Internet cancer scam unveiled

 

dovalle@MiamiHerald.com

In heart-wrenching detail on Facebook and in a family blog, the story of Kevin San Roman’s battle against leukemia unfolded over three years. Then, he died.

Relatives and younger brother Lucas continued writing about their grief and a little cousin’s struggle to beat a brain tumor.

Over several years, both young men — who purportedly lived in Spain — attracted hundreds of Facebook friends from schools in South Miami-Dade while advocating cancer causes and tugging at the heartstrings of teachers, parents and students. Several teens became their online girlfriends, trading text messages, talking by phone and planning to meet in person.

But the San Roman family was all a lie. The long-running charade unraveled in July as police and prosecutors — alerted by a suspicious Kendall teacher whose daughter had fallen for Lucas — launched an investigation.

The probe revealed that an imposter from Doral concocted the details of cancer treatment, accounts of doctor visits and untimely deaths of phantom characters. Family photos, and ones of supposed cancer-stricken relatives, were stolen from the web.

Hundreds of young people were duped, comforted because each “brother” had dozens of mutual friends from St. Brendan, Lourdes and Coral Reef high schools.

Ultimately, investigators could not bring criminal charges. The imposter never physically abused anyone. And the person behind the fake Facebook pages and blog removed them before prosecutors could preserve them.

The saga, nevertheless, is a cautionary tale of deception in the digital age, where the meaning of friendship has been twisted by the mere click of a mouse.

“These predators are using Facebook and getting away with it,” said Maria Masters, 49, whose daughter became embroiled in the drama. She says she hopes her family’s experience will raise awareness about Facebook fakes. “Your kid may think they know someone, but if they haven’t met them in person, they may not exist.”

Friend request

For Kaitlin Masters, now 19, it started in January 2011 with a simple Facebook friend request.

In his early 20s, Kevin San Roman looked like an Abercrombie & Fitch model. He boasted scores of “mutual” male and female friends from her school, St. Brendan High in Westchester.

He lived in Spain, son of a plastic surgeon. He had a sister in Sunny Isles Beach. His cousin, Katy, had been diagnosed at just 6 months old with brain cancer.

And Kevin himself was battling leukemia. The family kept a blog: “Kevin and Katy’s Cancer Journey.”

The blog, which stretched back to July 2009, detailed everything from Kevin’s platelet and white blood-count to the side effects of chemotherapy.

“You have to be very knowledgeable about cancer to put all this on a blog,” said Masters, herself a breast cancer survivor. “It was very, very believable.”

Over the months, Kevin exuded optimism. Treated at Mount Sinai Medical Center, the cancer was in remission. He hoped to one day become an oncologist.

Charming, witty and sensitive, Kevin had studied in Miami and had at least three long-term romances with girls. On the phone, his voice was peculiar — a result, he said, of the chemotherapy.

One of his girlfriends, now 22, said that Kevin figured out where she lived by looking at a Facebook photo. One night, he texted her: “I was outside your house but didn’t have the courage to knock. So I sat on your bench and drank a McFlurry.”

The girl found the empty McDonald’s cup outside.

On another occasion, to her excitement, Kevin planned to take the girl to a family birthday dinner. But he never showed. Kevin called later, hysterical and suicidal, saying he never showed because his grandmother had fallen down the stairs.

“This person is schizo with multiple personalities,” said the girl, who asked not to be identified because of several stalking episodes.

By mid-2011, Kevin continued his romances, but from Spain, where he wrote that he had been forced to return because of a visa mix-up. But in June 2011, two days before he was to return to Miami to start medical school, the blog broadcast shocking news: Kevin died unexpectedly of cancer complications — he choked on his own blood.

The news stunned students, parents and teachers.

The San Roman family continued the blog, asking for photos of Kevin for a slideshow to be played at a funeral in Ibiza.

With her mother’s permission, Kaitlin sent Lucas a message of condolence through Facebook. She was also put at ease when a classmate claimed she had met the San Roman brothers at Dadeland Mall.

They struck up a friendship. Lucas claimed he was temporarily living in Tennessee, where little Katy was receiving treatment for her tumor.

Phone calls

Flirty text messages turned to phone calls. Kaitlin listened to Lucas as he cried over his brother’s death. Together, they watched movies and shopped at an online clothing store together.

Lucas promised to visit Miami soon. He even sent Masters a Facebook message asking for permission to one day take out her daughter. Lucas often charmed the family while on speaker phone.

At one point, Lucas even directed the family to a Chinese restaurant in Coconut Grove, where Kevin’s best friend treated them to a meal to go.

Lucas rarely spoke of Spain but gushed about his family.

Certainly, he had his quirks. His voice sounded child-like, and he displayed a juvenile streak much different from his brother’s personality.

Lucas, like his dead brother, was fiercely devoted to cancer causes. Kevin had promoted a fundraiser for a cancer-stricken St. Brendan’s girl, even buying T-shirts for sale at the April 2011 event.

In January, Lucas organized an Internet “prayer chain,” drawing hundreds of online supporters for a Belen Jesuit teen who was battling cancer.

Lucas wrote: “I lost my brother and best friend last year to leukemia. I don’t think anyone should go through the pain he went throughout his journey.”

One year after Kevin’s death, Lucas urged supporters to release balloons in his honor. Many did.

But time and again, something tragic happened every time Lucas was to visit Miami. Suspicions grew. The final episode: Katy, his little cousin, died days before the family was to throw her a birthday party here.

“He was bawling, crying hysterically,” Masters recalled of the late-night phone call Lucas made to break the news. “We didn’t sleep the whole night trying to comfort him. Looking back, how can someone be so cruel to use the illness of a child as part of their sick obsession of luring young girls into relationships?”

Then, Lucas claimed immigration forced his family to return to Spain. They continued talking via video chat, but the images went only one way — Lucas’ webcam was broken.

Increasingly leery, Kaitlin’s family pressured Lucas to use a new video chat program to communicate both ways. Suddenly, Lucas disappeared.

The next day, a young woman who had been Kevin’s girlfriend contacted Kaitlin with alarming news: She learned that Lucas had suffered a seizure in Spain.

But the girls made a key discovery: Lucas and Kevin shared the same phone number.

Convinced Lucas was fake, Masters turned to a friend, Miami-Dade prosecutor Christine Zahralban, whose office launched a probe. Investigators reviewed phone and business records and interviewed victims.

Prosecutors had probable cause after one underage girl said Kevin once directed her to a porn site.

Meanwhile, Kaitlin confronted Lucas via text: “Who are you?”

The suspect called, insisting he was indeed Lucas, but that he was a poor Miami boy. “I really wanted to believe him. I thought I was in love,” Kaitlin said.

Relieved, Kaitlin made a critical slip: She asked Lucas to call and reassure her mother, who had complained to authorities.

Within minutes, the blog and the Facebook pages associated with the “San Roman” family vanished.

Later that day, Miami-Dade prosecutors called Kaitlin and Masters in for a meeting. Suddenly, as they sat in their office, Lucas called Masters.

She immediately confronted him. He stammered, answering cryptically, refusing to reveal his real name. Zahralban, based on the state’s probe, scribbled questions down on yellow sticky notes.

“What company are you president of? What is the connection to the company, Jardines de Confucio?”

Prosecutors handed her another question. “Who is Cindy Choi?” Masters asked.

Lucas paused. “That’s me.”

The revelation steamrolled Masters. “You’re a f**king girl?!” she yelled.

Kaitlin crumpled to the ground, gagging.

Doral woman

Kevin and Lucas San Roman were actually Cindy Choi, 28, a Chinese restaurant owner living in a gated community in Doral.

In a dramatic phone call, Masters pressed for answers. Choi claimed she was confused about her sexual identity and was trying to “help” the girls, some of whom had relatives affected by cancer, Masters recalled.

At first, Choi seems an unlikely person to target teens on the Internet.

She and her family, of Colombian and Chinese descent, own three restaurants in Miami-Dade — including Coconut Grove’s Confucio Express, where “Lucas” once treated the Masters family to a meal.

Her brother, reached at his home in Doral, refused to allow Choi to speak to The Miami Herald. She did not respond to repeated calls, e-mails and text messages.

Choi’s own personal Facebook page reveals she kept her identities mostly separate, with occasional posts about cancer causes, and hundreds of photos: family cruises; concerts; restaurant meals.

But Choi also posted or texted out dozens of photos and videos of her business partner’s adorable infant son — the same photos “Lucas” posted of a purported cousin named “Tommy.” The boys’ parents told The Herald that Choi frequently babysat the child, and they had no idea their son appeared on fake Facebook pages.

Choi also posted photos of the dying cousin, “Katy” — images stolen from an old blog maintained by the parents of a Maine girl who died of a brain tumor in 2004.

As for the images of the “San Roman” family, Choi admitted “the pictures of the cancer patients were from her friend’s [Facebook] and she basically was getting info from his life and using it as her own,” Doral Detective Yvette Gomez wrote in an e-mail to Masters.

Choi later confessed to Gomez. “She is a very disturbed person,” Gomez wrote.

Choi’s brother insisted his sister would seek psychological help. Both Gomez and Masters sternly warned Choi to stop the fakery. But there was little else they could do.

Münchausen disorder

Experts say Choi likely suffers from Münchausen disorder, in which people create illnesses to garner attention.

And “Münchausen by Internet” is fast being recognized as more people use the power of social media to create fake personas, said Dr. Marc Feldman, a University of Alabama psychiatrist who first coined the phrase.

But Choi’s case, he said, is highly unusual because the deception lasted so long and escalated into targeting young girls.

“The real motive is attention and sympathy and the power over others,” Feldman said. “It does sound sadistic and predatory.”

In the aftermath, the Masters family began contacting other victims, piecing together the extent of Choi’s deception. Kaitlin still struggles to accept that Lucas was a phantom.

“I’m proud of my daughter’s decision to go public with her story. It wasn’t easy, but it’s an important story to tell,” she said. “Cindy Choi may have resumed her life on Facebook, but these victims continue to live in fear and with the psychological torment caused by years of lies.”

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