The boy who told authorities he was abandoned by his parents only days before his 13th birthday is actually a 25-year-old woman who has attempted similar scams in at least 10 other states.
Officials discovered the woman’s true identity Wednesday after Vermont authorities contacted Utah about a similar case.
When confronted, Birdie Jo Hoaks confessed to making up the story and said she was simply trying to find a warm place to stay, Salt Lake County sheriff’s Sgt. Jim Vaughn said.
On Dec. 20, Hoaks called Utah social services officials posing as a boy and told them she had been left at a bus stop by her stepmother and father.
She provided a birth certificate for Michael Ross, who would celebrate his 13th birthday on Christmas.
Ross told authorities his parents were planning on driving to Mexico and gave authorities a letter supposedly written by his stepmother, which said she could no longer care for him because his father has AIDS and his birth mother was dead.
The story touched hearts nationwide. By Christmas, officials had received calls from more than 50 people offering donations, gifts and even their homes. The state and a local newspaper both set up trust funds.
“I’m just glad, frankly, that it unraveled as quickly as it did,” said Mary Noonan, director of the Division of Family Services. Authorities said any donations would be returned.
Vermont officials contacted Utah on Wednesday and provided a photograph of Hoaks. She was arrested there in 1993 for a similar scam and sentenced to 23 days in jail.
Hoaks was booked Wednesday for investigation of making false or inconsistent material statements to a judge and theft of services, Vaughn said. She could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.
In April, Hoaks told officials in Rapid City, S.D., that she was 13-year-old Nathan Devine, who had been abandoned by his mother who could no longer care for him.
Hoaks received about $728 in cash and benefits before workers at a youth home became suspicious and called police.
Hoaks served seven months of a nine-month sentence for welfare fraud before being released from a South Dakota jail on Oct. 11. She also paid $526 of a $1,747 fine, and completed 170 of 200 hours of court-ordered community service.