PITTSBURGH – Barry and Rebecca Vest can't conceive children -- or of why a woman pretended to be pregnant and persuaded them to travel from Idaho to Pennsylvania five days after Christmas to adopt a baby that didn't exist.
And what they really don't understand is why that isn't a crime.
The Vests claim to be the latest victims of a woman known to Pennsylvania authorities as 32-year-old Amy Slanina, who, according to court records and interviews, pretends to be pregnant so infertile couples or, in some cases, female friends or lovers will shower her with attention, affection and sometimes money, clothes, food and shelter.
Authorities list Slanina at 5-foot-4 and 175 pounds, and those who've met her said she could pass for being six or seven months' pregnant.
Others, including the Vests, were convinced she was pregnant sight unseen during fast-moving friendships carried out through text messages, phone calls and emails. Barry Vest, 36, and Rebecca, 31, knew her about a week before they flew to Pennsylvania.
"She's the true definition of a predator: She seeks out an adoptive couple and emotionally abuses them," Barry Vest said from his home in Rigby, Idaho.
Slanina has been in jail in Kittanning, some 35 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, since she was arrested in December on theft of services charges for staying at a battered women's shelter after allegedly claiming to be the abused wife of a police officer, who authorities say doesn't exist. She used the shelter's computer and a cellphone to contact the Vests.
Rebecca Vest has had two birth mothers back out of privately arranged adoptions since adopting newborn Owen, who will be 5 in April. That's why she thought she knew how to spot red flags before Slanina messaged them through their adoptive profile website.
Slanina never asked for money and knew exactly what to say, Rebecca said.
She called herself Aimee and claimed to be due Jan. 17 but texted Dec. 29 to say she was in labor, shortly after the Vests arranged for their caseworker to meet her. She even pretended to have the baby's father provide updates.
Unbeknownst to the Vests, as they flew to Pittsburgh and rushed 30 miles to the hospital in a rental car the next day, Slanina was under arrest.
The updates on her labor, of course, stopped. At the hospital, the Vests grew tired of waiting. Finally, Barry Vest asked at the nurse's station for her room number.
"The nurse said, `I'm sorry, we're not having any births here or any adoption births,"' Barry Vest said.
Rebecca broke down.
A birth mother has the right to change her mind, so the Vests still didn't know they were being scammed, Barry said.
Then, a Kittanning police officer called to explain what he'd learned about Slanina and the women's shelter.
Since the Vests spent $2,500 rushing to Pennsylvania, Slanina was charged with a section of Pennsylvania's disorderly conduct law -- the only statute police could find that might fit her actions. Public defender Chuck Pascal got a district judge to dismiss that charge, though he doesn't dispute Slanina's actions.
"She took on a persona and lied and, as a result of that lie -- what? -- somebody flew here from Idaho? So what?" Pascal said. "If I were to start criminalizing when one person lies and, as a result of that lie, other people take an action, then everybody's in jail."
Slanina has a different public defender on the women's shelter charges who didn't return repeated calls attempting to get a message to her.
But even the officer who called the Vests, Greg Koprivnak, acknowledged, "To be quite honest with you, there's no statue that deals with this kind of behavior."
Pennsylvania doesn't criminalize false adoption offers, in part, because biological mothers have up to 30 days to change their mind after birth, said Anne Bale, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare. That makes it difficult to differentiate between a fraudulent adoption offer and a reluctant birth mother, Bale said.
As for cases where there is no baby, Bale said, lawmakers are loathe to pass laws covering applying to rare situations.
Instead, Slanina has been convicted at least twice, not for faking pregnancies, but for thefts she committed in the process.
Slanina was sentenced to 25 months in prison for identity theft in January 2007 in Tennessee, where she used the name of a female lover she had conned into believing she was pregnant.
She was also arrested in February 2010 for grand theft auto and other charges after befriending Lisa Booth and her elderly mother, Helen, of Fredericktown, Ohio.
Slanina met the Booths online, then sent three large flower arrangements around Christmas 2009, which the Booths later learned were purchased with stolen checks and credit cards.
She moved in with them in January 2010, claiming to be pregnant with twins through artificial insemination, court records show. The Booths didn't respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment.
Slanina was gone before the Booths could get too suspicious. She persuaded Helen to lend her a car to run errands on Feb. 8, 2010, and disappeared.
She was eventually sentenced in June 2010 to 17 months in an Ohio prison for stealing Helen Booth's car, checks and bank card.
"You find a victim that falls for your sob story, take all their personal belongings and money, then emotionally rape them," Lisa Booth said in a tearful statement to the court.
By September 2011, Slanina was out of prison and targeting Jen Asbury, a 25-year-old Army reservist from Morgantown, W.Va., who met Slanina through a Craigslist ad in which she claimed to be an Ohio nurse expecting twins via artificial insemination.
The two began a romantic relationship that Asbury called wonderful. During a month of text messages and phone calls she and Slanina spoke of marriage and raising the twins, and Slanina moved in with Asbury at her parents' home in October.
A week and a half later, Slanina said her mother in Pittsburgh died, Asbury said. She called while she was away to say she'd given birth two months premature to twins. She came home while they remained in the hospital.
About a month passed, and she told Asbury that one of the twins was being released from the hospital and Slanina was going to pick him up, Asbury said.
"I never heard from her after that."
Less than two weeks later, Slanina showed up at the Kittanning battered women's shelter, about 85 miles north of Morgantown.
The Vests are hoping for a long sentence either on the Pennsylvania charges or a probation violation in the Booth case, because they don't expect even an explanation for what she did to them.
"If this is a completely emotional scam, what did you get from this?" Rebecca Vest said. "Are you that miserable that you have to make other people miserable?"