Relatives of a Washington state man who died of cancer in December allege they were the victims of a hoax perpetrated by a Lewis County woman, who they say created fictitious online characters and promised to send the family $250,000 to pay for medical bills.
The family of 19-year-old Thomas Oliver Doty, who died in December, says Marci A. Rose, 35, Harrisville, was behind the deception that allegedly caused them to delay cancer treatment for Mr. Doty and may have contributed to his death.
Attempts by Johnson Newspapers to reach Ms. Rose for comment were unsuccessful.
Ms. Rose's involvement with the Doty family appears to have begun with her obsession with Johnathan Hillstrand, a fisherman featured on Discovery Channel's “Deadliest Catch,” and a Doty family friend.
Using the fictitious name “Jonnica Ellis” and photos harvested from the Facebook page of Tracey Ann Thompson, a fellow Harrisville Central High School graduate, Ms. Rose began an online relationship with the star, the family claims. The two communicated via phone and through emails, text messaging and Twitter.
Mr. Hillstrand in July made a public video plea for donations for the Doty family as they were facing foreclosure after three years of chemotherapy treatment for Thomas. Adding to their financial hardship, the father had just been badly burned in an accident.
The family believes Ms. Rose saw the plea as a means to further escalate her relationship with Mr. Hillstrand.
Mr. Hillstrand is on his boat at sea and could not be reached for comment, a Doty family member said.
Thomas Doty's grandmother, Linda Oliver, said, “The very next day after the video, she sent yellow flowers. I was there the day (Thomas) got them.”
The flowers, she said, came with the promise of $250,000 for her grandson's treatment.
After being told there was no hope for Thomas with conventional cancer treatments, the family had planned holistic treatment, not covered by insurance, in San Diego, Calif.
“We had no reason to believe (the donation) wasn't real,” said Ms. Oliver. Their friend, Mr. Hillstrand, “is a loving, giving and generous man.” Because of his connection with Jonnica Ellis, they didn't question the gift.
“Thomas was elated,” Ms. Oliver said. “We had no idea (Mr. Hillstrand) had been 'catfished,'” a term used to describe a person who pretends to be another person online using fake identities.
Within days, Ms. Rose allegedly created fake documents to prove she had transferred money to the Dotys. They believed the transfer would take a short time to clear and waited.
When the money didn't arrive, “Jonnica Ellis” began a series of excuses, providing false documentation to back them up, the family said.
Fabricated letters from the bank stated the transfer would take seven to 10 business days. The family waited and the excuses continued. “Jonnica Ellis” blamed an incorrect account number on one occasion and an extra letter inadvertently added to a name a different time. She blamed the bank for errors and the San Diego treatment center's inability to accept her payment.
HOOKING A FISHERMAN
At the same time, Ms. Rose was executing an elaborate charade against Mr. Hillstrand, who, according to Ms. Oliver, was developing feelings for the fictional character “Jonnica Ellis.”
On three separate occasions, Mr. Hillstrand went to an airport in Alaska to meet “Jonnica Ellis,” but each time he was given an excuse for her failure to appear. Other meetings between the two were arranged and again, “Jonnica Ellis” was a no-show. Ms. Oliver recalled the excuses as an attempted rape, an asthma attack, involvement in a shooting, a car accident and an accidental overdose. They were outlandish and, by mid- to late August, the family and Mr. Hillstrand doubted the woman's credibility.
Ms. Rose, however, contrived an extensive amount of evidence to make “Jonnica Ellis” appear to be a legitimate person, they say.
She was friends on Facebook with Tracey Ann Thompson, who owns a spa in Watertown, along with other members of the Thompson family. By taking their photos, she created an entire cast of characters for “Jonnica Ellis.” Photos of Ruth Thompson Shear, sister of Tracey, were used to create the character of “Monica Ellis Bishop,” a sister for “Jonnica Ellis.”
To continue her scheme and maintain contact, she reported the suicide of “Monica” to the Doty family and Mr. Hillstrand. She created a fictional brother, “Parish,” to contact them. In online correspondence, “Parish” wrote, “Last Friday I watched my sister Monica shoot herself in front of me and my family is about to bury her.”
An online memorial site was created to collect condolences and a slide show set to music was posted online, containing photos of Mrs. Shear. There were photos of Mrs. Shear's wedding and other family events taken from Facebook to create the tribute.
By September, the Doty family realized it had been misled and Thomas began treatment weeks later than originally planned.
Thomas's story made national news as his family looked for the person who had created “Jonnica Ellis.” Thomas lost his battle with osteosarcoma Dec. 19 and the story again made headlines.
It was because of that publicity that a Florida woman, Amber McIntosh, decided to do some investigating.
The stay-at-home mother embarked on a mission to find “Jonnica Ellis.” She collected information and created a Facebook page, www.facebook.com/WhoIsJonnicaEllis?, asking for help finding the person who tricked the Doty family.
She scoured fan websites of Mr. Hillstrand and examined the fake documents provided to the Dotys.
Mrs. McIntosh uncovered an IP address used for numerous email accounts and online postings. Using different emails, the hoaxer created fake business websites to establish employers for “Jonnica” and “Monica” to make them appear more credible. Mrs. McIntosh's break in connecting Ms. Rose to “Jonnica Ellis” was through one such fake website.
Mrs. McIntosh acquired an email address used to create the site, which then connected her with the real Facebook page of Ms. Rose.
Along with photos of Ms. Rose, the page included a link to a WWNY-TV 7 video containing audio of Ms. Rose speaking.
Mrs. McIntosh compared the audio to a voice mail left to the Doty family. She said she knew it was a match immediately.
It took more research for Mrs. McIntosh to locate the Thompson family as the source of the photos, but she notified them about two weeks ago.
“We were totally blindsided, totally in shock,” said Rosemary Thompson, mother of Tracey and Ruth.
Watching the memorial video for “Monica” was “disturbing,” she said. It was filled with photos of her family and her daughter, Ruth, who is very much alive.
“We're all victims here, but ours is nothing. It's nothing like what's been done to them,” Mrs. Shear said of the Doty family.
Mrs. Thompson said her children were friends of Ms. Rose when they were growing up in Harrisville.
She recalled an event when Ms. Rose visited their home and, without permission, accumulated toll charges on their phone bill.
“We didn't press charges. She was a teenage girl. We thought we'd give her a break,” Mrs. Thompson said.
At ages 20 and 23, Ms. Rose was charged with making unauthorized toll phone calls from other residences.
She pleaded guilty in 1998 to forging a Carthage Area Rescue Squad Auxiliary check stolen from her mother. She has been charged with stealing an ATM debit card from a relative, getting credit in the name of another individual online and purchasing $2,243 of merchandise, and using the name of a Pennsylvania resident to obtain cable and equipment.
One Harrisville business owner, who asked not to be identified, recalled an event that occurred approximately 13 years ago. A man who said he was from a Southern state entered his establishment requesting directions to the home of Marci Rose. The man said he had met Ms. Rose, whom he described as a beautiful blonde woman, over the Internet.
“From the information he was given, he wasn't describing Marci,” the business owner said. The owner told the man, “This person is not who you think she is.”
The man left, but returned to the business a short time later. He reported to an employee at the business that he had located Ms. Rose's residence. When she answered the door, according to the man, he asked her why she misrepresented herself online. She told him to “go away,” shutting and locking the door.
In a phone call from her Florida home, Mrs. McIntosh said she was not surprised to learn of the alleged event from 13 years ago.
She said the Dotys have continued to be harassed online through fan pages of Mr. Hillstrand.
The Dotys suspect Ms. Rose is behind several other fake identities used to make online comments accusing them of receiving the money and attempting to defame the character of “Jonnica Ellis.”
As recently as this past weekend, Ms. Rose, using her own identity, visited the Facebook page set up by Mrs. McIntosh and “liked” a link to a video about personality disorders.
LOOKING FOR LEGAL HELP
Ms. Oliver expressed concern that her grandson's memory would be tarnished by the scandal. The family has shared Thomas's story at www.healthomas.com and is forming a foundation to help cancer patients who have a desire to seek alternative cancer treatments not covered by insurance.
As a result of the use of their images, the Thompsons said, they are considering legal action against Ms. Rose.
State police public information officer Jack L. Keller said he does not believe any laws were broken.
“There's no privacy issues with using photos from Facebook,” he said. “She's not using anything for gain.”
The lack of laws to stop this behavior has motivated the Dotys to do something.
“We are beginning to contact legislators to hopefully get new laws put into place on a national level,” Ms. Oliver said.
They hope that the Thomas Doty Law could prevent social media abuse or, Ms. Oliver said, “at the very least, warn others that are abusing social media, like Marci Rose, to realize there are consequences for their actions.”
“No one has any idea what we went through. Thomas deserves better than this,” Ms. Oliver said. “All of this could have easily been prevented. All of this for the attention of a fisherman?”
She said the recent events surrounding Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, who was duped by a hoaxer into an online relationship with a fictional person who then supposedly died from cancer, cannot be compared.
In this case, she said, a real person died.
“Nothing trumps Thomas's story,” she said.
It was her grandson's dying wish to find the identity of “Jonnica Ellis.”
“He said, 'We can't let Jonnica do this to anyone else.' We vowed to find her.”