A counterfeit life: 24 years ago, Heinz Schirmaier picked up another man's wallet

NOT IMPLEMENTED

December 23, 2002 

Heinz Schirmaier wanted a new life. In the fall of 1978, the 38-year-old German immigrant found himself in Colorado in the middle of a breakup with his third wife, a bitter split in which he was accused of firing a gun during an argument.

He was broke, behind in child-support payments to his second wife and facing a criminal charge over the gun incident.

Desperate for a way out, he sought escape through a bold and novel path - taking another man's name.

The name he stole, Walter Charles Swanson, belonged to a young filmmaker who traveled the country filming the auto racing exploits of Paul Newman. He would later go on to run his father's multimillion-dollar charitable foundation.

Swanson lost his wallet at the Denver airport about the time Schirmaier's life was unraveling. Somehow Schirmaier ended up with the wallet - his account of just how has varied - but it wasn't long before he made the name Chuck Swanson, and the Social Security number that went with it, his own.

If fate hadn't been particularly kind to Heinz Schirmaier, maybe it would smile on him as Chuck Swanson.

The decision to adopt another man's name made Schirmaier something of a pioneer in the field of identity theft, a crime that only recently has become commonplace.

And it would wreak quiet, distant havoc on the real Chuck Swanson for more than two decades.

The two men wouldn't cross paths for 23 years, until they met face to face in a Seattle courtroom.

Schirmaier already knew something about starting over by the time he embarked on his new life in late 1978.

He'd left Germany as a teenager and come to Chicago. He rebuilt his life frequently throughout his 20s and early 30s, marrying and divorcing three times in about 10 years, fathering five children and adopting a sixth.

But this would be a different kind of fresh start. The ultimate do-over. A true theft of another man's identity, less lucrative but more insidious than today's version of the crime, which typically involves a quick running up of charges on someone else's credit card.

Schirmaier wasn't interested in going on a spending spree. He simply wanted to live as Chuck Swanson.

Using the stolen name, Schirmaier married and divorced twice in the next 22 years. He rented apartments in Oregon and Washington. Started businesses in Enumclaw and Auburn. Applied for credit. Got busted for drunken driving. And in the tradition of generations of Americans looking to start over, he kept moving West, first to Denver and finally to the Pacific Northwest.

Heinz Schirmaier had vanished overnight, apparently without much notice.

By the time a Secret Service agent caught up with him at a Kent bowling alley, Schirmaier didn't have a shred of paperwork with his real name on it. He didn't remember his own Social Security number.

All the while, the real Chuck Swanson vaguely suspected someone, somewhere, was using his name. But confirming his suspicions - and tracking down his impostor - wouldn't be easy.

Heinz Schirmaier likely never knew his parents. He told several people over the years that he was raised in an orphanage in Germany before coming to Chicago in 1957 to join an aunt.

His accounts of how he came to be an orphan varied over the years. He told one of his wives that his father was a bodyguard for Adolf Hitler. He told another wife that his father was a diplomat and that his parents were killed in a plane crash.

When he was finally caught and put on trial, he told his defense attorney that his father died fighting in World War II and that his mother died of tuberculosis.

Whatever the truth about his childhood, court records show that the U.S. government issued Schirmaier a Social Security number in Illinois in the late 1950s.

At first, his new life in America resembled the life of countless other young American men.

Around the early 1960s, he went to Colorado to attend Adams State College. While there, he met his first wife, Ellen. The couple had two daughters.

By 1966, the marriage was over and Schirmaier was getting married again, this time to a woman named Gunta. They wed June 26 in Oak Park, Ill. He was 26, she was 19. Three years later, the couple had their first child, a daughter named Kari.

By 1971, he had moved back to Colorado with his second family and found work as a salesman at a business called City Sales in Denver.

But a breakup was coming. In divorce documents, each spouse accused the other of inflicting mental cruelty.

Schirmaier met the woman who would become his third wife at a bar called the Gas Light, next door to City Sales.

In October 1971, Schirmaier filed for divorce from Gunta, who was pregnant with the couple's second child. The baby, a boy named Kurt, was born Jan. 28, 1972, two weeks before the divorce was final.

Schirmaier assumed payments on the couple's 2-year-old Toyota pickup. Gunta got custody of the children, as well as a paid-for 1970 Plymouth Barracuda, and some property in Pueblo, Colo.

She moved back to Chicago with their two children and took a job at Sears. Soon after, Schirmaier married Sandra, the woman from the bar, and started over once again.

Evidence shows that he tried to be a family man. The couple had a daughter, Andrea Renee, in May 1973. In neat handwriting, Schirmaier professed his love for his newborn daughter in the pages of her baby book.

He promised to raise her "to the best of my ability" and said that while she might not always agree with him, he had her interest at heart.

"I hope that you will be proud of me in your later life," Schirmaier wrote, signing the note, "Your Daddy."

A month later, Schirmaier adopted Sandra's 4-year-old son, Danny.

As he established his third family, Schirmaier began to achieve a measure of fame as a motorcycle racer and stunt man.

Sandra's family was into motorcycle racing and Schirmaier picked up on the hobby, performing for a while along with young Danny in a troupe called Janet Lee's International Daredevils.

A newspaper story advancing a performance referred to Schirmaier as the "German champion motorcycle stunt man" and described his signature act, "The Tunnel of Death."

According to the article, Schirmaier rode his motorcycle between flaming barrels of gasoline in a tunnel where the temperature reached 1,600 degrees, creating an "airless vacuum."

The lack of air killed the motorcycle engine half-way through the tunnel, and Schirmaier needed to be going fast enough to coast out the other side. Seven stunt riders reportedly died attempting the feat, the article stated.

Schirmaier was also supposedly working on a motorcycle jump over Germany's Black Forest River, similar to Evel Knievel's famous Snake River Canyon stunt.

But that phase of Schirmaier's life lasted only a few years. One remnant - a leather motorcycle jacket - nearly proved his undoing early in his masquerade as Chuck Swanson.

Schirmaier's life with Sandra came with pressing financial obligations. He was ordered to pay Gunta $150 per month in child support, and his new family quickly included two children, newborn Renee and adopted Danny.

Supporting everyone on earnings from his sales job proved a struggle.

A year after the divorce, he was $1,145 in arrears in his child support and Gunta filed a complaint with the court. A few months later, a judge issued a bench warrant when Schirmaier skipped a court hearing.

At some point, Schirmaier went to work for himself, starting a business called Electrical Control Wire. Danny's childhood memories from that time consist of motorcycles and spools of electrical cable scattered in the back yard.

Money problems dogged Schirmaier. In 1975, a wire and cable distributor sued him for an unpaid bill of $1,588.93.

Evidence of marital problems emerged. There were frequent fights and Heinz was constantly cheating, Sandra said.

After one fight in December 1975, Schirmaier was charged with harassment and ordered to have "no violent contact" with his wife.

A judge dismissed the case a month later because someone forgot to write a date on the court summons.

By March 1976, the couple divorced.

They tried to reconcile, but their life together ended in 1978, after a fight escalated to gunfire.

A police report stated that on June 26, 1978, a .38-caliber pistol "discharged." Schirmaier was arrested on suspicion of felony menacing and later released after a bail bondsman posted $2,500. On Sept. 21, 1978, Schirmaier entered a not guilty plea and a trial was set for Dec. 11.

It never took place.

During the next two months, Heinz Schirmaier disappeared, missing several court hearings and raising speculation that he'd fled to Germany.

On Dec. 11, the judge issued an arrest warrant for Schirmaier, and a bail bondsman spent the next four months looking for Schirmaier. In March 1979, the bondsman said he couldn't find Schirmaier.

With that, the court file went dormant for two decades. Schirmaier never came back and "Chuck Swanson" was born.

In April 1998 the arrest warrant was canceled and the menacing charge dismissed. The 20-year statute of limitations had expired.

The new name seemed to have worked its magic.

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

A serial in seven parts

Today: Second chance for a daredevil.

Monday: 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.

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.

1950s

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.

1980s

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.

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