In September of 2005, Paula Bonhomme sat at her computer and poured out her heart to the one person on earth who would understand. Life had become wrenching but vastly more meaningful since Paula got involved with Jesse Jubilee James, her troubled love, and Janna St. James was their mutual friend and matchmaker.
"Where do I begin?" said Paula's e-mail. "I don't even know, Janna. I need advice, and there are so many questions and issues and just plain old stuff knocking around." Paula had never met either Janna or Jesse in person, but that was a small matter. She'd gotten to know lots of wonderful people on the Internet, and Jesse and Janna were two of them. She'd met them on a board for fans of the HBO series Deadwood. Paula was a digital producer in a passionless marriage in Los Angeles. Janna, wise and perspicacious, was a wife and mother in Batavia, Illinois. "I have a master's in psychology but never practiced," she told Paula in one e-mail, "because I'm an Earth Mother who can't leave it at the office."
And Jesse—well, Jesse was a volunteer fire fighter in Aspen, Colorado, and a wounded bird. "I can't remember a day without fear," he wrote Paula early on, in a carefully printed letter sent by snail mail. "I have been told it's unrealistic of me to entertain thoughts of it being gone for good. I am told it's okay to court hope tho, hope that one day that hope will overtake and surpass the fear.... I've even felt it once or twice. But I never felt what I felt now." The attack on 9/11 was one of the worst of a series of bad events in his life. He'd been living in New York City then. He'd known fire fighters who died. Paula says he told her "there were fragments of dead people all over him and he didn't want them to disappear forever by washing them down the drain." After 9/11 Jesse suffered a breakdown that cost him his marriage.
Jesse and Paula turned out to be soulmates. Soon they were talking by phone a couple of times a week. Jesse "had a high tenor voice and a flat, twangy accent that was self-described by him as 'Colorado cowboy,'" Paula remembers. "The word 'that' sounded like 'theeyat,' which I thought was archaically sweet."
But by the time Paula wrote the e-mail to Janna I began quoting above, the sweet beginnings had advanced to soap opera-ish complexities.
"The phone sex was nipped in the bud, I don't even know why," Paula confided to Janna, "other than that he had his fear of arousal being linked with pain, and of course 9/11." The e-mail went on. "And then on Friday night, he finally had to tell me that the night he thought I just wanted to be friends with him he stopped at Julia's house, and that Alice had been pushing Julia at him from the beginning..."
Alice was Jesse's sister, Julia the teacher of Jesse's six-year-old son, Rhys. Paula had gotten to know them both by e-mail.
She told Janna that in a recent e-mail Jesse had let her know "that Bean was trying to go after Julia, and I mentioned that I hoped Alice could dissuade Julia from pursuing Jesse and he immediately wanted to IM about it. I guess when Jesse had his heart-to-heart with Alice, he thought she'd just leave it alone."
In this large cast of characters, Bean was Jesse's pal from college.
"I seem to do nothing but cause him pain, no matter what I try to do," wrote Paula. "Janna, the last fucking thing I want is to hurt him. But I can't keep being hurt by him, either. I know he needs honesty in his life, but telling me how Krista is after him and the dispatcher in the firehouse is after him, and #3 is after him, and Julia is after him, and oh by the way he'd be with her if it weren't for me, and that he was pretending that the women he was kissing in the kissing booth were all me, he's got to allow me the luxury of being somewhat affected by all this..."
And on it goes. Krista used to be married to Jesse, and Paula got e-mail from her too. The firehouse dispatcher and #3 were walk-ons in the life of Paula's man.
In case you haven't guessed, tragedy loomed. A month later, by which time Paula had left her husband and was making plans to finally meet Jesse face-to-face in Colorado, he attempted suicide by shooting himself in the stomach. Alice sent him to a place in Texas to recuperate and would not tell Paula where. In agony, barely able to sleep or function, Paula tried to break off the relationship. But by December they were speaking by telephone once more, and the following spring Paula made plans to move to Colorado. Jesse said he and his son would come to Los Angeles and help her pack.
Then on July 5, 2006, Paula got an e-mail from Alice with heartbreaking news. Jesse was dead. "Five months ago they told him he had liver cancer. His diabetes and scar tissue from his years of drinking and drugs increased his odds of contracting it.... They gave him two years. He got five months. He didn't even tell me until our road trip two weeks ago. He told no one else."
Paula was so rocked by grief she became physically ill. Condolences poured in from Jesse's large circle of friends and family. Even his son Rhys was heard from. Paula's dog had just died too, and the little boy focused on that. "Many dogs need homes so I think your dog would want you to give a new one a home," said Rhys's e-mail. "I will get a dog soon. My daddy was going to help me find one but he died. He will see my dog and your new dog from the sky."
In this time of crisis, Janna was Paula's rock. The day Jesse died they talked by phone for the first time. "Janna had an incredibly thick accent, Brit tinged with Russian," Paula tells me. "She said because her mother was of Russian descent." Jesse's birthday was coming up in September, and Paula thought she'd spend it at a spa in New Mexico she knew had been one of Jesse's favorite spots. She asked Janna to join her. They wound up driving down from Colorado, where they met so Janna could show Paula some of Jesse's other haunts. Janna knew the area well—as a young freelance reporter in Colorado, she said, she'd scored an exclusive interview with serial killer Ted Bundy and parlayed that triumph into the job of running the AP's bureau in Aspen. The one place they couldn't visit was Jesse's grave—he'd been cremated, still wearing a $300 bracelet Paula had bought him.
Later Janna created a memorial blog for Jesse and posted words to comfort her friend. "You died," she told Jesse, "knowing you found what just about everyone seeks.... After all your life's trials, your last breaths were those of a man in love with the right woman."
Paula and Janna remained close. In February 2007 Janna came out to Los Angeles to spend a week with her. Then something happened that changed everything.
Paula, you see, had other friends she'd met online, and the stories she told them about Jesse Jubilee James and his tragic end made them skeptical and curious. They did some digging. And what they concluded was that none of it was true. There was no Jesse Jubilee James. No Rhys, no Julia, no Krista, no Bean. By actual count, 20 different individuals who'd supposedly peopled the world of the nonexistent Jesse were all Janna's fabrications. And for that matter, so was the AP bureau in Aspen, which never existed, not to mention the Bundy interview.
When Paula's friends found out that Janna was staying with her they called Paula away on a pretext and then confronted Janna in Paula's home. They were blunt and merciless. They told Janna to pack her bags and clear out. As a precaution, so Janna couldn't claim to have been mistreated, they videotaped the confrontation.
"Is there anything you want to say to her?" Paula's friends ask Janna. "You could apologize."
"It wouldn't be taken in the right way," says Janna.
"Why do you do this shit?" they ask. "You're destroying peoples' lives."
"I'm not destroying anyone's life," says Janna bleakly, shaking her head.
"You put our friend through an emotional wringer for almost two years."
"Two years!" says Janna. She shakes her head fiercely.
"How about a year and a half?"
Janna nods. That's more like it.
One of the friends, Josh Olson, published an account of the Paula-Janna saga a year ago in LA Weekly. Olson, who wrote the screenplay for A History of Violence, had known Paula since 1994, when they met on a message board for aspiring screenwriters. In the article he describes Janna as "a morbidly obese woman in her mid-50s, dull-eyed and empty-faced." (You'll find links to the video and the story at chicagoreader.com.) He also said Paula—called "Audrey" in his story—wasn't pursuing legal action: "The drama has to end," he wrote. "She has to leave it behind and move forward. I hope she can. I think she can."
But Paula Bonhomme didn't leave it behind. She decided to set the record straight where it mattered most—online. She posted on her own blog, on Janna's blog, on the blog "Piece of Cakey," supposedly maintained by Jesse's pal Cakey, a fellow volunteer fire fighter. After finding out there was no Cakey, Paula re-created the site as "Piece of Fakey" and in April—writing as "Ephemerina"—posted pictures she said Jesse and others had sent her. In addition to a handsome one of himself, they include pictures of his house and even the fictional AP office. She reflected on the alternate realities she now had to choose from: "On the one hand, we have Jesse Jubilee James, or the guy I thought was called Jesse Jubilee James," she wrote. "Playing let's pretend again (after all, this is the land of fakey, so pretend is always comfortable here), if Jesse was real, he's been exposed as a lying shitheel who told not one ounce of truth to me or anyone else, so the George Washington-esque, noble, yogic, journalist-fireman-cowboy was nothing he claimed to be. And all his friends that talked to me were all in on the huge deception also. A conspiracy that fuckin' rivals the assassination of JFK. It ain't just the feet, this idol is clay from stem to stern. Soooooo, if that's the truth, it logically follows that Janna is a liar too, because she perpetuated the lies of a liar.
"On the other hand, we have Janna St. James making all this crap up, which still makes her a lying sack of shit."
In a later post, Paula said she believes the Jesse in the pictures is Janna's first husband, who left her.
Janna didn't sit still for this. Even now, on her blog, you can find her railing against Paula for hiding behind noms de 'Net. "Everything Paula Bonhomme says about me, and how, says as much about her," the blog asserts. "Paula doesn't have the spine to say anything to anyone without hiding behind something or someone, and ironically that includes aliases. My child's description of Paula was brief. 'Predator.'"
Bonhomme decided to pursue legal action after all, suing St. James for "defamation, fraudulent misrepresentation... for posing as a man, and twenty other fake personas, in order to play psychological games on Plaintiff." Her complaint alleges that St. James posted on various blogs hostile language, later removed, that included the following:
"Paula Bonhomme is a hypocrite, a fraud and a liar? Actually a criminal too as the amount is felony."
"You scheme, you plot, you destroy... by way of screens. Its all you want to do."
"Mostly, I want all of cybersphere to know she is the one who has absofuckinglutely no right to claim him in any way. And how she used the poor guy even after he was dead creating this Grieving Widow lie so she could suck up a bunch of attention."
Says Bonhomme, "She still writes about him as though he exists."
The suit also alleges that St. James described herself online this way:
"Some who have never had any direct contact with me whatsoever and some who have and think they know me at all like to say I'm the world's best online scammer EVER. Every decade or so I get a taste to pose as a man (and up to 20 other people simultaneously) and reel me in some juicy middle-aged woman flesh for purposes they never quite explain. It sure ain't money or sex. This is because I'm an expendable being who happens to be a conduit to much more interesting people they seek for the pursuit of their own issues and cons.... I can bend the minds of the uberintelligent and the agendized, and that's sayin' something."
Paula Bonhomme found her lawyer, Daliah Saper of Chicago, the way she has found so much else in life—through the Internet. "Believe me, I googled her—I felt pretty secure," says Bonhomme, who no longer puts any stock in online personas. Saper says Bonhomme wanted to file a defamation suit, but when Saper heard the story she decided defamation was just part of it.
Bonhomme's suit, filed last month in Kane County, claims that St. James "uses the Internet as a tool to manipulate and deceive others for her own personal entertainment." The suit says St. James telephoned Bonhomme as Jesse using "a voice altering device to disguise her female voice." And when she called as herself she'd "assume an Australian/British accent which she attributed to an Australian nanny and living in the United Kingdom." The cast of characters included friends "in Colorado, Brazil, Argentina and Spain" and "all of these characters communicated with Paula from separate and distinct email accounts. Many... sent Paula personal photographs, as well as hand written regular mail and packages from different states and even countries.... Paula also sent all of these characters Christmas presents and other gifts, at considerable expense."
And according to the suit, Bonhomme wasn't St. James's first victim. It alleges that she destroyed the first marriage of the late musician Dan Fogelberg "by playing the couple against one another for her own personal enjoyment," for a time even pretending to be Fogelberg on his Web site.
One tempting way for an outsider to react to the St. James-Bonhomme relationship is to suppose the former believed she was giving the latter a gift of a rich and rewarding fantasy life, and when that life got out of hand she ended it. "I could speculate until the cows come home," says Bonhomme. "I'm not a psychiatrist. [The whole thing] left me a mess that nobody should have to be in for any reason, unless it's really happening. If a loved one really dies you grieve, and you shouldn't be able to sleep for a month. But to do that at the whim of someone who wants to manipulate your emotions—it's not right whyever she did it."
The hardest thing for that outsider to understand might be this: How could she have been so credulous? A guy with that name, who'd known that much woe?
"I've known a lot of strange people in my life," Bonhomme says. "And I've known people who were disaster magnets as well. I had a roommate like that once. She just had phenomenally bad luck in her life choices. She was no judge of character. So those things didn't raise a red flag for me. I've met Moon Unit Zappa. I've had friends with crazy names."
Asked to comment on Bonhomme's suit, St. James replied by e-mail to say thanks but no thanks. "Call me old-fashioned, but I think stories with two sides are more interesting," she wrote, but said on the advice of her attorney she'd tell her side later. An exhibit attached to Bonhomme's complaint suggests what it might be. A series of posts on Bonhomme's blog signed by "Aloha Kaumaha"— the nickname of one of the characters in the Jesse story, his sister Alice—suggest that Jesse is real.
"It's so interesting that Paula Bonhomme will only put her shit out in type for public consumption," Aloha observes. "She won't say anything directly to the person she accuses of all this stuff. I think that goes beyond being a coward.... What better excuse for a superwoman to not get a man even with all their charms? Say there was no man to be had and that's why they didn't succeed. Even better say the man was fat, old woman. Farfetched? Since it's happens I don't think so.... During what was probably not a manic my brother wrote somebody that the only way to get out of the clutches of Paula is to die. Who would believe even that isn't enough?"
When Jesse died, Paula got a comforting e-mail message from Jesse's therapist and Janna's old friend, Annie Martel of Aspen. "People as damaged as Jesse have trust and paranoia issues so great we could never even comprehend where their minds go or why," the message said. And yet "his feelings for you brought him key parts of himself that had been smothered out of him. He was in love, and in the end thank God for that. Thank God."
Unlike the rest of the people in Jesse's milieu, Annie Martel happens to be real. She is a prominent therapist in Aspen, the former wife of the late John Denver in fact. After the blinders fell away, Paula wrote Martel a letter that began, "Hi there. This is going to seem waaaay out of left field, but I need to ask you two questions." Had she ever known a Janna St. James? Had she ever known a Jesse Jubilee James?
Martel had never heard of either one of them. Later I called Martel and she told me the same thing. She wondered what in the hell was going on.v
To comment on this story or view the video of Bonhomme's friends busting Janna, see chicagoreader.com
Janna St. James in the video shot by Paula Bonhomme's friends as they confronted her