In early 2016, a blonde stranger with round cheeks arrived at a domestic violence shelter near the small town of West Plains, Missouri, visibly shaken. She said her name was Lauren Ashleigh Hays and that she was 22 years old.
The story Lauren told was both familiar and sad: She was running from a boyfriend who beat her. She needed help starting over. A woman affiliated with the shelter had friends nearby named Wendy and Avery Parker, who offered to take Lauren in. The Parkers, an older married couple, found Lauren an old truck to drive and a place to live in their town of Willow Springs, a quaint community with 2,160 residents and a main street lined with red brick buildings. They helped her enroll at a satellite campus of Southwest Baptist University in another small town called Mountain View, 17 miles east. Lauren expressed interest in becoming a child psychologist.
For the next two and a half years, Lauren thrived. She led story time for the kids at a local library, appeared in a production of a Jesus-centered domestic violence play, and gleefully kissed her fair share of the town’s young men. She went to water aerobics and made friends with an excitable mob of young women, who wore a uniform of short summer dresses with tennis shoes in the sticky Missouri heat. But the persona she was building would turn out to be an outrageous lie. And then she was gone, leaving residents to wonder who she really was, and if any of the love and care they had invested in her ever meant a thing.
After she arrived, Lauren was hired to work 16 hours a week at the Mountain View Public Library, after passing a drug test and background check. Beth Smith, who has worked at the library for 18 years, remembers Lauren as a busy, loud, and slightly peculiar college student, who took a lot of selfies to post on Facebook. “She was just a silly girl,” Smith says. “She didn’t know how to cook. She didn’t know anything about kids.” When it was quickly determined that Lauren was also not super competent in the crafts department, she was put in charge of story time. “The little kids just loved her,” Smith says.
Lori Coulter got to know Lauren through her friends, the Parkers. “This girl showed up and she was calling them ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad,’” she says. “I was like, Wait a minute, I know this girl is not their child—she’s too old. But then someone told me she was 22 and had been dumped off at the battered women’s shelter. Everybody just felt so sorry for her.”
Everywhere Lauren went, she sold her tragic tale. She wore heavy makeup and told a boyfriend she had scarring from a car accident; to another friend, she said the scars were from when her ex smashed her face into a mirror. Her stories weren’t the kind that prompted follow-up questions, just a clucking of the tongue and a quiet acknowledgment of life’s unfairness.
Coulter remembers Lauren trying to pull her life together, even as she seemed chronically unbalanced. She says that Lauren initially had some trouble applying for college; she couldn’t get her birth certificate even with a driver’s license and Social Security card. But once everything came through, she enrolled and successfully applied for financial aid. Coulter, then a single mother, asked her if she wanted to make some extra cash babysitting her 13-year-old autistic son.
She quickly became Lauren’s confidante—like a trusted big sister. “We sat for hours and talked, and she asked me questions a teenager would ask,” Coulter says. “I talked her through it because, as an older person in the community, if a young girl is asking for help, I’m going to help her.” Lauren was always partying and constantly had friends over to her studio apartment, which was a classically messy young adult habitat with laundry strewn across the floor. Lauren wanted advice about a young man she was dating. “She would be like, ‘I don’t wanna go too fast with him,’ and I’d be like, ‘Well, you know, it’s your body and don’t do anything you don’t wanna do,’” Coulter says.
Lauren was vulnerable and bubbly, wide-eyed and slightly hapless, and she attracted protectors. Jo-Mártín Archuleta and his husband believed they were taking a broken young woman under their wing. Lauren told them that her mother was an alcoholic who let her boyfriend use Lauren for sex when she was young. She said that her abusive boyfriend was from a prominent family, and she was terrified they would track her down. “She thought she had early childhood trauma and that’s what caused her to be stuck [mentally] at around age 16,” Archuleta says. He and his husband wanted to show her a better life. They mentored her and lectured her on her refusal to grow up, had her sleep over, and took her to church with them. She spent days grooming the couple’s horses, and nights talking on their moonlit front porch. Lauren referred to Archuleta as her uncle. He remembers her as always laughing, always smiling—and more than a bit ditsy. “I don’t mean to be rude, but she was so dumb,” he says.
In hindsight, maybe Lauren overdid it. She giggled nonstop, hosted frequent slumber parties, and wore rhinestone cat-ear headbands. She made extensive use of animal-related filters on social media, and she doted on a pet bunny named Officer Hops. In one of her Facebook profile photos, Lauren is wearing a sweatshirt that reads, “Girls Just Wanna Have $Fund$.”
Archuleta says that he often found himself frustrated with Lauren. She partied more often than he liked and generally ignored his advice. One night, she was out with some teenagers, drinking down by the river, when she attempted to jump from the bed of one slow-moving truck to another. She didn’t make it, landing on a rock and ending up in the hospital. It was classic Lauren. “We never asked her to house-sit,” Archuleta says, “because we didn’t trust she wouldn’t throw a party and worried she’d forget to feed our pets.”
Lauren and Archuleta were both involved in Willow Springs’s local theater group, the Star Dramatic Company (tag- line: “Discovering the Stars Within Our Community”), where Lauren helped out backstage. When Cindy Delp was mounting a production of her semi-autobiographical Christ-centered domestic violence play, Breaking the Chains, at another local theater company, she needed some extras to fill in certain roles—in particular, the demons who were meant to represent the abusive protagonist’s inner demons. Lauren obliged.
Soon, Lauren was moved to confide in Delp that she was abused by her parents and raped by an uncle. She also told Delp that Wendy Parker—one half of the couple helping Lauren rebuild her life—was her real mother. “It was just the strangest thing,” Delp says. “Of course, Wendy said, ‘That’s not true. I’m not her real mother.’ But Lauren was telling everybody that.”
As can happen in towns big and small, people started to talk. Lauren gradually became known as someone who asked men for whatever she might need—groceries, gas, repairs to her battered pickup. “She never got any kind of special jewelry or anything like that,” Smith says. “It was just survival stuff. You have a bunch of country boys who know about trucks and can get food from home. She kind of preyed on the naïve.”
After too many conversations about her boy troubles, Coulter decided to set Lauren up with a young man she knew. Coulter says he fell for her friend “hook, line, and sinker.” Another man, a 23-year-old we’ll call Brad, met Lauren through mutual friends and ended up dating her for more than six months. Her whole life story, she explained, was a bit of a mess: She had been adopted from Florida—her biological parents were drug addicts—but then her parents (meaning Wendy and Avery) had swooped in when she was still a kid. Before Brad met the Parkers, Lauren warned him that they didn’t like to talk about the adoption.
The relationship was turbulent. Brad was always working, and Lauren always wanted to party. “I was working three jobs instead of drinking, trying to get in a better situation,” Brad recalls. She was often angry or frustrated with him, even throwing things if she didn’t get her way, and one time he found her going through his phone. Sometimes, when she got mad, she threatened to call her “daddy”—as in Avery Parker. Brad wondered if she was younger than she said she was. “She was very manipulative, and I watched her turn friends against friends in our group,” he says. “She was so immature at times.” Brad says the relationship ended because he couldn’t keep up with Lauren’s partying.
Even in a small town full of kind people willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, Lauren’s behavior raised red flags. In 2018, Wendy, Lauren’s new “mom,” became concerned that certain parts of her story just didn’t add up, according to friends. “She would say something about this town in Arkansas, and Wendy was like, ‘I didn’t think you had ever been to Arkansas,’ ” Coulter says. “And Lauren would just kind of dance around it.” Her Spidey sense tingling, Wendy called her sister-in-law, who lived in Arkansas, and asked her to do some digging.
Still, no one was prepared for what she found: Lauren Ashleigh Hays was in fact a young adult living in Arkansas. The woman who had been building a life in Willow Springs for nearly three years was her 45-year-old mother.
The real Lauren, who was 24 in 2018, has the same blonde hair and round cheeks as her mother, Laura A. Oglesby. To the best of our knowledge, nothing Oglesby said in Willow Springs about her background was based on her daughter’s life.
Laura A. Oglesby abandoned her daughter, plus a husband of eight years, one day when she decided to walk away from her old life in Arkansas. Maybe the pressure of being a wife and mother, the daily grind, was all too much for her. She may have longed to wind back the clock, shirk the responsibilities of middle-aged womanhood, and embrace the vulnerability and freedoms of young adulthood. She hasn’t said, and we may never know. (Oglesby’s lawyers did not respond to requests for comment.)
But Laura also had secrets, and the summer before she landed in Willow Springs, they seemed to be catching up with her. On July 30, 2015, as laid out in a probable cause affidavit, a former employer of hers, Mike Lane, filed a report of theft after his bookkeeper called him and indicated there were several credit cards he didn’t recognize being paid out from his business account. All of those cards were in the names of Laura Oglesby and/or Adam Oglesby, her husband. Laura had been briefly employed the previous year as a bookkeeper for Lane, owner and operator of an auto parts store called The Auto Doctor. Laura was only there for six weeks, during which she had access to all of Lane’s business records.
When questioned by police, Adam indicated that he had no knowledge of the cards, and, in fact, had never even had a credit card in his name, according to the affidavit. But he had noticed something relevant: His wife, Laura, had been spending a lot of money. She had told him that the cash was from her unemployment checks. A resident we’ll call Jonathan, who has known Laura since elementary school, was told Adam and Laura spent their last weekend together at a cabin on a river, and Laura disappeared while Adam was at the store. “When he came back, her purse, phone, wallet, and ID were still there,” Jonathan says. Her car was there, too. “They thought someone had kidnapped or killed her.” Jonathan says that he even posted missing person posters with Laura’s picture.
Shortly after she disappeared, her daughter Lauren Ashleigh Hays posted a desperate-sounding update on Facebook, accompanied by a picture of her mother. “Her name is Laura Oglesby she is about 5’1″. She could be in Missouri or Arkansas area. She is from Missouri but lived in Lafe, AR, and has a cabin by Black River. Please share and help find her. I’m very worried about her.” In the picture, Laura is smiling. Her makeup is a little more muted, and she has a stud decorating her nose. She could easily pass for someone in her thirties. (Hays did not respond to requests for comment.)
But by October, Adam Oglesby had filed for divorce. In his complaint, he says that during their marriage, Laura subjected him to “indignities of such a nature and degree as to render Plaintiff’s life intolerable.” He asked that she be stripped of the Oglesby name. The hearing was set for March 15, 2016, but Laura didn’t show up. Adam told the court he had no idea where she was.
We know now that Laura was in Missouri, living under her own daughter’s identity, and pretending her old life never existed. It took almost three years for the truth to catch up with her.
On August 28, 2018, the Willow Springs “Lauren” was pulled over by Mountain View police, who had a warrant for her arrest issued by Arkansas as part of an active identity theft investigation. The same day, Wendy posted on Facebook: “For two and a half years, Avery Parker and I have mentored Lauren Ashleigh Hays,” she began. “We took her into our lives and we cared for her. Physically, emotionally, and very often monetarily. The lies were small at first, lies a child would tell. Then things escalated.” Parker went on to say that she asked her sister-in-law, Stacey Parker Hackler, who lives in Arkansas, to do some reconnaissance, insinuating that Stacey was the one who busted Laura. “Two days, 26 phone calls, and 86 texts later, Lauren, or I should say Laura…Oglesby, age 45, is now in custody awaiting trial in two states.”
Brad heard the news when he was at his new girlfriend’s family’s house. “I told her we needed to leave, and I went home and started drinking because it was making me sick to think about,” he says. “I’ve seen people get grief about dating somebody who’s five years older or five years younger—you call them a cradle robber or a cougar—and I ended up with somebody 20 years older than me.” When asked if he felt like he had been manipulated or taken advantage of, Brad says he mostly just felt dumb. “I’m really good at putting puzzle pieces together, and it’s hard to fool me,” he says. “But I had no freaking clue she was lying.” After her arrest, he reached out to her on Facebook for an explanation. “I asked her why and she’s like, ‘I don’t know.’ And then she blocked me.”
The disbelief on social media was intense when Laura was arrested and her playful selfies were shown on a local newscast. Mostly, people wanted to talk about Laura’s face, and about how anyone—let alone an entire town—could possibly believe that she was as young as she claimed. When the Mountain View police posted about the case on Facebook and included Laura’s mug shot, one person commented that “Stevie Wonder could tell she ain’t 24!!!” Another suggested that Laura’s chest wrinkles—something more typically developed in midlife—were the true giveaway. (To be fair, the rhinestone cat ears Laura was partial to—and wearing in her mug shot—do force the eyes up.) Further suggestions that those who had been victimized get their eyes checked were not well-received. Officer Jamie Perkins stepped into the online conversation to remind everyone that the mug shot was taken by a high-definition camera under LED lighting.
After Laura was arrested, she faced charges of identity theft in Missouri federal court and Arkansas state court. In an indictment filed in October 2019, it was alleged that Laura had fraudulently obtained a Social Security card and driver’s license nearly three years earlier by falsely assuming the identity of “L.A.H.” She then used that fraudulent identification to enroll in college and successfully apply for student loans, including $9,400 in federal student loans, $5,920 in Pell Grants, and $337 for books purchased at the college bookstore.
But then, as Laura’s case in Arkansas was winding its way toward trial, she performed another disappearing act, failing to appear for a hearing. Another arrest warrant was issued on December 6, 2019. Back in Missouri, word got out that Laura was once again on the run. Smith, at the library, realized that Laura was still logged into the iPad they sometimes used for story time, so she was able to follow in real time as Laura moved around California and Florida.
By January 2021, another arrest warrant was issued. In May, she pleaded guilty in Arkansas to theft of property and financial identity fraud and was ordered to pay restitution to Mike Lane in the amount of $26,900, in addition to administrative fees, court costs, and a fine. She was also ordered to enroll in and complete a course to obtain a GED. Then, in December 2021, Laura, now 48, pleaded guilty in Missouri to one count of “intentionally furnishing false information to the Social Security Administration” when she obtained identification in her daughter’s name. She’s scheduled to be sentenced in December.
When Smith was monitoring that iPad Laura was still logged into, she wasn’t just tracking a fugitive. She also scrolled through Laura’s old life on Facebook, trying to make sense of what happened. “She was just a regular mom,” Smith says. “They were having fun; they were laughing.” Laura took kids bowling; she posted photos of Thanksgiving dinner. “Her mom pictures were just mom pictures,” Smith says. “I don’t know if she just decided she didn’t want to be a mom anymore.”
Coulter heard that, when Laura was first arrested, she asked the cops if they could let her out of jail long enough for her to take a test for one of her college classes. “That’s something a kid would say,” Coulter says. She wonders if Laura went so far down a rabbit hole in her bid to erase her old life that she even believed it herself. “She did not want to grow up and be an adult,” Coulter says. “I honestly don’t know if she even knew who she was.”
Willow Springs is still asking why—why them, and why their town? Why didn’t Laura just pick a big city like Dallas or Chicago to disappear into? But small-town life, with its implicit trust and intimate neighborly relationships, seems to be exactly what Laura was seeking. It’s like she arrived in Willow Springs expecting to be reparented by the community.
The confusion and heartbreak Laura left behind is intense. “Sometimes I think she meant what she said when she said she loved us,” Archuleta says. “I went through a stage where I felt angry, but now, I miss her sometimes. She laughed a lot and was always happy. But I don’t feel sorry for her, knowing what I know now.” Archuleta doesn’t know what to make of his experience, of his earnest belief that he was offering a guiding hand to a young woman trying to find her footing. “I taught the bitch how to cook chicken, even,” he adds, laughing. I reached out to Wendy Parker, and she declined to comment, saying, “Thank you, but we prefer to forget that it ever happened.” Her husband, Avery, told a local news outlet that he tries “real hard to see the 45-year-old Laura, so that I can hate her. But all I can see is a 22-year-old Lauren, who I just wanted to help.”
This article appears in the December 2022/January 2023 issue of ELLE.
GET THE LATEST ISSUE OF ELLE
Sarah Treleaven is a writer and producer, and the host of USG Audio’s Madness of Two podcast. She lives in Nova Scotia, Canada.