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"It wasn't like she sat down and told a whole fabulous fake story of her life in one sitting," says Dickenson, who served at the press club with Albanese and became her friend. "It was little things here, little things there. If you sat down and added it all up, it was incredible, but it was always in the realm of possibility."
The first time they ever talked, Albanese called Dickenson to ask her to help set up an event for the press club. Ralph Nader was coming to Dallas, and the club needed a venue to host him. Albanese wondered if Dickenson, who was director of communications at Southern Methodist University, could find a room at the school where Nader could speak. Dickenson, who had just joined the press club, was recovering from breast cancer and told Albanese she had just had chemotherapy and wouldn't be able to help her at the moment. Albanese didn't miss a beat.
"She just blithely said to me, 'Oh, I had bone cancer, everything will be OK. Look at me today; I'm fine and walking around. So listen, this thing with Ralph Nader...' She went right back to it," Dickenson says. "I thought to myself, 'Well gosh, she won't take no for an answer, and who am I? I mean, God, she had bone cancer twice, and she's still doing stuff.' She kind of made me feel guilty. So, of course, I did it."
Albanese and Dickenson would become friends; in fact, Dickenson was perhaps Albanese's closest friend at the club. Dickenson dined with her every few weeks, visited her home and met her father, whom Albanese said was living with her as he died of cancer. Dickenson says she grew to admire Albanese. She thought she was charming, generous and fun. "I thought she was very intelligent, sophisticated in some ways—you could talk to her about stuff going on in the news, she was well-read about politics, knowledgeable about journalism."
Albanese told Dickenson she was born in Ireland and that as a child she moved to New York, where her father ran a restaurant. In her youth she was diagnosed with bone cancer and so the family had moved to Houston so Albanese could get treatments at a specialized hospital. She had grown up in Houston, where her father ran a car dealership.
This much about Albanese can be verified: According to her birth certificate, she was born in White Plains, New York, in 1963 as Lisa Jeanne Albanese. Before taking her job at The Northern Virginia Daily, she had lived in La Porte, a refinery town near Houston, with her family. A neighbor who lived across the street from the Albanese family says she heard they had come to Texas from New York or Chicago and that they were rumored to be in the witness protection program.
Another longtime resident of La Porte says she knew Albanese's father and that he worked in a car dealership in town. She said it had been years since anyone from the family had lived in La Porte. The only high school in the town of 20,000 has no record of a Lisa Jeane Albanese ever graduating.
According to her résumé, she began her journalism career at the Austin-American Statesmanin 1984 at age 21. After a short stint as a sergeant-at-arms at the Texas State House of Representatives, she took a job at The Clear Lake Citizen, where she says she covered NASA. Then, in 1989, she became a graduate advisor to the newspaper at The University of Houston at Clear Lake, where she said she regularly scooped the Houston Chronicle. She left that job for a position at a travel agency and then, after a year at the University of Texas pursuing a master's degree in journalism, she got on at The Northern Virginia Daily.
"Much of her résumé was puffed considerably," Horan, the paper's editor, would later write. "...She had never graduated from any college."
The truth is, many of the people Albanese met in Dallas, who considered themselves her friends, never really knew her. They didn't know, for example, that her husband had declared bankruptcy in 2003, listing among his debts a $526 health club bill. They didn't know that she never attended Harvard Law School. They certainly didn't know she had a criminal record. Most of all, Albanese's close circle of friends and colleagues didn't know that just about every larger-than-life tale she told about herself obscured the troubling details of her real life.
"Her stories were so big," says her former friend Jo Ann Holt, "that they were somehow more believable."
Immediately after the awards show, journalists from across the state began gossiping about Albanese's improbable night. The following Monday, reporters at the Morning News exchanged e-mails about Albanese, whom they sarcastically referred to as the best journalist in the state. A reporter with the Fort Worth Weekly, who had once worked at U.S. News and World Report, even went so far as to ask Albanese for a copy of one of her winning entries that he couldn't locate online. Albanese never got back to him.