Apologetics Index
Religion News Report
Archived News items about religious cults, sects, and alternative religions
About RNR   Archive   News Database   RNR FAQ


Apologetics Index Home PageSpacerRainbow

Strange cases of 'teen' impostor

Post-Gazette, Apr. 22, 2001
http://www.post-gazette.com/regionstate/20010422impostor5.asp Off-site Link


ALTOONA -- She was fresh off a bus from York County, she told Altoona police.

Her name was Stephanie Danielle Lewis, she said, all of 16, originally from Memphis, Tenn.

She wore braids and a short, baby-doll-style dress. And she had a dreadful story to tell.

Her father molested her, shared her with his friends, pushed her into prostitution and forced her into pornographic videos. Now she was on the run from him and his satanist pals.

"She said there was a religious underground helping her escape from the cult," Jacqueline Atherton Bernard, Blair County assistant district attorney, said of the interviews that followed that first encounter in August 1996.

Within 18 days, investigators cracked the case. But it wasn't the one the traveler wanted cracked.

She wasn't Stephanie Danielle Lewis from Memphis; she was Treva Joyce Throneberry from a 3,160-person dot on the map called Electra, Texas.

And she wasn't 16, she was 27.

The episode earned Throneberry a charge of giving false information to police and nine days in the county jail.

Twenty-seven days after she hit Altoona, she was gone, but not changed, it seems.

Three weeks ago, Throneberry, now 31, was arrested in Vancouver, Wash., for bilking that state and a junior college out of $4,670.

The Stephanie Lewis persona was gone. This time, she was 18-year-old Brianna Stewart, newly graduated from high school, wearing pigtails and overalls, claiming she had lost her home, memory and all traces of her past.

She lived off the kindness of others and logged three years at Vancouver's Evergreen High School, blending in as just another one of the girls. She had a C average, played a lackluster year of junior varsity tennis, graduated with the Class of 2000 and enrolled in the local junior college.

Now, in her wake, Throneberry leaves bewildered and enraged confidants -- and one 47-year-old man, jailed for 50 days for having sex with a minor, only to find out two years later that the minor really was 28 at the time.

Public Defender Kathleen McCann, who won't comment on the case, has asked for a mental evaluation.

"She knew what she was doing ... but maybe there was an element of fantasy," said Barbara McKay, whose 19-year-old daughter became Throneberry's best friend in high school but never guessed anything was amiss. "I think when she was 15, there was all this abuse she talks about, and maybe she was trying to go back before that age and stay there."

And there's more to answer for.

Vancouver police are sniffing a trail through other states where Throneberry turned up, claiming to be a teen-age molestation victim. The affidavit from her 1996 arrest in Altoona says she was "telling the story to law enforcement agencies along the East Coast, staying in youth shelters for free."

Two years ago, Vancouver-area resident Charles Blankenship, now 47, spent 50 days in jail after admitting to consensual sex with a minor, 17-year-old Brianna Stewart. Two weeks ago, after Clark County, Wash., Superior Court Judge Edwin Poyfair discovered that Stewart was really 28-year-old Treva Throneberry, he cleared Blankenship's record.

She previously claimed she hailed from Birmingham, then amended the story and substituted Mobile, said Vancouver contractor Randy Fisher, whose family put up Throneberry for 51/2 months in 1998.

If she is lying, Throneberry, who is in the Clark County Jail after failing to raise $20,000 bail, is unrepentant.

Three weeks ago, she was arraigned on charges that she cheated Washington state by lying about her age and winning placement in state-funded foster care, then swindled Clark College in Vancouver by saying she was a homeless teen-ager and gaining a tuition deferral.

"And there, at her arraignment, in front of the judge, she says, 'I'm Brianna Stewart,' " McKay said.

Back in Electra, Treva Throneberry wasn't known as the schemer. She was the wallflower, youngest of five children from oil field worker Carl and wife Patsy Throneberry's struggling family.

There, in high school, the murk of claims of sexual abuse comes in.

Patsy Throneberry says her daughter joined up with a local church -- "a cult," she insists -- and probably was raped there. Carl Throneberry says his daughter tried to pin the molestation on him.

J'alisha McKinnon, an adopted sister, has decided she would comment only for cash. But husband Brad McKinnon says the molester was an uncle, now deceased.

Treva Throneberry left home in 1985, after the 10th grade, at age 15, and turned up next, almost a year later, at a mental hospital in Wichita Falls, Texas, her mother says.

"My wife has always thought Treva was a rape victim, and because of that, there's something wrong mentally," Brad McKinnon said.

"We went to visit her. She was standoffish and angry. We were hardly allowed to talk to her," Patsy Throneberry said. "We never got a diagnosis."

Thirteen years later, while Throneberry lived with Fisher and his family in Vancouver, Fisher grew convinced that, somewhere in her past, Throneberry was tied to a satanic cult, then fled. She told him stories of cult rituals and sacrifices -- stories that squared with references he researched at the local library.

But, as was her pattern, the stories ran from the believable to the dubious.

In January, in the Vancouver area, Throneberry, still Brianna Stewart then, was working with lawyers to get a birth certificate, she said. But a fingerprint check hit on fingerprints filed during the Altoona arrest.

To the people who took her in, Throneberry ranged between tolerable and grating, claiming sexual abuse in four homes, charges authorities decided were baseless.

For now, in Vancouver, there's mostly bewilderment, some sympathy for a woman who might need help and lots of disdain for a woman scorned for tapping the goodwill of others and helping herself.

There's some relief that it's over. And there's some suspicion that it's not.

In an earlier report, the last name was spelled, ''Thornberry.''