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Sample Q's & A's

How did you get mixed up with a fake charity?

I've always loved Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings, so I was really excited when the movies came out. I started checking out LOTR websites, and one day, lo and behold, there was an announcement that a new charity, Bit of Earth, had formed right near my house. They wanted to build gardens for communities and name them after Tolkien characters, and they were looking for volunteers. Hoo, doggie! Gardening, Tolkien, charity work--I was all over that!

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When did you first realize that something was wrong here?

That's a really hard question, because I knew things were strange from the first time I talked on the phone to these guys, but I didn't suspect anything illegal. I got a call from one of the directors, Jordan Wood, whose online name was "Mr. Frodo." Naturally, I expected this person to be a guy, but the voice on the phone sounded like a woman. So that was an "It's Pat!" moment; you know "Jordan" could be a male or female name, and an online name can be anything. It's kind of an embarassing thing to ask someone, "Hey, by the way, are you a guy or a girl?" I just kinda let it go at the time. Of course, this was only the first of many, many confusing issues that were going to come up, but by letting this one slide, I was pretty much setting the pattern for the rest to come.

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Did Jordan really fool people into thinking she was a man?

When I actually met Jordan at the garden project, we shook hands and I absolutely knew this was not a man; the bones in the hand and wrist were all wrong. By then I'd talked to both directors, Jordan and Abbey, and it was clear that they both wanted to represent Jordan as a male. I figured they were lesbians, but because of whatever reason, they didn't want to be "out" in public--maybe a family thing, or they were worried that their new charity might lose donors or volunteers if word got out that it was run by lesbians...whatever. There are a lot of possible reasons for wanting to stay closeted. I thought the best thing was just to respect their decision and play along.

Most people either thought Jordan was a woman trying to pass as male, or an underage boy who was trying to pass as an adult. Some people never could tell what Jordan was; they just sort of looked on and wondered silently. The bottom line, though, was that none of us cared. We liked the kids and wanted to be a part of this neat new charity, and it didn't matter if they had this little weirdness going on. Everyone figured they'd probably hear the "real story" eventually. And no one's going to shout out that the Emperor's got no, uh, clothes, you know?

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Is it possible that Abbey and Jordan really meant well but just got in over their heads?

Kinda like that time Marsha Brady promised everyone that Davey Jones would come to the Prom? You know, I wish I could believe that. I'd like that to be the case. The trouble is, once you start learning about the forged documents, the fake Social Security card, the money they raised specifically for a real charity that never got donated, the fake suicide letter that one of them sent home, to throw her parents off her trail...All that starts to add up to convince you that these guys were acting deliberately all along.

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How did they flimflam celebrities into their scheme?

Their first target was Sean Astin, who played "Sam Gamgee" in Lord of the Rings. Sean sits on the President's Council on Service and Civic Participation. He's well-known among his fans as a champion for reading and literacy. His character, Sam, is a devoted gardener who loves the land; something that's left out of the movie is that Sam learns to read and write so that he can help preserve the stories of the Frodo and the One Ring, and Hobbits in general.

Abbey and Jordan took all this and cooked up something that would be irresistable to Sean: Building a Children's Reading Garden. It has all the elements: volunteering, community enrichment, literacy promotion...AND it brings in his movie character very nicely with the gardening. This was in 2003, before the final movie of the LOTR trilogy, so it was an absolutely perfect PR opportunity to promote his movie role too. Then, the piece de resistance to seal the deal: they approached Sean on the first anniversary of 9/11, at the White House, just after Sean delivered a speech about volunteering as part of the Official 9/11 ceremonies. Talk about setting up for the spike! How could the guy possibly say "No" under those circumstances?

Once they got their hooks into Sean, the rest were relatively easy--all they had to do was use his name and the Suspicion Meter would drop well into the green. And of course, it worked the same way on regular people too. I always assumed that Sean's "people" must have checked this group out and decided they were legit--and Abbey and Jordan were more than happy to let everyone believe that. Even when things started to get really weird, the fact that they still had Sean's visible support was enough to convince me that their explanations and excuses must be true. Because if all the weirdness they were explaining away was REAL, why, Sean Astin's people would surely have found out, right?

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Why aren't these women in jail?

Heh, I'd kinda like to know that myself. The sheriff started checking out Jordan months before any of us caught on to the scam. She had sent a suicide letter to her parents, who live on the other side of the country. She really laid it on thick, telling them she'd been caught stealing money from her friends, so they'd all abandoned her, she was selling drugs, blah blah blah. Really made it sound like she was desperate enough to kill herself. She just wanted them to stop calling her, but of course, her folks were terrified! Her dad flew out to Oregon and soon the police were treating it as a missing person case. But in the process of tracking her down, the detective discovered that she was trying to adopt a new identity--had a fake driver's license, applied for a fake Social Security card, that sort of thing.

By the time the detective tracked her down, he'd compiled a 200-page report on "Jordan," whose real name is Amy Player. He wrote her up on charges of identity theft. Then the whole charity fraud thing exploded and I was begging him to add on charges of embezzling and so forth in regard to that. But that was when we hit a major hurdle: the District Attorney didn't want to prosecute her. To this day I don't know why. I went to his office in a fury and said, "How can you let this girl off the hook?" He told me that, because she'd moved to Los Angeles by then, it wasn't worth his time and effort to put her on trial--she was Someone Else's Problem now. Let LA spend the money on putting her in jail.

Fortunately, the Attorney General's office was not quite so generous to criminals. The State of Oregon fined both Amy and Abbey for operating a fake charity and made them sign a document stating that they'd never do charity work in Oregon again, even for a real charity. That was nice. Sure, the fine was peanuts compared to what they stole, but at least they didn't get off scott free. And the criminal charges against Amy are still lurking somewhere in a file cabinet at the DA's office; he assured me that if she ever returns to Marion County and does some more crimes, he can reactivate them and tack them on to any future charges. With all that looming in the background, I doubt they'll be back to Oregon any time soon.

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Where are they now?

They moved to Los Angeles and have settled down in Hollywood, where they pose on the sidewalk in costumes and hit up tourists to take their picture for "tips." For a long time they were living at 1730 N. La Brea Avenue in Hollywood. I know this because they used my social security number on the credit check to get the place. It showed up on my credit report. I guess they've just had too many evictions to use their own identities anymore.

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Have they tried any more scams?

Of course! They virtually got away with the first one, why should they stop? For a while there, Amy was dressing as Harry Potter and telling people that if they took her picture, the tip would go to charity. But fortunately, a gal who worked at Warner Brothers had been following my story online, and she went down to the Legal department and filled them in on the situation. They went out to the Chinese Theater and demanded that Amy stop dressing as their copyrighted character, so that pinched off that little scam.

I've been told that their latest gig is selling fake "Official Buttons" to the other costumed characters on Hollywood Boulevard. The guy who dresses as Elmo got arrested for aggressive panhandling, which of course scared all the costumed characters--no one wanted to be arrested next. So of course Abbey and Amy capitalized on that fear and started offering these buttons, saying they were endorsed by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce and the LAPD officer in charge of that section of Hollywood. I called the Chamber of Commerce just to see what they had to say; the guy stated, and I quote, "That is a flat out lie." The Chamber has nothing to do with the costumed Characters. I haven't been able to reach the police officer yet, but I already have a good guess as to what he's going to say...

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What made you decide to write this book?

I toyed with the idea for a long time. The whole unraveling of the scandal took place over the Internet. Bit of Earth was mainly a website-based organization--it had members all over the world and we communicated through the Message Board on the website. A lot of people never met Abbey or Amy, they just got involved online and did whatever they could--they helped organize events, send faxes, make travel arrangements, or of course the old standby of just sending in money. When the scam fell apart, we started discussing it on that same message board. That led to more and more people coming forward and saying "You know, they told me this..." or "I was asked to do that and could never figure out why..." These were just little tricks and sleight of hand, doled out very carefully so that no one person would have enough information to recognize the scam.

As word started spreading on the Internet of this big scandal, people began to reappear from Bit of Earth's past, with even worse stories. It turned out that Abbey and Amy watched that message board like hawks, and whenever someone posted a message that came too close to the truth, they would delete it and ban that person from leaving more messages. They'd usually make a few remarks to discredit that person too, just in case anyone got in touch with them through another means. But, Abbey and Amy were too ignorant to operate the technical aspects of their website, and when the scandal broke, their tech guru turned the tables and banned THEM from the message board. Suddenly everyone who'd been screwed by Bit of Earth could come back and share their stories.

Folks described how they'd been blamed for all sorts of failures, or discovered some incriminating bit of info, only to be banned from telling the rest of the group. Abbey and Amy also banned people who had helped Bit of Earth or really come through for them--just so they could take credit for the job well done! They had so many different ways to use people and toss them aside! And all of these people were writing lengthy, detailed messages on the website...it was just waiting for someone to come along and organize it all into a book.

When I found out about Amy dressing up as Harry Potter and asking people to take a photo "for charity," I had a fit. You have to understand, these girls were such successful liars, they managed to get two actors from the LOTR movies stranded in Los Angeles, who ended up sleeping on their floor! And now here they were, using their exact same stunts and lies on Harry Potter fans...there was no way I was going to sit by and let them hornswaggle those actors into sleeping on their floor! I mean, those are children, for Pete's sake! I learned about the Harry Potter costume in June, resolved to write the book in July, and it was in stores by October. If the Literary Police had been around, I would have got a speeding ticket. But because so much of the story was already written down, in the words of the actual victims, I was able to pull it all together.

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Do you feel foolish about falling for the scam?

I did at first--I think everyone did. There's always that old "blame the victim" syndrome--and believe me, plenty of people came out of the woodwork to tell us how stupid we all were, falling for such an "obvious" scheme. Oh, Yeah, obviously we should have immediately realized that this was all a big scam. I mean, one of the most famous actors in the world was an active member of Bit of Earth, and Abbey stated publicly that they were raising money for "RIF," a very well-known national charity. Gee, it's obvious they were scammers...NOT!

You have to understand that these girls should clunk when they sit down, they have such brass balls. RIF has been around forever, they give out books in schools all over the country--people know that name and trust it. And everyone knows that you "can't" say you're raising money for charity without actually donating it--why that's against the Law! These girls had RIF pasted all over their website; Abbey stood beside Sean Astin on stage in the biggest theater in Portland, and said we'd all raised $3,000 for RIF that night. No one in the room even suspected they would pocket that money after such huge public claims that they were giving it to RIF. They could go to jail for that! Or at least you'd think so...

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What have the celebrities had to say about all this?

There's the question everyone wants to hear about! Well, if you want the answer, you'll have to book me for an interview!
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What are you doing with the money the book brings in?

My plan from the beginning was to use the books' proceeds to pay back the victims of the fraud. Some people lost thousands of dollars, others lost hundreds; I printed enough books that I would be able to pay off the publishing costs, reimburse everybody that got shafted. Unfortunately, I had no idea how much I'd have to pay to market the book, and I didn't know anything about the discounts you have to give to bookstores and such...as it is, I'll be lucky if I can get it to pay for itself. But if it catches on enough to warrent a second printing, I'll make sure I don't make the same mistakes!

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