Video: Woman behind acid attack hoax faces charges

  1. Transcript of: Woman behind acid attack hoax faces charges

    MATT LAUER, co-host: But let us begin this half-hour with the woman who admitted burning herself with acid now facing criminal charges in that case. NBC 's Kristen Welker has the latest. Kristen , good morning to you.

    KRISTEN WELKER reporting: Good morning to you, Matt. Bethany Storro is being charged with three counts of felony theft for allegedly taking money from the community that was trying to help pay her medical bills. Now prosecutors say she has to pay. Bethany Storro claimed she was the victim of a vicious acid attack , but prosecutors say Storro was no victim. They say the community was duped and donated nearly $30,000 to help pay her medical bills.

    Mr. TONY GOLIK (Deputy Prosecutor for Clark County, Washington): She will be arrested. The police know where she is. I did file the charges. I certainly haven't seen a case like this before.

    WELKER: Last month Storro told police that a woman she didn't know approached her and threw acid in her face. Burned and bandaged, she spoke out in an emotional news conference at the hospital.

    Ms. BETHANY STORRO: I want people to know what this person did to me and the trauma it's caused me.

    WELKER: But last week police say the 28-year-old Vancouver , Washington , woman admitted the trauma was self-inflicted, the whole ordeal a hoax. Her remorseful parents apologized for her actions and pledged to get help for their daughter.

    Ms. NANCY NEUWELT (Mother): We're going to be there for her. She's got a long road ahead of her, but she's on the road and we're going to walk it with her.

    WELKER: Court documents reveal that doctors and police were skeptical of Storro 's story as they investigated. Her burn pattern was even, as if the acid had been applied to her face rather than thrown, as she claimed. There were no splash marks on her body or clothes and no physical evidence at the scene. Also nowhere to be found, those miraculous sunglasses Bethany claimed protected her sight.

    Ms. STORRO: So I went and bought them, and that was 20 minutes before the acid was thrown in my face. So if I hadn't have had those, I probably would have been blind.

    WELKER: According to the arrest warrant, Storro confessed the burns were "self-administered" and came from "drain cleaner" she purchased at a hardware store. She also bought "a pair of gloves" to wear while "applying the caustic substance" to her face, and applied the acid with towels and "made several applications" hours before the incident was reported.

    Ms. STORRO: After this is on for a few days...

    WELKER: The lingering question: Why? Storro told police she first wanted to kill herself, but when she realized that wasn't working she used the drain cleaner to change her appearance. Quote, "I thought maybe this was the answer to all my problems, to have a completely different face."

    Mr. JOHN PAX: Just shocked.

    WELKER: John Pax , a co-owner of a local fitness center, is one of the many people who prosecutors say was a victim of Storro 's story. He raised and donated hundreds of dollars to help her.

    Mr. PAX: I don't think anyone is really mad about what she did. We're just more sad because why would someone really do that to themselves?

    WELKER: Storro 's parents are also baffled and heartbroken. They have pledged to make things right.

    Unidentified Man: All money will be returned in the appropriate manner. That will be guaranteed.

    WELKER: Storro reportedly spent $ 1500 of that donated money on dinners, train tickets, even purchases at Target. Friends say she's checked herself into a local hospital for treatment and police are expected to take her into custody once she's released. Matt :

    LAUER: All right, Kristen , thanks very much. Kristen Welker in Los Angeles . Clark County prosecutor Tony Golik is with us now exclusively. Mr. Golik , good morning to you.

    Mr. GOLIK: Good morning, Matt.

    LAUER: I have to imagine that given the circumstances of this case -- we clearly have a young lady who is not emotionally sound; no one would do what she did to herself if they were thinking rationally -- that it had to make your decision a tough call. Take me through it.

    Mr. GOLIK: Well, the decision on charging is based not really on what she did to herself at the time she put the caustic substance on her face, but based on her action in the -- in the two weeks afterwards when she was holding the press conferences and indicating that somebody else had done this to her and taking money from members of the community . It was -- it was that action based on -- like I say, her action in the weeks following that made the decision to charge.

    LAUER: I know. I know. But again, going back to her emotional state, I mean, if the parents promised that the money would be returned, was there any thought in your mind that this young lady needs help, not a -- not a felony charge?

    Mr. GOLIK: I think that, you know, we need to look at it as the case moves forward on how we're going to handle it. But it was clear from the evidence that we have multiple felony crimes that were committed. And it seemed like a straightforward decision that felony charges should be filed.

    LAUER: Do you have to now, after filing these specific charges, have to prove that she concocted this story deliberately to cash in and get that money ?

    Mr. GOLIK: No. Like I say, the charges are based on her actions afterwards. I don't have to prove that while she was putting the acid on her face that she was at that time thinking she would do it to get money . The theft by deception charges, like I say, are for her behavior afterwards, where afterwards she's holding press conferences saying that a black female did it to her.

    LAUER: Right.

    Mr. GOLIK: And, you know, telling the -- telling the community that this happened to her and asking for help.

    LAUER: You talk about the community . I was interested, in Kristen 's piece, to hear that one gentleman who helped raise money for her medical bills say that people aren't angry, they're sad. Have you been hearing similar thoughts from others in the community ?

    Mr. GOLIK: Very mixed emotions from the community . There are a lot of people in the community here that are very upset with her behavior, very angry and want to see her pay. There's also a lot of people that say, you know, this is a very sad case. Like I say, you know, I'm looking at the facts and the evidence in making a charging decision. And based on her behavior and, you know, taking the money , spending a lot of the money , like I say, the charging decision was a simple one.

    LAUER: And real quickly, I know people around her say she's incredibly remorseful. Is this a situation where you would be open to some kind of a plea deal and get this over with?

    Mr. GOLIK: That's a distinct possibility. We'll need to get her into court, get a lawyer assigned so I can talk with a lawyer, find out if she really is remorseful or not, and we'll need to get the case proceeding and find out how it goes.

    LAUER: Tony Golik . Mr. Golik , I appreciate your time this morning. Thanks very much.

    Mr. GOLIK: Thanks, Matt.

Image: Bethany Storro
AP file
This image provided by the Legacy Emanuel Medical Center shows Bethany Storro prior to surgery.
msnbc.com news services
updated 9/21/2010 1:18:16 PM ET 2010-09-21T17:18:16

A prosecutor in the case of a Washington state woman who falsely claimed a stranger had thrown acid in her face said Tuesday that the decision to charge her with theft was an easy one.

Clark County Deputy Prosecutor Tony Golik told NBC's TODAY show that the charges are based on the press conferences that 28-year-old Bethany Storro held and the money she collected after the Aug. 30 hoax.

Storro has since admitted smearing drain cleaner on her face in an attempt to kill herself.

"It was clear from the evidence that we had multiple felony crimes that were committed and it seemed like a straightforward decision that felony charges should be filed," Golik said.

Despite the charges, Golik said there are "very mixed emotions" in the community about Storro's actions.

"There are a lot of people in the community that are very upset with her behavior and want to see her pay, and there are other people who say this is a very sad case," he said.

Court records indicate Storro has spent about $1,500 of the $28,000 collected on dinner for her parents, clothes for herself and a bill for a previous laser facial peel.

Storro faces three second-degree felony theft charges. If convicted as charged, she could spend a maximum of five years in jail.

Storro's parents have said all money raised for her will be returned.

In court papers, Storro is quoted as saying she was trying to kill herself, or at least get a new face, when she put caustic drain cleaner on her face Aug. 30. She admitted last week her injuries were self-inflicted.

Storro had claimed said she was splashed in the face with the liquid near the Esther Park area of downtown Vancouver.

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"I thought there would be no evidence of me doing it to myself," Storro told police, according to NBC affiliate KGW TV of Portland Ore. "And then you guys — I thought that you guys would give up on trying to find the person and it would be done," court documents showed.

Court documents showed Storro said she self-administered the acid to her face with drain cleaner purchased in a local hardware store. Storro bought a pair of gloves at the time, records showed, according to KGW TV's report.

Storro told a detective that at first, she was trying to kill herself. Secondly, she stated, if that proved not to be fatal, then she could get her face redone, KGW TV reported.

"Then when I realized it wasn't killing me, I thought maybe this was the answer to all my problems. To have a completely different face," she said.

She said she bought the gloves to wear while using towels to apply the caustic substance to her face in a restroom of a park near Clark college, hours before she reported being attacked.

Storro originally claimed a black woman with a ponytail threw acid in her face at night as she was celebrating a new job and had just bought a pair of sunglasses.

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Splash patterns and other parts of the story, like the wearing of sunglasses at night, led to the unraveling of Storro's story, police said.

Police said it was important to get the word of Storro's confession out immediately to assure the public knew that the Esther Park area of downtown Vancouver, scene of the alleged attack, was safe.

Just a week earlier, KGW TV reported that a remarkably upbeat and candid Storro sat in front of reporters at Legacy Emanuel Hospital and described how she was injured.

She claimed her attacker said "Hey pretty girl, do you want to drink this?" before splashing the acid that burned her face.

Storro said she held the news conference then to draw attention to efforts to find the attacker, but also to talk about her faith.

"I'm here today because of Jesus Christ," she said at the time, adding that the strength of her faith would allow her to move forward.

However, doubts about Storro's veracity were already spreading.

Media analyses, including a posting in The Vancouver Voice, questioned why in her photograph acid burns were absent from her face along her hairline, eyes or lips and none were reported on her neck, shoulders or hair or inside her nose or mouth.

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The Vancouver Voice also had reported that homeless witnesses claimed Storro was alone when she fell to the ground screaming.

Chats on The Columbian newspaper website had also questioned the veracity of Storro's tale.

Storro said that while in the hospital, a Safeway representative gave her a check for $3,000, which was placed into her personal account, KGW TV reported.

She said she spent about $1,500 of the money on dinners for her parents, a train ticket for her sister, "stuff at Target", clothes for herself and round-trip train tickets to Seattle for her and her mother for the weekend of Sept. 12. She also used the money to pay off a $620 bill to a Portland clinic where she had a laser peel on Aug. 30, according to KGW TV.

A fund set up at Umpqua Bank for Storro, in the name of her mother Nancy Neuwelt, has accumulated $4,596.04. That included $800 from a fundraiser at Anytime Fitness.

An account at Riverview Savings Bank in Vancouver has $20,000 in Storro's name. The bank had held a fundraising golf tournament for her.

Nancy and Joseph Neuwelt said last week they didn't know why their daughter lied.

"Our hope is the medical community can find the answer," Nancy Neuwelt said at a Friday news conference outside their Vancouver home. "She’s obviously dealing with some deep internal psychological problems we had no knowledge of. She has a long road ahead of her, and we are going to walk it with her."

The couple said Storro, 28, was "extremely sorry" for causing the community pain.

The Neuwelts said they each believed "as any good parent would" that their daughter had been the victim of an attack. They said did not know until Thursday that the ordeal was a hoax.

Joseph Neuwelt said all money donated to his daughter's relief fund will be returned through the proper channels.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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