By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
After watching Hurricane Katrina coverage on TV, Derya Goral decided she wanted to do more than make a donation to the Red Cross. Through the volunteer group Minnesota Response, she got the name of a single 22-year-old female evacuee from New Orleans who was staying at a Christian shelter in Nashville, Tenn.--the latter half of which may be the only part of the woman's story that was true.
Goral made arrangements for the woman, who gave her name as Rachel Bruneau, to stay in her Burnsville home with her and her husband, Ali, and their son, Sinan, a 7th-grader at St. Paul Academy. "That was his biggest news at school, that he was going to have a hurricane survivor from New Orleans living with us," said Derya. "He was so excited."
Only trouble was, Rachel Bruneau wasn't who she said she was. She was a con artist and drifter whom authorities have wanted for some time now, for black-market baby dealing and impersonating a hurricane survivor.
"She turned out to be a crook," said Goral Monday night, a few hours after Burnsville police and Dakota County sheriffs left her home. "I'm sorry, I'm kind of in shock. I'm recovering. It's been a very difficult thing."
For a while, the woman's scam worked. She and Goral talked on the phone every day prior to the woman's trip to Minnesota. She called Goral when she went to the hairdresser, went dancing in the city, or partied with friends. "She was very sweet on the phone," said Goral; "needy, but sweet."
After some bus schedule rearrangements that seem suspicious to the Gorals only in retrospect, the woman took the Greyhound from Nashville to St. Paul, on Goral's dime The Gorals picked her up late Sunday afternoon at the St. Paul Greyhound station. On the drive back to Burnsville, facts about the woman's "soap opera life story" didn't add up.
Still, even with all the contradictions—the six-month old baby, the dead mother, the drunk mother, the dead boyfriend, the drunk boyfriend—Goral let the woman into her home, and a room she had prepared for her. Still, she wanted to help the woman, who said she didn't plan to work while she was in Minnesota and that she intended to live with the Gorals for "two or three years."
Goral told her she could stay with them if she agreed to work and "if I see an effort; if (she) makes contact with the Red Cross, or whatever." The woman told Goral she was too traumatized to do anything. When the woman turned in for the night Sunday, Goral called her friend Beth Brown, who visited the house Monday morning.
"Derya said she felt uncomfortable with this person in their house, and that she felt bad about feeling bad about it," said Brown, a Minneapolis native. "When I talked to (the woman), there were red flags all over the place. I asked her what (New Orleans) parish she was from, and she said, 'What's a parish?' Then she said, 'Shreveport.'
"I asked her how she departed, and she said she was rescued by a helicopter from a rooftop. Very cavalier about it. Just no sense that she had experienced anything like that. She said, 'When the levees broke and I got up on the roof, I told those helicopter guys, 'Now don't you drop me!' She said it all in a real sing-songy voice."
At that point, Goral suggested the woman relocate to Camp Ripley. When she resisted, Goral told her she would pay her bus ticket to Florida, where the woman said she has relatives. Goral helped her pack up, including the donations of clothing and a new suitcase that came from Minnesota Responds. At the bus station, Goral gave her a hug and all the money she had on her--$19--and said goodbye.
She felt bad for doing so, but less so when the cops showed up late Monday afternoon and surrounded her house, wielding wanted posters and warrants.
"She doesn't have anything to do with Louisiana," said Goral. "The police here don't know exactly how my name got connected with her. It was the authorities in Nashville that realized something was wrong. But she is wanted for several arrests in Florida, the major thing, they told me, for selling a baby.
"They showed me this fax that says that this woman, Rachel Bruneau, 'is impersonating a hurricane victim, and is currently believed to be residing with the Gorals.' They probably tracked her down through the phone calls to the shelter in Nashville. I mean, they had no issue with me. They just wanted to get her.
"I feel bad," admitted Goral, a freelance interpreter and native of Turkey. "I feel violated, really."