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Strange cases of 'teen' impostor

Sunday, April 22, 2001

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

ALTOONA -- She was fresh off a bus from York County, she told Altoona police.

Her name was Stephanie Danielle Lewis, she said, all of 16, originally from Memphis, Tenn.

She wore braids and a short, baby-doll-style dress. And she had a dreadful story to tell.

Her father molested her, shared her with his friends, pushed her into prostitution and forced her into pornographic videos. Now she was on the run from him and his satanist pals.

"She said there was a religious underground helping her escape from the cult," Jacqueline Atherton Bernard, Blair County assistant district attorney, said of the interviews that followed that first encounter in August 1996.

Within 18 days, investigators cracked the case. But it wasn't the one the traveler wanted cracked.

She wasn't Stephanie Danielle Lewis from Memphis; she was Treva Joyce Throneberry from a 3,160-person dot on the map called Electra, Texas.

And she wasn't 16, she was 27.

"Why would she do it?" Bernard said. "I don't think anybody knows."

The episode earned Throneberry a charge of giving false information to police and nine days in the county jail.

Twenty-seven days after she hit Altoona, she was gone, but not changed, it seems.

Three weeks ago, Throneberry, now 31, was arrested in Vancouver, Wash., for bilking that state and a junior college out of $4,670.

The Stephanie Lewis persona was gone. This time, she was 18-year-old Brianna Stewart, newly graduated from high school, wearing pigtails and overalls, claiming she had lost her home, memory and all traces of her past.

She lived off the kindness of others and logged three years at Vancouver's Evergreen High School, blending in as just another one of the girls. She had a C average, played a lackluster year of junior varsity tennis, graduated with the Class of 2000 and enrolled in the local junior college.

Now, in her wake, Throneberry leaves bewildered and enraged confidants -- and one 47-year-old man, jailed for 50 days for having sex with a minor, only to find out two years later that the minor really was 28 at the time.

Successful charade

"She was just a very average student," school spokeswoman Carol Fenstermacher said last week. "Nothing led anybody to believe that she wasn't who she said she was."

"I can't figure it out," said classmate and former pal Joey Gambetta, 19. "She's the only person I know who wanted to go back to high school."

Maybe Throneberry is emotionally ill, her psyche shattered by a real episode of sexual abuse, said her mother, now living in Oklahoma. Likely, she's simply cunning, people close to her in Vancouver insist. Perhaps she is somewhere in the middle, others suggest.

Public Defender Kathleen McCann, who won't comment on the case, has asked for a mental evaluation.

"She knew what she was doing ... but maybe there was an element of fantasy," said Barbara McKay, whose 19-year-old daughter became Throneberry's best friend in high school but never guessed anything was amiss. "I think when she was 15, there was all this abuse she talks about, and maybe she was trying to go back before that age and stay there."

"I don't know what the woman's motive was," said Scott Smith, a police detective in Vancouver, a city of 180,000 just across the Columbia River from Portland, Ore. "She's the only one who can answer that."

And there's more to answer for.

Vancouver police are sniffing a trail through other states where Throneberry turned up, claiming to be a teen-age molestation victim. The affidavit from her 1996 arrest in Altoona says she was "telling the story to law enforcement agencies along the East Coast, staying in youth shelters for free."

Two years ago, Vancouver-area resident Charles Blankenship, now 47, spent 50 days in jail after admitting to consensual sex with a minor, 17-year-old Brianna Stewart. Two weeks ago, after Clark County, Wash., Superior Court Judge Edwin Poyfair discovered that Stewart was really 28-year-old Treva Throneberry, he cleared Blankenship's record.

At the end of 1999, Vancouver-area benefactors paid the way for Throneberry -- Stewart then -- to visit Daphne, a city of 20,000 on Alabama's Mobile Bay. She previously claimed she hailed from Birmingham, then amended the story and substituted Mobile, said Vancouver contractor Randy Fisher, whose family put up Throneberry for 51/2 months in 1998.

"She saw different places and said they looked similar to places she remembered," Daphne police Detective James Matthews said. "There might have been some fantasy, but I'm convinced she knew what was going on. ... I'd just like to know how or why she picked Daphne out of the whole continental United States."

If she is lying, Throneberry, who is in the Clark County Jail after failing to raise $20,000 bail, is unrepentant.

Three weeks ago, she was arraigned on charges that she cheated Washington state by lying about her age and winning placement in state-funded foster care, then swindled Clark College in Vancouver by saying she was a homeless teen-ager and gaining a tuition deferral.

"And there, at her arraignment, in front of the judge, she says, 'I'm Brianna Stewart,' " McKay said.

"I think she got involved in this scam and didn't know how to get out, and it became a lifestyle," Fisher said. "I think she knows full well what she's doing."

"She's a brilliant kid to stay three steps ahead of everyone else," McKay said. "The funny thing is, she said that when she got out of high school, she wanted to be an attorney so that she could fight for kids like her."

A loner in Texas

Back in Electra, Treva Throneberry wasn't known as the schemer. She was the wallflower, youngest of five children from oil field worker Carl and wife Patsy Throneberry's struggling family.

"She was a quiet, slender, stringy-haired girl -- kind of a loner," said Jimmie Rich, librarian at 215-student Electra High School. "She didn't have a whole lot of friends."

There, in high school, the murk of claims of sexual abuse comes in.

Patsy Throneberry says her daughter joined up with a local church -- "a cult," she insists -- and probably was raped there. Carl Throneberry says his daughter tried to pin the molestation on him.

J'alisha McKinnon, an adopted sister, has decided she would comment only for cash. But husband Brad McKinnon says the molester was an uncle, now deceased.

Treva Throneberry left home in 1985, after the 10th grade, at age 15, and turned up next, almost a year later, at a mental hospital in Wichita Falls, Texas, her mother says.

"My wife has always thought Treva was a rape victim, and because of that, there's something wrong mentally," Brad McKinnon said.

"We went to visit her. She was standoffish and angry. We were hardly allowed to talk to her," Patsy Throneberry said. "We never got a diagnosis."

Treva Throneberry never came back to the family home, and shortly after the hospital stay, dropped off the family radar again, save for brief calls and letters a few times a year, her mother said.

Thirteen years later, while Throneberry lived with Fisher and his family in Vancouver, Fisher grew convinced that, somewhere in her past, Throneberry was tied to a satanic cult, then fled. She told him stories of cult rituals and sacrifices -- stories that squared with references he researched at the local library.

But, as was her pattern, the stories ran from the believable to the dubious.

"She claimed she had a stepfather and traveled around with him on what I guess you'd call coven business," Fisher said. "Then she said she got pregnant by her stepdad and by a senator in the Midwest, while she was working on his campaign."

The stories grew more outlandish when Throneberry regaled Vancouver school chums with tales of watching her father kill her mother, then amended that to say that her real father was a drug dealer who used her as collateral on overseas drug-buying trips, Gambetta said.

By 1996, Throneberry was in Altoona, looking the part of a teen-ager, first telling her story, then arousing suspicion when she couldn't fill in details, said Bernard, the Blair County assistant DA.

"I thought she wasn't forthcoming at all," Bernard said. "She made general allegations but nothing else."

She was checked into a drop-in teen shelter and spent 18 days there, until the story unraveled by what county Detective Henry Fownes calls "25 percent research, 75 percent luck." County Children and Youth Services worker Camille Metzgar doggedly trolled child welfare sources elsewhere and found one who recognized the girl and recalled that she had a Texas school report card among her belongings.

'Appears she needs help'

Investigators traced the report card back and discovered that Stephanie Danielle Lewis was Treva Throneberry, Fownes said.

"Why she chose to come to Altoona, I don't think anybody knows," Bernard said.

The choice returned to plague her.

In January, in the Vancouver area, Throneberry, still Brianna Stewart then, was working with lawyers to get a birth certificate, she said. But a fingerprint check hit on fingerprints filed during the Altoona arrest.

Vancouver police learned of Treva Throneberry.

After enduring for four years, the Brianna Stewart identity was coming undone. Only once before had that started to happen, in 1998, when Throneberry was in foster care, had dental work done, and the Vancouver dentist examining her teeth concluded that she wasn't the teen-ager she claimed to be.

But the suspicions never took wing.

Throneberry arrived in the Pacific Northwest not long after the Altoona arrest, living in the streets, then in foster care, then being taken in, first by members of Fisher's Glad Tidings Church and others.

Fisher said she looked older than the teen-ager she claimed to be; others say they saw it slightly, and mostly in retrospect.

"It appears now she needs help," Fenstermacher, the Evergreen High School spokeswoman, said. "With some kids, though, you put your finger on your chin and say, 'Hmm, Is there a problem?' That really wasn't the case here."

Throneberry landed a bit part in the sophomore production of "Man of LaMancha," dated classmate Kenny Dunn, but for all her supposed acumen at theatrics earned only a D in drama, Fenstermacher said.

Through it all, she largely shied away from classmates.

Nor did she win a reputation for warmth as a house guest.

To the people who took her in, Throneberry ranged between tolerable and grating, claiming sexual abuse in four homes, charges authorities decided were baseless.

"She could be sweet as sugar when she wanted to be or ornery when she wanted to be," said Virginia Braskette, who housed Throneberry for what turned into a disagreeable year that ended in June. "She loves to be the center of attention. She gets angry when people disagree with her. She was constantly asking how old she looks. She's just a scam artist looking for a new identity."

For now, in Vancouver, there's mostly bewilderment, some sympathy for a woman who might need help and lots of disdain for a woman scorned for tapping the goodwill of others and helping herself.

There's some relief that it's over. And there's some suspicion that it's not.

"She knows the bottom line," McKay said. "Maybe she thinks they'll make a movie of this, and maybe she'll decide to sell her life story."

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