By JOE MANDAK, Associated Press
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Barry and Rebecca Vest can't conceive children — or of why a woman pretended to be pregnant and persuaded them to travel from Idaho to Pennsylvania five days after Christmas to adopt a baby that didn't exist.
And what they really don't understand is why that isn't a crime.
The Vests claim to be the latest victims of a woman known to Pennsylvania authorities as 32-year-old Amy Slanina, who, according to court records and interviews, pretends to be pregnant so infertile couples or, in some cases, female friends or lovers will shower her with attention, affection and sometimes money, clothes, food and shelter.
Authorities list Slanina at 5-foot-4 and 175 pounds, and those who've met her said she could pass for being six or seven months' pregnant.
Others, including the Vests, were convinced she was pregnant sight unseen during fast-moving friendships carried out through text messages, phone calls and emails. Barry Vest, 36, and Rebecca, 31, knew her about a week before they flew to Pennsylvania.
"She's the true definition of a predator: She seeks out an adoptive couple and emotionally abuses them," Barry Vest said from his home in Rigby, Idaho.
Slanina has been in jail in Kittanning, some 35 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, since she was arrested in December on theft of services charges for staying at a battered women's shelter after allegedly claiming to be the abused wife of a police officer, who authorities say doesn't exist. She used the shelter's computer and a cellphone to contact the Vests.
Rebecca Vest has had two birth mothers back out of privately arranged adoptions since adopting newborn Owen, who will be 5 in April. That's why she thought she knew how to spot red flags before Slanina messaged them through their adoptive profile website.
Slanina never asked for money and knew exactly what to say, Rebecca said.
She called herself Aimee and claimed to be due Jan. 17 but texted Dec. 29 to say she was in labor, shortly after the Vests arranged for their caseworker to meet her. She even pretended to have the baby's father provide updates.
Unbeknownst to the Vests, as they flew to Pittsburgh and rushed 30 miles to the hospital in a rental car the next day, Slanina was under arrest.
The updates on her labor, of course, stopped. At the hospital, the Vests grew tired of waiting. Finally, Barry Vest asked at the nurse's station for her room number.
"The nurse said, 'I'm sorry, we're not having any births here or any adoption births,'" Barry Vest said.
Rebecca broke down.
A birth mother has the right to change her mind, so the Vests still didn't know they were being scammed, Barry said.
Then, a Kittanning police officer called to explain what he'd learned about Slanina and the women's shelter.
Since the Vests spent $2,500 rushing to Pennsylvania, Slanina was charged with a section of Pennsylvania's disorderly conduct law — the only statute police could find that might fit her actions. Public defender Chuck Pascal got a district judge to dismiss that charge, though he doesn't dispute Slanina's actions.
"She took on a persona and lied and, as a result of that lie — what? — somebody flew here from Idaho? So what?" Pascal said. "If I were to start criminalizing when one person lies and, as a result of that lie, other people take an action, then everybody's in jail."
Slanina has a different public defender on the women's shelter charges who didn't return repeated calls attempting to get a message to her.
But even the officer who called the Vests, Greg Koprivnak, acknowledged, "To be quite honest with you, there's no statue that deals with this kind of behavior."
Pennsylvania doesn't criminalize false adoption offers, in part, because biological mothers have up to 30 days to change their mind after birth, said Anne Bale, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare. That makes it difficult to differentiate between a fraudulent adoption offer and a reluctant birth mother, Bale said.
As for cases where there is no baby, Bale said, lawmakers are loathe to pass laws covering applying to rare situations.