Michigan adoption fraudster sentenced to 10 years in prison

Michigan

Chrystal Laughlin and husband Jason Laughlin, of Lexington, S.C., speak to reporters outside U.S. District Court in Detroit, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. They were among the victims of Tara Lee, a suburban Detroit woman who was sentenced to 121 months in prison for committing fraud in arranging adoptions. (AP Photo/Ed White)

DETROIT (AP) — A Michigan woman who ripped off dozens of couples seeking to adopt children while spending their money on luxury handbags, jewelry and household upgrades was sentenced Wednesday to more than 10 years in prison, although a judge said a life term would be more appropriate.

“Unfortunately I can’t give it to you. It would be a no-brainer,” U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman said. “You deserve life. You’ve ruined people’s lives for generations.”

Friedman was outraged after listening to hours of emotional remarks by victims who described how Tara Lee promised to help them adopt babies. Instead of making families, however, they were devastated as adoptions failed.

Lee, 36, admitted she committed fraud. In many cases, birth mothers didn’t exist.

Couples were encouraged to get car seats and set up nurseries while waiting for children. One stored donated breast milk in the freezer. Another couple received an ultrasound photo from Lee to keep them informed. But it was all a scam.

“To gain people’s trust, she claimed to be a licensed social worker, doula, adoption agency and therapist. She was none of these things,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Woodward said.

Adam Belz-Thomas said tension with his husband over four failed adoptions with Lee almost led to a divorce.

“Do I hate you?” Belz-Thomas said, turning to Lee in court. “I hate what you have done to my family. … I don’t hate you. I’m disgusted by you.”

Amber Morey said she traveled to Detroit from Arizona to witness her child’s birth but was told by Lee that the birth mother had suddenly disappeared. She said she “bawled for days” and still won’t get rid of a crib.

The judge allowed Morey and others to directly question Lee.

“Did Stacie even exist?” Morey asked, referring to the name of the supposed mother.

“In my heart she did,” Lee replied.

The indictment identified 17 couples cheated by Lee, but prosecutors said there were dozens more across the country. The government said she collected $2.1 million from 2014 through 2018 with her Always Hope Pregnancy Center.

Some adoptions were successful, although couples learned that money that was supposed to help women during their pregnancies never reached them.

Investigators found that Lee had fine tastes. She spent $44,000 on Louis Vuitton wares, $35,000 at Saks Fifth Avenue, $30,000 to improve her suburban Detroit home and thousands more on designer clothes, jewelry and travel.

Lee sobbed as she took her turn and begged the judge for mercy. She acknowledged that she did the “unthinkable.”

“I would swim any ocean, I would climb any mountain to undo the hurt that I did,” Lee said. “I pray every night for the forgiveness of everyone on that indictment and everyone not on that indictment.”

Friedman wasn’t impressed, repeatedly describing Lee as “evil.”

“You ripped their hearts. You put an arrow through their hearts,” he said.

The judge sentenced her to 10 years and one month in prison, the maximum, and added an extraordinary condition. While in prison, Lee must read aloud and record approximately 40 written statements that were submitted by victims ahead of the hearing.

“If you miss even one word, you’re going to start over again,” Friedman said.

Sarah Scott said she drove nine hours to Michigan from Maryland — “we were over the moon” — before being told by Lee that a birth mother suddenly had backed out. She said she returned home with an “empty car seat” and had to console a young son while he cried at night.

Church members hosted a baby shower for Jamie and David Poley of Portage, Wisconsin, who ended up with two failed adoptions after driving to Florida.

“I forgive you,” Jamie Poley told Lee. “I don’t know what happened in your life that led to this.”

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