Deadly Charades: Double Lives, Extortion and the Suicide of a Respected Professor
At 10:29 a.m. on January 8, Texas A&M Communications Professor Jim Aune stood on the roof of a campus parking garage and texted the man who had been extorting him for weeks. It was the last thing he would ever do.
"Killing myself now And u will be prosecuted for black mail," Aune said, according to federal court records. Then Aune stepped off the roof and fell six stories, landing on his back. The fall didn't immediately kill him; he died at a hospital later that day.
Aune, a 59-year-old married father of two, believed he had texted the father of a 16-year-old girl he'd been chatting with online after first meeting her on Gay.com. Aune never actually met or spoke on the phone with the girl who called herself Karen McCall. There was no way he could have, because she didn't exist.
Federal authorities say that both "Karen McCall" and her father were actually a 38-year-old New Orleans-area man named Daniel Timothy Duplaisir, a self-employed house painter with a habit of extorting men who liked to carry on sexually explicit online relationships with underage girls.
According to authorities, the scam worked like this: Once the mark got in deep enough — by, say, sending a picture of his penis, as Aune did — Duplaisir would play the role of the outraged father who had just discovered the online affair. Duplaisir would then demand money, ostensibly to cover therapy for the traumatized teen, in lieu of calling the police. Duplaisir allegedly demanded $5,000 from Aune.
Duplaisir did not believe Aune's suicide text, according to records of their texts that day.
In the first 23 minutes after Aune hit the sidewalk, Duplaisir allegedly texted multiple times, saying, "Never black mailed you I gave you a chance to make it right. You lied to me too many times. Answer the phone punk."
After not hearing from Aune, a frustrated Duplaisir allegedly left a series of increasingly bitter, threatening voice mails, including this one:
"Let me tell you, motherfucker...you sick old bastard...I told you I was going to call the cops. You begged me not to fucking do it...You started this shit, motherfucker; don't try and turn it around and make it look like I fucking blackmailed you, stupid son of a bitch..."
Four days later, Duplaisir posted a comment on one of his Facebook pages: "damn I need a new line of work sometimes."
This particular page bore the name "Danielle Mosvoni" and featured a profile picture of Duplaisir in a sheer blouse with a plunging neckline. In other pics, Duplaisir has unbottoned the blouse, revealing a burgundy bra supporting ample breasts. His lips are painted with pink gloss, and his ears are adorned with half-dollar-size earrings; red hair curls up just above his shoulders. He's smiling.
According to Aune's widow, Miriam, Aune had met Duplaisir as Mosvoni on Gay.com months earlier; after Duplaisir extracted enough information from Aune, he allegedly contacted Aune as Karen. Once Aune was hooked, Duplaisir moved the conversations to a social networking site called Mocospace.com. (It's unclear why Aune would have even been interested in an underage girl in the first place, when, according to Miriam, he was only interested in corresponding with transgender men. It's also unclear why a teenage girl would have been on a social networking site for gay males. Court records do not explain precisely how Aune met "Karen," and officials have declined to comment. Furthermore, authorities have not disclosed what photographs Duplaisir used for the Karen persona.)
When a Bryan FBI agent and an A&M detective traced the texts and e-mails to Duplaisir, and he appeared in court on extortion charges in March, he no longer looked like Danielle Mosvoni. But that's how he signed a letter to U.S. District Court Judge Lynn Hughes on May 13.
"I have begged for help for years, but you all have ignored me every time," he wrote. "Stop ignoring me. It's unfair to society to ignore my problems, and when I get out, I'm the same or worse. My brain is broken."
It appears that both Duplaisir and Aune were living double lives, and when they found each other, it was just a matter of time before they'd wreck each other's life.
On Halloween Day in 2012, Duplaisir walked into a Lowe's in Metairie, Louisiana, and charged $114.04 to a Green Dot prepaid debit card.
Special Agent Nikki Allen, with the Bryan office of the FBI, and Donnie Ohana, a detective with the A&M Police Department, traced a payment made to Duplaisir's card by Aune the following year, according to Allen's affidavit. (An FBI spokesperson declined to comment for this story, referring the Houston Press to federal prosecutors, who do not comment on pending cases.)
Aune's phone was in his pocket, undamaged, when he hit the ground. Before investigators even spoke with his wife, they were able to check his recent texts, and they also found a printout of e-mails between Aune and Karen in Aune's office. In one of the e-mails, Aune explained that he had heard from her father and had to cut off contact.
"He's just doing what is best for you," Aune wrote. "He is clearly a good man and he loves you. We can't talk anymore."
Digging further, investigators found an e-mail dated December 20, 2012, indicating when the blackmailing began.
"Ok Karen. I'm taking a big risk here...On Thursday, your dad texted me and I responded thinking it was you. He then called me and told me he was going to turn me into the police. I answered and said I would do whatever he wanted, and he said...after two phone calls that he would turn off your laptop and wanted something like $5000 from me to pay for further therapy from you. I sent him $1000 and then promised more in January. I am shit-scared about this, and can't figure out how to come up with more money."
Miriam Aune confirmed to investigators that her husband was being blackmailed. She said he had told her the week before. She provided receipts from the Green Dot card purchases, which led the investigators to the Lowe's outside New Orleans and some very helpful security-camera footage.
The camera caught Duplaisir wearing a white ballcap backward, a white T-shirt and a rope necklace. He was wearing a similar outfit on a Facebook page bearing his legal name.
However, according to Duplaisir's "Danielle Mosvoni" page, he had already begun the surgery necessary for his transformation.
He had apparently been looking forward to this for some time. He created Facebook and MySpace pages as Danielle Mosvoni in 2009 but was not consistently employed and could not afford surgery. He chased work in New Orleans, Biloxi and West Palm Beach.
He'd been estranged from his immediate family for years. His brother Larry described him to the Houston Press without elaboration as "a piece of shit." He had few close friends; judging from interviews with those who knew him, his social life seemed limited to people he met playing interactive video games. They all knew Duplaisir as Danielle.
Duplaisir would play his games for hours, and the rich fantasy universes seemed to occupy his time even when he wasn't playing. One former friend, who asked not to be named, found a notebook Duplaisir had kept in which he jotted down ideas for games, as well as short fantasy stories.
"He doesn't live in reality," the friend told the Press. "He's always somewhere else."
In the first few months of 2011, Duplaisir was living in Amite, Louisiana, with relatives of the one person he professed to love: a 16-year-old girl born to a single mother who had once had a fling with Duplaisir — a mother who claimed that Duplaisir was not the father.
But Duplaisir called the girl his daughter, and she called him "Dad." She began living with Duplaisir, off and on, when she was 13. Then, in October 2011, she called him her rapist.
Duplaisir had left the girl and moved back to Metairie by the time the girl, whom we'll call "Lisa," told authorities in Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana, that her father had sexually abused her for years.
According to Allen's affidavit, Lisa also claimed Duplaisir had photographed her nude and that they created a profile on a Web site called Mocospace in order to "scam men." She told investigators that Duplaisir "kept a list of the guys' names and numbers." She said they could find pictures and videos on Duplaisir's laptop.
By the time Lisa was explaining everything to Tangipahoa Parish authorities, Duplaisir had started on what he thought was a path to a new life. He had somehow found the money to undergo surgery.
On August 20, 2011, Duplaisir wrote on his Mosvoni page that he had "rhinoplasty, brow lift, adam apple shave, cut muscle that causes frown lines, fat injections in lips, cheeks, laugh lines, etc and to soften area where adam apple was shaved. Lipo to abdomen and waist line."
For Duplaisir, it was to be a rebirth.
"Weird dream about having to let go of my cares that tied me to another life," he wrote. "Spent my life caring for others it's hard to let go, but I have to if I am to succeed in my new life. I deserve this."
He had slimmed considerably. In presurgery pictures, Duplaisir looked tough: Years of lifting weights and housepainting gear gave him bulging biceps, which he liked to show off by wearing sleeveless T-shirts. The muscular physique contrasted with a nickname he had inexplicably adopted as a kid: "Smurf."
"The thing about Smurf is, he's always being very macho," a friend told the Press. "And very, like, 'I'm a man'...He always said the same thing — he said, 'I'm an asshole and I'm proud of it.'"
In November 2011, Duplaisir's plans for a new life were interrupted: He was arrested and charged with aggravated incest and oral sexual battery. Sheriff's deputies searched his Metairie apartment for the laptop, but some of Duplaisir's acquaintances told the Press that he had arranged for his roommate at the time to take the laptop and split for Mississippi. All the deputies would have found was an apartment strewn with wigs, stockings, high heels and cosmetics.
Duplaisir, who denied the accusations, spent three months in jail. Then, in February 2012, citing lack of evidence, the 21st Judicial District Attorney's Office declined to prosecute.
Lisa told the Press via Facebook that the charges were dropped because she ran away.
"I didnt want to see him and face him again. It is just [too] hard," she wrote.
Months later, when Lisa ran away again, Duplaisir contacted her Facebook friends (from his Daniel Duplaisir profile) asking if they'd seen her. He claimed that she'd been brainwashed by her aunt, the woman who'd raised her. He said she felt betrayed and abandoned.
"I never stopped looking for her when I lost her when she was 9 months old," Duplaisir wrote. "I never seen her again till she 14. Things were great but her Aunt kept screwing with her mind, making her think she was going to be abandoned. Ever since she ran away I been searching again."
He wrote Lisa's friend that his daughter "should have just told those people what she said about me was a lie and we could have gotten past it all. I would have never ditched her...she is my lil demonic angel."
At the same time he was allegedly blackmailing Aune, he was chatting frequently with Lisa's mother. Although Duplaisir would later write Judge Hughes about a government conspiracy against him, there is no trace of paranoia in these chats, which are often lighthearted and flirtatious. When Lisa's mother asks if he's going to watch the New Orleans Saints game, he says he doesn't watch sports — "i like frisbee and sex with u...great sports."
The chats continue afterAune's death. Duplaisir also updated his other profile; six days after Aune killed himself, Duplaisir posted a photo of a living room on the Danielle Mosvoni page.
"This room use to be yellow with stained wood trim," he commented as Mosvoni.
A month and a half after Aune's death, one of the biggest things on Duplaisir's mind was his frustrating lack of undergarments: "I just realize I have no black bras," he posted on the Mosvoni page. "WTF...I use to always have some, didn't even realized my choices have changed like that."
Miriam Aune had to bite her tongue all through her husband's January memorial.
She says investigators asked her not to tell anyone about the extortion — a rather unnecessary request, since she wasn't exactly chomping at the bit to tell everyone that her scholar husband, the well-respected head of the communications department, had sent a dick pic to what he thought was a 16-year-old girl.
According to Miriam, Aune put a premium on image. On campus, he was known for his brilliance and for his generosity toward struggling graduate students. The Aunes' door was always open, and on more than one occasion, they lent money to students who were short on rent. As one speaker after another attested to Aune's keen mind and big heart, Miriam just thought about the slap to the face they were in for.
"That was kind of my job in his life...to keep him from embarrassment at all costs and to fix things," Miriam says. "And his job was to do his job and make money because of the kids."
A Minnesota native, Aune earned a bachelor's at St. Olaf College and his PhD at Northwestern. He'd been at A&M since 1996 and assumed the title of department head in 2011. He won prestigious educators' awards; published essays in journals with titles like Philosophy & Rhetoric; and had written books examining the rhetoric of Marxism and of American presidents.
He and Miriam, his third wife (who also holds a PhD), raised two autistic boys with severe intellectual disabilities. Even with Miriam staying home, the boys required specialized in-home care. It cost a fortune — Miriam likens it to paying college tuition for the rest of their lives.
Miriam knew just how much everything cost. She was in charge of the couple's finances. And that's how her husband came to tell her, a week before he took his life, that he needed $1,500.
By that time, Miriam says, Aune had been "dying in increments." He was self-destructing in a haze of beer and pills. He'd struggled with addiction before meeting Miriam but had been clean for years.
But he fell off the wagon in 2007, when he began to suffer from impotence — something that turned out to be a symptom of prostate cancer. He took Viagra twice, and because there was no immediate result, he gave up.
Depressed, he relapsed and pilfered the Ultram Miriam had been prescribed for chronic pain. When she noticed the sudden shortage of pills, Aune blamed it on the kids, then on the home aides. Then he moved on to the phenobarbital prescribed for their dog, Buffy, for seizures. However, he was considerate enough to honor Miriam's prohibition of alcohol inside the home: Aune drank in the driveway, with beer stashed in his car's trunk or their home's downspouts.
After Aune died, Miriam also discovered he'd been drinking at work. Cleaning out his office, she found empty beer cans stuffed in his desk drawers and filing cabinets, behind books, in any possible hiding spot. Maybe 300 cans.
In the end, she thinks, Duplaisir had an accomplice: "What killed Jim was silence," she says. "He wasn't talking about what was ailing him. People weren't saying to him, 'Why are you stumbling down the hall? Why are you wearing so much goddamn cologne?'"
Then he took a surprising step: He started cruising online for gay and pre-op transgender men. He created a profile — using his real name and a photo taken at A&M — and a catchy handle: "Texas Top."
"He would just get...completely stoned, and he'd be chatting with these men who were wanting to be women," Miriam says. "I was very hurt."
But nothing would hurt like Aune's admission just days before he was diagnosed with prostate cancer: He had had an affair. When Miriam asked who the woman was, Aune said, "It's not a her." But at least he tried to soften the blow by emphasizing that his lover was very effeminate.
Miriam says that day — not the day her husband leaped to his death — was the worst one of her life. While she was left to ponder the cracks in the foundation of her marriage, Aune continued his descent. He ramped up his threats of suicide — something Miriam says "was always his way of trying to communicate when something was more than he could handle."
And it was a threat of suicide that led Aune to ask Miriam for $1,500 to pay Duplaisir: On the Wednesday morning before Aune died, Miriam walked into their bedroom and found a brief suicide note wrapped around Aune's favorite picture of her at their wedding. She called him immediately and told him to come home. Whatever was going on, she told him, they'd handle it.
By the time he got home and they'd retreated to the bedroom for privacy, he was drunk.
"And he's pacing around, and I said, 'Honey, what did you do?'" Miriam says. "And then he told me. Just kind of blurted it out."
He told her he'd been chatting explicitly with a 16-year-old girl and that her father found out. He was supposed to pay the father $1,500 a month for three months or else the guy would tell the cops. The more Aune told her, the more Miriam felt something was off.
"I'm not in the Bloods or Crips here, but I got a little more street smarts than Jim does," she says. She asked if Aune ever spoke with the girl. No, he said, just the father.
That's when it clicked. Her genius husband had fallen for a low-level con. So brilliant on campus yet often clueless in the real world, Aune made the perfect mark.
"He had the finest mind, you know," Miriam says. "Absolutely eidetic memory...and brilliant. And so fucking dumb."
She says she laughed when Aune told her he had never talked to "Karen."
"I said, 'Jim, come on, even you have to see that this is the biggest pile of horseshit ever planted.'" She adds, "It didn't even occur to him that this was a complete scam...this is laughable. If you saw this in a Law & Order, you would be so pissed off at the writers because they had done such a stupid thing, and who the hell would believe this?"
Still, Aune was anxious. He told her he had to get the $1,500 to the father by 5 p.m. or his career, and possibly his freedom, would come to an end.
"I said, 'Honey, he ain't getting another goddamn dime out of us — what are you, nuts?" Miriam recalls.
As always, she went into fixer mode. She changed computer passwords and told Aune not to answer the phone.
"I thought, he's going to be so desperate that he's going to literally steal his children's future to pay this guy," she says.
That weekend, she contacted Aune's closest friends and scheduled an intervention. It was to be that Wednesday. Aune was going to check into rehab; they weren't going to take no for an answer. Of course, he would never make it.
The week of June 10, Duplaisir suddenly decided to change his plea to guilty. On June 17, clad in a green jail-issue jumpsuit, he stood before Judge Hughes, and, in a somewhat high-pitched, soft-spoken voice, admitted to extorting Aune.
It took Hughes a few minutes to understand the particulars of the scam; prosecutor Sherri Zack had to explain. However, Zack couldn't answer Hughes's questions about the fictitious "Karen" being transgender — had the child, for example, had surgery? Duplaisir's public defender, Marjorie Meyers, said she believed "transgender" did not necessarily connote surgery but meant identifying with the opposite sex. Duplaisir remained silent.
In the back of the room, Miriam tried to silence her cries as a friend rubbed her back. She had come prepared with a victim impact statement in case the judge went straight into sentencing. Unfortunately for her, she will have to wait three months for the chance to tell Duplaisir exactly what she thinks of him.
The night before Aune killed himself, he seemed overcome by a strange sense of peace.
Duplaisir had called incessantly over the weekend, and finally, on that Monday afternoon, Miriam told her husband to "shut the fucking phone off."
He'd been drinking all day, but Miriam was not visited by Mean Drunk Jim — the guy her husband devolved into when he'd had more than enough, the guy who yelled about all the ways she made him unhappy and then demanded she take notes during the berating so that she wouldn't forget.
That night, he was serene. The couple, fans of British mysteries, sat together and watched four episodes of MI-5 in a row. They laughed and commented on the action on screen. It was as if she was visited that night by the man she'd married. The man who nearly made her faint at first sight; the man who had once been so good to her. Those first four or five years they had together — it was the memory of those years that made Miriam stick by him even after he cheated.
Miriam puts it like this: "I hadn't seen Jim in so long...even though I lived with him. And it was just so nice to be with him, and to see him and not have him angry."
While the couple enjoyed one of their first pleasant days in ages, Duplaisir, according to court records, was losing his mind.
Transcripts of texts and e-mails show that the two men spoke that morning and that Duplaisir was now demanding a lump sum: He gave Aune a 3 p.m. deadline to deliver $4,800.
At 9:52, Duplaisir wrote, "Going by the way you talked to me today I have to assume you do plan to not keep your word. [Even] after I gave you a second chance. Call or next call I make will be to a and m."
At 3:05: "3 where are you? Fine you lied enjoy explaining yourself to police and school."
Five hours later: "Just so you know, I know you turned your phone off all day and you intentionally avoid my calls. You caused your original set of problems and we came to a deal to end this. You agreed to to pay for the computer I broke to keep her off the internet and therapy. You were NEVER to talk to my child again. But then you went behind my back and tried to talk to my kid again...So not only did you send a picture of your penis to a KNOWN minor, get the hopes up of a very troubled teen, you also made sure she hated the one person in this life that cares...me the father."
And, "You have until noon tomorrow. If I do not hear from you I swear to God Almighty that the police, your place of employment, students, ALL OVER THE INTERNET...ALL OF THEM will be able to see your conversatons, texts, pictures you sent."
Aune didn't see these messages that night. He was too busy having a good night — a night that, based on the levels of Ultram, phenobarbital and an unknown barbiturate Miriam says were detected in his system, he may have intended to be his last.
If that was his plan, it backfired. Miriam said her husband woke up at 5 a.m., and she fell back asleep. At 9:56 a.m., Duplaisir sent Aune a message that Miriam believes sealed her husband's fate.
"What really pushed Jim over the edge — oh, God, bad metaphor — what pushed him over the edge was [Duplaisir] telling him that he had put something on one of those 'rate your professor' sites," Miriam says.
Duplaisir told Aune to check out the comments students posted on a site called Koofers.com. There, under Aune's name, someone had written, "Taught Karen so much."
It was apparently enough to spook Aune into e-mailing "Karen" one more time. At 10:14 a.m., about 15 minutes before he stepped off the roof, Aune wrote, "I thought you were making this up for blackmail purposes....I still don't have the money, and am not sure when I can get it. Let me check out my options some more."
Fifteen minutes later, Aune told his blackmailer that he would be prosecuted for blackmail. Then he took that final step. Miriam believes her husband's final text was meant for her, not Duplaisir.
"I got my marching orders from Jim," she says, "...because he knew that I would have the kick-ass attitude, that I would say, 'I don't care how damn embarrassing it is, we're getting this guy'...I was the only person he was talking to then."
It's unclear if Aune was already dead by the time Duplaisir, enraged, left this voice mail: "No, this isn't blackmail, motherfucker. I just read the fucking e-mail you just sent. Call. Now. Don't fucking wait around...You started this shit; this is not a scam...enough fucking bullshit — call."
Two electricians working on the garage's lights were walking back to their van to grab some equipment when they heard a thud. Worried that someone had hit their vehicle, they booked the final few yards out of the garage and onto the sidewalk. That's where they found Aune, on his back, eyes moving. There was not a speck of blood.
One of the electricians started CPR; the other called for an ambulance. Heart attack, they figured. Aune was still alive when the ambulance shuttled him to the hospital, a block and a half away. He died approximately 40 minutes later.
At about 11:30 a.m., two detectives knocked on Miriam's door. When they told her, she nearly fell. It was like how she'd felt when she first laid eyes on her husband.
"I fainted at the beginning and the end, you know?" she says.
Later, after detectives told her that her husband's final moments were captured by a security camera, Miriam couldn't help visualizing the whole thing.
She knew he had to take the elevator to the roof. He smoked three packs of Camels a day.
"That boy could not walk six flights of stairs," she says.
Then she sees him up top.
"I can see him pacing around," she says.
Police found cigarette butts on the roof, near the spot from which he leaped, and Miriam can see him smoking that last one.
"I can even see him, like, getting up on the ledge. I can't take that last step with him...It is not possible for my mind to go where his mind must have been. To actually take that step, rather than do what he always did, which was call me, and I would go get him. And I would fix it."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.
- HBU Says the Feds Are Forcing It to Sin (and These Uber-Conservative Judges Agree)
Thu., Oct. 8, 8:00pm
Fri., Oct. 9, 12:00am
Sun., Oct. 11, 12:00am
Mon., Oct. 12, 12:00am
- KHOU vs. DISH Contract Standoff Still Isn't Over
- College and NFL Football: This Weekend's Best Bets