We sat together from Denver to Cheyenne. When she learned of my Project, she said "I've got a story for you" and launched into her tale. It was an odd conversation. Camille would share a segment of her story, then stop abruptly, saying: "God, I shouldn't be telling you this. Please don't write what I'm saying." She would then continue with the story.
Camille is in her mid 60s. Her story began about a year ago. She was coming off a painful divorce to her husband of 20 years. She found solace in a prayer group she joined through Facebook. She knew a handful of members from her local church, but most were Internet strangers claiming an interest in studying scripture. One of the members, a man claiming to be in his mid 60s, showed particular interest in Camille. She took the bait and they struck up a friendship that soon evolved into an online romance.
"We just connected," she said. "Before long we were deeply in love and he asked if I would marry him."
He told Camille he wanted to visit, to propose in person, to hold her in his arms. But he was short on cash. He was a business consultant between assignments and most of his assets were tied up in extensive real estate holdings. Camille wanted to be held so she sent him $500. He never made the trip. A strange illness, vertigo or something she could not remember. He said he could not live without her, that he loved her. She sent more money for more trips that never happened.
"Weren't you suspicious," I asked.
A long pause and then: "I should have been, but we were in love. Well, I was in love and the only thing I cared about was seeing him."
After nearly a year, he broke the news to her that there would be no trip, no wedding. Instead of taking her money and slinking away into the night, the man she loved rubbed her face in the indignity of being scammed. He told her he never loved her and that it was only about her money. She tried calling, desperate to convince him that the money didn't matter, to convince herself that the love was real. But her calls were never answered.
Shortly after the "break up," the FBI contacted Camille. Others in the prayer group had been left at the alter, their life savings tapped, hearts broken. Some of the victims were friends she'd known for years. In a strange way, she found solace in knowing she hadn't given away as much as others. "My one friend sent him over $25,000," she said.
He called Camille one more time to tell her he knew about the investigation and to threaten her life if she continued talking to the FBI. He said he knew everything about her, where she lived, where she shopped. And that he would track her down if she tried to run. But she ran anyway. She had to run.
Her story complete, she turned to look out the window, to watch the Wyoming plains speed by on her way to a destination I promised not to share. As the bus pulled into the Cheyenne station, she turned back to me and said: "Thank you for listening to my story. It felt good to get it off my chest." I told her I was honored to listen and reassured her that her identity and travel plans would not be revealed.
As I stood up, she grabbed my arm and smiled. "I'm thinking I probably shouldn't pick up guys on Facebook anymore," she said. I got off the bus thinking that Camille was going to be OK, no matter her final destination.