Despite its name, the Always Hope Adoption Agency seemed cursed. One of the operation’s moms-to-be and her prenatal child were shot dead. A surprisingly high number of pregnant women miscarried. There was the mother who experienced complications that arose from Hurricane Irene. At least two simply went MIA. Dozens of others made last-minute decisions to keep their offspring — after the adoptive parents had shelled out tens of thousands of dollars.
But court records show that the New Haven, Mich., agency’s owner, Tara Lynn Lee, had plenty of good fortune: She made some $2.1 million from 2014 through 2018.
Prosecutors say Lee pulled off a four-year scam in which more than 100 would-be parents were promised babies to adopt, strung along for months and stripped of their money — only to have the arrangements tragically fall through.
In some cases, infants were promised to multiple families — each paying as much as $33,000; in others, they never even existed. Lee told adopters their babies had died in the womb or shortly after being born, or that birth mothers had reneged.
In February, Lee, 38 and a married mother of five, was sentenced to 121 months in prison after she pleaded guilty to two counts of wire fraud.
US Attorney Matthew Schneider described the fraud as a “twisted and sick deceit of innocent people” who tended to find Lee through support groups on Facebook, word of mouth and consulting agencies.
In the end, Lee was brought down by three would-be mothers who banded together to get the FBI’s attention.
“Tara Lee stole my dreams of adopting a baby. She manipulated us,” said victim Julie Faulkenberry. “She crossed every line.”
Faulkenberry, an ER nurse, and her service-manager husband, Jake, met Lee in 2016 after a miscarriage. The Rock Hill, SC, couple already had three children and desperately wanted another when they discovered the Facebook page of Always Hope.
“Just talking over the phone, I fell in love with Tara,” said Faulkenberry, 40.
She was impressed by Lee’s “master’s degree in social work” — which turned out to be a lie — and not put off by the woman’s rough edge and penchant for profanity. After all, Lee rationalized it as a way of “meeting my mamas where they are,” meaning the pregnant drug addicts and prostitutes who turned to her to place their babies.
“I didn’t care if she was badass,” said Faulkenberry. “The way she talked about the mothers, she sounded super-engaged.”
To raise Always Hope’s $20,000 fee, the Faulkenberrys took out a loan against their home and dipped into their savings; their church held a fundraiser to help.
“We planned to name the baby Jeremiah Elijah,” Faulkenberry said. “We were going to call him Eli.”
“Tara Lee stole my dreams of adopting a baby. She manipulated us. She crossed every line.”
– Julie Faulkenberry
Although she had no contact with the supposed birth mother, a drug-addicted prostitute named Mariah, Faulkenberry texted Lee for weekly updates.
“She always told me she was busy with her mamas,” said Faulkenberry. “Once Tara got her money, contact diminished unless there was a problem” — like “Mariah” needing $80 for a bus ticket.
Before the anticipated October 2017 birth of “Eli,” Lee called and advised Faulkenberry to sit down.
“Tara told me that doctors found a genetic abnormality consistent with incest. She said that the baby’s face, heart, hands and feet were not developed, and he had a hole in his brain,” Faulkenberry recalled. “Two days later I got a call that the baby was born and lived for 45 minutes. Tara said [the birth mother] named him Jesus Elijah to honor our middle name.”
Devastated, Faulkenberry felt comforted by the promise of a package that would contain the birth certificate, death certificate and photos of the newborn. But 10 months passed without her receiving the materials.
Hearing that Lee was shutting down Always Hope, Faulkenberry pressed her to send the mementos. Instead, she sent a text.
“It said that [Lee] didn’t have the photos or certificate and that, by the way, she hoped I didn’t think the adoption was a scam,” Faulkenberry recalled.
In fact, Faulkenberry had begun to suspect that very thing after conversations with others whose adoptions arranged through Always Hope had taken tragic turns.
“It didn’t seem right that so many people were not having successes,” she said. “Plus I thought back to how distant Tara was once she had received our money.”
Her beliefs were further solidified when Lee finally made good on a partial refund of $8,000. It came from TL Adoption Services.
“I realized that she was starting another adoption service. At that point the check felt like blood money; I wondered who paid her so she could pay us back,” said Faulkenberry. “I decided to get answers. I wanted to know whether or not Eli even existed. More than anything, I wanted Tara stopped.”
Reaching out to others who had planned to adopt through Always Hope, Faulkenberry found she was far from alone — and the stories were outrageous.
Among the most jaw-dropping: Lee’s invention of a mother and baby who were killed with a single bullet.
“The adopting parents were surprised that such a story wouldn’t make the local news,” said Faulkenberry. “They called the county police and there was no report. Tara asked them to contribute to the mom’s and baby’s funeral but the parents had already figured out that something wasn’t right.”
An early ally in Faulkenberry’s quest was Cortney Edmond, 36, a homemaker near Denver, Colo. She and her husband Curtis, a programming engineer, gave an initial $9,000 for the expenses of their birth mother, “Porsche.” Lee squeezed them for another $4,000 over a three-month period.
“She would say, ‘Porsche’s family got high and ate all her food; now you have to give her more money,’ ” said Edmond. She blew some $30,000 in all and never received a baby.
Homemaker Sarah Scott, 39, and her husband spent $11,000 on one failed adoption and $13,000 on a second try.
“Tara gave the woman $4,000 for May through September and kept $9,000 for herself,” Scott said of what she later discovered.
When the pregnant woman (who, in this case, was real) decided to keep her baby, Lee “threatened to throw her and the baby out of the apartment” — which Scott had financed — “and she did. I was horrified.”
Disgusted by it all, the three women teamed up, launching a private Facebook group to attract others with similar Always Hope stories. Anecdotes piled up — stretching from Georgia to Indiana to California.
One even involved a fake sonogram. “I asked Tara how the mother was doing. And she replied, ‘Funny you should ask. She is in an ultrasound right now,’ ” said Kate Smith, a 33-year-old in Lacrosse, Wis. Considering that it was 9 p.m. on a Sunday, “I thought that was kind of weird. But Tara texted, ‘I just saw a picture of your baby. She’s a girl. Here she is.’ I later found out that [the sonogram] came from a prank web site.”
Amber Morey, 40, was looking to adopt the baby of a woman “who wanted to continue school and was not ready to have a child.” Amazingly, Lee claimed to have found just such a mom, a Detroit co-ed named Stacy.
“Tara said that Stacy wants me to be the mother and I started bawling,” remembered Morey, a 40-year-old nurse in Cottonwood, Ariz. “But Tara told me to be careful of who I tell about this because there is a high failure rate. I kept it a secret.”
“I later found out that [the sonogram] came from a prank web site.”
– Amber Morey
She gave Lee $9,500. Morey was thrilled that the due date was just before her own birthday.
Weeks before, Lee told Morey that Stacy’s parents wanted the baby. Undeterred, said Morey, “I told Tara . . . that I would fly with my mom to Detroit. From what Tara said, Stacy was still on board with the adoption and her parents were causing the issue. I wanted to be there when the baby was born. I had hope that this would all work out.”
As the birth date came and went, Morey and her mother waited at a relative’s house in Kalamazoo, ready to make the two-hour drive to Detroit once Stacy got to the hospital.
“But Tara told me that Stacy did not check in; she had no idea where Stacy was,” said Morey. “I worried that she did something to the baby. I had bad dreams about Tara calling me and saying that the baby was found in a dumpster. I was ready to drive around Detroit to find them.”
After Lee speculated that Stacy had kept the baby, Morey flew home. While she was crushed, she didn’t seek legal recourse because there wasn’t any to seek.
“You have no legal right to the child [before adoption papers are signed],” Morey said. Lee suggested Morey could get the money back as a tax refund. By the time Morey found out that wasn’t true, the FBI was already investigating Lee.
Two years later, Morey said, she still feels incomplete. “I know I need to shut down the feeling. But I prayed for that baby every day. I woke up and wished the baby good morning. The baby was so real,” Morey said.
“A part of me still has that baby with me.”
Even as their dossier of evidence grew, the Facebook moms found justice elusive. Attorneys general in Florida and North Carolina wanted nothing to do with the case because it crossed state borders, the women said. Faulkenberry contacted an FBI tip line, left a voicemail and received no response.
Then at a Little League game in 2018, she was introduced to a friend’s father who had been with the FBI. “I told him minimal pieces about the case and he told me to call his buddy at a nearby FBI office,” said Faulkenberry.
The buddy and his colleagues were very interested. “We moms worked to find them more victims,” she added.
On Nov. 11, 2018, federal agents raided the Michigan home of Lee. They found Rolex and Cartier watches, bags from Louis Vuitton and multiple pairs of Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses. It was impossible to miss her splashy kitchen, freshly renovated at a cost of $45,000.
“We were at [a mall] in Michigan and everybody in Louis Vuitton knew her name,” said Edmond, who had visited Lee at home. “She wore the red-bottom shoes and her 5-year-old wore Yeezys. Her teenage daughter had a new Mustang.”
FBI agents built their case through interviews with many of the more than 100 victims who had joined the Facebook group. To be fair, some two dozen adoptions arranged by Lee did happen as they were supposed to. But in all, she defrauded more than 160 couples.”
Lee’s February sentencing was packed with spectators including about 20 victims, many — including Faulkenberry, Scott and Edmond — there to make impact statements.
During the trial, Morey finally learned the truth about the “baby” she had come to think of as her own.
“I turned to Tara and asked, ‘Did Stacy ever exist?’ Tara’s response was, ‘In my heart she did.’
“There was an audible gasp in the courtroom,” Morey remembered. “People could not believe what she said. But I was thinking, ‘OK. Now, at least, I know and can move on.’ ”