A flight-attendant-turned-cupcake-entrepreneur hid her criminal past by stealing a dead infant’s identity and using it to obtain a job, a pilot’s license, a passport, admission to college, and, eventually, hundreds of thousands of dollars in COVID-19 bailout funds, federal investigators say.
The con went on for nearly two decades, until “Brie Bourgeois” slipped up last year while renewing her passport, according to a criminal complaint unsealed Friday.
Ava Virginia Misseldine, 49, was arrested Thursday by federal agents in Utah. Misseldine last year moved out west from Columbus, Ohio, where she ran a highly regarded organic bake shop. One of Misseldine’s businesses, the Koko Tea Salon & Bakery, was featured on the Food Network’s The Best Thing I Ever Ate, for red velvet cupcakes made with beet juice rather than food coloring. In a 2014 interview with Columbus Monthly, Misseldine portrayed herself as a former cancer researcher who grew up in Hawaii, where, as she told The Columbus Dispatch a year earlier, her family ran a generations-old tea business. Misseldine said she moved to Ohio to study chemical engineering at Ohio State University, and that she got into baking in 2011 to honor her beloved grandmother.
But, a relative told The Daily Beast, most of that was news to him.
Reached by phone, Russell Misseldine, who lives in the Cleveland suburb of Mentor, said Ava did not grow up in Hawaii, that the family is not in the tea trade, and that he is “not aware of” her having ever worked as a cancer researcher.
Even stranger, Misseldine has allegedly been maintaining a completely separate life as “Brie Bourgeois,” a ruse she began in 2003, three years after getting out of prison for theft, forgery, and escape. The real Brie Bourgeois died in 1979, states an affidavit filed in Ohio federal court by a special agent with the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service. According to public records, a “Brie Bourgeois” did attend Ohio State, as did an Ava Misseldine, who is listed as having studied liberal arts.
When Misseldine took on her new, fraudulent identity, she started by getting an official Ohio state ID card in Bourgeois’ name, which she then used to get a Social Security card and driver’s license. Misseldine presented a copy of Bourgeois’ birth certificate and the names of the real Bourgeois’ parents, Jacques and Paula.
To account for having not applied for a Social Security number until the age of 31, Misseldine “claimed to have been homeschooled her entire life with no job. [B]ut said she now needed a Social Security number for college.” She then used Bourgeois’ identity to attend Ohio State.
Paula Bourgeois said she was never made aware that her daughter’s identity had been usurped, that she did not have any sort of relationship with Misseldine, and that she had not heard about the arrest until The Daily Beast called for comment on Friday.
“Brie died so young, she had no Social Security number,” Bourgeois said, expressing worry that she could somehow be held liable for any financial crimes committed in her child’s name. “She was only 4 1/2 months old when she passed away… I’m really flabbergasted.” Jacques Bourgeois died in 2003, she said.
In 2006, Misseldine applied for and received an Ohio driver’s license under her real name, in addition to the license she already had as Bourgeois. Although investigators would not connect the dots for nearly 20 years, this, the affidavit suggests, was Misseldine’s first mistake.
The following year, Misseldine—as Brie Bourgeois—began working as a flight attendant for Columbus-based private charter service JetSelect, the affidavit against her states. That June, the Federal Aviation Administration issued “Brie Bourgeois” a student pilot certificate.
In November, Misseldine, again as Bourgeois, applied for a passport in Columbus.
“Bourgeois” said in her application that she planned to travel to Dubai, a trip that ultimately never took place, according to the affidavit. A section titled “What other names have you used?” was left blank. As an emergency contact, “Bourgeois” listed an individual with the initials F.F., which, the feds say also appeared on the docket in a civil case against Misseldine filed a decade earlier in Union County, Ohio. (An associate of Misseldine’s with those initials acknowledged that he knew her but declined to comment on her latest arrest when contacted by The Daily Beast on Friday.)
Using her fake driver’s license and a letter from JetSelect saying she would be working “throughout Europe and the Middle East,” she obtained a passport issued for Brie Bourgeois, listing the same home address as Misseldine’s, according to the affidavit.
Misseldine has been hauled into court under Bourgeois’ name numerous times, according to court records reviewed by The Daily Beast. On Dec. 17, 2007, “Bourgeois” pleaded guilty to theft charges in Franklin County, Ohio.
But again, the address listed for “Bourgeois” was the same home associated with Misseldine’s driver’s license, the affidavit says. This would become a theme in Misseldine’s life, and eventually, would lead to her undoing.
In 2008, Misseldine registered a retail business in Ohio called “Brie Bourgeois” and transferred ownership of a vehicle from “Brie Bourgeois” to Ava Misseldine, the affidavit says. She was also sued by a creditor in civil court who referred to her as Ava Misseldine (aka Brie Bourgeois),” states the affidavit.
Through it all, Misseldine even duped a federal judge overseeing a bankruptcy petition she filed in 2004, according to prosecutors.
In October 2014, Misseldine appeared in court for a hearing on her application. When asked if she had ever used the name Brie Bourgeois, Misseldine “said she had only used that name for about two years, and she last used it about four years ago,” the affidavit states. “She claimed that she was adopted, ‘Brie Bourgeois’ was her birth name, and she briefly used the name ‘Brie Bourgeois’ until her adoptive family became upset about it. This was a lie: Brie Bourgeois was a real person who died as an infant, with a different date of birth and different birth parents than Ava Misseldine.”
Still, Misseldine forged ahead as if nothing was amiss, getting a passport in her real name so she could travel to Honduras.
In April 2020, as COVID-19 turned into a full-blown pandemic, Misseldine began applying for Paycheck Protection Program funds using forged documents in both her own name and as Brie Bourgeois, say the feds. She listed various businesses, some of which were no longer open, including her former bakeries Sugar Inc. Cupcakes & Tea Salon, and Koko Tea Salon & Bakery. In one of the applications, Misseldine allegedly “proved” her identity with a copy of her Ohio State student ID under Bourgeois’ name.
In total, Misseldine received some $1.5 million in government loans that were later forgiven, according to the affidavit. None of the money went toward saving any jobs, the affidavit says, noting that Misseldine in fact spent the money on a $650,000 home adjacent to Zion National Park in Utah, as well as a $330,000 spread in Michigan.
It wasn’t until January 2021 that Misseldine finally caught the attention of investigators.
That month, Misseldine applied by mail for a new passport as Brie Bourgeois, according to the affidavit. She submitted a photograph of herself, listing Bourgeois’ birthdate as her own, and the Social Security number she obtained in 2003 in Bourgeois’ name.
And that’s when authorities say Misseldine got caught up in the web of lies she had created.
On her passport application, Misseldine listed her email address as email@example.com, which matches a URL, sugarinccupcakes.com, linked in Misseldine’s Twitter profile, the affidavit states.
“Some of the information on this fraudulent passport application mirrors information that Misseldine provided in her 2015 passport application under her true identity,” the filing continues. “For example, the 2021 fraudulent application listed her occupation as ‘baker,’ her emergency contact phone number as [Misseldine’s], and her intended destination as Honduras, all of which matches information that Misseldine provided on her 2015 passport application under her true identity.”
The application “was flagged for potential fraud, which led to the [present] investigation,” the affidavit says.
Misseldine is now charged with passport fraud, Social Security number fraud, aggravated identity theft, and fraud in connection with major disaster or emergency benefits. If convicted, she faces up to 30 years in prison. Misseldine does not yet have a lawyer listed in court records, and could not be reached for comment.