(WXYZ) — A federal judge called the Macomb mom at the center of a nationwide adoption fraud scheme “disgusting” and “evil” when he sentenced her to prison. Now for the first time, the FBI agents and analysts who locked up Tara Lynn Lee are talking exclusively to 7 Investigator Heather Catallo about their efforts to make sure this never happens again.
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When U.S. District Court Judge Bernard Friedman sentenced Lee to 10 years in prison in February 2020, he said her “evil” crimes would impact multiple generations.
Federal prosecutors say the 40-year-old mother from New Haven left a trail of financial and emotional devastation across 24 states as she took in $2.1 million with her adoption fraud scheme.
The 7 Investigators were the first to expose the scheme in 2018.
Lee acknowledged in her guilty plea that she made up fake birth mothers, told adoptive couples that babies died when they never existed, and double matched couples with the same birth moms.
“I’ve seen this fraud destroy lives, I’ve seen it destroy marriages,” said FBI Special Agent Matthew Sluss.
Sluss and FBI Intelligence Analyst Nishawn Spiller worked the Lee case. They were so impacted by how many people were hurt, they agreed to a rare interview in order raise awareness about adoption fraud.
“When you start to understand the significance of this destruction, and you start to understand this pain, it compels you to want to be able to do something else with it,” said Sluss.
Sluss and Spiller helped create a public service announcement which will be featured on the FBI’s website and shared in the adoption community.
“We want to be able to protect people. The FBI doesn’t just investigate cases, we also try to have a proactive approach as well,” said Spiller.
The FBI’s Complex Financial Crimes Unit in Detroit had never experienced anything like the Lee case. As they raided her house for evidence in late 2018, agents also had to quickly get up to speed on which babies were real and which adoptions had been fabricated.
“This was conduct we needed to stop very quickly,” said Sluss. “But at the same time, there are actual adoptions – actual babies in the mix here.”
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Based on what they learned during the Tara Lee case, the awareness campaign features several suspicious things to watch for.
“If you’re in a situation where the narrative is being controlled and you have very limited access to the birth mother or birth family who’s selected you – that is a red flag,” said Spiller.
Spiller and Sluss say a lack of proof of pregnancy, repeated "failed" adoptions, and frequent demands for more money are other red flags for adoptive couples.
“Adoption fraud is like many other financial crimes, where there is this element of pressure. It’s the pressure to send money now, you’re going to lose out on this opportunity,” said Spiller.
The FBI also wants to make sure pregnant women thinking about placing their babies for adoption are not being exploited.
“Some of these women are literally being conned out of their children,” said Sluss. “So when you start altering the course of a family, and who’s going to parent your child that’s going to ripple generationally.”
“I never want anyone to go through what any of us went through. It was awful,” said Teresa and Mike Matheny, one of many of adoptive couples who lost thousands of dollars to Lee’s scheme and have been fighting for years for change in the system.
“It’s truly amazing,” said Cortney Edmond of the FBI’s adoption fraud awareness campaign. “That’s our whole goal here for all of our families.”
Lee is now trying to get her conviction overturned, alleging she was forced into her plea agreement and that she had ineffective counsel. While lawyers continue to battle that out in court, the agents who lived through the Lee case are calling on everyone involved in the adoption world to speak up if they suspect something is wrong.
“Court representatives – if signatures don’t look good on documents, or attorneys who are there finalizing paperwork, if they overhear conversations that seem like coercion – things of that nature. We want them to reach out to us,” said Spiller.
You can reach the FBI at 1-800-CALL-FBI.
If you have a story for Heather, please email her at email@example.com