As the Weekly reported last week, many OC residents were shocked to discover that Ashley Bemis swindled $11 thousand from good Samaritans in the wake of the Holy Fire. According to Carrie Braun, a spokesperson for the OC Sheriff’s Department (OCSD), Bemis created a fake husband named Shane Goodman who Bemis claimed was battling the Holy Fire, then asked the public to donate goods to her which she would then bring to fire crews. Allegedly, she then stole all the donations.
To most people, Bemis’ actions might seem sick and shocking. But to Katie Vanderwende, a former friend of Bemis, it’s unsurprising.
“The thing you need to realize [about Bemis] is she’s a chameleon,” Vanderwende told the Weekly. “She’s a master,” she added. “Manipulating five different people with five different stories and keeping them all straight. She’s very confident and convincing.”
Vanderwende met Bemis in 2011 at the Aliso Viejo Gymboree. At the time, Vanderwende says she was under extreme stress. She’d just had her first child, Wyatt, she was pregnant with a second child, and her husband had recently deployed to Afghanistan.
“I needed something to do,” Vanderwende said. “When I met Ashley, she was taking care of a little boy named Blake. It was great because Blake and Wyatt were two months apart.”
Meeting Bemis was a godsend for Vanderwende. Motherhood is never easy, she explained, but when you’re a military wife pregnant with a second child and your husband is in a warzone, it’s nearly impossible. Bemis was a friend in a time of crisis for Vanderwende, who says she and Bemis began taking Wyatt and Blake on playdates nearly every day.
The more time Bemis and Vanderwende spent together, the more similar their lives seemed to be. Bemis told her a sob story. Her husband, a firefighter, was always away at work and constantly cheating on her, thus forcing her to raise her child alone. Bemis also told Vanderwende she was now pregnant with a second child.
“It was like, my husband is away, her husband was away. I’m pregnant, she’s pregnant. She adapts to whatever people are going through,” said Vanderwende.
For Vanderwende, it all seemed too good to be true. Here was a friend who understood the loneliness of raising a child alone, and who could help her through all the ups-and-downs of pregnancy. Overjoyed at their newfound friendship, Bemis offered to throw Vanderwende a baby shower. Not present at that event, but seemingly always on the scene, was a woman named Emily Strickland. According to Bemis, Strickland was Blake’s overbearing aunt, a spinster with no children. Whenever Strickland was around, she seemed to immediately take over Bemis’ child-rearing responsibilities. “[Strickland] was always busy with her career, and [Bemis]’s explanation made total sense,” said Vanderwende. “It seemed natural that she was an overbearing aunt just by the way she’d take charge when she was around Blake.”
In 2012, shortly after the baby shower, Vanderwende moved back to North Carolina where her husband was going to be stationed. Following the move, it appeared that a sudden tragedy had just struck Bemis. “[Bemis] called and said there had been a horrible accident and Blake had died,” Vanderwende recalled. “I was distraught. I’d spent so much time with her and with Blake. She had a ton of medical knowledge and explained everything so accurately. But my mother-in-law was the first person to ask, ‘If Blake died, where is this on the news?’” Bemis asked Vanderwende for money, then mysteriously went ghost on Vanderwende.
Disturbed at the lack of news reporting on the child’s supposed death, Vanderwende and her mother-in-law began looking into Blake’s mysterious death. Vanderwende’s mother-in-law found Emily Strickland on Skype and contacted her. “When we got a hold of [Strickland],” Vanderwende said, “Blake was sitting right there with her. I shouted, ‘Blake’s alive!’ I was so happy, but so confused.”
On Skype, Strickland told Vanderwende that she was actually Blake’s mother and that Bemis was only her babysitter. According to Strickland, everything Bemis had told Vanderwende in the past year–from the firefighter husband named Shane, to Blake’s death–was a lie.
According to a restraining order Strickland obtained against Bemis, for months Bemis had been dressing up the young boy as a girl and peddling his pictures on Facebook. Online, Bemis had been calling Blake ‘Cheyenne’ and was claiming that she needed money to raise Cheyenne because the child was having heart palpitations. Eventually, Strickland found the pictures of her son online. Strickland put a stop to Bemis’ nonsense by firing her and filing for a restraining order. After she was caught, Bemis told everyone Blake was dead and asked for one last rush of donations, before deleting the Facebook page and disappearing, but only momentarily. In reality, the only danger Blake faced was the danger of being exposed to Bemis.
When news of Bemis’ most recent fraud surfaced, Vanderwende–who recently moved back to OC–contacted Strickland.
“I called [Strickland] and said ‘Shit is going down!’ I was surprised she would try it again because she’s been caught so many times. What worries me the most is that [Bemis] is enjoying the attention she’s been getting. She knows she can get brand-new items and resell them in Facebook groups. She’ll say something like, ‘Oh my baby died, I need to resell them, please honor my baby.’ She plays on what people are going through.”
OCSD spokesperson Braun told the Weekly that about a dozen people have come forward as victims in Bemis’ most recent fraud. Braun says Bemis has cooperated with the current investigation, but the OCSD won’t be releasing any further details at this time. Braun also says that–even given Bemis’ history of swindling–nearly all of the items recovered in the OCSD’s September 1 raid of Bemis’ house were from her alleged Holy Fire scam. The department’s current fraud investigation is limited to the Holy Fire incident, Braun says, but police are looking into past instances of Bemis’ predatory begging to establish if there’s a pattern. The OCSD is asking victims to come forward and identify themselves as victims so the case can be turned over to the District Attorney, where it could eventually be prosecuted.
It could take years to prove Bemis’ guilt, but for some people the damage she’s left can last much longer.
“After seeing what she did, I’ve never hired a babysitter I don’t know,” said Vanderwende. “When I do hire a babysitter, it’s always my immediate family. Only once since the Strickland thing have I hired someone who wasn’t family–and that was last month, seven years after what happened to me.”