A case of identity, part 1

January 4, 2007 

Editor's note: In "A Case of Identity," we allowed staff writer Sean Robinson to write about a situation he also was living, something we normally don't allow. However, we thought this was the best way to explain what often happens in cases of identity theft. To ensure another layer of objectivity, we assigned staff writer Adam Lynn to verify the facts of this story.

This is a story about a friend of mine who just became a national statistic: His identity was stolen.

My friend’s name is Dave Winship. His story is common, his experience typical. He’s seen his finances and credit unravel. He’s watched his money drain away even as he tries to stop the leaks. He’s learned that someone he thought he knew could betray him utterly, and do it with a smile.

I’m the instrument of Dave’s revelation, though I never meant to be. He asked for my help several weeks ago. What started as a small favor led to something I didn’t expect: a trail of deceit winding through three states, and a wanted man on the run.

I’m in the middle of this story, so I won’t pretend I’m not. After you hear it, you may think my friend made some dumb decisions, that he was trusting to a fault.

He’d admit it, but he’s not alone.

Things to remember
Dave lives in Renton. He’s a courier: works out of his car, delivering packages all day long up and down the I-5 corridor. I’ve known him for 26 years, so I hear about his adventures.

In fall 2005, he bought a condo in Renton. The payments were a little steep. In March 2006, he placed a free roommate-wanted ad in one of Seattle’s alternative weeklies.

A guy named Mike answered the ad. Dave snapped him up. At the time, he told me Mike was a techno-wiz who worked for a wireless phone company on King County’s East Side.

I never met Mike face-to-face, but after he moved in I talked to him once or twice on the phone, kind of liked him and wanted to meet him. He was amusingly abrupt, he liked horror movies and Dave complained that he was a neat nut.

Mike teased Dave, which was another plus. Dave cuts his pasta sauce with water chestnuts, prefers microwaved eggs and guzzles tiny bottles of convenience-store ginseng – he needs a lot of teasing.

The arrangement worked out at first, as far as I knew. Then, in late summer, Dave told me it wasn’t going so well.

He got a bill for a mobile phone he didn't buy. At first he suspected computer hackers. Other odd charges popped up on his credit card and bank statements – fees for Internet porn.

Dave suspected Mike and confronted him. Mike denied, confessed, begged forgiveness, coughed up stories of a screwed-up life and promised to pay the money back.

I told Dave to cut Mike loose. Dave said no - the situation was under control.

He said he made Mike promise that along with paying back the money, he’d get some counseling. Supposedly, Mike agreed. I scoffed.

A few weeks later, Dave told me Mike was making progress on the payments, and still paying rent along with it. I let it go, reminding myself to save the story for teasing purposes – then Dave called me in late October.

He knows I’m a reporter, so sometimes he asks me things. Typically, he hounds me to write stories about deceptive stereo ads. Three months ago, he wanted to know if Mike was a criminal.

Thursday, Oct. 26
On the way to work, I chat with Dave. We’re supposed to meet for beers later.

I taunt him about his roommate – how’s that travesty going?
“Well, I think it’s still happening,” Dave says. “I found some more charges on my bank statement.”
“Oh good,” I say, instantly annoyed. “I told you to cut him loose.”
He jams me with details. I half-listen. Everything is vague – typical Dave.

He’s found new bills on the bank account, or the credit cards, or something – he doesn’t know what they're for, but the money’s getting up into the thousands now. Mike admitted some of it, but not all of it.

Dave says he thought all this would stop after he confronted Mike before. Now he’s not so sure.

He shifts back to earlier stories, mingling old with new, confusing as hell: Mike bought mail-order clothes from Lebanon… he just gave Dave a bunch of Asian stuff and said it was a gift… he’s weird… he claims he’s dating a cop, he bought this flat-screen TV with one of Dave’s credit cards, and –

“What?” I say sharply. “A flat-screen?”
“Yeah,” Dave said.
“You’ve got to get rid of this guy,” I say.
“I’ve already changed all my bank accounts. I’ve changed my numbers.”
“You’ve still got to get rid of him. No waiting. Right now.”
“Well, he’s paying rent, and he’s says he gonna pay me back – he’s been paying me back. He’s supposed to give me two thousand next week.”
“No, man – out the door. Kick him out. Screw the money. Keep the flat-screen.”
“I can’t,” Dave says. “It’s busted. He broke it.”
“Brilliant.”

A social car wreck. Hunks of steaming, twisted metal at the intersection of Loser Avenue and Stupid Street, and I can’t stop looking.

“I’m really worried about this,” Dave says. “I don’t know what else is out there.”
“OK,” I say. “Let me check Mike out. Let me see what I can find. Tell me his last name again.”
Dave gives me the name: Dorley. Michael Dorley. Middle name Henry. In his late 30s, Dave thinks.
“OK – I’ll call you back.”

Rough details
Poking around in online public records, I get hits for a Michael Henry Dorley, living in Las Vegas in 2005.
Not proof. Could be a different guy with the same name – it’s a big country.

The rough details are close: Michael Henry Dorley, age 41, born August 1965. Lived in New Hampshire before Vegas. One bare hint of a record shows him on Seattle’s Capitol Hill in early ’06 – just before Mike moved in with Dave.

I look a little more. No criminal convictions – good – handful of liens and judgments – not so good – then a bankruptcy case in Nevada.
Oops. Bad.

The court file looks pretty simple: A basic Chapter 13 bankruptcy petition, filed in federal court in October 2005.
Quick run though the file: Dorley’s debts run to about 70K …mostly credit cards…looks like 14 or 15 of them…also a car, a 2006 Mazda Tribute.

There’s an objection in the court file – a standard form where the debtor can challenge the claim of a creditor.

Dor obj cut.jpg

Looks like a battle over the car: Dorley says he doesn’t owe the money, creditor says he does.
Dorley submits a signed affidavit. He says he’s “a victim of identity fraud by my former roommate, Kenneth Debutts. He had purchased a vehicle in my name and on my credit.”

id fraud cut 2.jpg

What?
Backtrack.
Dorley’s affidavit describes the scenario: In July 2005, he bought the brand-new Mazda from a Vegas dealership.
Says he got a bill the following month… made a payment… got a statement back.
The statement said he’d just made a payment on a 2002 Jeep Wrangler – which made no sense, since he didn’t own a Wrangler.

But a piece of paper at the bank said he did.

Uh-oh.

In the affidavit, Dorley says Debutts somehow got a driver’s license in Dorley's name.

fraudulent.jpg

Then comes the kicker:

“I found out that Mr. Debutts had also stolen my credit card numbers and charged up approximately $50,000. The billings were going to various addresses in Las Vegas, which was why I didn’t realize what was happening until the damage was done. This was the reason I had to file bankruptcy.”

The end of Dorley’s signed statement says he called the Vegas cops and filed a police report. His ex-roommate is missing.

Mike isn’t Mike?
Fake driver’s license. Stolen credit card numbers. Identity fraud. Fifty grand. Bankruptcy.
Police report. Ex-roommate missing.
My soft-touch friend.
Oh, crap.

No, only guessing. Don’t know yet. Not proof. Dorley could be lying, inventing a roommate who spent all his money.

Still, he filed a police report, signed an affidavit...

Who's who
I run a new name through the public record grinder: Kenneth Debutts.
A hit: Kenneth Brown Debutts. Records say he’s 37, born in March 1969. They show him in Vegas in 2005, Utah in 2004 and before that, a decade or more in New Hampshire.
What, they’re both from New Hampshire? Oh, don’t make it easy. Make it hard.
The records show civil liens and judgments on the East Coast, and one misdemeanor conviction in Virginia “in absentia” – traffic violation, my guess.

I call Dave.
“This is Dave, can I help you?”
“Hey – has Mike ever talked about being in Las Vegas?”
“Yeah.”
“What about New Hampshire?”
“Yeah – he said he was from New Hampshire. He was born in Germany.”
“OK - describe him.”
“Oh, kind of, kind of…he’s big. Like Dom DeLuise with a Bob Hope nose. Dark hair, keeps it really short. He’s six-one, six-two, maybe 250. He’s big.”
“He’s fat.”
“Not fat – but he’s – “
“Puffy,” I say.
“Yeah.”

Dave tells me a little more. Weeks earlier, after the first stories of unexpected credit bills, I bugged him to check Mike’s driver’s license.

Didn’t happen, Dave says – Mike had refused, played coy, saying it was too embarrassing, that Dave would know he wasn’t the youthful thirty-something he claimed to be, that he was really over 40.

“So you thought it was what, a vanity thing?” I ask.
“Right.”
Oh, you dope. How could you buy that?

Patterns leave trails in my head. Dave rambles, recalling the day Mike answered the roommate ad. Mike said he'd lost his apartment because a roommate had stolen his debit card and maxed it out. He was all weepy, saying he was homeless and his mother had died, and it was his birthday –
His birthday.

“When was this?” I ask.
“That was in March,” Dave says.
March. March.
“But then,” Dave says, “In August, he was just saying it was his birthday in August, and I thought he’d said before that it was March.”
Two birthdays.
Michael Dorley born in August of ’65, Kenneth Debutts born in March ’69...

“OK,” I say. “Don’t say anything to him. I’ll call you back.”

Guessing games
Of course I could call Mike – Dave has his cell phone number. But what do I say if I reach him?
Hey Kenneth, how was Vegas?

No – even now I can’t be sure, and if I’m wrong, I’m such a jerk.
If I’m right and Mike finds out, he just splits with Dave’s personal identifiers in his back pocket, and nobody will know where to find him.

Call the cops? At this point all Mike has to do is deny everything, and the cops yawn: A couple of roommates, fighting over money. Nothing to see here.

Mike can say yes, he sure is Michael Dorley from New Hampshire, thank you very much, and yeah, he had a bankruptcy, and he moved up here from Nevada to get away from it, to start over, and yeah, a roommate robbed him, and he’d sure like to find that Debutts guy...
No. I need more. I need the real Michael Dorley, if he exists.

The records show phone numbers for Dorley in Vegas. None of them work. I try the best-looking phone number in New Hampshire and leave a message, hoping I’ve reached a relative.

In the bankruptcy file, only a year old, Dorley says he works as a security guard and stagehand in one of the Vegas show palaces. I call the hotel, pinball through a few employees, including a guy who says he supervises security guards, and I get nothing. They’ve never heard of a Michael Dorley.

Brick wall so far – but the bankruptcy file says Michael Dorley filed a report with Las Vegas police about Kenneth Debutts.
Did he? That would confirm Dorley’s affidavit at least, boost his credibility a little.

I call the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. In Sin City, law enforcement titles are sort of funky – it’s the police department, but the guy who runs it, Bill Young, is the sheriff.
A weary-sounding woman in the public information office tells me I have to e-mail a public records request and wait. Another dead end.

Relatives
What about Kenneth Debutts? The records for that name show a list of relatives in New Hampshire.

It’s a risk to call them. They might tip him off. But if he’s done anything like this before, maybe they won’t.

Dave said something about his roommate being married – there were kids, but he and his ex weren’t on speaking terms.
Maybe a lie, maybe not. If not, an unhappy ex might know something.
I scan the list of names in New Hampshire, make a guess and pick up the phone.

Ring. Ring.
A woman answers. I identify myself as a reporter, stumble through an explanation of why I’m calling and mention the name Kenneth Debutts.

Silence, then frost: She wants to know how I found her, how I got this number. I explain that public records often include phone numbers, and they showed me that Kenneth Debutts had relatives in New Hampshire, so I’m trying to find someone who might know him.

Frosty isn’t satisfied. Why am I calling her?
I say I have some information that suggests Kenneth Debutts may be out here in Washington, and may be involved in some questionable activity – but I’m not sure I have the right guy, and I’m looking anywhere I can for information. I apologize for disturbing her.

She says she’ll have to verify who I am. I give her my phone numbers, my e-mail address, the newspaper’s Web site.
“You may or may not hear from me,” she says.
I thank her, apologize again and hang up the phone, feeling a touch of adrenaline.

A few minutes pass, and my phone rings. Another woman this time, with an older-sounding voice. First frost, now ice.

She identifies herself. She does not want her name in the paper. She tells me never to call her family again.

I say I’m sorry, that I had no intention of disrupting her family’s life, and I don’t need to use her name. I say my only concern is helping someone here who may be getting victimized by Kenneth Debutts.

She tells me a few things about Kenneth – unhappy details. I promise her I won’t call her family again, but I need her permission to ask one or two things, just to help me make sure I’ve got the right guy.

She listens. I give her Dave’s description of his roommate: Dom DeLuise with a Bob Hope nose, short dark hair, six-one, two-fifty. Could this be Kenneth?
“That sounds like him,” she says.
I mention another story Dave heard from his roommate, who claimed he was born in Germany.
Yes, she says – that’s true. Kenneth was born in Germany.

I give her a quick description of the situation out here: stolen credit card numbers, possible identity theft. She is not surprised. But this conversation is over.
“You do what you have to do,” she says.
She tells me again to keep her family out of it. I tell her I will, thank her again and we say goodbye.
Oh man.
Not proof – not conclusive, not yet. But close enough for a friend.

I call Dave.
“You’re not getting your money back,” I say.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean you’re not getting your money back. Don’t even hope for it.”
“Why?”
I hesitate, then answer.
“He’s not Michael Dorley. That’s not his name.”
“What?”

I walk Dave through it. I’ll print out some records and show him when we meet for beers.
“So what's this guy’s real name?”
Still not completely sure, I tell him anyway.
“Kenneth Debutts.”
“Debutts?”
I spell it for him. He is amused.

The bar
Bent at the bar, peering at small print in bad light, Dave reads Michael Dorley’s bankruptcy affidavit, and says, “Oh,” then another word – short and explosive.
He leans back, shaking his head.
“How can people do this?”

I tell him I could be wrong. All I’ve found is a weird chain of coincidence – not enough for the cops. I’ve got to figure out if the real Michael Dorley is still in Vegas. I need a photo, a picture – of Dorley, of Debutts, something. I’ll try to get it tomorrow.

Dave wonders what to do – he says he’s transferred all the mail for his credit cards and bank statement to a new address. He thinks some of his mail is missing.

I tell him changing the numbers and the mailing address sounds right, but he may have to close all his accounts, even the main bank account, and be prepared for a lot of painful paperwork.

He’s not happy, but he nods. I tell him I’ll know more tomorrow – and I tell him to say nothing to his roommate.

Next: The real Michael Dorley

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

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