A case of identity, part 3

January 4, 2007 

Wednesday, Nov. 1
The Renton cops will get a convenient package: two victims in two states identifying a fugitive, and a state investigator itching for the collar. Clagett made happy noises about extraditing Debutts.

We give the cops the information, they grab him. Easy.

Before picking up Dave, I call the Renton police and tell them we’re about to file a report. Detective John Awai wants a briefing. He gets it, along with the number for Chester Clagett in Las Vegas.

Two cops, two states, two bureaucracies – after talking to Clagett, Awai calls me back. There's a problem.

Awai says the warrant in Vegas only covers the state of Nevada. Clagett's bosses have to extend it beyond the state’s borders before the Renton cops can hook Debutts. That could take a while.

Awai says Dave still needs to file the police report to start a paper trail up here. I tell him we’re coming.

Moments later, Clagett calls from Vegas. He thinks he can extend the warrant, but he needs permission from higher up. He adds one more thing:
“I don’t know how good your rapport is with your friend, but tell him if Debutts has even an inkling of what’s going on, he’ll be gone.”

My rapport with my friend is good. On our way, I tell Dave what Clagett said. Dave feels sick and crummy, doesn’t say much – but he understands.

"Over the last four months"
At the police department, Dave files the report. Awai is in the field, so we talk to a decent, skeptical officer who takes notes and asks for details: When and how did this fraud stuff start?

Dave hasn’t thought this through. He struggles to remember dates and times. He finally says he thinks the fraud has been going on “over the last four months.”
I tell the officer John Awai knows about this case. That gets his attention. He leaves to make a call. Dave sighs.

“I hear myself saying that: ‘over the last four months,’ and I feel like such an idiot,” he says. He fiddles with his cell phone, and plays me his latest ring tone: a cheery, tinny samba.

The officer returns, less skeptical now. He wants to know where Debutts works. Dave answers: Cingular Wireless. Debutts is a technical support guy – you call and say you’ve got a problem with your cell phone, and he helps you fix it.
Access to customer accounts. Nice.

The officer says he’s talked to Awai, and gives Dave a card with a case number. Now the waiting starts.

The officer is kind about it, but he can’t say it’s easy: Dave’s going to have to pretend a while longer, and hope the state of Nevada comes through.
“You’re in a catch-22,” he says, and shakes Dave’s hand.

One more chore: We have to stop at Dave’s condo. He’s got a few digital photos of Debutts – quickie self-portraits. Debutts posted them on Internet dating sites, repeating his pattern from Vegas. The images are stored on Dave's computer.

We go to the condo. No danger, Dave says – Debutts works until 8 or so. I push keys on the computer, and Dave collapses into a chair, worn and tired.

“So these photos were taken here?” I ask.
“With my father’s camera,” Dave says, yawning.
His cell phone jangles a few times. He answers and I don’t pay much attention – Dave’s always on the phone.

Sam-ba, sam-ba.
I find the pictures. Click: There’s Debutts in extreme close-up.

Hello.

In the next shot, he sits on Dave’s couch, staring into the lens.

This is for Internet dating?

I e-mail copies of the pictures to myself, delete the message from Dave’s mailbox, then empty his trash file, hoping that’s enough to leave no traces.
As I start to go, Dave’s phone rings again.
Sam-ba, sam-ba.

Dave looks down, sees the caller’s number flash, and looks over at me.
“This is him,” he says.
He flips the phone open, presses a key and his voice shifts into a smooth gear called Tired Yet Professional:
“This is Dave, can I help you?”
Oh, who could possibly be calling?

Feeling stressed and lousy, Dave banters with Debutts – as if he knows nothing, as if he didn’t just spend an uncomfortable hour filing a police report against his roommate.

Answering a question, Dave says he’s home early. The phone crackles with taunting static. Dave laughs a little.

When he rings off, he tells me Debutts complained about all the phone calls Dave got yesterday.

“He’s like, ‘You were on the phone all night,’ and I say, ‘Well it was Halloween,’ and he says, ‘Halloween never ends – how do you want to be killed tonight – slowly?’ He’s always saying things like that.”
Horror-geek humor. Tremendous.

Before I leave, Dave gives me a code: If I call him and he’s short, that means he can’t talk – Debutts is there.

Thursday, Nov. 2
More waiting. Chester Clagett calls and says he doesn't expect a decision on the warrant until next week. John Awai calls and says he’s waiting for the warrant. Dave has to hang on.
Weekend with roomie.

Friday, Nov. 3
E-mail from the real Michael Dorley in Vegas. Yesterday, I sent him the pictures from Dave’s computer and asked if the face looked familiar.

Dorley's answer comes with exclamation points:

Dorley has identified Debutts in three sets of pictures, taken here and in Nevada.

Before, he only believed. Now he knows Debutts is here, still cribbing Dorley's stolen identity.

No other messages, still no word from the elusive third victim who posted the con artist Web site.

Phone rings: Chester Clagett in Vegas. He wants to push the warrant for Debutts up the official chain, but he needs to talk to Dave and get a positive ID.

“I just want to call him up, tell him what’s going on, tell him to hang in there,” Clagett says.
Does Clagett have the photos of Debutts taken at Dave’s condo? Has he seen them?
“Oh, yeah – sitting on the couch, real close up.”
“Same guy?”
“Oh yeah – no doubt in my mind.”

Three IDs on the pictures from Renton and Nevada: Dorley, Dave, Clagett – and Clagett's a cop.

I give Clagett Dave’s mobile phone number, figuring Dave will be on the road working, free to talk.
Five minutes later, Clagett calls me again, laughing.
“Well, I got your friend at the wrong moment,” he says. “Sounds like Debutts was with him.”
Whoops.

Clagett says Dave danced, pretending the call was an unwanted sales pitch.
“He told me to stop trying to sell him pharmaceuticals,” Clagett says, cackling. “Tell your friend he did a hell of a job.”

A little later, Dave checks in.
“A guy from Nevada called. It wasn’t cool.”

Debutts was right behind him, Dave says.
“I’m on the deck – slowly he opens the door and says, ‘Who is it, Dave?’ So I made like it was a telemarketer, and I don’t want any prescriptions.”
“Did he buy it?”
“I think so.”

A money decision
Clagett talks to Dave later in the day – alone this time – then calls me. He says he’s asked to extend the warrant for Kenneth Debutts beyond Nevada.

That’s a money decision: extra court fees, administrative time. Clagett figures he’ll get approval. He’ll know more next week, he says, but he’ll be out until Tuesday.
Three days.

As I drive home, Dave calls from the road.
“New wrinkle,” he says.
“Yeah?”

Dave’s been feeling rotten lately – sick and slow, always fatigued, and he’s not sure why. He’s self-employed, and his health insurance is terrible. He’s been looking for a doctor who takes his plan. Today, he says, Debutts made a strange suggestion.
“He says he’s gonna put me on his insurance,” Dave says.
“How can he do that?”
“He said it wasn’t too hard. He goes, ‘You’re my roommate and I care about you.’ ”
What is that about?
“OK, keep me posted.”

I drive, chewing on possibilities. Before long, my phone rings again.
“Another wrinkle,” Dave says.
“Yeah?”
“I just got a letter addressed to Kenneth Debutts.”
“What?”
I nearly drive off the road.
“It was in the mailbox.”
“What’s the return address?”
“Is ‘MD’ short for Maryland?”
“Just read it to me.”

Hold steering wheel, press tiny cell phone against shoulder, fumble for pen and paper with free hand. Dave reads me a post office box number and a Maryland address.

He says the envelope is first-class, pre-sorted. I’m guessing it’s some sort of credit thing.

Proof – letter to Debutts at Dave’s address. That’s a lock.
“You want me to open it?”
“No!”

I tell him to leave the envelope sealed and put it somewhere safe. It connects this address to Debutts – the cops might need it. Dave agrees, but he can’t resist a jab.
“What if he’s outsmarted us all, Sean?”
“Shut up.”

Monday, Nov. 6
Finally, finally, the riddle of the third victim untangles.

Her name is Kim Brown. She got my message. She runs a Web-hosting company. Her name also shows up in Nevada’s corporate registry.

Brown, 45, says she posted the “con artist alert” Web page that identifies Debutts.
The third victim.

“Ken moved in with me for three weeks,” she says. “I filed a police report. The police didn’t do jack about it.”

Her story follows the pattern Dave and the real Michael Dorley described. In March 2005, she posted a roommate-wanted ad.

Debutts answered it and talked his way in, she says. He begged off his first rent payment, saying he was having a hard time raising the money.

Brown says she started seeing unexpected bills a week or so later, including charges for online porn. She says Debutts tapped her credit cards and her Social Security number, and started calling himself Kenneth Brown.

“He told everybody that we were brother and sister and he got by with all kinds of stuff,” she says. “He opened up two or three cell phone accounts with my name.”

Brown says she and a friend confronted Debutts and told him to get out. Debutts wasn't happy.

“He looks like and acts like the boy next door,” she says. “He has a temper you wouldn’t believe – a lot of screaming, a lot of yelling and slamming the door.”

Three victims with the same story, and they don't know each other. That’s something.

E-mail from the real Michael Dorley: He hasn't heard from me in a while, and he's worried. When he hears about Dave's police report and Clagett's effort to extend the arrest warrant, he's pleased.

Discovered
Phone rings: Dave.
“My roommate just called me,” he says. “He goes, ‘My sister just called me and said I’m being investigated by a Sean.’ ”

Damn.
Bad luck. Now Debutts knows we're onto him.
Can’t be helped
.
“OK.”

Dave says he played the fool.
“I go, ‘Well, what did you do that was worth investigating?’ ” he says. “He goes, ‘Nothing, I haven’t done anything.’ ”
Games – we’re all playing now.

Dave says he lied, pretending he had no idea what was going on. He’s not sure how long he can keep that up, especially if Debutts starts asking more questions.

“He’s a little jumpy,” Dave says. “I think he’s gonna be doing something that he hasn’t been doing, which is feeling me out. But I’m playing dumb, and I do that so well.”

Stuck waiting again. Dave and I both figure Debutts will bolt any time.

Maybe we’ll get lucky. Maybe Nevada will extend the warrant.

Tuesday, Nov. 7
Nevada isn’t moving.
“It’s not a dead issue here,” Clagett tells me. “I’m just waiting for my boss to get a definitive answer.”

It’s all about budgets, Clagett says. Extradition costs money. If Debutts fights, Nevada eats King County’s court fees.
That’s not Clagett’s call. He says the decision hasn’t been made, but sounds like he expects a no. He wonders if Washington can do anything about Debutts.
“He’s up there. He’s posing as somebody else. He’s working for Cingular,” Clagett says. “There’s got to be a law in Washington State that he’s violating right now.”
There’s got to be a law.

“The other thing he’s going to do is he’s probably going to steal David’s identity,” Clagett says. “If he leaves the state, he’ll become David.”

Back to Renton. Detective John Awai isn’t sure he can make a case without the Nevada warrant. He needs paperwork from Dave, and there isn’t much.

The Internet porn is tough to trace, and harder to prove. The credit cards are equally tricky. Debutts rang up a few bills, but he promised to pay Dave back and actually came up with some money.

In a way, that means Dave gave his roommate permission to use the credit cards. By trying to solve the problem on his own, he’s ruined his case.

The statutes
There’s got to be a law.

Washington supposedly has the toughest identity theft law in the nation – at least that’s how the attorney general’s office describes it. I look at the statute, RCW 9.35.020. The first section is direct:

“(1) No person may knowingly obtain, possess, use, or transfer a means of identification or financial information of another person, living or dead, with the intent to commit, or to aid or abet, any crime.”

Well, he’s using a stolen name, and he knows it.

The second section explains that it’s a felony, and describes how it’s committed:

“(2) Violation of this section when the accused or an accomplice uses the victim's means of identification or financial information and obtains an aggregate total of credit, money, goods, services, or anything else of value in excess of one thousand five hundred dollars in value shall constitute identity theft in the first degree.”

Debutts got a job using Michael Dorley’s name. He gets salary and benefits from Cingular, using Michael Dorley’s name.

Dave’s case is weak – but Cingular might have a stronger complaint.

Corporations don’t screw around.

When I call Awai and share this thought, he says he’ll touch base with the Bothell police. The Cingular office where Debutts works sits within the city's borders.

Next: "I know it's just gonna be ugly."

Sean Robinson 253-597-8486
sean.robinson@thenewstribune.com

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