By Steve Schmadeke, Tribune reporter
8:26 p.m. CDT, April 25, 2011
When the Colorado volunteer firefighter she loved died unexpectedly of liver cancer in 2006, Paula Bonhomme tenderly re-examined his gifts to her: a rubber duck with a firefighter hat, a lock of his hair, a flattened quarter he'd stuck on the train tracks as a kid.
Most sentimental of all was the chain-sawed slab of wood Jesse Jubilee James had carved their initials into after helping extinguish a forest fire. His carving knife, he'd noted in black marker on the back, had first been "heated in (the) fire's ash."
The couple's own passion was sparked in flirty exchanges on the message board for HBO's "Deadwood" series in 2005. Soon they were trading emails, letters, postcards, photos and talking almost every day on the phone.
Even though they had never met, Bonhomme left an unhappy marriage in Los Angeles and was set to move to Colorado in 2006 when she learned James was dead. He hadn't told anyone else of his diagnosis, James' sister said, and didn't want a memorial service. "You all have temples within you," he wrote in a last note, "go there if you want to honor me."
About seven months later, Bonhomme's friends uncovered the creepy truth. James, his young son and about 20 other friends and family members Bonhomme had been communicating with for months were characters allegedly created by a woman in Chicago's west suburbs.
The depth of the alleged deception stunned Bonhomme. Janna St. James, who lives in Batavia, had allegedly used a voice-altering device to pose as Jesse James on the phone, coordinated numerous storylines with her characters that advanced in emails and instant messages, and sent and received mail — including children's drawings — from all over the world.
St. James allegedly posed online as a friend of James' and introduced the couple, becoming Bonhomme's confidant.
Bonhomme learned the truth in 2007, ironically the day after watching "Notes on a Scandal" with St. James, who she'd invited to stay at her California home.
Her friends separately confronted St. James, who admitted on video — an excerpt was posted to YouTube — to putting Bonhomme through an "emotional wringer" for "maybe a year and a half."
"Who does that?" Bonhomme said. "When you take it all apart and look at it, oh, you feel like such an idiot. … But when it's unspooled on you tiny bit by tiny bit and mixed in with reality, how do you even know where the lie begins?"
Hoping to find some answers, Bonhomme filed a lawsuit that was eventually moved to Kane County, where in December 2009 a judge dismissed her complaint. But last month, a divided Illinois appeals court reinstated the case, rejecting St. James' argument that she was creating fiction and therefore wasn't liable.
"The concepts of falsity and material fact do not apply in the context of fiction," her attorney had written, "because fiction does not purport to represent reality."
The court allowed Bonhomme's fraudulent misrepresentation claim, which typically applies only in a business situation, to move forward, in part due to St. James' "almost-two-year masquerade of false statements."
Bonhomme says she spent about $10,000 on gifts for James and his family and friends. But she doesn't think St. James was motivated only by money.
Phyllis Perko, who handled St. James' appeals case, said the court's decision was notable for expanding into personal life what before had been a legal remedy for businesses.
"This is a beautiful new tool," said Daliah Saper, Bonhomme's Chicago attorney.
St. James said she could not, on the advice of her attorney, comment on the case.
"I wanted nothing from her. I only wanted to be helpful," St. James wrote to one of Bonhomme's friends shortly after being unmasked, signing off as "Janna, content with who and what I am," according to an email the friend received.
Before the alleged hoax ended, St. James sent Bonhomme a poem saying she was thankful for the romance between her friends and "the residual of that love, from which I now benefit."
Though the scale may be unusual, St. James is hardly the only suburban woman accused in an online hoax. In 2009, Mokena resident Beccah Beushausen attracted thousands of readers to her blog, where she wrote about her unborn child, who had been diagnosed in the womb with a terminal disease.
When the child was miraculously born at home, only to die a few hours later, her site registered nearly a million hits. Then alert readers noticed the baby photographed in white blankets was actually a lifelike doll.
"It was addictive to find out I had a voice that people wanted to hear," Beushausen told the Tribune after her outraged readers exposed her. "I didn't know how to stop. ... One lie led to another."
Bonhomme didn't have an easy relationship with the James character. He was a complicated guy — a rugged firefighter who also liked to knit, a llama rancher with a love of words. He struggled with mental illness and sexual abuse as a child and was hospitalized after trying to commit suicide.
Bonhomme also was in contact with James' supposed family and friends. There was Pavlo Quietao, an Argentine friend; Krista, James' jealous ex-wife; Cakey, a rancher friend; and even Rhys, James' young son, who sent Bonhomme a mermaid drawing, an acorn and a postcard of a stream near his home.
"My daddy really died," the boy, 6, wrote in one email Bonhomme received. "I still cry every day and you will … it's okay to do that. We miss my daddy and your dog."
Her own therapist cried reading a letter James sent explaining his life with bipolar disorder, Bonhomme said.
"He was more shocked than I was almost" when it emerged James didn't exist, she said.
After James' death, Bonhomme grew closer to St. James, who Bonhomme said introduced the couple online. The women traveled to Colorado and New Mexico, where St. James showed her Jesse's old haunts, crying together.
During the trip, Bonhomme said St. James turned over a final letter allegedly found in Jesse James' belongings. It was addressed to "my dearest, sweetest, shortstuff."
"I don't want to go. I don't want to die. I'm not ready. Not now. Not when I'm so close to being whole. So since everybody has always encouraged me to be selfish in my life I chose to die in secret," said the letter on hotel stationery. "I know even if nobody else can understand, you can."
The two women spoke on the phone for the first time not long after James death. Bonhomme said St. James spoke with a phony "British/Australian" accent.
The only hint Bonhomme says St. James left of her motivations was an online description of herself cited in the lawsuit.
It said, in part, "Some who have never had any direct contact with me whatsoever and some who have and think they know me at all like to say I'm the world's best online scammer EVER. Every decade or so I get a taste to pose as a man (and up to 20 other people simultaneously) and reel me in some juicy middle-aged woman flesh for purposes they never quite explain. It sure ain't money or sex."
After looking back at the items St. James allegedly sent her, Bonhomme can more clearly see the deception. The carved piece of pine, she's since discovered, is widely available at craft shops.
Two letters sent months apart from Cakey, James' rancher friend, had dramatically different handwriting — looping cursive in one and rigid print in another.
Bonhomme said she eventually learned St. James, who claimed to be a former reporter who had interviewed a serial killer, was actually a suburban mother who sold handmade pendants online.
After the blinders came off, Bonhomme created a blog to expose what St. James allegedly did.
Her attorney said part of the goal of the litigation is to have St. James sit for a deposition and explain herself.
"I just wish I knew why, you know, I wish I knew why," Bonhomme said