IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Inside Dateline: Potential adoptive parents easy scam targets?

Victoria Corderi: Were couples trying to adopt a baby taken advantage of and strung along? Dateline saw firsthand how this could be done.


Are prospective parents who want to adopt easy targets? (Victoria Corderi, Dateline correspondent)

NBC's Victoria Corderi

On certain stories, my faith in humanity gets tested. Because of the unique nature of my job, I have witnessed people at their best and at their worst, the caring and the callous. I saw both sides during the course of the compelling adoption story we are airing Friday night.

I met people from different parts of the country who had shared the same goal: to give a loving home to a baby who needed one. None of them arrived easily at the decision to adopt. It was only after years of trying to conceive, enduring miscarriages and costly fertility treatments that they'd finally reached a place of acceptance.  And once they made the decision, they became hopeful, even enthusiastic.  They learned that the Internet makes finding a birth mother potentially easier and more affordable. They were ready. They were willing.  They were, in short, sitting ducks.

All of them knew to expect disappointments. They might spend time and money on a prospective birth mother, get emotionally invested, and then learn at the last minute that she changed her mind.  But no one we met could imagine what they believe happened to them: that their situations would be exploited, that they would be targeted by someone who knew just what she was doing, just how to string them along, just how to play people who are desperate for a child.       

How could it be done?  We learned firsthand.

The Dateline report on the 'Web of Deceit' airs July 9, Sunday.

July 6, 2006 |

How do you know when a scam is a scam? (Allison Orr, Dateline Producer)

When we set out to investigate private adoption scams, we knew we didn't want to do a typical story that simply re-told events that had happened in the past. Our goal was much more elaborate: to capture events in progress and follow them as they unfolded.  All on camera, of course.

My first task was to figure out—could it be done?  After-all, how common was the "birth-mother" scheme we were interested in? How many pregnant women (or women pretending to be pregnant) would falsely promise to give a child up for adoption in exchange for getting their rent and expenses paid?  Surely, there seemed like an easier way to make a dishonest buck?

It didn't take long to conclude that this sort of con was a small but very real phenomenon.   There are no statistics to rely on, but I very quickly found dozens of families, adoption attorneys and adoption agencies eager to share their own horror stories, and willing to help us find a case to profile for Dateline. 

Now came the second and much bigger challenge-- deciding how and when to investigate an adoption in real time. After all, this wasn't like investigating a shady retailer, or a bogus government program. At the center of this story was an innocent human life.  We couldn't do anything to disrupt what might otherwise be successful adoption.  And our investigation was complicated by this key fact: in any private adoption it is perfectly legal for a pregnant woman to change her mind even after she's taken money from an adoptive family.  If a woman offered a child and then reneged, how would we know it wasn't just a case of cold feet? 

In January, I got a call about the Coleman's case through a series of contacts I'd made with various adoption professionals.  The Colemans, a hopeful adoptive family from Tennessee, had been working with a pregnant woman named Christy for almost 2 months. They'd sent her money, met her in person and talked with her on the phone every day.  Then Christy suddenly disappeared.  Had she taken them for a ride, or simply changed her mind?  Lori Coleman had done some investigating on her own and had good reason to believe that Christy had done this before.  It sounded fishy.

As we began to investigate, one thing was clear-- "Christy" was not who she said she was.  Her name, social security number, address and other personal details she'd provided to the Coleman's could not be verified. She was apparently lying about her identity, but was she lying about wanting to give her child to the Colemans?

Within days, "Christy" was back in touch with the Colemans and was again promising them her baby.  They agreed to meet in person.  A team of Dateliners— with hidden camera equipment—flew to Nashville to be there.  From a Nashville hotel room, I worked the phones and the Internet--- calling contacts, reading adoption message boards, visiting adoption chatrooms:   Had anyone heard of the woman who called herself Christy?  Did they have documents?  Photos?  Could they send them now, tonight? 

By the morning of our meeting with "Christy," I had talked to about a half dozen families or adoption agencies who believed they'd previously been conned by the person we were about to meet.  Two families had even e-mailed photos of her.  But the most compelling bit of evidence that "Christy" was not being honest about her adoption plans was something I witnessed with my own eyes.

The night before our meeting, "Christy" called Lori Coleman and asked for money to buy food.  Lori left her a gift certificate the local Walmart, while another producer and I waited at the store for "Christy" to show up.  Soon, we were following "Christy" around Walmart watching her shop. She bypassed the grocery section and went right for the baby department. I stood just a few feet from "Christy" as she casually fingered a rack of newborn outfits. I listened to her talk non-chalantly to her friend about needing baby bottles. And I watched her fill her cart with diapers. My gut said this is not what a woman does when she's about to give a child up for adoption. The scene reminded me of myself during those last weeks of pregnancy: browsing baby stores in anticipation, stocking up, as if shopping alone could ready oneself for the shock of becoming a mother. 

As I watched "Christy" shop, I was becoming convinced — this woman was not planning to give her baby to the Colemans.


A verdict for a 19-year-old murder case (Victoria Corderi, Dateline correspondent)

As I sat in the Atlanta courthouse listening to attorneys’ dramatic closing arguments, it was hard not to think about the dignified couple sitting  in the front row—to wonder what these minutes were like for them.  Indeed, what the past 19 years have been like. They were sitting not ten feet from the man charged with engineering the brutal, point-blank assassination of their daughter.

Lita Sullivan's mother, state Rep. Jo Ann McClinton, right, and father, Emory McClinton, left, react as a jury convicts millionaire James Sullivan of murder for hiring a hit man to kill his socialite wife 19 years ago in Fulton County Superior Court in Atlanta, Friday, March 10, 2006. The jury of three men and nine women took a little more than four-and-a-half hours to find Sullivan guilty of arranging the fatal shooting his 35-year-old second wife, on Jan. 16, 1987. District Attorney Paul Howard is to their left. (AP Photo/Ric Feld)Ric Feld / AP

When we cover a murder trial, we go to great lengths to present the back story.  We interview friends and family and attorneys in an effort to make the case come alive.  The victim in this case was Lita McClinton Sullivan.  She was murdered in 1987 when a gunman posing as a flower deliveryman shot her with a 9mm gun hidden by the roses he carried. Her parents were the people who really helped me to understand who Lita was, and the insight came not so much from what they told me about their daughter and her disastrous marriage, but what they conveyed about themselves and how they raised Lita.

JoAnne and Emory McClinton have almost a regal bearing. They live in an old Southern house that makes you think of Tara in “Gone with the Wind.”  Huge white columns anchor the front of the brick house, and the expansive rooms are formal, but welcoming. Mr. McClinton told me the house was built in 1910 and has been a work in progress since they bought it in the 1960s. It was there they raised their three children in a strict and traditional way. They insisted on manners and responsible behavior. As a teenager, Lita was not allowed to wear short-shorts or have sleepovers at other people’s homes. Her parents would chaperone her to parties, concerts and even discos.  Lita’s friends always gathered at their house because the McClintons wanted to keep an eye on the festivities.  Even into adulthood, Lita was required to have a formal brunch with the family on Sundays and to make the corn fritters. The McClintons family held meetings regularly to discuss issues with their children. Parents, they told me, are not there to be friends with their kids, they are there to guide them.

Imagine how hard it was for them to let go when she became an adult!   They were able to, they told me, because of their respect for the woman Lita had become.

They didn’t approve of the man Lita was dating in 1976. The McClintons found Jim Sullivan, a transplanted Bostonian, arrogant and disrespectful of their genteel Southern ways. Also, Lita was only 23, and Sullivan was a 34-year-old divorced father of four. The McClintons worried their daughter would face difficulties as part of an interracial couple. They said they told her that in one of their family meetings. Still, she decided to marry him anyway, and they didn’t interfere.

What happened next was a blur of bad news. The marriage soured early on, according to Lita’s friends and family, because Sullivan was stingy and controlling.  He sold a business he’d inherited for $5 million and the couple moved to a stunning mansion in Palm Beach. But while Sullivan was living the high life on the social circuit, his wife sat home, miserable. The McClintons say Jim Sullivan was brazenly unfaithful, and it took their daughter a long time to admit it. They believe Lita endured it because she wanted to prove to them she could make the marriage work. Lita’s best friend told me she and Lita had been raised to believe divorce was not an option. The McClintons, when I interviewed them, had been married 56 years. 

Lita finally called it quits after eight and a half years of marriage.  She moved back to the elegant Atlanta townhouse the couple owned. It was supposed to be the beginning of a new life— instead it became a dead end, thanks to a cold-hearted hit man who shot her dead as she opened the door to receive her favorite flowers, roses. She was 35 years old. 

That was in 1987.
Jim Sullivan became the main suspect because on the day Lita was murdered, she was supposed to go to a divorce hearing that would decide how much money she would get.  Sullivan was in Palm Beach that day, but the McClintons told me they knew he was behind the killing. Police, though, could never gather enough evidence to make a case stick, and when authorities finally were able to bring a murder indictment against him, Jim Sullivan was living in Costa Rica. But he fled his home before he could be arrested. 

It wasn’t until 2002 that authorities tracked him down in Thailand. Two years later, he was extradited to the U.S.. The prosecution’s theory is he hired a hit man to get rid of his wife before he had to pay her a dime in their increasingly nasty divorce.

Sullivan looked like a tired, elderly man in court— not the bon vivant social climber who went to the right parties in Palm Beach.  He was inscrutable throughout the trial.  No matter how emotional or intense the atmosphere in the courtroom became, Sullivan sat there, sphinx-like.
My eye couldn’t help wandering to that front row often, to the bench behind Sullivan, where the McClintons sat, clutching each other for support through the difficult testimony. 

Was there enough evidence to show Jim Sullivan paid a hit man to kill his wife?  It had been 19 years, and this certainly was not an open-and-shut case.    

I was there in that emotion-charged courtroom when the verdict was announced. Tune in to "Dateline" Saturday (8 p.m.) to find out Jim Sullivan’s fate and see exclusive interviews with the jurors and reaction from Lita’s parents.