s health problem. I forget the details, but basically it was something benign that didn’t require any treatment. She wasn’t dying or even sick.
Multiple cons. Once the truth about Sylvia hit the local word-of-mouth communication waves, she left town with her kids and a hastily acquired boyfriend. No one ever saw her again. This was in pre-Internet days, so there was no easy way to track her down or warn others about her.
But people didn’t want to find her. They weren’t mad but rather in sad shock, especially as more of the truth began leaking out. It turned out she’d been telling a sob story to the local Mennonite community as well. She’d dumped off Noah and her daughter, who was just a toddler, on a sympathetic Mennonite family for a few weeks.
In additional to that, she’d conned at least one other church in town, probably with the same story but with the denomination blanks filled in differently.
And the authorities were looking for Sylvia on charges of child abuse and welfare fraud.
The whole Sylvia saga, from the time she showed up as a stranger to the day she disappeared, unfolded over just a few months. But the sting of the betrayal stayed with my mother for years. About a decade after it all happened, she wrote an essay about it as a way to reconcile her charitable nature with the fact that there are convincing con people out there.
So what does a minor case of fraud like this one have to do with Forensic Files?
I’m curious about how victims of deadly deceptions contend with their sense of betrayal.
Homicides. A number of episodes — two I can think of off hand, “A Welcome Intrusion” and “Horse Play” — featured interviews with parents whose daughters had been murdered by their sons-in law. In both cases, the parents had loved their sons-in-law and considered them assets to the family.
How did they process that kind of betrayal? And what about parents who have survived attempted murders by their own children? “Family Ties” tells the story of Christopher Porco, who attacked both his parents with an ax in a bid to inherit their wealth. He succeeded in killing his father, but his mother survived.
Bart Whitaker, the subject of “Family Interrupted,” arranged for a friend to gun down his mother, father, and brother in hopes of making himself a sole heir. Kent Whitaker, Bart’s father, recovered from the shooting and lived to see Bart convicted of double homicide.
Professional weighs in. How can people survive psychologically, with the knowledge that their own kids wanted them dead?
I turned to Matt Barnhill for some insight. Barnhill appeared on the “Family Interrupted” episode of Forensic Files to discuss the aftermath of the Whitaker murders. He’s a pastor who established Barnhill & Associates Counseling, a Texas firm that offers therapy and life-coaching. He agreed to answer some questions about helping people contend with betrayal.
But this blog post is already a bit long, so the Q&A with Matt Barnhill will appear next week.
Until then, cheers. — RR