It Happened to Me: I Fell In Love With an Internet Con Artist

Yes, it sounds like a movie, but this is a true story.

Sep 15, 2011 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

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The first time I “met” Alex Lee was in 2006, and at the time he was using the name Dimitri.

He and I met in an online art-gallery where we both exhibited our work. After seeing a comment of praise that he left on one of my illustrations, I clicked on his name and was taken to his personal gallery.

Mostly fantasy pieces -- lots of winged, longhaired males in leather pants with pretty-boy faces. The mysteriously unrealistic photo that accompanied his name was hot as hell. I found myself instantly attracted to him.

He kept a journal on the site and as I read a couple of entries, I was saddened to discover that this young man claimed to be suffering from terminal leukemia. He blogged freely about a terribly painful subject: hellacious cancer treatments and his own impending death.

A survivor myself, I was incredibly sensitive to anyone who’d been through this horrendous experience. His openness touched me deeply and I related to his nerve, being that, for most of my life, I was tremendously outgoing. However, living through breast cancer and a mastectomy made me quite apprehensive about sharing the intimate details of my life.

After my operation, the man I was married to made it clear to me that I was no longer a woman to him, and his opinion had quite an effect on me -- it made me want to run and hide from the world. If my own husband could reject me, I certainly didn’t want to take the chance and tell others what I went through.

I so admired Dimitri’s ability to share his story, and wrote to him, asking him about his cancer and how he coped with it all so bravely. He responded rapidly and in way more detail than one might expect from a person who was merely asked about his illness. He explained the unfortunate circumstance of being diagnosed as terminal and immediately proceeded to describe his physical appearance: He was 37 years old, slim, 6’7” tall, long straight black hair, violet eyes, size 16 shoe (odd, but yes, that’s what he wrote), and a face so tragically beautiful that he feared showing himself in a photo because, he claimed, the illness had taken a toll on his looks. Letting anyone see his real face was simply out of the question.

For all that fate dumped on him, it seemed unfair to ask him to do something he clearly didn’t want to do. If I was curious, I would have to trust his self-description, and with this information I was led to believe that I was in the virtual presence of some kind of Gothic Angel. Dimitri, I believed at the time, was someone to be loved -- not badgered for photos. And who on earth wanted to be the person to upset the dying man?

He and I started talking on the phone. We hit it off immediately. He joked about his voice, comparing it to that of a gay, Southern hairdresser. His timbre was only slightly effeminate -- soft, husky, rather pleasant. He charmed me with his style and as I fell deeply in love with the voice on the phone, I questioned nothing.

And with this overwhelming emotional warmth came the constant threat that at any moment, I might lose my newfound love to cancer. He meant so much to me that I vowed to see him through all of it. Even if I were just a voice on the phone -- in the end -- I would be there for him. Such tragic romance -- I’d finally found my true love and now, he was going to die.

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This heightened sense of mortality made all of our conversations together seem magical. With death as an imminent presence, we needed an escape and we found it in our little fantasy phone-heaven -- a place where we could imagine living together forever in healthy happiness. I offered to take care of him, in Kentucky, but he refused to let me, telling me how he didn’t want me to see him in his fragile, dying state.

One year later and still not dead, he felt it was time to introduce me to his other conditions. At this point he admitted to kidney failure, brain tumors, autism and schizophrenia. And, because this wasn’t bad enough, he bombarded me with ceaseless stories of sexual child abuse. He told me that, if it weren’t for me, he’d have killed himself a long time ago.

By year three, he was blogging to a worldwide audience on the subjects of cancer, autism and child abuse. He lost the name Dimitri somewhere down the road, and had now adopted the name, “Valyn.” When his new friends asked for a photo, he would tell them that as a child, his stepdad sold him into porn, and he was deathly afraid of being recognized. This was news to me.

And, because I felt so badly for the poor creature that couldn’t be seen, I created several illustrations to represent what I believe he looked like. In fact, I created the most irresistible vision of beauty, and apparently, many of his online friends, mainly women and gay men, fell just as hard as I did for this fantasy. The beautiful, dying man now had a face -- and I gave it to him.

So, as Valyn, he gathered quite a following. He became the living example of surviving against all odds. And with this troupe of believers, so came the donations. Sympathy was transforming into big business, and even though people wondered why there was no valid bank account to send checks to, they had no problem sending cash.

One girl even sent the sum of her every paycheck to him – for several years straight. Somewhere during year four, people were becoming disillusioned with my love for this man. I still hadn’t met him, nor had I seen a single photo. They were no longer interested in my excuses. Now, they were feeling sorry for me, wondering why I refused to see the truth in what obviously looked like a scam to everyone else.

But, I was still in love with him and I honestly thought he was in love with me. I knew something was wrong with the picture, but I couldn’t admit it to anyone.

He dropped “Valyn” and became Alex Lee. Over time, I began to understand why he changed names so often -- he had to escape the people who questioned him and his reality. And, at one point or another, everyone questioned his reality.

I wasn’t aware of all the other relationships he was entertaining. All I know now is that there were many women, and many gay men involved.

Towards the end of year four, I no longer believed anything. Each week brought new ramblings. His obsession with child rape bordered on psycho and he had become unbearable to listen to. Cancer wasn’t even mentioned anymore. He’d worn that story out and was now entertaining the masses with new ravings. It became obvious that his illness was much more mental than it ever was physical.

I needed reality. Fantasy Time was over. I needed to see this guy’s face. I begged him: Please, let me see what you really look like! After five years, he denied me this request and shut me out of his life, permanently. After all the love I’d given him, all the art I created for him and all the nights I put up with his self-indulgent tantrums -- that was it -- he was done with me. He removed me from all of his friend lists, and blocked me everywhere. No explanation.

Two days later, he was back online with the same “hurt” persona and yet another sympathy-inducing name: One Broken Wing. Blegh.

Two weeks later, I called and he answered. “Why did you do this to me?” I was not crying -- I was fuming.

“If I tell you the truth, you’ll hate me,” he said.

“I hate you already. Tell me the truth.” I was ready.

“I’m a woman,” said the familiar voice.

I paused to take a long, deep breath. “Get on the webcam with me. Now.” And she did.

There was no Alex Lee -- just a short, fat, middle-aged woman, with a husky Southern drawl. A mother of three adult children and a grandmother of two. She’d been admittedly a con artist since the year 2000.

With tears in my eyes I asked, “So, you don’t have cancer?”

“No,” she said.

“And you have two perfectly healthy breasts?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Shame on you.”

No cancer, no brain tumors, no evil dad, no autism, no child abuse, no nothing. Her reason for lying: “I couldn’t stop.”

Well, I stopped it and we never spoke again.

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People always ask me, “How is any of this possible? How were you able to stay in a relationship with someone that you’d never seen or met?” The simple truth is that I wanted it. There was a convenience in having a long-distance love affair -- the number one reason being that I wouldn’t have to show my husband-hated body to another human being. I liked not being seen just as much as “he” did.

But my reasons were up front, and I was always ready to take that chance and make it real. I just couldn’t make myself believe that anyone could be as deceptive as this menace obviously was. And because I was so lonely, so steeped in rejection and isolation -- I sold myself the lie. This con artist smelled my desperation and pounced on it. That’s their job, after all -- to prey on the vulnerable.

I also know that I am not alone, and that there are many others who have gone through similar experiences. We end up feeling pathetic and duped. And then we learn: If you are in a relationship with someone you’ve met online, demand to see his or her real face. And if your gut tells you something is wrong … guess what? You’re right.

Lesson learned.