Pat Milton is an award-winning investigative journalist who was a correspondent at The Associated Press and is now with the Investigative Unit at CBS News.
During my career as a journalist, I'd spoken with undercovers of all sorts -- FBI agents, cops, informants. But now, for the first time, I was one of them -- working a sting operation on a woman allegedly running an adoption scam on couples seeking a child.
The suspected scam artist was an Academy Award-worthy pro, and I was making my debut.
She claimed to be pregnant with twins, and I was portraying a mother seeking to adopt them.
There were times during the three-week drama when it seemed one wrong word from my mouth might scrub the whole thing. But in the end, the work by our Investigative Team was met with success.
We communicated with Roxanne Jones, known to us as Cindy Stevens, primarily by text messages, receiving more than 120 such messages during our undercover investigation. The last one I received from her arrived just moments before she entered our hotel suite on March 16 at noon -- the first time we would meet face-to-face.
Early on, her messages centered on whether my husband and I wanted to adopt her twins. She said she wanted to make sure she found a good family for them.
March 7, 11:36 a.m. CINDY: "Are you a thousand percent sure you gonna adopt the twins."
March 7, 6:38 a.m. CINDY: "I have been through so much. I am so worn out emotionally. My heart hurts. I'm so nervous in regard to making sure the twins have a family."
Once she was convinced we were hooked, she gradually turned up the heat -- painting the portrait of a woman struggling to survive, with little or no money.
March 8, 12:57 p.m. CINDY: "I need money for lights and food..."
March 8, 1:07 p.m. CINDY: "If you could help with $40 and some food that would be great."
March 8, 1:09 p.m. CINDY: "The sooner you can send the sooner I can get the lights on."
The pressure to meet her financial demands proved to be relentless. The text messages came in at all hours, morning, noon and night. We wired her small amounts of cash to keep her on board with us.
March 10, 1:06 CINDY: "My phone is getting shut off today, just wanted to let you know before it gets done."
March 10, 3:31 p.m. CINDY: "please please can you text me and let me know if u are gonna help by 6 my time?"
March 10, 4:56 p.m. CINDY: I'm hoping you are in meeting. I have been calling a couple of times. Getting worried."
March 10, 5:13 p.m. CINDY (after we agreed to wire money.): "Thank u so much. U are a very loving lady. God bless u.")
March 10, 5:25 p.m. CINDY: "The store closes at 5:15 p.m. my time"
March 10, 6:05 p.m. CINDY: "I'm here." (Telling us she was ready to pick up the cash.)
March 10, 6:35 p.m. CINDY: "Thank u got it paid bill thank u."
Her play seemed to bounce between her desire to deliver the twins into our open arms...(March 11, CINDY: Yeah, please these are your twins)...and a demanding, seemingly insatiable appetite for cash that, at times, was downright intimidating.
March 11, 5:12 p.m. CINDY: "I will send a itemized list of what I'm needing to pay this month and u can help as little or as much as you'd like."
Within five days of our scheduled meeting our investigative team's anxiety heightened as we played a game of mental chess trying to anticipate her moves and respond in a way as not to arouse suspicion. We thought our cover had been blown when she mentioned in a text she went on our website at CBS News.com and found my bio. One of our early mistakes was not changing my voicemail identifying me as being with CBS News.
March 11, 5:17 p.m. CINDY: "Are u an attorney? And a journalist?"
We deliberated and decided to risk telling her straight out. My reply: "I am both. What other questions can I answer for you? Fire away. Why don't we just talk on the phone."
Our response apparently worked to calm her concerns.
March 11, 5:49 p.m. CINDY: "I am sorry if I'm being nosey."
And just 20 minutes later:
March 11, 6:10 p.m. CINDY: U know this is a weird way we found each other but I honestly am so at peace with u guys adopting them I feel this is so perfect and you're gonna be great parents.
We felt more comfortable that evening, until I received an alarming text late that night. We thought she might be pulling the plug on the scam as she had done with other victims, creating a dramatic scenario where she could back away or insist on more money. We were also concerned she was getting cold feet about meeting us, now just days away.
March 11 9:23 p.m.: "Hey Pat, this is Cindy's husband. I am texting you to let you know I have taken her to the hospital due to her falling down the basement stairs this evening. While doing laundry. The twins are okay but she hurt her back and shoulder."
We discussed the text at length running through various scenarios and decided this time to ignore the message; so I went to bed without responding, a decision which proved to be a key turning point in our efforts to meet with her.
The next day I texted Cindy and simply asked, "Are you okay?"
March 12, 12:10 p.m., CINDY: yeah, I was carrying laundry downstairs to wash and I missed a step and slipped. I landed on my back and butt but now I'm just sore. I am too big. I can't see my toes."
It was a big moment. We reasoned that if we really were a couple about to adopt this woman's twins and she had fallen down the stairs, it would make sense that we would be deeply concerned about the babies' welfare. We decided to risk tightening the screws on her a bit, to hopefully put her on the defensive by making her fear she was losing us.
I texted Cindy telling her that I was glad she was not seriously hurt but expressed concern for the babies. Were they checked by a doctor? Were they injured?
March 12, 12:14 p.m. CINDY replied: "I fell on my butt not my tummy. They are okay. I promise you that."
She followed the text with a phone call nervously trying to reassure me the babies were fine.
I told her I was terribly concerned the twins may have been injured in the fall and that as parents we could not handle raising children with special needs.
March 12, 12:39 p.m. CINDY: "Relax. They are fine. If not, I would tell you."
March 12, 12:52 p.m. CINDY: "I am sorry I didn't want to upset you."
March 12, 1:16 p.m. CINDY: "You still want to adopt them? Please tell me."
I called back and assured her we had not changed our minds. I told her we certainly wanted to adopt them saying we believed her when she said they were fine. I suggested we both get rest and talk on Monday. She agreed.
March 14, 8:20 a.m. CINDY: "Good morning. Hope you had a great weekend. When you get a chance give me a call please."
When I called, I went directly to her voicemail. It was a cat and mouse game but there was only two days left to make certain she showed up in our hotel suite. We could not do anything to raise red flags.
A few minutes later, I called again. But no answer. I left another voice message.
The pressure was building.
Then I received a text message.
March 14, 9:11 a.m. apparently from her husband: "She went back to sleep. Do you want me to wake her?"
I texted back: "Is she okay?"
March 14, 9:19 a.m.: "Yeah, she is okay. She had a rough night, couldn't get comfortable to go to sleep and the weekend was rough. We have received an eviction notice. She told the landlord she could pay Wednesday and he still gave a three day notice."
March 14, 9:25 a.m.: "Are you still going to be here Wednesday?"
Yes, I replied back.
March 14, 11:42 a.m. CINDY: "Good morning. I am awake now."
March 14, 12:07 p.m. CINDY: "If you are ready for the list of expenses, let me know."
March 14, 12:28 p.m. CINDY: "Are you staying long? How long are we going to be able to see each other.'
I told her our trip to see her would be quick. We had to get back to work but that we would surely be with her on March 20 for the scheduled birth of the twins.
She responded by supplying a list of expenses that she asked us to pay when we met. The meeting in the hotel was to determine if we both thought the adoption was a good fit. We then were to go home and contact our attorneys to arrange for a legal adoption.
March 14, 1:24 p.m. CINDY: "675 for rent for March, 100 for gas bill due March, food and other household items such as toilet paper and soap 250, Bus pass for the month, 60."
March 14, 1:25 p.m. CINDY: "Electric remaining left to be paid 150."
March 14, 1:27 p.m. CINDY: "The rent and food and household items are VERY IMPORTANT. I got an eviction notice"
March 14, 1:43 p.m. CINDY: "We can get a prepaid credit card and u can deposit money on that."
March 14, 1:52 p.m. CINDY: "Whatever is easier for you."
March 14, 3:07 p.m. CINDY: "My charger broke on my cell."
She called from her house phone and said that her cell phone was out of juice. It was disconcerting because that is the way we had been primarily been communicating. We were not sure if this would be an excuse not to meet us.
But by next morning, some 24 hours to D-day I received a text message from her cell phone asking me how I was doing. I didn't respond.
That was followed immediately by a flood of texts.
March 15, 9:34 a.m. CINDY: "Good morning. Are you excited."
March 15, 10:34 a.m. CINDY: "Hello, how are you?"
March 15, 10:46 a.m. CINDY: "I am getting worried.'
March 15, 10:50 a.m. CINDY: "I am worried that you changed your mind in regards to coming tomorrow."
March 15, 10:55 a.m. CINDY: "You are for sure going to be here tomorrow aren't you?"
I had been on a flight to Kansas City, Mo., for our meeting and saw the messages only when I landed. I immediately texted her that everything was on schedule for our meeting. We planned on seeing her at the hotel at noon, March 16.
March 15, 11:01 a.m. CINDY: "Great, I am sorry I am a cry baby today. I miss my daddy. I'm sorry. Don't mean to doubt you are coming." (She told us that her father had been killed in a car accident during the course of our connection to her and she couldn't afford to pay the funeral costs.)
March 15, 11:10 a.m. CINDY: "And you are going to help me tomorrow. I have a three day notice and tonight is three days. So I am hoping the landlord will wait."
March 15, 12:34 a.m. CINDY: "Pat, You got a second?"
March 15, 12:58 p.m. CINDY: "he said (the landlord) if we can pay 100 today, he can wait for the rest tomorrow."
We couldn't believe it. Less than 24 hours before the meeting and she was trying to hit us up hard for money again. She was relentless. I could understand how someone could be easily intimidated into pleasing her especially if they felt she was about to give birth to the babies they were about to adopt.
March 15, 1:42 p.m. CINDY: "Please can you send me 125 asap so I don't have to leave here. I have been in bed all day and I am not feeling like stressing please."
March 15, 3:09 p.m. CINDY: "Do you believe you are going to be able to help me today"
March 15, 3:21 p.m. CINDY: "He (landlord) is waiting on the porch for the hundred now."
March 15 3:22 p.m. CINDY: "And are you going to help with the list of things I sent?"
March 15, 3:40 p.m. CINDY: "Are you going to send the rent?"
March 15, 5:56 p.m. CINDY: "Okay he got it, the rent is paid. I can't wait to see you tomorrow."
A text message came in early the next morning, just hours before the hotel meeting. The text managed to calm our frazzled nerves. We had been thinking earlier that maybe the request for $100 to pay the landlord was all she wanted from us. Maybe she had no plans to show up.
March 16, 8:34 a.m. CINDY: "Good morning. Are you in Kansas City?"
March 16, 8:36 a.m. CINDY: "So now since you sent that yesterday you can take the hundred off the 1,200 total of the list. Do you still have the list?"
March 16, 9:42 a.m. CINDY: "I am so excited to meet you."
Shortly before noon, she called to say she was in the lobby waiting for us.
I went down and escorted her up to the 24th floor suite for our meeting.Watch: The full-length video of the undercover sting
Investigative producer Michael Rey contributed to this report.