RICHMOND, Va. — After a Southwest Virginia woman tricked a California couple into thinking she was pregnant, legislation designed to close a loophole will head to Gov. Ralph Northam's (D) desk.
Sen. Ben Chafin introduced Senate Bill 1003 this session in the Virginia General Assembly. The bill is inspired by a 2019 case involving an adoption hoax prosecuted by the office of Wise County Commonwealth’s Attorney Chuck Slemp.
It would close a loophole in current Virginia law that allows an individual to maliciously use the internet to perpetrate costly and potentially devastating adoption fraud on unsuspecting victims. The bill passed the Virginia Senate 38-2 on February 11 and passed the House of Delegates 86-10 on March 5.
Chafin said he hoped the bill would help people like Matt and Laura Trayte, the California couple.
“I am proud to sponsor this legislation to close the loophole that currently exists in Virginia law," Chafin said. "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.”
The Traytes said they were promised they could adopt a newborn girl from Elizabeth Jones, who resided in Scott County, Virginia.
“We’ve spent and put every penny into it,” said Laura Trayte. “Emotionally and financially invested completely to complete our family.”
Jones admitted to 10News' affiliate station News 5 in an interview that she faked being pregnant and that she is sorry for what she did.
"If I could take it back... I absolutely would," Jones said.
“Jones was convicted in June 2019 of obtaining money by false pretenses because the Traytes bought meals and gifts for her," Commonwealth's Attorney Chuck Slemp explained. "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.”
Jones pleaded guilty to eight counts of obtaining money by false pretenses, obstruction of justice, and violation of probation. She was sentenced to 8 years in prison and must serve 85 percent of that sentence.
According to Slemp, "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."
“We desperately need laws that will help protect our citizens from predators that are waiting to take advantage of vulnerable people online," Matt Trayte said. "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.”
“The day we waited in the hospital for the baby that never existed could have easily broken us, and understandably so," Laura Trayte said. "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.”