An interview with Kenneth Debutts

April 13, 2007 

Monday, March 12

Kenneth Brown Debutts, who stole a man’s identity and suckered my best friend, doesn’t know I’m coming to visit.

I didn’t call ahead. No big deal; he’s not going anywhere. Debutts, 38, has been sitting in the King County Jail since Feb. 27. A pair of Renton cops arrested him at a housewares store in Lynnwood. They found him working under a pilfered name, selling skillets and towels.

Debutts had been running for four months, ever since he was unmasked as a fraud and kicked out of my friend Dave Winship’s condo in Renton. That was Nov. 12 - the day I met Debutts, and the last time I saw him. He left in a hurry. Dave and I had no clue where he went after that.

I wrote a story for The News Tribune about what happened. It fingered Debutts as a con artist who couldn’t get arrested. It plastered his name and face all over the Internet. I’m pretty sure he saw it. When I see him, I’ll ask.

Flashback

Debutts is charged with two counts of identity theft. The day police caught him, he was still posing as Michael Dorley, his ex-roommate from Las Vegas. The charade lasted more than a year. At least three Washington businesses fell for it.

Flashback: In spring 2005, Debutts moved into Michael Dorley’s Vegas apartment. In fall 2005, Debutts vanished from Vegas, fleeing a pair of arrest warrants.

He carried a fake driver’s license with Dorley’s name and left a heap of credit-card debt that forced Dorley into bankruptcy, according to court documents from Washington and Nevada.

Early 2006: Debutts surfaced in Washington and got a phone technician job with Cingular Wireless. That’s when he met my friend Dave – Debutts answered a roommate-wanted ad and moved into Dave’s condo.

A few months later, when Dave spotted a string of suspicious credit card bills for stuff he didn’t buy, he asked me for help. We uncovered a creepy trail of court records that led back to Vegas. Debutts was a fugitive.

We alerted cops and victims in two states. Despite two active arrest warrants for Debutts, the law enforcement response was a bureaucratic snarl that showed no sign of unraveling.

Stymied, Dave and I took the initiative. We confronted Debutts at the condo in mid-November and watched his false face peel away. We told him he had to go, and he went.

For the next few days, in scattered phone calls and e-mails to Dave and I, Debutts admitted what he’d done and tried to apologize. He also said he wanted to tell his side of the story, but I never got to hear it. The messages stopped. He was gone.

The News Tribune story was published in early February. Debutts was arrested a few weeks after it appeared. A suspicious store manager in Lynnwood fed the weird new guy’s name to an internet search engine, found a story and pictures out of Tacoma, and called the Renton cops.

According to the arrest report, Debutts didn’t resist when two police officers greeted him.

“I am glad this is over,” he said.

The jail

I’m visiting on a guess. No plan, no idea how Debutts will react. He could refuse to talk to me. He could refuse to talk and flip me off. That’s my prediction at the moment.

Have to see him, though – have to give the guy a chance to tell his side.

The county jail looks like a jail: chipped paint that might be green, big metal door, speaker next to the jamb. Security officer buzzes me in.

Walk through metal detector. Guard barely looks at me. Go into visiting section.

Battered little room. Scuzzy white linoleum, musty smell. Plastic chairs, 14 gray visiting stalls. Double-paned windows and black phone receivers hanging from the walls. A sign says one phone is out of order.

Woman a few stalls away speaks in quiet Spanish to an inmate in red who listens intently. Both of them lean back and smile.

I wait, looking through the scuffed window at another metal door. A distant voice shouts a name – sounds like “Debutts!” A low clang, then a pause, and the door opens.

Here he comes, wearing a red jump suit. He sees me. First surprise, then a broad, sheepish smile.

Burly, thick man. Short dark hair, close cropped, and a good start on a goatee.

“Dom Deluise with a Bob Hope nose,” Dave said months ago, the first time I asked for a description of Debutts. Dave has a good eye.

Debutts sits down and picks up the phone, his eyes dancing.

“You’re the last person I wanted to see,” he says, and laughs. I can’t help laughing back.

He sees my notebook and asks if I’m writing another article. I say yeah, but I don’t start taking notes just yet. It feels a little rude.

Reasons

I ask him how it’s going inside. He says he’s already been placed on minimum security in the jail. He works in the kitchen, gets up at 3:45 a.m., scrubs the pots and pans, earns 50 cents a day.

He’s getting himself together in here, he says – getting the help and counseling he needs. He says he had to hit bottom before he could start fixing himself.

“It’s all I can do,” he says.

He was mad at me at first for what I wrote, he says, but not anymore. It makes more sense to him now.

I say I never got to hear his side of the story. That’s why I came. This is his chance to explain, to tell me why he stole Dorley’s identity, why he deceived Dave.

Debutts shrugs helplessly.

“What can I say? I screwed them over,” he says. “It was terrible.”

Addictions, he says. Gambling, lying, covering up, not wanting to deal with it. That’s why.

For the longest time, he says, he carried the Nevada driver’s license with Michael Dorley’s name – the license he obtained under false pretenses. He says he doesn’t have it anymore.

“I destroyed it,” he says. “I didn’t want anything to do with it. That’s the truth.”

He tells me John Awai, the Renton cop who arrested him, can confirm what he says.

It’s at least partially true – the story of the destroyed license appears in the charging papers. I tell him so. Debutts nods vigorously.

“You don’t want to keep running, always looking behind you,” he says.

He tells me something new. No way for me to verify it, and other sources have told me his penchant for wild stories, but Debutts says when he left Vegas, he owed $100,000 to people who were looking for him. He’s not eager to meet them again.

Loose ends

He goes to his arraignment tomorrow (March 13). He’ll meet his attorney for the first time – a public defender. He doesn’t know how that will go, how he’ll plead. He doesn’t know whether the state of Nevada will seek extradition on their charges. If they do, they do.

“That’s what I have to deal with as a man,” he says. “I have to do my time, so I’m gonna do my time.”

(Flash forward: He pleaded not guilty. Nevada did ask for extradition. Debutts signed a waiver, agreeing not to fight it. I learned all this later.)

Good line, that bit about dealing with it as a man. This guy has some charm, and it’s getting to me. Hard to dislike him, even with all I know.

I shift toward loose ends that have bugged me for months. Is he a veteran? That was one of his claims.

Yes, he says, suddenly serious.

Which branch of the service?

“U.S. Army,” he says.

And was he in Desert Storm? Did he go to Iraq? That was one of the stories I heard.

“Nah,” he says, smiling. “I was just in Kuwait.”

Had he been married? That was another story I heard frequently – the people I spoke to recalled Debutts mentioning an ex-wife and kids. The versions varied depending on his plays for sympathy.

Yes, he says – he was married. Years ago. Yes, he had kids. No, he doesn’t see them or his ex. It was a long time ago. A brief marriage he says, before he joined the Army.

The public records on Debutts tell me he spent several years in Utah before going to Vegas, so I ask about that. Why did he leave Utah?

Debutts shrugs. He says he wasn’t running from anything. He was just bored.

“I wanted to try Vegas,” he says, and smiles again. “It’s not a good town for a person like me.”

Past and present

This conversation is not linear – my fault for walking in without a plan. The distant past and recent events jumble together. The mention of Vegas brings Debutts back to his arrest.

“It’s just a wake-up call for me,” he says. “ ‘Ken, you need to get your life back.’ “

He mentions Dave. He wants me to send a message: “Tell him I am truly sorry.”

From that thought, he jumps to another. He wants me to know he always worked, even under the false name – he was no slacker. At his last job, the one he had before his arrest, he was doing well.

“I worked my butt off,” he says.

I tell him one of my co-workers noticed the same thing: Even though Debutts was using a stolen name, he always had jobs.

Debutts likes the working-man image. He says he wasn’t using Dorley’s name to buy houses.

“I just used the ID to get a job,” he says. “It was stupid, yes – it still wasn’t right.”

Another good line – just the right touch of contrition. I’m slipping into reverie again, caught up in his patter.

With an effort, I ask him about the story I wrote. Were there any errors? Any mistakes? Now is the time to correct them, if he wants to.

Debutts leans back and thinks a little. After a pause, he says the story overstated the amount of debt he created in Michael Dorley’s name.

The figures I used came from court documents – Dorley pegged his debts at $50,000, but Debutts thinks it’s lower.

“I can’t give a ballpark, but I know it wasn’t $50,000,” he says.

Seeing himself

The opening is irresistible – I have to ask him when he saw the story. Dave and I kicked him out of the apartment back in November, but three months passed before the tale was published.

He read every word, of course, spotting it online. He says he was just surfing around. I wonder if that’s how it really was, but I don’t press him.

He says he saw a link to a story, clicked it, saw his picture and cursed my name.

“My first reaction – I was mad,” he says. “I was going, ‘He’s biased.’ ”

He says he read another section of the story where I acknowledged the bias. That made a difference.

“You were helping your best friend,” he says. “I understand that.”

Is there anything else? Other errors? He leans back again and shakes his head.

And how had it started? From Utah to Vegas, then stealing another man’s name? He knows his legal record better than I do, and he correctly points out that it shows nothing like this before his arrival in Vegas.

He’s right. I tell him that’s what I found when I checked his background. So how does he get here?

It starts with drinking at the clubs, he says. Then gambling. I ask him his game of choice. Blackjack, he says, grinning. He remembers how it all went down. Hitting the tables, one thing leads to another, and he starts borrowing money from the wrong people, and he’s in way too deep, and he doesn’t want those people to find him.

“I’m gonna eventually have to pay that money back to them,” he says.

The thought brings him back to the present, back to thoughts of redemption, or so it seems.

“You have to hit rock-bottom before you can get rid of the guilt,” he says.

Looking ahead

Debutts has a plan: Do his time, get out of jail, put himself in rehab. He figures he’ll be on probation. He goes to Vegas if he has to, serves time there, starts repaying Michael Dorley and Dave. They take precedence over everything else, he says.

“Make sure you say that,” he says. I write it down.

Abruptly, he remembers something about the story – something he didn’t like.

“It made it look like I was a murderer,” he says. “I’m not a threatening person. I’m not a violent person.”

I say I know that – he had no violence in his record – but Dave was still scared all the same.

We drift again. My reporter hat falls off, and we talk about Dave, cackling over shared knowledge, catching up on news. It’s a strange sensation. This guy deceived my friend, stole from him, but he lived with him, too. He knows a lot of inside jokes.

I shake it off, and ask Debutts about the job he held at Cingular Wireless until we evicted him.

After Cingular learned Debutts was working under a false name, they fired him – I couldn’t get any details from company officials, but my story said Debutts had access to customer information. So what was the deal?

Debutts says he’s glad I brought it up.

“I never used any of that information,” he says. “I took my job seriously. I would never – I never took advantage of that.”

At Cingular, he says he worked in Advanced Network Services. As the story said, he helped people fix their screwed-up phones, and yeah, that did mean getting the customer’s account information.

“I had access to it, but I never used it,” he insists.

Hearing him say it, I know I have no evidence to suggest otherwise. Even after he got fired, Debutts continued to pose as Michael Dorley. If he’d harvested information from Cingular customers, wouldn’t he have posed as someone else?

The record doesn’t show it. As Debutts talks, I ponder the point.

“After Utah, everything went downhill,” he says distantly.

“I wanted to be myself”

He’s back on the phony driver’s license again, the one with Michael Dorley’s name. Debutts tells me he cut it to pieces. He mimes the motion, shaping his fingers into scissors.

I have to remind myself to get tough. When Debutts was arrested, he was still using Dorley’s name. How did that square with all this talk of starting over?

“I had to work, because if I didn’t, I would be homeless,” he says. “I didn’t have any ID with my name on it.”

He says something that never occurred to me: After he shed his own identity, he didn’t realize how hard it would be to get it back. He was stuck as Michael Dorley.

“I didn’t want to be him anymore,” he says. “I wanted to be myself.”

Behind me, a guard steps into the room. Visiting hours are over. I’ve been talking to Debutts for almost an hour. We have to hurry.

“If Dave wants to come down and talk he’s more than welcome to,” Debutts says. I say I’ll pass on the message.

We’re done. The metal door opens. The guard looks at Debutts, who looks at me.

“I’m not a bad guy,” he says.

The real world

Driving back from Seattle, I call Dave. My visit to the jail was a spur-of-the-moment thing. He didn’t know about it.

I say I have a message: Dave can come to the jail and talk to Debutts any time.

“Oh really,” Dave says. “So you interviewed him.”

Dave has a few questions. Did Debutts really go to counseling, as he promised Dave he would long months ago?

I say I didn’t ask. I’d forgotten about that promise.

Did he try to buy anything on Dave’s credit after the eviction? Dave saw a credit report showing someone tried to buy a computer using his name.

Again, I say I didn’t think of that question.

What about his behavior after the eviction? Dave remembers Debutts returning briefly, saying he would repay his debts, promising to stay in touch with Dave. He didn’t. He disappeared completely.

I say I didn’t ask about that, either.

“That was the most dishonest thing,” Dave says. “That was the thing that made me feel like I was just another pigeon.”

Dave has work to do – he says we’ll talk later.

Other unasked questions tumble through my head, including one I really should have remembered: Why didn’t Debutts leave the state after Dave and I exposed him? Surely that would have been the smart play.

Maybe he just wasn’t that smart. Maybe he never had a plan. Maybe he was just hanging on.

Alone with my thoughts, I punch the preset buttons on the car radio, looking for some music to fill the time.

Song I don’t know…click. Commercial…click. Chattering talk-show host…click.

Something familiar: an oldie by The Who. The lyrics smack like cold water.

No one knows what it’s like
To be hated
To be fated
To telling only lies.

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486

sean.robinson@thenewstribune.com

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