Adoption scam artist sentenced to federal prison

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — A Macomb County woman who collected more than $2.1 million from couples who wanted to adopt children and spent the money on luxury jewelry, trips and electronics was sentenced Wednesday to more than 10 years in federal prison.

Tara Lynn Lee of New Haven also was ordered to pay more than $1 million restitution for a scheme that matched adoptive parents with birth mothers who were non-existent, not pregnant or uninterested in adoption. Several times, Lee matched adoptive parents with one birth mother, prosecutors said.

Tara Lee

Federal court records and statements from victims portray Lee, operator of the unlicensed Always Hope Pregnancy and Education Center, as a scam artist with expensive tastes — everything from French handbags to $43,000 shopping sprees at Louis Vuitton and $130,000 splurges at jewelers Cartier and Tiffany & Co. — dozens of failed adoptions and scarred victims. That includes one woman who had hoped to adopt a baby that prosecutors say never existed and is now left with an "empty nursery that I cannot bring myself to take down," the woman told the court.

U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman sentenced Lee six months after she pleaded guilty to a fraud scheme.

"She broke her victims’ hearts, over and over again. In some cases, she stole her victims’ ability to become parents," Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Woodward wrote in a sentencing memo. "It is impossible to quantify the emotional and psychological pain that she caused to countless families."

Lee, for example, admitted that in June 2018 she told a client that a birth mother named RaShaunda had been shot and killed and the baby had died.

“This was false. Lee made up this story because RaShaunda did not exist,” according to a plea agreement signed by Lee. The woman had paid $15,000 by credit card.

"Like other criminals burdened with the task of dispersing ill-gotten gains, (Tara) Lee left in her wake a trail of luxury items," federal prosecutors said.

Lee's lawyer Paul Stablein pushed for a less than three-year sentence, characterizing Lee as a mother of five who provided helpful adoption services for some families and served underprivileged children in Ghana.

"Ms. Lee has taken full responsibility for the false statements she made," the lawyer wrote in a sentencing memorandum. "She intends to pay back every penny of restitution if she is able. Her involvement in this case appears to be an aberration from what, by all accounts, was a sincere desire to help women and children who were in need."

In requesting a more than 10-year sentence, prosecutors filed photos of Lee's luxury purchases, including boxes filled with baubles, some still containing the shopping tags.

"Like other criminals burdened with the task of dispersing ill-gotten gains, Lee left in her wake a trail of luxury items," Woodward wrote.

There were Rolex watches and Cartier boxes. Investigators found Dolce & Gabbana glasses, bracelets upon bracelets and rows and rows of rings.

Federal agents documented Tara Lee's luxury purchases during a search, including designer glasses from, Bulgari, Dolce & Gabbana and Valentino.

From 2014-18, Lee used more than $29,000 from the fraud to upgrade the cabinets in her home and buy new counters and furniture.

The fraud financed extensive travel, too. She spent more than $26,600 on flights and almost $13,000 on boats.

"Lee’s French handbags and expensive jewelry was paid for by people hoping that she might help them realize the simple dream of parenthood," Woodward wrote.