ID thief abandoned kids as well as troubles

NOT IMPLEMENTED

December 23, 2002 

Renee Schirmaier always believed her dad would come back for her.

She was 5 when Heinz Schirmaier abandoned his name, his family, his whole life to start fresh with a new identity.

"I idolized him," said Renee, 29, who until junior high kept a picture of him above her bed.

When she wanted to feel close to her father, Renee looked at the message he'd left in the front of her baby book. In green ink, Heinz Schirmaier told his little girl how he got a lump in his throat and went weak in the legs when she breathed her first breath.

"You were beautiful in birth and you will always be beautiful if you think beautiful thoughts," he wrote.

But her father, a charming 38-year-old German immigrant, salesman and motorcycle stunt man, had a history of walking away from his problems.

And he never came back - for her, or anyone else.

Armed with a another man's name and Social Security number, Schirmaier abruptly left Colorado in 1978 with his life crumbling around him.

He was facing a criminal charge, accused of shooting at Renee's mother, and he owed more than $1,000 in child support to another ex-wife, the mother of two of his five biological children.

By the time he landed in Portland in early 1979, he was no longer Heinz Schirmaier, a man wanted for jumping bail and running out on his children.

He was Chuck Swanson - a new man with no children, no debt, no criminal history and no responsibilities.

He also was a complete fraud, a pioneering identity thief who'd stolen the name and Social Security number of the real Walter Charles Swanson, and used it as his own for more than two decades.

By the time authorities caught up with Schirmaier in the South Sound, he had thoroughly become Chuck Swanson. Over time, the real Swanson began suffering the consequences of another man's badly lived life.

Whenever Schirmaier gave his name, he said it was Swanson. Whenever he was required to give a Social Security number he offered Swanson's - when he rented apartments, applied for jobs or obtained credit.

Or was stopped by police. Or sued by creditors.

Starting over after three failed marriages and six children (one adopted), Schirmaier took his new name and went to Portland, where he worked as a salesman for an electric company.

He transferred to Pasco and met Frances Laymance, an aspiring dancer swept off her feet by the charming German.

They met at a disco and, after a three-month romance, went to Seattle in April 1982 and got married.

"He was very suave, very smooth," said Frances, who now lives in Des Moines.

It was Schirmaier's fourth marriage, but his first under the name W. Charles Swanson.

Like the others, it didn't last long. The newlyweds separated three months after marrying - right after Frances discovered her new husband's true identity.

Frances said she had been suspicious about her "Chuck" for a couple of reasons. One was his reluctance to take her to Germany, where she hoped to further her dance career.

She knew he grew up there, but he seemed strangely unwilling to consider going overseas. Frances later concluded he knew he couldn't get a passport.

The other cause for suspicion was his leather motorcycle jacket.

It obviously had had a name embroidered on it at one time, but the letters had been removed. A faint outline from the stitching was still visible, spelling out the name "Heinz."

Frances said she always wondered, "If this is his jacket, who's this guy Heinz?"

To satisfy her curiosity, she searched through a shoe box of his belongings and came across a green card with the name Heinz Schirmaier. Confronted with the information, he hit her and kicked her out of their home, she said.

Frances said she never reported the assault, but it scared her and she took off for Europe, where she figured she was safe. She stayed for nine years, fulfilling her dream of dancing, before returning to the Puget Sound area.

She didn't report "Chuck's" real name to authorities, telling only her parents.

"I don't know if they really believed me," she said.

In October 1982, Schirmaier - then four years into his life as Chuck Swanson - filed for divorce. It became final Jan. 17, 1983.

For the real Chuck Swanson, faint signs that something was wrong began appearing about this time. Little things, like applying for a gas card and being denied when he knew nothing should be wrong with his credit.

At first, Swanson brushed aside the irregularities. The world of credit reports was far more mysterious and less accessible than it is now, and he didn't believe he could get to the bottom of the trouble.

"I just let it go," Swanson said.

He went on with his life - one that took him to Oregon for a brief stint as the owner of the Coos Bay newspaper, the Bay News Weekly, and eventually back to Denver and later to his home state of Utah.

The signs of trouble became stronger when Swanson started receiving letters from the IRS accusing him of failing to report income in Washington state.

Swanson had never lived or worked in Washington, so he began to suspect that someone else must be using his Social Security number.

But who? And where? And why?

Swanson paid a lawyer $400 to track down his impostor. The attorney struck out. The search wouldn't resume for 15 years.

Jason Hagey: 253-941-9634
jason.hagey@mail.tribnet.com


Background

In 1978, faced with a coming court date and mounting child support, Heinz Schirmaier somehow obtained the driver's license and Social Security number of W. Charles Swanson and began living his life under the new name. Swanson, a young filmmaker who had lost his wallet at the Denver airport, only slowly came to learn he had an impostor.


SIDEBAR: Reconstructing life of deception


This series was based on numerous federal, state and local court documents and other public records, dating back to the early 1970s in Colorado.

In addition, staff writer Jason Hagey interviewed the real W. Charles Swanson in Ogden, Utah, as well as many people who knew Heinz Schirmaier, both by his real name and his assumed name.

Among those interviewed were the former Sandra Schirmaier, Heinz Schirmaier's third wife, in Denver; the couple's daughter, Andrea Renee Schirmaier, also in Denver; Danny Schirmaier, Heinz Schirmaier's adopted son, in Oklahoma City, Okla.; the former Frances Laymance, the first woman Schirmaier married under his assumed name, now in Des Moines; the former Janet Lee, founder of Janet Lee's International Daredevils, now in Southern California; and employees of Kent Bowl and the Virginia Saloon in Kent.

Law enforcement, legal and other investigative sources included Robert Stockham and Rose Winquist, private investigators with the Kenmore firm Rose Winquist Inc.; Kirk Arthur, special agent with the Secret Service in Seattle; Ogden Police Chief Jon Greiner; and Carol Koller, Schirmaier's federal public defender.

The former Connie Swanson, Schirmaier's fifth and last wife, was contacted at her home in Renton, but declined to be interviewed.

Heinz Schirmaier declined to talk with The News Tribune unless he was paid.


HEINZ SCHIRMAIER

June 13, 1940:

Born in Germany.

1957: Comes to Chicago.

Circa late 1950s to early 1960s: Marries Ellen, has two children.

June 25, 1966:

Marries second wife, Gunta, in Illinois; two more children.

Circa 1973:

Marries Sandra; adopts her son and has a daughter.

March 1976:

Divorced from Sandra.

Argument with Sandra ends in claim of gunfire.

Sept. 21, 1978:

Pleads not guilty to felony menacing charge.

Fall and winter 1978: Disappears.

1979: Arrives in Portland, begins life as Chuck Swanson.

April 1982:

Marries Frances Laymance in Seattle; they reside in Tri-Cities.

July 1982:

Separates from Frances after she learns his true identity.

January 1983:

Divorced from Frances Laymance.

October 1983:

Marries Connie at Pasco.

1986: They move to Enumclaw to run a tavern.

January 1994:

Divorced from Connie. Obtains Capital One Master Card under name Chuck Swanson.

March 2000:

Working as cook at Kent Bowl.

June 2001:

Federal grand jury issues three-count indictment.

August 2001:

Pleads guilty to one count, two others dropped.

Dec. 7, 2001:

Sentenced to 24 months in federal prison.


CHUCK SWANSON

JAN. 13, 1946:

BORN IN OGDEN, UTAH.

1965: GRADUATES FROM PRIVATE HIGH SCHOOL IN SALT LAKE CITY.

1966: ENLISTS IN AIR FORCE.

1970: ATTENDS PHOTOGRAPHY SCHOOL IN ASPEN, COLO.

1971 TO EARLY 1980S:

WORKS AS COMMERCIAL PHOTOGRAPHER.

1978:

LOSES WALLET AT DENVER AIRPORT.

CIRCA 1982:

IN COOS BAY, ORE., RUNNING WEEKLY NEWSPAPER.

1986: IN UTAH, WORKING AS TECHNICAL PHOTOGRAPHER FOR AIR FORCE.

1990: FATHER DIES; TAKES OVER AS CEO OF DR. W.C. SWANSON FAMILY FOUNDATION.

1996: SUED BY ENUMCLAW DENTIST FOR UNPAID BILL.

1998: DOCUMENTARY FILM WINS OSCAR.

2000: PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR FINDS IMPOSTOR IN KENT.

DEC. 7, 2001:

TESTIFIES AT SCHIRMAIER'S SENTENCING HEARING.


A serial in seven parts

Sunday: Second chance for a daredevil.

Today: Nearly exposed as a fake.

Tuesday: The real Chuck Swanson.

Wednesday: Fresh start, same old failure.

Thursday: Tracking down an impostor.

Friday: The past trumps the future.

Saturday: Finally meeting face to face.

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