Real Chuck Swanson finally meets impostor in court

NOT IMPLEMENTED

December 28, 2002 

Chuck Swanson arrived early for the 9 a.m. court hearing Dec. 7, 2001.

He took an elevator to the fourth floor of the federal courthouse in Seattle and walked down a hallway until it ended.

He looked around. A man was sitting on a bench to the left, so he turned right and sat on an open bench.

He was waiting for Edsonya Charles, a special assistant U.S. attorney and the prosecutor handling the case of a stranger who decades earlier had stolen Swanson's identity and ruined his credit.

Swanson, a 54-year-old philanthropist from Ogden, Utah, had spoken with Charles on the phone, but they'd never met.

No matter. After 22 years of frustration and embarrassment, he could wait a few more minutes to testify at his impostor's sentencing.

After awhile, Charles came down the hall, stopped at the intersection and looked to her left and right. She guessed correctly and turned to her right.

"Mr. Swanson?" she asked.

Swanson stood up. And so did the man to her left - Heinz Schirmaier, Swanson's impostor since 1978.

"It still gives me chills," Swanson recalled later. "It's like someone stepping on your grave."

For years, Swanson had endured embarrassment and frustration when he was denied credit because of Schirmaier's money problems. It got so bad he feared being arrested if he ever traveled to Washington state because of a warrant intended for the other man.

To end the ordeal, he spent several years - and an estimated $30,000 - tracking down the man who'd stolen his name.

Schirmaier's sentencing hearing that December day came after he pleaded guilty to one charge of fraudulent use of a Social Security number - Swanson's.

A grand jury had indicted Schirmaier on one charge of fraudulent use of another person's identification and two counts of false representation of a Social Security number with intent to deceive.

In a plea bargain, Schirmaier admitted one of the counts and prosecutors dropped the other two.

Prosecutors wanted U.S. District Court Judge Thomas S. Zilly to sentence Schirmaier beyond the standard range of 10 to 16 months in prison.

His crime might not have involved a lot of money - typically the standard used to determine sentencing - but Charles argued that Schirmaier had inflicted significant harm to the real Chuck Swanson.

Schirmaier's court-appointed attorney, Carol Koller, asked Zilly to hand down a sentence below the standard range.

Schirmaier, she argued, was an alcoholic, a failed businessman, a man who'd made a remarkably poor decision that day in 1978 when he adopted Swanson's name.

He was not, she said, a brazen thief who intended to steal from the real Swanson. In the end, his actions most likely brought more punishment upon himself than a judge could impose, she said.

Koller asked for a sentence of one day in prison, followed by supervised release and six months in a halfway house.

Before Zilly ruled, he heard from Schirmaier and Swanson.

Speaking first, Schirmaier apologized to the judge and to Swanson. Then he tried to explain himself.

"What I did was not to gain financial aid," he said. "It was to get out of a situation with a widow lady who had made my life miserable, and I thought that was the easy way out. Now I realize that was not the easy way out.

"I should've stayed in Denver and I should have fought and I wouldn't have gotten in this position. But altogether, I did not - I swear to God I did not do it to gain anything financially.

"I tried to keep the bills up and paid, you know, so Mr. Swanson wouldn't get into that position and I do very seriously apologize for what I have done."

Swanson wasn't moved.

"It's an emotional day for me after 20 years of credit problems and embarrassment and humiliation," he said when his turn came to address the court.

Swanson had prepared a statement for the judge, but was so rattled by the encounter with Schirmaier in the hallway that he decided not to read it.

Instead, he told Zilly about two instances where Schirmaier's identity theft had hurt.

First, he spoke about his recent attempt to refinance his house.

Swanson said he's well-known in his community. People respect him and look up to him. It was embarrassing to be turned down for a loan.

Then he recounted his experience in the hallway, how strange it was for someone to speak his name and then see another man stand up.

"It's my thought that Mr. Schirmaier needs some time in a place where they will know him by Mr. Schirmaier and not by Mr. Swanson to break this habit," Swanson told the judge.

Years of frustration came pouring out.

"I feel that he needs to be incarcerated and he needs to learn his own name and reflect on who he is so that when he's given the chance to come back to society perhaps he can be a useful member of society again.

"But I would say one thing to Mr. Schirmaier: I put you here and I'm not sorry that I did it, and I would do it again. But I'd like you to remember no matter what happens today, no matter what your sentence is, I'll be watching."

"I'm glad you did," Schirmaier replied.

After listening to everyone, the judge weighed in. And he wasn't prepared to show mercy.

"For approximately 20 years, you have continued to be Mr. Walter Charles Swanson," Zilly told Schirmaier.

"You've taken his Social Security number, his identification. You've incurred bills. You've earned wages. His taxes have been audited by the IRS on a regular basis. He's had trouble getting loans as recently as this year."

Zilly was especially troubled that Schirmaier had obtained a new identification card in Swanson's name even after the Secret Service interviewed him.

"I'm frankly shocked that you - at least after the authorities contacted you in April of 2000 - would have gotten the message," he said. "I don't think you did."

Zilly sentenced Schirmaier to two years in federal prison, followed by three years probation.

"What you have done to Mr. Swanson over a long, long period of time is hard to imagine," the judge said.

With that, the man who walked into the courthouse still thinking of himself as Chuck Swanson, headed for prison - as Heinz Schirmaier.

Schirmaier's court-appointed lawyer appealed the sentence in an attempt to shave about six months from it. The appeal failed and Schirmaier remains at the Federal Detention Center in Sheridan, Ore.

His lawyer expects the Immigration and Naturalization Service will have him deported to Germany when his sentence is finished, in December 2003.

Swanson still has trouble accepting what happened to him. All he did was lose his wallet, yet the hassles, the embarrassments, the frustrations lasted nearly a quarter century.

He's happy Schirmaier is in prison, but isn't ready to forgive. For one thing, he thinks the punishment was far too little.

In the end, the only crime Heinz Schirmaier was guilty of was fraudulently obtaining one credit card.

He charged $236.45 on it, but could afford to make only one $50 payment. After a few years, the balance swelled to $800 including interest, annual fees and past-due charges.

His attorney said Schirmaier thought he owed only the remaining $186 and perhaps a little interest. He figured he'd pay it when he was able and had no idea the charges would balloon the way they did.

Swanson says he thinks Schirmaier is more calculating than that. And he doubts whether Schirmaier can really stop using his name.

Finally, he's curious what name Schirmaier is using in prison. The guards no doubt refer to him as Heinz Schirmaier, but in Swanson's imagination, the other inmates call him Chuck Swanson.

"The day he answered to my name in front of me, it really came home," Swanson said. "The guy is being me."

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

A serial in seven parts

Sunday: 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.

Today: Finally meeting face to face.

•Previous installments of "A counterfeit life" are on our Web site at www.tribnet.com/news/projects/id_theft.

A roundup of resources for victims of identity theft

The three major credit reporting bureaus (for victims of identity theft or anyone wishing to inspect a credit report) are:

Equifax

PO Box 740241

Atlanta, GA 30374-0241

1-800-525-6285

www.equifax.com

Experian

PO Box 9532

Allen, TX 75013

1-888-397-3742

www.experian.com

TransUnion Fraud Victim Assistance Division

PO Box 6790

Fullerton, CA 92834

1-800-680-7289

www.transunion.com

Support groups for victims

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse

3100 Fifth Ave., No. B

San Diego, CA 92103

1-619-298-3396

www.privacyrights.org

Identity Theft Resource Center

PO Box 26833

San Diego, CA 92196

1-858-693-7935

www.idtheftcenter.org

U.S. Public Interest Research Group

218 D St., S.E.

Washington, D.C. 20003

1-202-546-9707

uspirg@pirg.org

Federal agencies

Federal Trade Commission Identity Theft Clearinghouse

600 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W.

1-877-438-4338

www.consumer.gov/idtheft

Department of Justice

www.usdoj.gov/criminal/fraud/idtheft.html

Federal Bureau of Investigation

call local field office

www.ifccfbi.gov (for Internet fraud)

IRS Department of Treasury

Taxpayer Advocates Office

1-877-777-4778

www.treas.gov/irs/ci

Postal Inspection Service

call local post office

www.usps.gov/websites/depart/inspect

U.S. Secret Service

call local field office

www.treas.gov/usss/financial_crimes.htm

Office of the Inspector General

Social Security Administration

Fraud Hotline

PO Box 17768

Baltimore, MD 21235

1-800-269-0271

Source: General Accounting Office

What to do if you're a victim of identity theft

•Contact the fraud departments of the three major credit bureaus.

•For accounts that have been fraudulently accessed or opened, contact the security departments of the appropriate creditors or financial institutions. Close the accounts. Put passwords on any new accounts you open. (Don't use your mother's maiden name.)

•File a report with the local police or the police where the theft took place. Get a copy of the report to provide to banks, credit card companies or other agencies that might need proof later.

•File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission by calling the FTC's Identity Theft hot line at 1-877-ID-THEFT (438-4338)

Source: Federal Trade Commission

Tips to help prevent identity theft

•Check your credit reports annually with all three credit reporting agencies.

•Guard your Social Security number - don't carry your card in your wallet or purse, don't print the number or your driver's license number on checks and don't give out your Social Security number to anyone unless they have a good reason.

•Destroy papers before throwing them out, especially those containing identifying information. A cross-cut paper shredder works best.

•Don't provide information over the phone unless you initiated the call.

•Use a locked mailbox to send and receive all mail.

•Reduce the number of preapproved credit card offers you receive by calling 1-888-5OPT OUT. (They will ask for your Social Security number.)

Source: Identity Theft Resource Center

The background

After traveling the country working in the film business, in 1990 the real Chuck Swanson took over the charitable foundation named for his father. By the late 1990s, he'd had enough of another man using his name and ruining his credit.

With the help of the private investigator Swanson hired, the Secret Service confronted Heinz Schirmaier at the Kent Bowl and Schirmaier readily admitted his true identity.

A federal grand jury indicted Schirmaier in 2001 on three counts related to identity fraud, and, in a plea bargain, he admitted to one charge.

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