Crime

'I hate to ask': How a fraudster manipulated a Colwood single mother out of tens of thousands of dollars

Christine Hale says she lost as much as $100,000 to a man who told her he loved her while inventing lawyer fees and death threats

By Zoë Ducklow
October 14, 2021
Crime

'I hate to ask': How a fraudster manipulated a Colwood single mother out of tens of thousands of dollars

Christine Hale says she lost as much as $100,000 to a man who told her he loved her while inventing lawyer fees and death threats

By Zoë Ducklow
Oct 14, 2021
Zoë Ducklow / Capital Daily
Crime

'I hate to ask': How a fraudster manipulated a Colwood single mother out of tens of thousands of dollars

Christine Hale says she lost as much as $100,000 to a man who told her he loved her while inventing lawyer fees and death threats

By Zoë Ducklow
October 14, 2021
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'I hate to ask': How a fraudster manipulated a Colwood single mother out of tens of thousands of dollars
Zoë Ducklow / Capital Daily

Steven Vanbuskirk was Christine Hale’s first love. At 16, he was the first person who told her she was pretty and made her feel like she mattered. She was badly bullied in high school, and latched on quickly to his affection. She remembers a night out bowling with friends; she and Vanbuskirk wandered off and talked for three hours. She felt special, connected. 

They had a child together a year later, a son who’s now in his 20s. Their relationship didn’t last for long, but they stayed in touch and were on friendly terms. They both married other people, and then both got divorced. Hale has two children from another partner, now 11 and nine. 

She said she never got over Vanbuskirk, though. In December 2015, he was struggling financially and planning to move back to the Westshore. So she offered him her couch, happy to help him get on his feet. He didn’t pay rent or help with bills, but was helpful around the house, and the kids liked him. He couldn’t keep a job, but it was never his fault, and it seemed like he was trying. Their romance rekindled. 

Vanbuskirk and Hale, both teenagers, at the birth of their son. Hale has redacted the baby's face with an emoji. Photo: Submitted.

In the early days, she remembers a simple night of making dinner at home. “We were just cooking together, and the camaraderie and the laughter—it just felt amazing. I was so happy. I really felt wonderful and like we were a real family. But then, it was nothing tangible, it was always just words,” she said, looking back. 

“I had gotten out of a bad marriage, and when he came along it was like, ‘Oh my god, I didn’t know things could be this good.’ Until it wasn’t.”

Instead of the rekindling of her first love, Hale was in for a months-long series of increasingly expensive demands for money, sometimes to pay for understandable costs, and other times to cover costs that in retrospect sound insane to Hale. It all amounted to $100,000, first from her savings and then going deep into debt, and left the mother of three facing bankruptcy alone.

‘I hate to ask’

In the spring, Hale gave Vanbuskirk money to visit a close family friend who was sick. Then she died, and Hale let him pawn her wedding rings to get to the funeral. Soon after, Hale’s own grandmother died and while she was away for the funeral she found out Vanbuskirk hadn’t paid the pawn shop, and her rings were gone for good. 

He got another job and life was calm for a few months. Then on Friday, Oct. 13, 2016 Hale got a text: “I just got arrested!!” He had been accused of defrauding WorkSafeBC. He told Hale his ex-wife was framing him; that he was innocent.

In November, things escalated. He owed a fine for missing a court date in Port Hardy. “We paid a fine, and the bench warrant went away,” Hale wrote in her statement to police. She was sending money directly to his lawyer to help out. In December he needed to spend a week in Campbell River with his lawyer before court. She bought his bus ticket and paid for a hotel, and sent him $800 on Dec. 8 for food, cigarettes, and cab rides to the lawyer’s office. 

The next day, he called in a panic—someone had cleared out his bank account with the money she’d just sent. He said an ex’s new boyfriend had taken loans out in his name, “and every so often a loan company would catch up with him.” She sent another $700, which he immediately withdrew as cash. But then he fell down a flight of stairs and was hospitalized, and when he got back to the hotel the cash was gone. 

“By this point, yes, I was suspicious. But I was also scared and wanted to believe the best,” Hale said. She couldn’t afford to keep sending hundreds of dollars a day, but also couldn’t bear to cut him off. She loved him, her kids loved him, and it was almost Christmas. 

“I think it goes back to the abusive mentality, where you’ve been beaten down for so long that the first person who wants to do something good is the one you latch onto.”

Legal fees and confusing expenses like paying a judge to come in on a Saturday piled up. 

Facebook Messenger exchanges between Vanbuskirk and Hale, which Hale submitted to police to accompany her statement.

She sent $1,000 on Dec. 17—enough for the legal bill and for Vanbuskirk to get a bus home to Colwood the next day. By now she’d transferred $6,870 to Steve, and another $1,500 to an email she thought was his lawyer. That’s on top of the hotel and car rental she paid for on her credit card. Her bank account routinely dipped into the negative between paycheques. 

The next morning, he told her Family Maintenance Enforcement Program took $550 out of his account, which supposedly had less than $100 in it, and that his ex-wife must have enrolled their kids for child support. She paid his child support for him, and while she was at it, she cancelled her own file with the program. “I believed that we were a family now, and I didn’t need them to collect money for me anymore,” she wrote in the statement. “I regret that now.” 

Four days later he said he needed $5,000 bail because he’d been involved in helping a friend evict her abusive ex. It didn’t make sense, but Hale panicked. It was three days before Christmas and she wanted him home. She asked her bank for a cash advance. “I was scared and crying. The teller tried to tell me she was worried about me, and that she was suspicious, but I was adamant.” 

She gave him the cash, and he was home for Christmas, but by Dec. 26 more money was needed, this time for a new lawyer, because there was a conflict of interest of some kind. 

She hadn’t told any of her friends or family, knowing they’d tell her to leave him. 

“I was so hell bent that he was innocent, and that I loved him. … I had loved this man since I was 16. I’d never gotten over him. We were going to get past this, and we were going to be together, and life was going to be good. I could see it all—we just needed to get through this rough patch.” 

In January she received a $46,000 inheritance from her grandmother. After paying off her debt—all but $12,000 was due to Vanbuskirk—there was $2,000 left. Vanbuskirk told her his lawyer was hopeful everything would be done by the end of the month, but he needed to go up Island again. She rented him a car, paid for the hotel and covered legal expenses that he said Legal Aid was refusing to pay for. “I couldn’t send money fast enough.”

Hale thought she was paying legal bills directly to Vanbuskirk’s lawyer. She sent him $9,925 in one week, and was back in debt. 

Facebook Messenger exchanges between Vanbuskirk and Hale, which Hale submitted to police to accompany her statement.

“By now red flags were popping up, but I was too scared and stressed out to listen to myself. I didn’t want to think about how much money we were spending, it was too scary. I just wanted to get through it, and worry about paying all the debt down when it was over. I just wanted to be a family.” 

Hale, a pharmacy technician, got a second job and was working a total of 68 hours a week. She was regularly maxing out the daily limit for e-transfers, and would send a second transfer just after midnight to pay the lawyer. 

Vanbuskirk said he’d been offered a plea deal for a conditional sentence that came with a $6,000 fine. She went to a different branch for another cash advance and sent the money.  

In February Vanbuskirk said he had a job at a marine security firm, but the paycheques never came.

Things took a dramatic turn in March 2017. He told Hale he’d caught people selling drugs while working as a security guard at the docks, and the criminal gang was coming after him. He said they were threatening to cut his ears off. 

Hale got spooked and called the police. 

“That’s when I found out, none of this is real. Yes, there’s court dates, but he’s not showing up to them. And I’m not paying his legal bills. I called the lawyer and was like, do you take e-transfers?, and they’re like, no. It was email addresses that he had made himself using the lawyer’s name. So the money was going directly to his bank account.” 

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She also found out he had a pregnant girlfriend and step-child in Campbell River. “All the times I was paying for him to go to a court date in Campbell River…” Later she also found out he was using drugs. It started with methamphetamines, progressing to heroin and fentanyl use. 

She’d sent $28,980 in e-transfers between November 2016 and January 2017 to two lawyers and a counsellor, thinking she was paying Vanbuskirk’s bills. But bank records show the money went straight to Vanbuskirk’s account. This is the amount Crown prosecutors charged him with, since there’s pretty clear evidence of fraud. Westshore RCMP declined to comment on the case. 

The $30,490 Hale says she sent to Vanbuskirk directly on false pretences, plus an estimated $40,000 on credit cards, weren’t prosecuted. She started tallying the credit card amounts, but said it brought back all the anxiety and depression seeing each of the charges listed. Since he wasn’t being prosecuted on those amounts, she gave it up. 

It still wasn’t over. 

After she reported the fraud to the police, she says Vanbuskirk began extorting her. 

“Again with the gangs. ‘These gangs know where you live and they’re going to hurt the children.’ So I kept giving money because I was freaking terrified.” 

She changed her phone number, switched locations at work, but he’d come bang on the door at home. 

It took her six months and another several thousand dollars in credit card advances and Money Mart loans to work up the courage to call his bluff. Child and family services had threatened to take her kids away if she kept associating with him. Every time he came to the house, she called the cops. Eventually he stopped coming.

“The hardest part is if the father of my child can do this, how can I ever trust anyone ever again? The number of times that he would blame missing money on my son and his friends… my son is his son.” 

She knows it sounds like a classic romance scam, but she’d known him since she was 16. She thought she knew him. 

“I never would have fallen for some guy contacting me from overseas. This was a guy I had known since I was 16 and had a child with. As far as I was concerned we were together. I had no idea he had another family going on at the same time, that I was really just there for the money.” 

There are clear signs of emotional manipulation in their text exchanges. He often insulted himself, which prompted Hale to reassure him of her love and support. Sometimes she’d ask for clarification or question something that didn’t make sense, and he’d reply angrily that she was pushing too hard. She would end up apologizing and sending money. 

For one of the trips to Campbell River, he said he’d be put in jail if he missed court. “He told me he was going to kill himself rather than go to jail,” Hale wrote in her statement. “By then I was so scared about the money that I almost let him do it. He told me he was going to get drugs with fentanyl in them, and overdose. I begged him not to, and he told me not to take away his last option, which was to die instead of going to jail. I begged him to let me pay for this again, and I would rent a car and get him up there. And he did.”

Still waiting

Vanbuskirk pled guilty to multiple charges of fraud and using a false identity, but has yet to be sentenced after missing a string of court dates. Most recently, on July 8 Vanbuskirk told his lawyer he couldn’t attend the hearing because he couldn’t get a ride to the Colwood courtroom from Campbell River. 

“I’m not buying it this time. I don’t accept that he couldn’t be here today. It has been excuse on top of excuse on top of excuse,” the judge told the court in July. 

Instead of granting another adjournment, she issued a warrant for his arrest. The court waits, the RCMP get involved, the lawyers wait. 

Hale, most of all, is still waiting. 

“I feel like our justice system is not a justice system. The number of times I’ve shown up to court to give my victim impact statement and he’s not there because he can’t be bothered,” she said. 

The warrant for Vanbuskirk’s arrest has been active since July 8, but as of Oct. 12, he hasn’t been arrested. He did not respond to requests for an interview.

When he is eventually brought before a judge to be sentenced—prosecution is asking for three to four years in jail, and Vanbuskirk will ask for probation, according to his lawyer—Hale will be there to share her experience, but isn’t likely to get any personal justice. 

“I believe they are going to ask for restitution, but I don’t expect to ever see anything from him. You can’t get blood from a stone,” she said. “Mostly I don’t want him to do this to someone else. And I want there to be consequences, and right now there have been no consequences.” 

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'I hate to ask': How a fraudster manipulated a Colwood single mother out of tens of thousands of dollars