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Woman sentenced to 2 ½ years for baby abduction

Michelle Gopaul -

modelmayhem photo/modelmayhem photo

The ad was on Craigslist and it all seemed so plausible: A Bollywood producer needed an Indian baby girl for a movie and was willing to pay some serious cash - $15,000 for a quick, one-day shoot. All one of the parents had to do for now was bring month-old Roma Patel along to a meeting with the friendly talent scout who'd placed the ad.

That was the script.

But it was all an elaborate fraud, rooted in a woman's desperate bid to win back an ex-lover's affection by pretending to be pregnant, stealing a baby and telling him he was the father.

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And the final scene played out in a Toronto court Friday when the remorseful "talent scout" - in reality 25-year-old New York model Michelle Gopaul - pleaded guilty to abduction and was handed a 2 ½-year prison term.

"She was in love and she was blinded by love," her lawyer Gary Batasar said after the sentencing. "She was captivated by this young man. They'd had a relationship - my position is that it was an abusive relationship - and he left her. I think she thought this was the only way she could get him back."

For Roma's parents, Sejal and Viral Patel, the Craigslist ad had initially seemed a bit odd. But they were persuaded by a well-meaning friend to check it out, and on Mr. Patel's arrival at an office-cum-studio in a South Etobicoke strip plaza last December, following a series of e-mail exchanges, things looked promising.

Three other couples were there but the "talent scout," who called herself Dianne Miller, seemed to take a special shine to Roma.

"She's perfect," she told Mr. Patel, and handed him a contact-information form to fill out. Could she hold the baby while he did that? Of course, Mr. Patel replied. Baby Roma in her arms, Ms. Gopaul stepped through a door into an adjoining room.

Fifteen minutes later, increasingly uneasy, Mr. Patel went into the room and discovered to his horror that it had another door, leading outside. And with that, the Patel family's three-hour nightmare began.

It did not take long for Ms. Gopaul's scheme to unravel.

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Clutching Roma, she took a long cab ride to the Scarborough home of her former boyfriend, whom she'd met on a visit to Toronto's Caribana festival in 2009. She'd fallen for him hard, so much so that in November of last year she'd moved to Toronto to be with him, only to be spurned.

So she told everyone she was going to be having his child, even posting photos of herself on her Facebook page, feigning pregnancy.

After kidnapping Roma, Ms. Gopaul took the precaution of changing the baby's clothes, the court was told.

But it made little difference.

When she showed up at the ex-boyfriend's home that evening, near Eglinton and Midland Avenues, he and his sisters were almost instantly skeptical, not least because reports of Roma's kidnapping had already hit the airwaves.

So they called the police, Ms. Gopaul was arrested and charged with abduction of a person under 14 years of age, and baby Roma was returned to her parents, none the worse for wear.

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The Patels were left shaken by the experience. So too was Bhupendra Mane, the friend who'd recommended they pursue the Craigslist ad, who'd thought he was doing everyone a big favour.

When he learned Roma had been taken, "I was so scared I was crying. I was praying to God to bring that baby back," Mr. Mane told The Globe and Mail.

Since her arrest, Ms. Gopaul has been in custody. She wept and apologized copiously during Friday's court hearing. Following a joint prosecution-defence submission recommending a 30-month penitentiary term, her next stop will be the Grand Valley prison for women in Kitchener-Waterloo.

"This has been stressful for her, and traumatic for the [Patel]family," Mr. Batasar said. "They're pleased that it's over and they're happy with the results. She's a young lady with no criminal record, from a good family, no outstanding charges anywhere. And then all of a sudden this happens."

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