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The first time I spoke to Renee Holland, in August 2018, the phone call lasted two hours and brought us both nearly to tears.
Ms. Holland, a 58-year-old married woman who lived in Florida, told me about her first Facebook message from a handsome American soldier. She detailed how their online chats blossomed into a monthslong relationship, and how she sent him larger and larger sums of money. Then she recounted the day she went to pick up her Facebook friend at the airport. When he didn’t show and she realized she had been swindled, she told me, she swallowed too many sleeping pills and started speeding down the highway. “I was found on the side of I-95,” she said.
I had been reporting on Facebook fraud for months, but no story had affected me as deeply as hers.
After the call, Ms. Holland sent me photos from her scammer’s Facebook profile. I knew the muscular man in uniform was probably not the person who had fooled Ms. Holland, but rather a victim of identity theft. My next step was to figure out who he was.
I examined his uniform and figured out he was not a soldier, but a Marine. I then began cross-referencing his photos with those posted to Facebook groups by people who track romance scammers. Eventually, I spotted screenshots of many other impostor accounts that used his photos. Some used the last name “Anonsen.” On a hunch, I searched the internet for “Anonsen” and “Marines” and eventually identified him: Sgt. Daniel Anonsen of the Marine Corps.
Contacting him turned out to be tougher. His listed phone numbers weren’t working, and when I reached out to his family members, they were wary. (I learned later that they regularly heard from upset women who had been duped by his impostors.) I visited his most recent address near San Diego and found a 12-building apartment complex. There were 12 doors with his apartment number, but none led to him.
I called his sister-in-law from the parking lot and begged her to put him on the phone. She dialed him up. He was relieved to hear from someone who understood his plight, and he told me about his years battling Facebook and Instagram impostors.
Once I found Ms. Holland and Mr. Anonsen, colleagues at The Times’s new television show, “The Weekly,” became interested in the story. By December 2018, I was in Florida interviewing Ms. Holland, alongside Rolake Bamgbose, a producer for “The Weekly,” and Adam Beckman, a cinematographer with a camera so heavy he connected it to a harness strapped to his hips.
After Florida, the three of us went to New Jersey to visit a woman whose name appeared in Ms. Holland’s Western Union receipts. Ms. Holland didn’t send most of the money directly to her scammer; she wired payments to so-called money mules across the country. These people could be accomplices or victims themselves — the scammers convince them it’s a complicated military transaction — so I didn’t know what to expect when I knocked on this woman’s front door. When she answered, and I asked if she had heard from any military men on Facebook, her face dropped. “Yes,” she said. “A lot.” This woman’s story was just as sad as Ms. Holland’s, and it appeared she had been cheated by the same group of scammers.
As I reported the story, Ms. Holland frequently sent me text messages about her interactions with other scammers. (They had begun to message her in droves after she fell victim to the first con.) But around Christmas last year, our text-message chain went quiet. I figured she was wrapped up in the holidays.
When I returned to work at the start of the year, I called to check in. She didn’t answer. I then tried her home phone. It was disconnected. I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. I searched Ms. Holland’s name on the internet and was horrified by what I found. Two days before Christmas, her husband, Mark Holland, had shot and killed her and her 84-year-old father. He had then turned the gun on himself.
I was saddened and sickened by the news. I contacted my colleagues at “The Weekly,” and we agreed to pause our reporting as we all processed the tragedy.
In some of her final conversations with me, Ms. Holland expressed how thrilled she was that we were covering her story. She said she wanted to raise awareness about the issue and prevent future scams.
She also was eager for us to find her own scammer. After I told her I was planning to go to Nigeria, she replied a few days later, “I applied for my passport Jack.” I wasn’t sure if she was kidding; Ms. Holland had a rich sense of humor, but she also seemed fearless.
She had developed a new hobby of finding and reporting scammers to Facebook, but she said she felt it wasn’t making a difference. So she hoped telling her story would.
After considering her wish to ring the alarm, we decided to continue with the story.
In some ways, the tragedy gave me the resolve to dig deeper and do her story justice. So this week, on Monday’s front page and in a special one-hour episode of “The Weekly,” we told Ms. Holland’s story.
Jack Nicas will answer questions on Reddit about his reporting in r/iAmA July 31 at noon ET.
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