(WXYZ) — It was a nationwide adoption fraud scheme first exposed by the 7 Investigators. Nearly a year has passed since a federal judge sentenced Tara Lynn Lee to 10 years in prison. So why do her victims say they feel like she’s still taunting them from behind bars?
Lee’s victims describe her as a monster who preyed on their dreams of having a child. The feds say Lee took in $2.1 million as part of a nationwide adoption fraud scheme that impacted 160 couples in 24 states. They say Lee spent some of that money on luxury items and jewelry. As part of her guilty plea, Lee admitted she made up fake birth moms and told adoptive couples that babies had died when they never existed.
“It’s a pain I’ve never felt before,” said Cortney Edmond about her experience with Lee.
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Lee pleaded guilty to 2 counts of wire fraud. In February of 2020, U.S. District Court Judge Bernard Friedman sentenced Lee to 10 years in prison – the most he could give her under her plea deal.
He also told the 39-year-old mother from New Haven that while she was locked up she had to record herself reading 138 pages of letters from her victims.
“It was unusual. I’d never seen anything like that before. But I think the judge wanted to send a message of comfort to the victims,” said U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider in an interview conducted before he left office.
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Schneider said that requirement of her sentence was important to the federal prosecutors and agents on the case because it meant so much to the families hurt by Lee.
“The victims are still in pain over this,” said Schneider.
Lee was supposed to have those recordings done by June. When the 7 Investigators checked last spring, a spokesman for the court said they were led to believe it was underway.
But when we asked about the recordings again in November and December of 2020, it became clear the Bureau of Prisons had not followed through on the judge’s order.
7 Investigator Heather Catallo recently interviewed three couples who say they were victims of Lee, and none of them knew that she had not completed the recordings.
“It’s kind of sickening and disappointing. She basically already got a slap on the wrist, and the fact that it’s not being enforced-- her sentence-- is just unacceptable,” said Teresa Matheny.
“It’s just very typical ‘her,’ and she doesn’t have accountability. Now she’s not being held accountable in prison, and they’re not following through with any of these rules or things they set for her,” said Adam Belz-Thomas.
“The trauma is still very real,” said Cortney Edmond. “We need that closure. And I feel like it’s like a wound that just keeps getting ripped open. And nothing’s being done, we can’t end this, we can’t put it behind us.”
Bureau of Prisons officials blamed the delay on the COVID-19 outbreak, a staff shortage and other problems at the prison in Alabama where Lee is now locked up.
On January 20, 2021, U.S. District Court Public Information Officer David Ashenfelter released this statement to the 7 Investigators:
“After a considerable delay, much of it caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, officials at a federal prison in Aliceville, Ala., will require Tara Lynn Lee to begin fulfilling the additional terms of her 10-year sentence for defrauding victims in a $1-million adoption scheme.
When he sentenced the New Haven woman to prison in February 2020, U.S District Judge Bernard Friedman ordered Lee to read into a tape recorder letters the Court had received from her victims. He imposed the requirement to ensure Lee understood the magnitude of her crime and how it affected her victims.
U.S. probation officials in Detroit discovered last month that there was a delay in carrying out the additional term of imprisonment order by the Federal Correctional Institution in Aliceville because of the COVID-19 outbreak, staff shortage and other problems.
Probation officials said they were assured this week that Lee would start fulfilling the terms of Judge Friedman’s order and that he would receive periodic updates about her progress.”
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As of February 9, 2021, we confirmed that the court had finally received Lee’s recordings and the probation department will start reviewing them to make sure they comply with the judgment.
But the letter recording delay isn’t the only thing upsetting the victims.
“It’s like she’s still getting away with it,” said Kyle Belz-Thomas. “She was just continuing her manipulation even though she’s sitting behind bars.”
Lee filed a motion to have her sentence vacated, complaining about her lawyers and maintaining her innocence, even though she pleaded guilty.
In that motion, Lee wrote “…no jury of her peers would have found her guilty. The alleged victims in this case were not taken advantage of by Lee.”
“The audacity of it was a pretty big slap in the face,” said Curtis Edmond. He and his wife Cortney lost thousands of dollars during two failed adoptions with Lee.
These couples also want to know why Lee is in a minimum-security prison when the judge recommended her to be in a maximum-security facility because of what he called her “history of lies, deceit, manipulation.”
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The Bureau of Prisons has the sole authority to choose where they house any prisoner, and they won’t discuss Lee’s placement for security reasons.
“Why are we having to make sure that the punishments are being enforced? Why is that our job? We’ve been traumatized enough,” said Matheny.
The 7 Investigators reached out to attorney Margaret Raben, who has been appointed to represent Lee in her efforts to have her sentence vacated or set aside.
Raben said she has agreed to represent Lee, and has contacted her but has not yet been able to talk to Lee about the case because of some communications limitations with the prison facility. She said Lee has a constitutional right to file the motion.
The 7 Investigators will continue to follow Lee’s attempts to have her sentence set aside.
Right now her release date is in 2027 and she owes the victims $1 million in restitution.