Woman Jailed In Pa. Has Trail Of Fake Pregnancies
PITTSBURGH (AP) – Barry and Rebecca Vest are simple folks from rural, Rigby, Idaho – “middle America,” Barry calls it – who can’t conceive children and want more than anything to adopt a second child.
But the Vests also can’t conceive of why a woman contacted them online in December, pretended in text messages to be both a pregnant single mother and the father of the unborn child, and then conned the couple into making a last-minute trip to a western Pennsylvania hospital five days after Christmas for a birth that wasn't.
And what they really don’t understand is why that isn’t a crime.
The Vests believe they are just the latest victims of the woman, known to Pennsylvania authorities as 32-yearold Amy Slanina.
Court records and interviews obtained by The Associated Press show Slanina has a history of pretending to be pregnant and targeting unsuspecting couples like the Vests or, in some cases, female lovers whom Slanina convinces to someday help raise the children. In return, she’s showered with attention, affection and sometimes money, clothes, and shelter.
Slanina is 5-foot-4 and 175 pounds, according to county jail records, where she's awaiting trial on charges of staying at a battered women’s shelter under false pretenses. Those who’ve met Slanina say her build is such that she could believably claim to be six to seven months pregnant.
Others, like the Vests, were convinced she was pregnant sight unseen during fast-moving friendships out through text messages, phone calls and e-mails. Slanina has a gift for being liked, and trusted, quickly.
“She’s the true definition of a predator: She seeks out an adoptive couple and emotionally abuses them,” Barry Vest said in a telephone interview.
“It just is a sick, sick game. And, unfortunately, the law isn’t going to stop her, but hopefully her other bad habits are going to incarcerate her for a while.”
Slanina has been jailed since her arrest Dec. 30 in Kittanning, a borough of roughly 4,200 people some 35 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.
She arrived there Dec. 4, claiming to be the abused wife of a Pittsburgh police officer. Jo Ellen Bowman, executive director of Helping All Victims in Need, called police after weeks of digging showed the abusive patrolman husband simply didn't exist.
But by then, Slanina had used the shelter’s computer and a cell phone to contact the Vests.
Rebecca Vest has had two birth mothers back out of privately arranged adoptions since adopting newborn Owen, who will be 5 in April. Vest thought she knew how to spot red flags. Then Slanina began emailing and texting the couple, using only the first name Aimee, through their adoptive parent profile online.
She asked about such procedures as sending her medical records to their adoption agency.
“She knew exactly what to say,” Rebecca said.
The conversations seemed so promising that the Vests arranged for their adoption caseworker to meet her, but before they could, Slanina “conveniently went into labor,” Rebecca said.
Slanina originally told the Vests she was due Jan. 17. She suddenly texted Dec. 29 to say she was in labor, and even pretended to have the baby's father provide updates. She said his name was Mike.
“Virtually the last test message we get from ‘Mike’ is, ‘She’s in labor, she’s got an epidural, she’s at 7-1/2” ’ centimeters, Barry Vest said.
“When she was ‘Mike,’ it read like a different personality,” Barry Vest said of the messages. For example, Mike’s text messages included misspelled words and different phrases than Aimee’s.
The Vests drove more than three hours to catch a red-eye flight from Salt Lake City to New York, then connect to Pittsburgh. The Vests didn’t panic when they stopped hearing from “Aimee and Mike,” figuring they were busy and anxious about the birth as the Vests were rushing to the hospital in a rented car.
At the hospital, they grew tired of waiting. Finally, Barry Vest went to the nurse’s station to ask where Aimee and Mike were.
“The nurse said, ‘I’m sorry, we’re not having any births here,”‘ Barry Vest said.
Rebecca broke down.
Still, the Vests had no idea they were being scammed. “A birth mother has the right to change her mind,” Barry Vest said.
Then, a Kittanning police officer called to explain what he'd pieced together from Slanina, Bowman and the phones and computers he examined at the women’s shelter.
Slanina was accused of using the phone and computer to defraud the couple, but that charge was dropped. The couple spent about $2,500 on their hastily arranged trip to Pennsylvania, but because Slanina didn’t ask them for money directly, they weren't victimized under the law.
So the officer, Greg Koprivnak, filed a different charge, disorderly conduct resulting in physically offensive conditions. But public defender Chuck Pascal argued at that the Vests weren’t physically offended or otherwise endangered by Slanina’s lie.
The judge dismissed that charge, too.
Slanina remains jailed only on charges of stealing the women’s shelter’s services. Her public defender in that case didn’t return repeated calls trying to get a message to Slanina.
But Pascal contends Slanina didn’t commit a crime against the Vests, even though he doesn’t dispute the police account of what she did.
“She took on a persona and lied and, as a result of that lie – what? – somebody flew here from Idaho? So what?” Pascal said. “If I were to start criminalizing when one person lies and, as a result of that lie, other people take an action, then everybody’s in jail.”
With Slanina, “it was basically to live in some fantasy that she wants to live in,” Koprivnak said. “To be quite honest with you, there’s no statute that deals with this kind of behavior.”
No state laws criminalize a false adoption offer, confirmed Anne Bale, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, which regulates adoptions. In part it’s because Pennsylvania law gives biological mothers up to 30 days to change their mind after birth. That makes it hard for legislators to differentiate between a fraudulent adoption offer and a reluctant birth mother.
As for cases like Slanina’s, where there is no baby, it’s still tricky because lawmakers are loathe to pass laws that apply only in rare situations.