Leslie W.: The Munchausen Mom
On the morning of November 10, 2008, Leslie, the mother of five and expectant mother of twins, called her husband and other family members from the local hospital with devastating news. She reported that she had just given birth to the twins, whom she had already named Ethan and Emily, and—at only five months of gestation—they had each taken an agonal breath before dying. The hospital had already cremated them and she sought to go home to grieve. The family picked her up and worked with her to plan a funeral service, which was conducted at the church they attended regularly.
The service took place on November 13th and was a moving experience for the attendees, especially the four of the five siblings who participated (10-year-old stepson N., the “black sheep,” was absent). Leslie had presented the pastor with a letter to be read during the funeral, one she had written from the perspective of the deceased twins, entitled, “A Letter to Our Daddy.” In it, the twins told each of the family members (except N.) that they would be in Heaven, patiently waiting for them. The children and others cried, their gazes lingering on the framed ultrasound photos of two well-defined fetuses and a “Huggable Teddy Bear Urn” containing their ashes.
Though the pastor and most others never doubted the sincerity of the sorrow, everything that had unfolded had been a lie. Leslie had not been pregnant; indeed, her tubes had been tied before she ever married her second and current husband, Chris. Statements that the fetuses in the photos already “looked like Chris” were misguided. In fact, they had been appropriated from websites. There were no records at the hospital of the births or deaths of the twins.
Except for an occasional “quirk,” Leslie was viewed in the community as a fine parent who participated regularly in school and church events with her children. She was viewed as a mother who was busy caring for her children while nearing the end of her training to become a registered nurse..
As these facts unfolded, the Sheriff’s Department conducted an investigation to determine if any criminal laws had been violated in regard to the fake funeral. The investigation was revelatory, and a search warrant was approved for execution at the W. family’s residence. A partially-completed pregnancy calendar was uncovered, and the dining room had been converted into a nursery for the twins, replete with baby furniture, clothing, and accessories—all intended to maintain the facade. A subsequent forensic search of the home computers revealed even more. Leslie had visited websites dealing with Munchausen syndrome and Munchausen by proxy; had downloaded ultrasound images; and had searched using terms such as “grieving after loss” and “fetal demise.” There were even online inquiries concerning urns and grave markers for babies a full five days prior to Leslie’s feigning the births, deaths, and cremations of the illusory twins. One of the most interesting items discovered in the home was a small wooden box that had been secured to the walls and floor of the linen closet in the master bathroom. This box was later determined to have been constructed in place to warehouse N. each night, with plastic bands strapped to him to reduce the chance of noisy disruption or escape. Leslie initially claimed that the box housed animals, but eventually admitted that they regularly confined N. Though Leslie and Chris said that the confinement was necessitated by his violent rages, a psychological exam performed later confirmed that Noah’s only diagnosis was PTSD related to his family’s mistreatment.
On November 21st, Leslie and Chris were arrested and eventually charged with several counts of cruelty to children and theft by deception.
Investigators pressed on and discovered that, based on Leslie’s falsehoods to her, the 9-year-old daughter, T., believed that she was dying of cancer. Chris, T.’s grandparents, her teachers, her friends, and her church family had been similarly misled—as had those who dropped coins into canisters Leslie had placed at stores. Leslie had even taken T. to two different hospitals where T. thought she was being attended by medical personnel and receiving chemotherapy, while telling her teacher that she didn’t want to die. At the same time, Leslie’s 13-year-old son believed he needed a liver transplant, again because Leslie convinced him that this was so. Chris was prepared to donate part of his own liver for this transplant. As a small child, the boy had already had his normal gallbladder removed, partly due to regular vomiting for unclear reasons, but mostly at Leslie’s instigation. Leslie’s 11-year-old daughter was a mixed race child whom Leslie said was the result of a rape by a former co-worker, but she had never reported a rape to law enforcement and the claim was viewed by the family as suspect: certain family members said that Leslie conceived this child after observing how much attention another family member had received after having given birth to a mixed race child.
The children carried other medical and psychological diagnoses that were based mostly on Leslie’s exaggerated or fraudulent claims. They have been scarred, but are relieved to know that they are not going to die from the diseases they thought they had. For the most part, they are doing much better in foster care. Following two-and-a-half years of incarceration, Leslie pleaded guilty in Superior Court and was sentenced to eight years in the state prison system, along with 30 years of probation and an order not to contact the children without explicit permission from the court and other designated agencies. She was also ordered to make financial restitution to the victims who had donated money for the cancer treatments for her daughter, T.