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Prosecutor: Clear evidence of crimes in acid attack hoax

Image: Bethany Storro
This image provided by the Legacy Emanuel Medical Center shows Bethany Storro prior to surgery.AP file
/ Source: msnbc.com news services

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.

"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.

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.

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.