The long, fake life of J.S. Dirr: A decade-long Internet cancer hoax unravels
On the evening of May 13, Mother's Day, a Canadian woman named Dana Dirr was hit head-on while driving to the Saskatchewan hospital where she worked as a trauma surgeon. She was 35 weeks pregnant, but determined to work until the moment she gave birth. The morning after the crash, her husband John ("J.S.") Dirr posted a note on Warrior Eli, a Facebook page the Dirrs had created to document their 5-year-old son Eli's battle with cancer: "Last night at 12:02am I lost the love of my life," J.S. wrote. "I lost my wife, the mother of my children, and my best friend." Miraculously, Dana had held on in the hospital just long enough to have her baby—a daughter, and the Dirr's eleventh child.
If any of it had been true, it would have made for a very sad story—the kind of story that would have taken over the news cycle on Mother's Day, even. But there was none of that, because the Dirrs are not real. They are, in some ways, just the latest example of the countless hoaxes perpetrated by bored, lonely people the world wide web over. But the Dirr hoax is singularly creepy in that the length of the con—11 years—meant J.S. evolved along with modern social networking. When he was born, in the time of Xangas and Tripod sites, J.S. Dirr was hardly more sketched out than a character in a novel. As the internet diversified and came to encompass every aspect of users' lives, so did J.S.
By the time he was found out as a 22-year-old woman living in her father's house in Ohio, J.S. had embedded himself firmly in online the online lives of hundreds of people. Like a virus discovered deep in the guts of a nuclear plant, the Dirrs reveal startling vulnerabilities in the social web—how it masks lies, and boosts our ability to believe them.
"Munchausen by Internet" was coined by the psychiatrist Marc Feldman in 1998 to describe feigning disease for attention on the internet. Famous cases include Kaycee Nicole, a teenager who documented her leukemia for two years on a popular blog from 1999 to 2001, died, thenturned out to be a Kansas housewife. And the 2010 documentary Catfish tells a story remarkably similar to the Dirrs', where an entire family is revealed to be a network of sock puppet accounts on Facebook.
When Dana Dirr died, the childhood cancer community where she and J.S. had found support during the tow-headed Eli's years of illness was shocked. The Dirrs' online friends flooded their page with condolences. More than $1,000 in donations in Dana and Eli's name poured into the cancer charity Alex's Lemonade.
"Everybody was devastated when she was died," said Richiele Sloan, a longtime internet friend. "Everybody was copying and posting pictures, doing the prayer thing and lighting candles."
But the very scope of the tragedy prompted skeptical readers to start digging into Dana and J.S.'s online lives, and they soon realized that the tight-knit family was actually a network of sock puppets: Within hours, internet sleuths had unravelled a years-long hoax that spanned a half dozen social networks and entire families of fake internet personas.
Taryn Wright first learned about Dana Dirr in the comments of the blog MckMama Without Pity, a sort of anti-fan community dedicated to hating on the popular but polarizing mommy blogger Jennifer "MckMama" McKinney. As soon as Wright read J.S.'s Facebook note, she knew something was off.
"I thought it was a little dramatic, to be writing about [Dana's death] a day after the mother of your 11 children died," said Wright, a day trader and blogger who began reading MckMama Without Pity after a hip injury left her stuck at home all day. It also struck her as odd that she couldn't find news reports that matched the accident.
Wright wasn't the only one. The readers of MckMama Without Pity are among the most fearsomely skeptical on the internet—these are people who dedicate hours to exposing the dark truths behind mommy blog posts such as "What's for Lunch!" When a commentermentioned the spectacular tragedy of Dana Dirr, which had gone viral on Facebook, in a weekend open thread, it was like throwing a bloody steak to a pack of wolves.
MWoPers combed through the Dirrs' social media presences and quickly discovered that their family photos were all stolen. Facebook pictures of Lily and Jude, the Dirrs' young twins, were in fact the children of popular South African mommy blogger Tertia. "Dana" and "JS" were a New York City accountant and his girlfriend, taken from the accountant's Flickr account. And a picture of cancer-stricken Eli in the hospital? Turns out it came from a German Flickr account.
"Verrrrry curious," she wrote.
Like most of J.S. Dirr's closest internet friends, 52-year-old Richelle Sloan first met him in the mid-2000s, on the defunct social network Yafro (the name stands for "Yet Another Friendster Rip-off"). The first web-enabled cell phones were coming on the market at the time, and Yafro was one of the early social networks to let users upload pictures right from their camera phones. Yafro developed a reputation as a seedy online swinger's club and J.S., who was fond of posting sexy pictures of his tattoo-laced torso, became one of Yafro's more popular users.
"He was just a little casanova," said Sloan. "For my age, I'm an attractive girl. He would like my pictures and leave comments. Then he kept trying to text with me all the time."
J.S.'s popularity was boosted by his intriguing backstory. He said he was an officer in the Canadian Royal Mounted Police, a member of a K9 unit. He moved a lot: Vancouver, Saskatchewan, Ohio. A relentless turnover of girlfriends kept J.S.'s friends entertained on Yafro, and on his Xanga blog, which he updated religiously (a dizzying summary of which can befound here).
Apparently unfamiliar with birth control, J.S. kept getting his girlfriends pregnant, which sparked a soap opera's worth of baby drama that even close friends had trouble keeping track of. He later told one online girlfriend he'd slept with 87 women. His son Eli was born in 2006—J.S.'s seventh kid with almost as many women. J.S. hashed out even Eli's naming online, asking strangers on Yahoo! Answers for advice shortly before his birth.
Everything changed for J.S. when Eli was diagnosed with a Wilm's Tumor soon after he was born. J.S. now chronicled Eli's cancer with the same relentlessness as he once did his romantic pursuits. In 2008, when Eli was two years old, J.S. married Dana Dirr, a smart aspiring trauma surgeon. Dana and J.S. created the Warrior Eli Facebook page and promoted it throughout the network of pediatric cancer Facebook pages many parents set up to support their sick kids. By the time the Dirrs disappeared, the Warrior Eli page had more than 6,000 followers. The Dirrs also set up pages on CaringBridge and on the charity Alex's Lemonade Stand.
The Yafro community, who had by now migrated to Facebook, was especially devastated by Eli's story. "We'd known him for years so all of us opened up our hearts," said Richiele Sloan. When the Dirrs began sending out camouflaged rubber wristbands stamped with "Warrior Eli" to supporters, Sloan asked for a box. She handed them out at her grandchildrens' school after telling students about Eli, the brave Canadian kid fighting cancer. The Dirrs had sent her pictures to show the kids.
But even from the beginning, there were some troubling inconsistencies in J.S.'s story. The acquaintances in the photos he posted changed appearances drastically from one album to the next. He sometimes inexplicably referred to Dana as "Meghan." Eli seemed to age remarkably slowly. But to his online friends J.S.'s slippery identity didn't mean too much, especially on early social networks like Yafro.
"I thought [the Dirrs] were real people using fake pictures. You see that all the time, so I didn't question it," Sloan said. "Back then, people wouldn't use [their] real name, [they'd] use a handle."
Taryn Wright published the first blog post revealing the Dirrs' stolen Facebook pictures on the morning of May 14, just hours after J.S. Dirr announced Dana's death. And just hours after that, the Dirrs began vanishing from the internet as outraged commenters flooded Facebook and cancer blogs.
"Makes me sick to my stomach," wrote one. "People (like my family) going through cancer issues daily and someone has to do something like this."
The Warrior Eli page was deactivated, and then Dana and J.S. locked down their Facebook accounts. J.S.'s profiles on Mobog—a Yafro successor—photobucket, Xanga, and MySpace would all eventually be scrubbed. Friends who had known J.S. for years tried messaging him on AIM, where he was usually a constant presence, and got no response.
Huge swaths of the Dirrs social circle began disappearing, too. Gone were the Facebook profiles of J.S.'s hard-partying best friend, Mitchy Aaron, who would sometimes tag J.S. in party pics. Mitchy's wife, who had only recently thanked the Dirrs on Facebook for taking care of their kids after Mitchy was in a motorcycle accident, disappeared, too. Dozens of J.S.'s ex-girlfriends, who sometimes sent Facebook friend requests to the real people J.S. knew online, much to J.S.'s annoyance, locked their profiles down. A small town's worth of people—at least 71, according to Wright—had apparently been invented to support the Dirr fantasy, using hundreds of stolen pictures to create the appearance of a vibrant social life.
But who was behind the hoax? In the Dirr mythos, J.S. had a younger sister, Emily, who lived in Ohio. She would send the camo Warrior Eli bracelets when friends requested them—J.S. said it was to avoid the hassle of shipping across the Canadian border. Whoever had sent the packages must have been behind the Dirrs.
Wright began hearing from people who had received bracelets from Emily Dirr. In each case, the return address was a home in Rootstown, Ohio that public records show is owned by a man named William Dirr. Records also show that William Dirr has a 22-year-old daughter named Emily Dirr. Emily was a bit character in the Dirr's universe. Now, it appeared she was the only one who actually existed.
That evening, Wright wrote a short blog post on the Warrior Eli Hoax blog:
Dear "JS" and "Dana"
Please contact me before I out you on the internet. I'd like to hear some excuses before I start unleashing a mountain of evidence. Please get a hold of me before 5:30 central time. Thank you.
When he existed, J.S. Dirr was generous with the knowledge he said he'd gained from dealing with Eli's cancer. On Yahoo! Answers he dispensed advice to hundreds of strangers dealing with cancer—everything from offering tips for fighting nightsweats caused by leukemia to debunkingthe idea that split ends were a symptom of cancer—using Eli's story to bolster his credibility.
That's how, in 2009, a girl we'll call Sarah met J.S. She was 14 years old and scared out of her mind in California, convinced she had leukemia. Two years earlier she'd been diagnosed with Crohn's disease and had been put on medication that increased her risk of cancer. She began noticing aching joints, and a pain deep inside her bones. All her real friends had brushed it off, so she turned to Yahoo! Answers: "I'm really scared i have leukemia?" she wrote.
J.S. Dirr's lengthy response was just what a terrified teenager would want to hear, stuffed with medical jargon but comfortingly inconclusive: "It is possible that you have leukemia but at the same time you may also not have it," J.S. wrote. "In either case, you should definitely have an appointment with a physician to be sure." (Sarah didn't have leukemia.)
At the end of many of his answers on Yahoo!, J.S. would leave his email address and AOL Instant Messenger screen name, Crazycanuckj, in case the questioner wanted to follow up.
Sarah decided to chat J.S. on AIM. He was nearly twice her age, but they hit it off immediately. J.S. was somehow always online, even with his demanding police job and an ever-increasing brood of kids to care for. But Sarah had plenty of time to chat. She'd just given up partying and had lost a lot of her old friends. They talked for hours every day after school got out—about J.S.'s job, Eli's health, and Sarah's boyfriend, who will be enlisting in the Marines next year.
Sarah also received Warrior Eli wristbands in the mail to hand out to her friends—one package came with a hand-written thank you drawing of a car, ostensibly from Eli himself.
One thing they rarely discussed was J.S.'s past. J.S. said he had a twin brother, Sam. They'd formed an alt-rock band called "The Vas Deferens," whose janky website is still up today. But Sam had been stabbed to death by his girlfriend when he was 17. This harrowing event seems to have kept many of J.S.'s friends from asking too many questions about his sketchy past.
Sarah's mother reasonably freaked out when Sarah told her about her new online friendship with a married man in his mid-20s. But J.S. never did anything untoward. "Jay was like my online big brother. I could literally vent to him about anything," Sarah said.
But some of J.S.'s relationships went past friendship. In 2010, a Florida woman we'll call Anna stumbled on J.S.'s Xanga blog. Touched by J.S.'s dedication to Eli, she messaged him. And though they were both married, J.S. and Anna began a year-long online love affair.
Anna would stay up late to compensate for the time difference. "He had an awesome sense of humor and was very open with me (ha) and asked about me and how I felt about things," Anna said in an email. They texted, sent dirty pictures to each other, had cyber sex. But she never spoke with him on the phone.
One night, when Anna was up late chatting with J.S. he made a startling admission: "I like you a lot.....I mean A LOT. Like... I wish I could have you and Dana too. Why couldn't I have met you first?"
"Well I stupidly felt the same," Anna said. "I have been married for 13 years and I'm a stay at home mom. I'm the epitome of the ignored neglected wife who needs something and I found it in this relationship. I did think I loved him and he said he loved me as well."
Soon after she threw down the gauntlet on the Warrior Eli blog, Taryn Wright said, Emily Dirr called her to confess. They talked on the phone for about 20 minutes. Dirr, surprisingly, wasn't upset. "She had a very flat tone to her voice," Wright said. She actually sounded relieved. Emily told Wright that perhaps she brought Dana's life to such an implausible end, the Mother's Day crash, because she was secretly hoping to be found out after so many years of deception.
Wright convinced Emily to write a statement about hoax, and she published it on the blog the next day. It begins:
To whom I have hurt:
I am deeply sorry for all the pain I have caused everyone. It was never my intention to do so. This all started 11 years ago when I was a bored 11-year-old kid looking for an escape from the pain and heartache I saw in my own family. It started almost as a fiction writing, but the more time I spent escaping to it, the more "real" it became. I am so sorry it hurt so many real families, and so many people out there.
After several years of writing, I thought I could do some good with my writing. I had read stories of children fighting pediatric cancer and thought I could raise awareness for these kids.
Emily insisted that "this was never about personal gain for me." This assertion is backed up by former friends of J.S. who said the Dirrs never solicited donations for Eli's cancer except those that went directly to Alex's Lemonade Stand, a legitimate charity. (A representative from Alex's Lemonade Stand said they would refund anyone who had donated under Dana or Eli's name.) The Dirrs actively discouraged friends from sending cash, and outside of a few small gifts meant for Eli it seems that Emily didn't receive any material gain from the hoax. In fact it probably cost her a considerable amount to produce and send out those hundreds of "Warrior Eli" wristbands to supporters.
With Emily's confession, even those of J.S.'s friends who had initially been skeptical of the hoax claims were forced to accept they'd been duped.
Sarah, the 17-year-old with Crohn's disease, said she felt "really, really sad" for days after coming to grips with the hoax.
"I really miss J.S.," she said. "This is something I would talk about with him, and I go online and it's like Fuck, what do I now. I literally put my entire self into this relationship."
And the childhood cancer community is dealing with yet another high profile case that turned out to be fake. "People are not happy with what's going on," said Gen Chamblee of the Sierra Rayn Children's Neuroblastoma foundation, which promoted Eli's cause on its Facebook page. "Everyone's out there to shoot for a cure and to band together against this, then you have these scammers that take advantage... then it makes it tough for the real foundations."
A few days after Emily's apology was published, a Kansas TV news ran a segment about a victim of the Warrior Eli hoax that seems to confirm Emily Dirr's role. Donna Jantzen learned about Eli from his CaringBridge profile and last month sent a homemade blanket to Emily Dirr with the understanding that she would send it on to Eli in Canada. A few days after the hoax was revealed, Jantzen got a package in the mail containing the blanket and an $80 donation to a foundation Jantzen works with. There was also a hand-written apology, signed "Emily."
Who is Emily Dirr? While J.S.'s internet footprint was as big as a football stadium, Emily is barely there. There's a Causes.comprofile, where Emily Dirr supports causes like as "Make All Animal Abuse A Felony In Every State," and "America Stands with Israel." There's a local community newspaper report from 2009 announcing that an "Emily Dirr" had been named the to the Dean's list at Kent State University. She corresponded with Taryn Wright with an email address from Northeast Ohio Medical University, where she said she was attending medical school as an aspring oncologist.
Reached by phone, Emily's father William said he'd never heard of Warrior Eli and was adamant that his daughter was not the person behind the hoax.
"I'm quite sure she's not the kind of type who would pull crap like this," he said. "This is a major mixup."
He said he would have Emily call me to straighten things out. She never did, and subsequent repeated calls to both William and Emily Dirr were not returned.
For many of J.S.'s former friends, Emily Dirr's confession raised more questions than they answered. Most obviously: Had one bored woman really been behind the entire Dirr universe-juggling over 70 fake Facebook accounts, carrying on online affairs with women twice her age, sending out hundreds of wristbands for over a decade?
Anna, who had the online romance with J.S., believes there was more to the Dirrs than just Emily. In early 2011, Anna and J.S. had a fight, after which J.S. gave Anna the silent treatment. So she decided to use a service called SpyPig to see if he was reading the emails she sent him. SpyPig lets you hide a code in an email that notifies you exactly when and where your message was opened, and if it was forwarded anywhere. SpyPig told Anna some of the emails she sent to J.S. were being opened in Vancouver, while some were opened in Ohio. One of her emails was opened three times in Ohio, then forwarded to New York.
Why were emails opened in Vancouver, if Emily had run the entire hoax from her father's home in Ohio? Who was in New York? I sent an email to J.S.'s email account. So far, according to the Spypig code I embeded in it, it hasn't been opened yet.
It could just be that easy for the Dirr family to disappear.
Illustration by Jim Cooke, images via Warrior Eli Hoax