Hope Ybarra believed her third relapse of cancer would be her last.
She had ordered her casket — pinkish stainless steel with white velvet lining. She had bought five burial plots, one for each of her family members, overlooking the Trinity River.
She chronicled her journey in a blog, updating how the cancer had spread, sharing how she broke the painful news of her looming death to family and friends. She also wrote loving and encouraging notes to her three children, the youngest of whom was struggling with terminal cystic fibrosis.
“How I wish I could carry your burdens for you. You are such a brave little girl, and I am so very proud of you. You keep fighting this monster and NEVER give up. … When God calls you to join me, I will be waiting for you with open arms. I will reserve a garden of butterflies for you to play in.”
Family and friends saw Hope as a loving, brave and fearless mother and provided her with gifts and money. News outlets reported on her family’s difficult journey.
But over time, as doctors and others began to find holes in her tragic story, it became apparent that the journey was founded on lies, a web of deceit created by a woman who faked having cancer to gain favor and attention before inflicting the deception on two of her children, a form of medical child abuse known as Munchausen syndrome by proxy.
Her youngest daughter took the brunt of the abuse and was subjected to four years of unneeded surgeries and medical procedures because of her mother’s sinister actions.
“I still feel like I’m a monster because of what I did,” Hope said as she cried during a recent prison interview.
View the full investigative report on Munchausen syndrome by Proxy here.
Hope was accused of using pathogens she’d stolen from her workplace to sicken her daughter, altering sweat tests to encourage a diagnosis of cystic fibrosis and even draining blood from the child, starting a chain reaction of events that caused the girl to go into anaphylactic shock, a potentially life-threatening condition.
Hope claims that many memories of what she did have been erased by diabetic comas but insists she never tried to kill her daughter.
After a six-month investigation by Tarrant County investigator Michael Weber, who specializes in medical child abuse investigations, Hope was arrested in October 2009 on a charge of serious bodily injury to a child. She had been jailed for a year with bail set at $25,000 when she reached a plea bargain with Tarrant County prosecutors and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
For much of the past five years, the Murray prison unit in Gatesville has been Hope’s home.
While she was behind bars, her husband has divorced her. Other family members have cut ties with her. She has few friends.
She will be up for parole review in 2017 — her third time for such consideration — but she’s not hopeful that she’ll be released until October 2019, when her sentence is complete.
“They’re not real anxious to let me go because of the nature of my crime,” Hope said. “What I did was a bad thing, and I don’t blame them for not letting me go.”
‘It’s what I knew’
It’s not clear when Hope began to tell lies, but she claims the behavior was learned from her mother.
Born to teen parents in Houston, Hope was the oldest of four children.
She said she believes that her own mother also suffered from Munchausen syndrome, frequently feigning illnesses such as migraines and arthritis.
“My mom, she did a lot of things that I did, and that’s what I learned,” Hope said. “She didn’t do it to us but she did it to herself.”
As a result, Hope said, she felt ignored as a child.
“I didn’t get attention as a child because I was taking care of Mom and raising the kids and cleaning the house. I was mom growing up.” Hope said. “She was a good mom. She was doing her best, but like me, she didn’t know any better.”
Susan Putscher adamantly denied her daughter’s allegations.
Putscher insisted she did suffer — and still does — from migraines and arthritis but said such things never kept her from raising her family or even going to college to get her degree while her children were in school.
Hope’s father, Putscher said, is an amputee who worked as a traveling salesman and was often away from home.
“Did she help a lot? Absolutely,” Putscher said. “I was raised in the country. Everybody helped. Everybody had jobs. All of my kids, by the time they were 7, could stand on a box and load their own clothes in the washer and dryer. Everybody washed dishes and everybody knew how to cook.”
Putscher said she’s not sure when her daughter started lying, but in retrospect, she sees glimpses of Hope’s craftiness.
“She had a seizure history in high school going into college that is questionable,” Putscher said. “I don’t know if those were real or not. I can tell you she was diagnosed with them, but I feel pretty sure there were times she faked them, maybe all the time. I don’t know.”
When Hope was 12, the family moved to Flower Mound. After graduating from Marcus High School, Hope attended Sul Ross State University in Alpine, where she played clarinet and was a drum major in the band, belonged to numerous clubs and was once named to Who’s Who.
She also met her husband at Sul Ross, and they had a son in 1996. They held off on marrying until December 1998, seven months after Hope graduated with a bachelor’s in chemistry.
Later, Hope began boasting about other great accomplishments. That included telling family and future employers that she had received a doctorate in chemistry from TCU.
Hope’s ex-husband recalls her disappearing on Tuesday and Thursday nights, claiming she was taking courses at TCU to get her doctorate. He remembers being surprised when she announced she’d received it after only a year.
“I’ve had friends get their Ph.D. in a year and a half, but they went full time, but she said she took online courses and went to school,” said Ybarra, who asked that his first name not be used to protect the identity of his children. “I don’t have a Ph.D., so I had no idea [she wasn’t telling the truth].”
Putscher remembers being so proud when Hope announced she had received her doctorate.
“I bought the TCU sweatshirt,” Putscher said. “She had Ph.D. written on everything, printed on business cards. It was her email address: email@example.com.”
But her deepest deception appears to have begun in 2001, when she told her family and friends the devastating news that she’d been diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a bone cancer.
Off and on through the next eight years, Hope’s cancer ruse grew more elaborate. She’d claim it had spread to her brain and lungs and destroyed her hearing, prompting her to learn sign language and later get a cochlear implant. She told people she beat the cancer twice and even moved to Alabama for eight months for treatment she said she could get nowhere else.
“I did see oncology. I had scans that showed I had cancer but the biopsies were clear,” Hope said. “They were tumors but they were nonmalignant.”
What she was seeking when she told others differently, Hope said, was “probably attention. It’s what I knew, so it’s what I did. If you’re sick, you get the kind of attention you need.”
‘I lost my grandkids’
While supposedly undergoing chemotherapy related to one lie, Hope was juggling another, this time a pregnancy with twins.
She wore maternity clothes and had picked out names for the unborn girls — Alexandria and Alexia.
Ybarra said he believed that Hope was pregnant but said he was a little perplexed by the news. The two were rarely intimate, he said, and neither had a history of twins in their families.
“It was not that I had doubts, but it was odd,” Ybarra said.
He said he remembers going to meet Hope at an OB-GYN appointment or two. When he arrived, he said, Hope claimed that the doctor visit had already happened.
Putscher was devastated when her daughter, then purportedly five months along, called to inform her that she had lost the babies less than two weeks into her cancer treatment.
“I was in shock,” Putscher recalled. “I lost my grandkids.”
Ybarra said his wife held a “mini-funeral,” taking $2,500 in cash from their bank account to pay for having their remains cremated.
“I said, Why don’t you write a check? She said, ‘It’s easier to pay cash.’ Then one day she comes home with an urn,” Ybarra said.
The sealed urn was kept on the fireplace mantel of the Ybarras’ north Fort Worth home, and Hope bought a 6-foot concrete angel for a memorial garden in the back yard.
As part of her “bucket list,” Hope later had angel wings tattooed on her back, telling others she felt she had more than earned her wings. Between the wings, Hope had the tattoo artist draw five red stars — one for each of her children, including the twins whom she had lost.
Among Hope’s dying wishes was that the twins’ remains be buried with her.
The urn now sits in the back of a storage unit, among other possessions — reminders of Ybarra’s ex-wife’s lies.
“… I have no idea what I’m going to do with that,” Ybarra said.
From prison, Hope confirmed she was never pregnant with twins.
Shaving her head during chemo
Hope also managed to avoid the presence of family members while being treated for her alleged cancer.
Asked how, Hope said, “Everybody refused to come.
“I didn’t necessarily ask. I would mention, ‘Today is chemo day,’ and none of them would say, ‘I’ll go.’ ”
Putscher called her daughter’s claim another lie.
“When I would ask her most of the time … there were two primary responses that occurred: ‘Well, I really need you to watch the kids when I go,’ and the other one when I knew they were staying with the sitter, ‘I’d rather you save your ability to go with me when I really, really need you. When it’s worse,’ ” Putscher said.
Ybarra said he remembers Hope frequently shaving her head as she claimed to lose her hair from chemotherapy. He said he now knows that chemo would have caused the loss of all his wife’s body hair.
“I’d never known anybody personally who’d had cancer, so I never knew,” Ybarra said.
The attention Hope drew from her own fake illnesses was apparently not enough.
At some point after the birth of her second child in 1999, Hope told her family that the girl had been diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
Ybarra said that for more than a year, his oldest daughter wore ankle braces off and on.
“I think she was fine because she ran all the time without them,” Ybarra said. “… Now that I look back, I think that might have been the start of it.”
Eventually, with the birth of their younger daughter, talk of the older girl’s health problems just faded away, Ybarra said.
The older daughter told a forensic interviewer that she was miraculously cured of the disease around the time of her sister’s birth.
In the prison interview, Hope insisted that a doctor had mistakenly diagnosed her daughter with cerebral palsy.
“I was told she did by the pediatrician,” Hope said.
It is a different story than she told Weber in May 2009, when Hope admitted that she told the doctor that her older daughter had cerebral palsy, not the other way around.
“I made some bad choices. I made some really bad choices, but I’m on the right road,” Hope told Weber. “I see what I’ve done and I know your concerns and I can understand.”
‘Reminded me of Goldilocks’
It is her younger daughter whom Hope admits she used like a tool to get the attention she craved. She said the girl’s premature birth in 2004 served as the foundation for her abusive behavior.
Ybarra confirmed that the couple’s younger daughter was born some 10 weeks early, weighing 2 pounds, 2 ounces. She called the neonatal unit home for the first few months of her life.
“She had a lot of needs when she was born,” Hope said. “I imagine a lot of what I got when she was a baby kind of fed what was going on. … As she got older, when she started to get better, I just continued and it just grew.”
Ybarra said his ex-wife handled their children’s medical appointments and shrugged him off when he offered to take a day off from work to go with them.
Before the girl turned 1, she underwent surgery to have a gastronomy tube, also known as a G-tube or feeding tube, inserted through her abdomen to deliver nutrition directly to her stomach.
Even today, Hope insists that the surgery was necessary.
“She had that put in because she had swallowing dysfunction. … They put that in because she was aspirating her milk,” Hope said. “They watched her drinking and she would choke.”
By the time the girl turned 1, Hope had insisted that a doctor at Children’s Medical Center of Dallas test her daughter for cystic fibrosis.
The girl was given a series of sweat tests to check for elevated sodium levels — an indicator of the disorder.
The first test was borderline. The sodium level from the second test was so off-the-charts high that it was ruled inconclusive because of an interfering substance — a result the lab tech later told Weber that she had never seen before or since.
The third and fourth tests came back positive.
“It kind of reminded me of Goldilocks,” Weber said. “This one’s too cold. This one’s too hot. This one’s just right. I wondered if Mom had attempted to tamper with the test twice before finally getting it right the third and fourth time.”
Hope said she does remember melting salt in water to alter the tests. Though she admitted altering only one of the sweat tests — using nasal spray — to Weber, she told the Star-Telegram she must have tampered with all four.
“Only one person could have messed with those tests and it sure wasn’t [my daughter]. It had to be me,” Hope said.
She said that in her troubled mind, she believed her actions were justified.
“At the time, I thought it was getting the help she needed. At least that’s the way I was thinking about it. This was all messed up,” she said, pointing to her head, “and it still is.
“… She suffered a lot because of what I did. A lot,” Hope said. “Between the surgeries and all the hospitalizations and all that. Some of them were necessary, but most of them were not.”
‘I didn’t want her to die’
What Hope claims to remember doing to her younger daughter is limited.
“I remember exaggerating symptoms to the doctors,” she said. “I remember taking her to different doctors when they didn’t think there was anything wrong with her. I remember watering down her formula that went into her feeding tube so she didn’t gain weight.”
But Weber suspects Hope did far more.
Weber said the girl only began suffering episodes of anemia in 2005 after the placement of central lines to give medical personnel easy access to the girl’s blood.
Dr. Donald Beam, a hematologist at Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth, later told Weber that the girl’s iron levels would test normal one week and be extremely deficient the next, despite not showing any signs of internal bleeding.
“Dr. Beam stated this is not normal even for children with severe cystic fibrosis,” Weber wrote in Hope’s arrest warrant affidavit.
The only explanation for such fluctuations in a healthy person, Beam would tell Weber, was if the patient was being intentionally bled.
When Weber asked Hope how her daughter lost such great amounts of blood — sometimes up to half a liter a week — Hope said she didn’t know. When pushed, she later admitted removing only a small amount of blood during treatments, as she said medical professionals told her to do.
“I did not take liters of blood out of her,” Hope told Weber. “When I accessed her port, I would take one syringe of blood out. I would discard it in the trash.”
Weber said he interviewed nurses and doctors, who told him “there would never be a valid medical reason to remove blood” from the central lines.
Hope ultimately pleaded guilty to withdrawing blood from her daughter.
As a result of Hope’s actions, the girl was given an iron dextran transfusion. The transfusion caused the girl to go into anaphylactic shock, a potentially life-threatening condition.
In the prison interview, Hope said that because of her memory problems, she can’t say for sure that she never bled her daughter.
“I don’t remember ever withdrawing any blood from her,” Hope said. “I can’t promise you anything, like I said. But that would really hurt her. I wasn’t trying to do anything that would really hurt her. I didn’t want her to die.”
‘She was an incredible actress’
Ybarra recalls his daughter undergoing 30 to 40 surgeries or medical procedures. He can still remember the names of the medications he helped give her — drugs that she didn’t need, with potentially dangerous side effects.
And he can still remember his daughter’s cries during the monthly cleanings of her port and how family members would comfort her with a stuffed animal to try to make her happy.
“Oh, my goodness, it was horrible. … It took only 20 minutes but she knew it was coming so she was crying before and after,” Ybarra said. “I felt so bad.”
The family’s nanny said she worked for the Ybarras about a year and a half, and grew especially close to the younger daughter. She said she often stayed by the girl’s side at the hospital while Hope worked and even accompanied the family on a Make-A-Wish trip to Disneyland.
“It was devastating to me,” said the nanny, who asked that her name not be used. “I spent days and days at the hospital. I thought I was going to lose that precious little baby girl. She was like mine.”
The nanny said that until the truth was revealed, she considered Hope “a loving, kind, bighearted mother and woman.”
“She was an incredible actress,” the nanny said.
The nanny said she is guilt-ridden for giving the young girl vest therapy to help break down mucus and imposing the strict diet Hope insisted on because she said the girl was lactose-intolerant.
To later learn that none of it was really needed, she said, “was quite a blow to say the least. … I was furious for quite a long time and felt horrible. I was doing something she didn’t need done.”
The amount of attention Hope received stretched far beyond family and friends.
The Dallas Morning News published an article in March 2007 about an upcoming benefit walk for cystic fibrosis that featured Hope and her daughter.
The article said that Hope wasn’t worried about her own sickness, but rather concentrated on helping her daughter manage her cystic fibrosis.
“We realize she likely will never see a cure,” the article quotes Hope as saying. “When her day comes, we’ll have no regrets. We tried our hardest to bring awareness. And we will spend the rest of our lives trying for other families.”
Her daughter would also be a featured poster child for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
With all that attention came money and gifts.
The trip to Disneyland. A family that provided a Christmas meal and presents for the Ybarras. A former employer who donated $18,000.
Ybarra said he never considered his family to be in financial straits and insisted he was not aware of the cash donations his wife had been collecting.
“I know nothing about that,” he said. “I just knew we had savings and we had cash and suddenly, it was depleted over an amount of time. … I don’t know what she was spending it on.”
Both parents had good jobs — Ybarra as an educator and Hope as a lab director for a North Texas pharmaceutical company.
“We were never hurting,” he said.
But Hope’s job would soon be in peril.
While her stories of battling cancer and her daughter’s cystic fibrosis drew empathy from co-workers, the company’s president, Mark Tengler, said he began to suspect something wasn’t quite right with Hope.
There was a conversation he had with her that brought the depth of her scientific knowledge into question. And how she had dodged questions when Tengler’s girlfriend asked about the topic of her Ph.D. dissertation.
“I asked our HR manager, ‘Can you pull her file for me and show me her résumé?’ There were actually two résumés in her file,” Tengler said. The two documents had conflicting dates for when Hope had acquired her doctorate, as well as what field it was in.
But most concerning was when a supervisor returned from vacation a day early and noticed pathogens in an incubator — pathogens from a company no longer used by the pharmaceutical company.
The next day, the petri dishes were gone.
Tengler said company officials reviewed security surveillance tapes that showed Hope visiting the lab that night, tote bag in hand.
He said Hope was questioned and admitted ordering and taking the pathogens. She said she sent them to a California lab for a study.
But the subsequent mysterious illnesses of two of Hope’s co-workers raised questions of whether Hope had used the pathogens for more sinister purposes.
One employee became violently ill at work after drinking from a bottle of water that had been left unattended on her desk.
The bottle was tested and came back positive for one of the pathogens Hope had ordered, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a bacterium that can cause rashes and infections.
Another employee — the supervisor who had first noticed the pathogens in the incubator — suffered a mysterious rash on her face after talking on her office phone.
In her prison interview, Hope said she “can’t imagine” poisoning her co-workers.
“I didn’t have anything against those co-workers,” she said. “I know who they are because of the court documents.”
Though unable to prove that Hope had planted the pathogens, a private investigator hired by the company did uncover that she had lied about her credentials.
“He started looking at TCU. They had no record of her receiving her Ph.D.,” Tengler said. “He went to the actual professor that she claimed to have worked under and he dug through his files and found she had applied to the program but had never been accepted.”
In November 2008, the pharmaceutical company fired Hope.
‘I just want to die at home’
With Hope unemployed and pretending to be courting death, her web of deceit garnered even more attention — ultimately leading to her downfall.
With Hope’s cancer purportedly back a third time, her friends began a fundraising drive after hearing that the Ybarras faced eviction because the owners of the home they were leasing were looking to sell.
A benefit golf tournament and concert were held. Putscher set up a blog and sent out an email that later went viral, sharing her daughter’s struggles and asking for help.
Hope said her ruses were never about the money.
“When they did the fundraisers … I felt very guilty,” she said.
But not so guilty as to prevent Hope from doing an interview with KTVT/CBS 11.
“I just want to die at home,” Hope, then 33, told the TV reporter in the February 2009 report.
In the news piece, a melancholy Hope chats from under a blanket in her living room while the camera pans across happy family pictures that include a beaming Hope with a shaved head. Her younger daughter, described by the reporter as “fighting her own terminal case of cystic fibrosis,” leans affectionately into her mother as the cameras roll.
“The worse thing that I can imagine happening is I pass and they sell this property at the same time, then all of a sudden not only have they lost Mom but they’re having to hurry up and get out of the house,” Hope said.
Ybarra said that he was not aware of the TV interview until after it had happened and that he confronted his wife.
“She said, ‘We want people to help,’ ” Ybarra said. “I said, ‘Why?’
“She made it seem like we have no money. I said my parents can help. I come from a middle- to upper-class family. It was not a big deal for me.”
Putscher said more than $100,000 was raised for her daughter’s family through that last fundraising effort. (Most of the funds raised were later returned to donors or given to M.D. Anderson for cancer research, according to Putscher.)
Ybarra said he was “totally against” the fundraiser.
“I always took a back seat to it. I think Susan is a great grandma but she needs some attention, too, sometimes, so I think she took it to heart, ‘I’m going to help my daughter,’ ” Ybarra said. “And in her defense, Hope was very convincing. She had the tears. She played the part perfect.”
But not long after the piece aired and before a dime of the donations could be spent — Hope’s lies would come crashing down.
“That’s when it all started. Her world started crumbling,” Ybarra said.
‘There’s nothing on Hope’
With Hope’s cancer supposedly back and nothing more to be done, Putscher said, she was seeing a grief counselor to cope with her daughter’s pending death. Hope had already been given last rites by a priest.
“We had moved them into our home and set up a hospice room for her,” Putscher said. “We had no clue.”
A request from one of Hope’s physicians finally raised suspicions in Putscher.
“The physician told me he couldn’t find the medical records on her prior cancers and could I please help,” Putscher said. “He asked if I know the names of the doctors that had treated her.”
Putscher began hunting.
“I went through her drawers looking for prescription bottles that might have the name of the doctor on it. Couldn’t find any,” she recounted.
When Hope’s husband got home, Putscher said, she asked him if he had online access to his insurance. He said yes and provided her the password.
“There’s nothing on Hope,” Putscher said she discovered when looking for medical records. “Tons and tons and tons of stuff on [the younger daughter]. But no CAT scan. No X-ray. No doctors appointments. No MRIs. No prescriptions.”
Early the next morning, Putscher said, she went to the hospital where her daughter had been admitted for pain management and waited for Hope’s physician to arrive.
“When he got there, I said we need to talk. We went into a private office. I said, ‘I think my daughter has Munchausen syndrome,’ ” Putscher, who has had medical training, recalled telling the doctor. “He said, ‘I cannot deny that that’s my thought.’ ”
Though urged by her grief counselor not to confront her daughter, Putscher did so at the hospital.
“I did get her to confess to me it was true that she did not have cancer. When I asked her, ‘Why, Hope?’ Why would she do this? She told me, ‘It’s the only time [her husband] pays any attention to me’ and that she needed to believe it,” Putscher said.
Putscher said she refused to bring her daughter home.
“ ‘We’re not leaving the hospital until you get admitted into psych,’ ” she said she told Hope. “ ‘You’re sick.’ ”
Almost immediately, a nagging question arose.
“It was my first thought. If she doesn’t have cancer, does [the daughter] have cystic fibrosis?” Putscher said.
CPS gets involved
Putscher said she pushed Hope’s husband to get his younger daughter to undergo another sweat test, offering to take the girl herself, but said she met resistance.
“I was told very explicitly that I needed to mind my own business and he would take care of his family like he always had,” Putscher said.
Ybarra said he was initially upset with Putscher, who had asked him and his children to move out of her house after Hope’s cancer hoax was revealed.
“Nobody can fathom the amount of shock that we were in at the time or the financial liability that we were under with them living under our roof,” Putscher said. “Our attorney told us that we could be responsible for whatever she had done.”
Undeterred, Putscher called her granddaughter’s doctor, explaining that Hope had been untruthful about having cancer and that she feared that Hope might have been lying about her daughter’s symptoms as well.
At CPS’ insistence, the girl was brought to Cook Children’s Medical Center for another series of sweat tests.
Hope — who had since been released from the hospital after a couple of days in the psych ward, according to her mother — went with Ybarra and the children to Cook Children’s.
Marissa Glasschroeder, a child life specialist at Cook Children’s who had worked with the Ybarras for years, later recounted for Weber how Hope seemed upset and began to cry when they were told that the first of the follow-up tests had come back negative for cystic fibrosis.
“Ms. Glasschroeder stated that the suspect had never cried during any of the victim’s previous medical procedures or diagnoses,” Weber wrote in an arrest warrant affidavit.
During the second sweat test, Hope was allowed to be present but not alone with her daughter. Glasschroeder and a nurse later told Weber that Hope had to be stopped from fiddling with her daughter’s bandage.
That test, as well as the third, would also come back negative for cystic fibrosis.
Until the tests came back negative, Ybarra said, he had found it hard to digest that his wife could do such a thing to their daughter.
“By that time, I knew it was real. In the back of my mind, I said I’ve got to figure a plan out now,” Ybarra said. “I knew something was going to happen. I didn’t know the extent of it but I knew something was going to happen.”
CPS immediately put a safety plan in place, barring Hope from contact with her children.
The state agency also contacted Weber, who began a criminal investigation.
Hope soon moved to Dallas, living alone in an apartment.
Ybarra and the children moved to a house in Saginaw. After being removed from her mom’s care, the younger daughter showed immediate signs of improvement. She was taken off all medications and ate normally. She gained weight, underwent surgeries to have her port and feeding tube removed, and was deemed 100 percent healthy.
“It was my responsibility to tell her that she’s no longer sick,” Ybarra said. “I didn’t know what to do. You’re sick all these years and now, all of a sudden you’re fine.”
‘Never in my daughter’
In May 2009, a month after beginning his investigation, Weber received a phone call from Hope’s mother.
“I said, ‘Weber, I think you need to come out here and you need to bring hazmat,” Putscher recalled. “I don’t like what I just found. I don’t want it in my house. You need to come get it.”
Inside a storage bin under her guest bed, Putscher had discovered three petri dishes stored among her daughter’s personal papers and belongings. They were confirmed to be from the pharmaceutical company from which Hope had recently been fired.
“The FBI came out with me, actually, and transported the dishes to their lab in Quantico [Va.],” Weber said.
Investigators believe that Hope used the pathogens to make her daughter sick.
“Hope had access to nine pathogens at her workplace,” Weber said. “Four of those pathogens had shown up in her daughter.”
Writing on the dishes showed they had once contained Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Staphylococcus aureus, a bacterium that can cause skin and respiratory infections common in cystic fibrosis patients.
A review of more than 5,000 pages of medical records by Dr. Jamye Coffman of Cook Children’s Medical Center shows that Hope’s younger daughter had tested positive five times between 2006 and 2008 for various pathogens, including the two once contained in the petri dishes.
In her 2009 interview with Weber, Hope acknowledged stealing pathogens from work. She would only admit, however, to putting Pseudomonas aeruginosa and later Staphylococcus aureus into cups containing her daughter’s sputum (coughed-up phlegm) samples.
“Never in my daughter,” she insisted to Weber.
Weber, however, said he suspects that Hope was using her daughter’s nebulizer, a device that administers medication in the form of a mist that is inhaled — to transmit the pathogens.
To support his theory, he points to the fact that the pathogens were discovered several times in swabs of the girl’s throat.
“When they did a scope of her lungs, they found salmonella,” Weber said. “Salmonella does not get there. I talked to the doctor, he was like, ‘We’ve never seen that pathogen in that location.’
“So how did it get there? Nebulizer,” Weber speculates.
In her prison interview, Hope said she does not recall what she did with the pathogens.
“I may have been putting them — and I’m stretching here — in her breathing treatments to try to get her to have pulmonary infections, to make her sick,” Hope said. “But if I would have put them in her [bloodstream], she would have gotten really, really sick. You know, septic.”
Agreeing to plea deal
Weber was preparing to obtain a warrant for Hope’s arrest on a charge of injury to a child when he got word that she had been hospitalized after collapsing in her Dallas apartment.
Weber talked to a doctor at the hospital, who reported Hope had suffered a brain injury and would likely never be functioning normally again. Hope says now that this was her first diabetic coma.
Convinced she was faking, Weber said, he called a social worker at the hospital, sharing Hope’s history of making up things and requesting a favor.
“ ‘If there’s some miracle recovery, can you give me a call?’ ” Weber said he asked. “Two days later, she calls me. ‘She’s sitting up. She’s talking. The doctor is calling it a miracle.’”
Hope was transferred to a long-term care facility for the next month and a half.
“I talked to the doctor at the rehab facility,” Weber said. “He said they would test her memory on written tests and it would be terrible but whenever he talked to her in person about her family, she had a very good memory, so it was inconsistent. He felt she was malingering.
“We arrested her the day they released her.”
Booked into the Tarrant County Jail in October 2009, Hope later wrote two letters to state District Judge Wayne Salvant, insisting she was a good mother and pleading for her bail to be reduced.
“Our family needs to be together for the sake of our children’s well-being,” she wrote.
Hope said during her prison interview that she was intent on taking her case to trial until her court-appointed attorney hired a private investigator. Based on the investigator’s findings, Hope said, her attorney urged her to reconsider the prosecutor’s plea offer of 10 years in prison.
“My attorney assured me that it wasn’t going to get any better than 10 and it was in my best interest to go ahead and plead out before it got any worse,” Hope said.
On Oct. 18, 2010, Hope pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. She was given credit for the one year she had spent in jail awaiting trial.
“It could have been so very much worse,” Hope said she realizes now.
She said that if prosecutors had realized all she’d apparently done, she now believes they wouldn’t have offered a plea deal.
“I think there was a good chance I would have been hung,” she said.
Though Ybarra had continued to visit his wife in the Tarrant County Jail, he said it was not out of support but rather to find out where she kept the kids’ birth certificates, Social Security cards and the family’s rainy day fund.
“I knew I was going to be on my own forever,” Ybarra said.
When Hope went to prison, Ybarra said, he explained to their younger daughter, “Mommy is sick right now and she had to get better.”
Because of her young age at the time her mother was jailed, the daughter has little memory of what her mother did to her, just the physical scars.
The two older children know that their mom is in prison but not all of the details about what sent her there.
“If they ever ask, I’ll tell them what they want to know,” Ybarra said. “They’re older so it’s kind of like our dirty little secret. We talk about everything else except that.”
Ybarra stopped visiting Hope once she went to prison but said he still occasionally sent her letters, including pictures of the kids and a little money. A time or two, he included letters from the children.
“I still feel she is the mother of my kids,” he explained.
He admitted he also led Hope to believe he still cared about her as a way of getting her to grant him a divorce without a long, expensive battle.
“I had to play her game … ,” he said.
The divorce was finalized in 2012.
“The minute that divorce became final, everything stopped,” Hope said. “I don’t get letters from them. I don’t get letters from him.”
Ybarra said his wife still sends him letters for the children about once a month but he no longer lets the children see them because “it took a toll on the kids.” He said the message Hope writes is always the same: “I miss you. I’m sorry.”
“I read them, and then I throw them away,” he says.
‘You’re part of my healing’
In agreeing to be interviewed by the Star-Telegram, Hope explained that opening up is helping her get better.
But signs of her past still exist.
In a 90-minute interview, she initially spoke as a deaf person would, dotting her conversation with sign language. She carried a yellow card in the pocket of her white prison jumpsuit that identifies her as a hearing-impaired inmate.
As the interview continued, however, the speech impediment quickly waned, resurfacing only after she was asked whether she is hard of hearing or if it’s just another ruse.
Hope insisted that she is not faking, dropping her head and moving her hair to show a barely visible scar that she claims came from her cochlear implant. Since being imprisoned, Hope explained, the implant’s external processor has broken, leaving her unable to hear.
Don’t believe it, said Hope’s mother, who gives her daughter zero credibility.
Putscher said her daughter had claimed her auditory nerves were destroyed around January 2002 during radiation treatment for a brain tumor. She said she doesn’t believe that Hope’s cochlear implant was necessary.
She called Hope’s speech impediment, which only surfaced after Hope was sent to prison, just another act.
“The last time we visited, she was pulling that whole thing,” Putscher said. “She had a deaf card in her pocket. Her dad said, ‘You can drop the whole deaf act, or we’re out of here.’ ”
Putscher said her daughter quickly began speaking normally.
Also in question are Hope’s claimed memory problems brought on by diabetic comas that started right before her arrest and have continued in prison. Prison officials would not confirm Hope’s medical issues, citing confidentiality laws.
“… When sugar crashes like that, it does some pretty bad things to your brain, and unfortunately, that’s what I’ve got now and that’s for real,” Hope said.
Putscher said she believes that her daughter is a brittle diabetic, but she has stopped sending Hope money in prison because she believes her daughter is creating these diabetic episodes by binging on junk food bought from the prison vending machines.
Weber calls it a “very convenient excuse not to remember something she doesn’t want to remember.”
An uncertain future
Hope said she is given medication in prison for depression but said she receives no counseling or treatment for her tendencies to lie.
“There’s not a pill they can give for that. It’s a choice,” she said.
Dr. Marc Feldman, noted Munchausen syndrome by proxy expert, echoed those concerns: “We don’t have a good treatment. We don’t know how to get to these mothers. We don’t know how to break through the denial.”
Where Hope will go once she’s released from prison is uncertain.
Her mother, for one, is not convinced that Hope will be ready to re-enter society, considering the lack of treatment she has received.
“I don’t feel like they’re treating the underlying illness that brought this about,” Putscher said. “When you put a drug addict in prison, you send them to a detox program because you want them to be successful when they come back on the streets.
“What she did was a crime. She deserves to pay the time, but I fail to see how she’s going to be re-entering society if the issue behind her committing those crimes is not addressed.”
Putscher said that while she is open to having a relationship with her daughter, she will not allow Hope to live with her.
“It’s nice to see her and to hug her … but you can get sucked into her drama because you can’t know whether it’s real or not,” Putscher said.
Hope said she is optimistic that she can reconnect with her children but knows “it’s their choice.”
“I can’t make them. I’ve already hurt them enough,” Hope said. “I pray as they get older, they’ll say OK.”
Ybarra said two of their children will be in college when Hope is released.
“I’ll leave it up to them. By that time, they’ll know the full story,” Ybarra said. “I do save some letters [from Hope] telling me, ‘I messed up. I know what I did.’ I saved those so they can read them.”
He said the couple’s younger daughter will be 15 when Hope gets out.
He said he plans to tell her about her mother when she is a little older and as she becomes self-conscious and confused by the scars on her body.
“I’m sure she’s thought about it, but she hasn’t asked me those questions,” Ybarra said.
Hope said said plans to seek therapy when she gets out. She said that only in the past year has she come to grips with her lies.
“It’s seeing what people around me do,” she said of being in prison. “I’ve seen people fake illness on a regular basis to get attention or get out of work or get off the dorm, get moved or whatever, and realize as I watch these people doing these things, that’s me. That’s me.”
About this project
Star-Telegram senior reporter Deanna Boyd spent three months examining hundreds of pages of court documents and interviewing investigators, experts on Munchausen syndrome by proxy, family members of the accused and one of the perpetrators.
Project editor was Lee Williams.
Copy editors were Kathy Harris, Tim Sager and Gene Zipperlen.
Photographers were Rodger Mallison and Paul Moseley.
Photos were edited by David Kent.
Videographer was Jared Christopher.
Designers were Michael Currie and Mark Hoffer.
Web developer was Taylor Cammack.
Social media coordinator was Maricar Estrella.