— Folks in central Texas don’t like being played for boobs — especially by a woman who claimed to have breast cancer when all she really had was a chest that was flatter than she wanted it to be.
In August, more than 100 people showed up at Waco’s Hog Creek Icehouse Saloon to participate in an all-day benefit organized to raise funds for 24-year-old Trista Joy Lathern, who told everybody that, not having health coverage, she needed the money to treat her breast cancer. According to the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office, it was later discovered that Lathern never had breast cancer.
But after collecting an estimated $10,000 at the benefit, she did show up with a new, $6,800 set of breasts.
‘Like somebody socked me’
Diana Teichelman, who runs a cleaning service, was among those who went to the benefit and donated money, moved by empathy for a woman who Teichelman thought had the same disease that killed her grandmother and twice attacked her sister. Just over a week ago, she found out she’d been duped.
“I felt like somebody socked me in the gut, because my sister had breast cancer,” Teichelman told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Friday from outside the saloon where the benefit was held. “I couldn’t believe that anyone could do such a thing. My sister was lucky enough to have insurance. There’s so many people that don’t, and need help.”
Teichelman said that she fears that people who are in real need will be hurt by last week’s arrest of Lathern on charges of theft by deception.
“The ripple effect of this is going to be terrible. It’s already showing,” Teichelman told Vieira. “I’ve heard that people already don’t want to donate to the benefits because they’re not certain that they’re real.”
Local radio stations that promoted the benefit are also smarting from the alleged scam, according to the local newspaper’s Web site, Wacotrib.com. Before promoting future fundraisers, the stations have said, they’ll attempt to check out their legitimacy first.
But it’s unclear whether even such an investigation would have uncovered Lathern’s alleged scam. Investigators say that she did have a lump in her breast in February, but, they said, she admitted to them the lump proved to be benign.
Shaved her head
Yet Lathern told everyone, including her husband, that she had cancer. She even shaved her head to make it appear that her hair had fallen out due to chemotherapy. No one questioned her, and some of her co-workers at the Army and Air Force Exchange Service in Hewitt even donated their vacation time to her so she could take time off from work for treatment.
Investigators say her plot began to unravel when she went to a local plastic surgeon, asking to have her breasts enhanced. The surgeon, who knew of the benefit, was suspicious because she never mentioned cancer. He passed the information on to his attorney, who contacted the local sheriff.
In the meantime, investigators say, Lathern went to another plastic surgeon in Austin and underwent the breast augmentation.
The affidavit filed by investigators that led to her arrest said, “Trista said she and her husband had been [having] marital problems and she thought by telling him she had cancer [it] would bring them closer together ... Trista said after the fundraiser she tried to bring attention to herself by having a breast augmentation performed hoping it would help mend her marriage.”
Lathern’s husband told detectives he didn’t know his wife didn’t have cancer until they informed him.
Trista Lathern was arrested on Nov. 4. That same day, her husband filed for an annulment of their seven-month-old marriage. He also asked for custody of the couple’s two sons, ages 5 and 3.
Two days after Lathern was booked and released on bond, she was arrested again when police discovered an outstanding warrant against her for forging a check in 2007.
‘One bad apple’
Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Randy Plemons said Lathern will enter a plea at a court hearing that is yet to be scheduled.
“We’re still trying to collect information on what victims were involved in this event so that we can get a complete restitution list,” he said.
Teichelman will be on the list, although she said she has no idea how much money she spent at the benefit.
“It could have been anywhere from 20 to 80 dollars that I spent. I don’t keep track of what I give to the benefits,” she said.
While others may be less inclined to help those who claim to be in need, Teichelman said she would continue to contribute to causes that seem to be worthy.
“I’m just going to go ahead and help them out and have faith that they’re telling the truth,” she told Vieira. “You just can’t let one bad apple change your faith in human life.”