"It's hard to know where to start," she said with a twang and a flip of her pigtails. "I'm desperate."
It was a hot August afternoon in 1999. We were sitting at a booth at the Roxy Cafe. Her name was Brianna Stewart, and she was a 17-year-old runaway from Mobile, Ala.
Brianna bore none of the protective coloration--the dyed hair, the pierced septum--of the typical street kid. Dressed in blue bib-overalls and a striped blouse, she was respectful and demure, a country girl adrift on the streets of Portland.
Over the next two hours, she proceeded to elaborate an incredible tale involving her mother's death, brutal molestation by a sinister Navajo stepfather and a desperate cross-country journey--at the age of 13--in search of her real father.
Despite bouncing in and out of foster care since arriving in the Pacific Northwest, she had valiantly stayed in high school. "You know how hard it is to do your homework under an awning when it's raining and you can't go to the shelter until 9 o'clock?" she asked.
She showed me a scrapbook crammed with photographs and smiley faces and told me how she joined the tennis team, how she took a date to Homecoming. She also showed me a copy of an ancient Romanian prayer, worn at the creases, that she kept as a memento of her albino grandfather.
Brianna's immediate problem was that she had nothing to support her identity. No birth certificate. No medical records. No Social Security number. And the federal government would not issue her a new Social Security number unless she could track down her real parents--or at least show evidence of their existence. She hoped a good reporter could solve the mystery--and get a scoop at the same time.
From my point of view, Brianna's story was a bust. It was just possible that a dogged investigation might turn up a clue to her past. But other agencies--including the FBI--had already tried and failed. It was far more likely that I would rack up hundreds of dollars in telephone bills and come up empty-handed. Reluctantly, I closed my notebook and suggested she try a lawyer. We shook hands and returned to our separate worlds--I to my office and she to the streets of Portland.
It turned out I was wrong. Brianna did have a compelling story; it just wasn't the one she was telling. There was no Navajo stepfather, no dead mother. The truth was far, far stranger.
Last week, Brianna was arraigned in a Clark County, Wash., court on seven counts of theft and perjury. Prosecutors say she is not Brianna Stewart of Mobile, Ala., but Treva Throneberry of Electra, Texas, and that she defrauded the state of Washington out of more than $15,000.
Most amazing of all, they say she is not a homeless teenager, but a 32-year-old con artist who has concocted more than a dozen youthful identities and made repeated accusations of rape, often against the very people who tried to help her.
News of Brianna's arrest stunned those who thought they knew her. "My reaction was one of shock and disbelief," says Principal Jim Hudson of Evergreen High School, from which Brianna graduated last year. "Most people are glad to get out of high school."
"I was flabbergasted, to say the least," says Portland police officer Richard Braskett, who rescued Brianna from the street and took her into his home. "I was angry. She had caused a lot of strife in our family, and then she turned out to be a big fraud."
It also stunned Clark County prosecutors. Three years ago, they convicted a C-TRAN security guard, Charles Blankenship, of statutory rape for having sex with Brianna in his car when she was--supposedly--only 17 years old. Blankenship served 50 days in jail and lost his job because of the incident.
The world has no shortage of impostors, most with predictable motives. They do it for the money, or to avoid the law, or sometimes for the sheer thrill of the masquerade--as in the case of the Gresham man arrested two weeks ago for impersonating a Multnomah County sheriff's deputy. Their alter egos usually crumble at the first challenge.
But Brianna's case is harder to explain. First, she had no clear motive. Second, she managed to hoodwink a platoon of professional skeptics--including cops, lawyers, reporters and teenagers--even after their suspicions had been aroused. She was so convincing, in fact, that she probably would never have been unmasked but for her insistence on solving the "mystery" of her origins.
Third, despite a mountain of evidence identifying her as Throneberry--including fingerprints, photographs and dental records--Brianna has never wavered from her story, even from her jail cell.
All of which raises an unsettling question. Is it possible that Brianna Stewart, like the tattooed protagonist of the thriller Memento, is stuck on replay, doomed to reenact a fatal scenario whose prologue she has forgotten?
In the spring of 1997, a 16-year-old girl materialized at the Glad Tidings Church, a 1,500-capacity megachurch on the eastern sprawl of Vancouver, Wash., where birdsong mingles with the chirp of backhoes paving the farmland into subdivisions.
At Glad Tidings, Brianna Stewart repeated a tale she had told, with variations, many times before. She grew up outside Mobile, Ala. Her mother died when Brianna was 7, after which she was raised by her stepfather, Allan Reeves, a Navajo Indian who worked for the sheriff's department.
Reeves had a shady past--he once worked as a gun-runner off the Ivory Coast--and subjected her to physical and sexual torture. When money ran low he made pornographic videotapes of her. She tried to turn him into the authorities when she was 13 years old, but nothing happened, so she ran away.
With the desperate optimism of adolescence, she hitchhiked her way across the country in search for her real father--Michael Stewart of Vancouver, Wash.--staying with friendly strangers along the way, working on farms, earning enough for bus fare from one dusty town to the next.
When she finally arrived in the Portland area, she tracked down a Michael Stewart in Aloha. He wasn't her father, but he let her move in with him. Unfortunately, he turned out to be a drug addict. He introduced her to crack and cocaine, and kept her prisoner in his apartment. After a couple of months, she ran away and hit the streets, where she met a youth pastor for Glad Tidings, who encouraged her to attend services.
Brianna's story shocked and moved the congregation. Various church families let her stay with them until she could get back on her feet.
"I knew she was homeless, and she said her parents were very cruel," says church receptionist Debbie Fisher. "We didn't want her to wind up back on the street, so we took her in."
Fisher thought Brianna seemed old for her age. Whenever someone remarked that she looked older than 16, however, Brianna got "very upset," Debbie remembers.
Brianna had one teenage trait down cold, however--a certain surliness towards parental authority. Over the next few months, tensions mounted in the Fisher household over chores and bedtime hours.
Meanwhile, Brianna was engaged in one of the most brazen charades of her entire career. She persuaded officials at Evergreen High School to let her enroll as a sophomore--even though she was actually 28.
"When I first saw her, I thought she was a teacher," says Evergreen classmate Joey Gambetta. "Then she sat down at a desk like everyone else, and I put that aside."
"She looked older than the others," says instructor Steve Nowacki, who taught Brianna psychology and sociology her senior year. "But street kids often have a lot of miles on them."
Fellow students were aware that Brianna had been on the streets. But in most other respects, she appeared to be an average student. She earned a GPA of 2.85. She joined the tennis team. She hung out at the Vancouver mall.
"She was the queen of the mall rats," recalls Evergreen classmate and ex-boyfriend Ken Dunn, an aspiring actor who met Brianna at the Sweet Factory early in their sophomore year.
Dunn had never had a serious girlfriend before. "I was in love with her," he says. Dunn dated her for almost 18 months.
In the beginning, Brianna was a positive influence--she even took Dunn to services at Glad Tidings. "We made out a lot," he says. "But we never had sex--never. I kept my hands to myself."
As time went by, however, the relationship became a burden. "I would sit up and worry all night," he says. "She said people were following her, and I believed her." Dunn was also disturbed by Brianna's bottomless appetite for Ritalin--prescribed for an attention-deficit disorder.
By May 1998, the Fishers had reached the end of their tether. Strife about the chores continued, and Brianna's stories grew increasingly outlandish. She said her stepfather was involved in a satanic cult, and that she was raised as a high priestess. She said a senator from the Midwest had gotten her pregnant while she was working on his re-election campaign. "At night your head would spin because it was so awful and so much," Fisher says.
Finally, after an argument over vacuuming the living room, the Fishers gave her two weeks to move out.
Scrambling for shelter, Brianna persuaded caseworkers at the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services to put her in a foster home--using her student body card as documentation.
That fall, however, Brianna's carefully crafted identity faced its first serious challenge, when a dentist noticed that her wisdom teeth had been extracted and the scars fully healed.
The dentist considered this so unusual for a 16-year-old that he shared his suspicions with Brianna's caseworker, Jan Shaffer. On Oct. 13, Shaffer confronted Brianna, warning her that defrauding the foster-care system was a crime.
Brianna was not intimidated. She wrote a five-page, single-spaced letter lambasting her caseworker. Although purportedly written by a 16-year-old girl, the letter sounded more like a jailhouse lawyer on speed.
"I feel that remaining in foster care is not safe for my physical, mental and emotional well-being," she wrote. "I feel that I have been abused by the very system that I asked for help."
In the face of this blistering defense--and, perhaps, fearful of adverse publicity--DSHS officials backed down. But Brianna would have no truck with anyone who questioned her integrity. Instead, she moved in with another Evergreen High School family, David and Theresa Gambetta.
The Gambettas made Brianna part of the family. They cleared out the study so she could have her own room and gave her an allowance of $10 a week and a stereo for Christmas.
But five months later, Brianna called 911 and accused David Gambetta of spying on her. There were cameras in the light fixtures in her room, she said, and Gambetta had been making videotapes of her. She also claimed he exposed himself to her and to his two young daughters.
Police ultimately concluded that Brianna's accusations were groundless. Theresa Gambetta was outraged. "The state could have taken away my family because of her and her lies," she says. "She could have wiped my family out."
Once again, Brianna was back on the streets. But a few weeks later, in May 1999, she scored her biggest triumph yet. She persuaded Portland police officer Richard Braskett to take her into his home.
A seven-year veteran on the force, Braskett had heard a lot of stories from a lot of street kids. But something about Brianna touched him. She was respectful and polite. She was a student at Evergreen. And her story was so pathetic--and mysterious--that he decided to take a chance. "It was the ultimate way of being able to help someone," he says. "Which is why I'm in this business in the first place."
Braskett and his wife bought her clothes and shoes and helped her pay for summer school. He gamely tried to track down traces of her mother and father. "I just kept running into dead ends," he says.
Throughout this turmoil, Brianna remained determined--even obsessed--with establishing her identity. She wrote a six-page letter to Washington Gov. Gary Locke, asking his support in obtaining a Social Security number. She met with a detective from Daphne, Ala. The Mobile Register wrote an article about her. Far from obscuring her origins, Brianna was flaunting them--even going so far as to call the Montel Williams Show about doing an on-the-air session with a psychic.
Brianna Stewart graduated from Evergreen High School in June 2000. "Evan, I DID IT!!!" she wrote to Evan Burton, an advocate at Greenhouse, a Portland drop-in center run by the Salvation Army. "Thanks for all your help. I really appreciate all the great advice (+ verbal kicks in the arse when I needed it!!)."
After she graduated, however, Brianna's need for a Social Security number grew more acute. Without it, she could not work legally--nor could she apply for financial aid for college.
To this end, she approached Mark McDougal, a Portland lawyer with a reputation as a champion of the underdog. Although McDougal declined to speak to WW about his legal work for Brianna, it appears that he provided her with considerable support. He lent her a cell phone and subsidized a visit she took to the University of Montana as a prospective student.
Before he petitioned the feds for a Social Security number, however, McDougal wanted to cover his bases. He asked Brianna to submit her fingerprints to the FBI.
Why did Brianna agree? Did she think the check would come up clean? Or had she somehow convinced herself she really was Brianna Stewart?
Either way, the results, when they came back, ripped Brianna's identity to shreds. According to the FBI, the fingerprints belonged to one Treva Throneberry, age 31, arrested in Altoona, Pa., in 1996 for making a false police report.
"I can't believe it," Brianna said, according to McDougal. "There must be some mistake."
Shocked--or feigning shock--Brianna stormed out of McDougal's office and went to Greenhouse, where she told advocate Burton about her latest setback.
Outwardly, Burton was sympathetic, but his pulse was racing. Until then, he had swallowed his misgivings about Brianna's stories. But scanning the FBI printout, his smoldering suspicions burst into flame. Burton knew Brianna had sent a man to jail for statutory rape--a conviction whose legal basis now seemed doubtful, to say the least.
A few days later, Burton took a fateful step--a step that no one else had taken since Brianna first arrived in the Portland area. He called the police.
Brianna's charade, which had escaped detection for almost four years, was now beginning to unravel--at the hands of the same Vancouver detective who nabbed Blankenship, the C-TRAN guard, in 1998.
Detective Scott Smith was fooled once. He wouldn't be fooled again. Over the next three months, he dug through police reports, child welfare records, and an FBI dossier to piece together a remarkable puzzle.
Fingerprints revealed that Brianna Stewart, a.k.a. Treva Throneberry, was born May 18, 1969, in Wichita Falls, Texas. She grew up in the one-light town of Electra, Texas, the youngest daughter of Carl Throneberry, a hardscrabble oilman, and his wife, Patsy. "She was the baby of the family," her sister Carlene Merritt told WW in a telephone interview. "She was Daddy's favorite girl. She did everything with him."
On Dec. 19, 1985, at the age of 16, Treva accused her father of putting a gun to her head and raping her.
"That blindsided the whole family," Merritt says.
There were holes in her story, however, and prosecutors dropped the case after she said in court that the man who raped her was not her father.
Carl Throneberry has always maintained his innocence. And three of Treva's sisters--Merritt, Sue Baker and Kim Simpson--all insist that their father was incapable of such an act. "My father wouldn't hurt a fly," Simpson says. "It was like a knife through his heart."
Nevertheless, there was an ugly secret lurking in the Throneberry household: The three sisters told WW that they--and Treva--were repeatedly molested by their uncle. As often happens in child-abuse cases, the girls never told their parents. The uncle is now dead.
Child welfare officials put Treva in foster care. In May 1986, she was committed to a state mental hospital. Later she moved to a girls' home in Fort Worth, where she graduated from high school in 1987. Her mother and sister Kim attended her graduation. But Treva was standoffish and hardly acknowledged them.
When she turned 18, she left the home and bounced around the streets of Fort Worth. In 1988, Treva visited Kim in Wichita Falls. It was an awkward visit. Treva told stories about ritual abuse--drinking blood and making sacrifices--and left the next day. No one from her family ever saw her again.
Over the next decade, according to court documents, Treva posed as a teenager from coast to coast, peddling dark tales of abduction, satanic cults and sexual abuse. In 1992--when she was actually 23--she told Corvallis police she was Keili Smitt, 19, and that her father had forced her into his car and raped her. The following year, she claimed a Portland police officer was her father and accused him of sexually assaulting her.
In 1994, she was Cara Leanne Davis in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. In 1995, she was Emily Kara Williams in Texas. And in August 1996, she was 16-year-old Stephanie Lewis in Altoona, Pa.
In Altoona, however, her story backfired. While she was staying at a youth shelter, a child welfare worker figured out she was actually Treva Throneberry, then aged 27. Treva pleaded guilty to filing a false police report and spent nine days in jail. Shortly thereafter, she returned to the Pacific Northwest--as 16-year-old Brianna Stewart.
On March 22, 2001, Det. Smith confronted Brianna with the evidence identifying her as Treva. Brianna denied everything. The FBI report was a clerical error, she said. Smith ticked off his other evidence--dental records and photographs--but Brianna stuck to her story. "I am me," she told him as he put her under arrest. "I can remember being me since I was 4 years old."
The game was up, but Brianna would not abandon the pretense, even as Smith took her to the Clark County jail, where she now awaits an October trial. Prosecutor Mike Kinnie says she would probably serve five years in prison if convicted on all counts.
Several people who knew Brianna Stewart--including those with little sympathy for her--are convinced that her biggest victim was herself.
"I honestly think she believed her own stories," says Evergreen mom Theresa Gambetta.
"I believe Brianna Stewart is telling the truth--her truth," says one individual who had extensive contact with her. "There is no fraud, in my opinion. This is who she thinks she is."
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association does recognize a kind of hysteria known as "dissociative fugue," characterized by the total obliteration of a person's identity, often coupled with the assumption of a new one. Such cases are rare, according to Portland psychiatrist Ron Turco, but they do occur--usually as a way to escape an intolerable conflict. Some patients cling to their new identity "in an unshakable way," adds OHSU psychiatrist Harold Boverman.
Oddly enough, Carl Throneberry says Treva would call home from time to time--but pretend to be someone else. "I told her, I said, 'I know you're Treva. I know your voice. You're my little girl,'" he says. "And she'd say, 'I'm not--I wish I was.'
"And I said, 'You're still Treva. Always will be.'"
Meanwhile, Brianna Stewart continues to maintain her innocence. Last month, she demanded a blood test to compare her DNA to that of Carl and Patsy Throneberry--a test she insists will prove she is an abductee, an amnesiac, a runaway--anything but the little girl from Electra.
Originally published 6/27/2001