Monday, March 12
Kenneth Brown Debutts, who stole a mans identity and suckered my best friend, doesnt know Im coming to visit.
I didnt call ahead. No big deal; hes 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 Winships 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 couldnt get arrested. It plastered his name and face all over the Internet. Im pretty sure he saw it. When I see him, Ill ask.
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 Dorleys Vegas apartment. In fall 2005, Debutts vanished from Vegas, fleeing a pair of arrest warrants.
He carried a fake drivers license with Dorleys 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. Thats when he met my friend Dave Debutts answered a roommate-wanted ad and moved into Daves condo.
A few months later, when Dave spotted a string of suspicious credit card bills for stuff he didnt 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 hed 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 guys 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 didnt resist when two police officers greeted him.
I am glad this is over, he said.
Im 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. Thats 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.
Youre the last person I wanted to see, he says, and laughs. I cant help laughing back.
He sees my notebook and asks if Im writing another article. I say yeah, but I dont start taking notes just yet. It feels a little rude.
I ask him how its going inside. He says hes 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.
Hes 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.
Its 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. Thats why I came. This is his chance to explain, to tell me why he stole Dorleys 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. Thats why.
For the longest time, he says, he carried the Nevada drivers license with Michael Dorleys name the license he obtained under false pretenses. He says he doesnt have it anymore.
I destroyed it, he says. I didnt want anything to do with it. Thats the truth.
He tells me John Awai, the Renton cop who arrested him, can confirm what he says.
Its at least partially true the story of the destroyed license appears in the charging papers. I tell him so. Debutts nods vigorously.
You dont 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. Hes not eager to meet them again.
He goes to his arraignment tomorrow (March 13). Hell meet his attorney for the first time a public defender. He doesnt know how that will go, how hell plead. He doesnt know whether the state of Nevada will seek extradition on their charges. If they do, they do.
Thats what I have to deal with as a man, he says. I have to do my time, so Im 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 its 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 doesnt 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 wasnt running from anything. He was just bored.
I wanted to try Vegas, he says, and smiles again. Its not a good town for a person like me.
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.
Its 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 wasnt using Dorleys name to buy houses.
I just used the ID to get a job, he says. It was stupid, yes it still wasnt right.
Another good line just the right touch of contrition. Im 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 Dorleys name.
The figures I used came from court documents Dorley pegged his debts at $50,000, but Debutts thinks its lower.
I cant give a ballpark, but I know it wasnt $50,000, he says.
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 thats how it really was, but I dont 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, Hes 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 mans 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.
Hes right. I tell him thats 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 hes in way too deep, and he doesnt want those people to find him.
Im 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.
Debutts has a plan: Do his time, get out of jail, put himself in rehab. He figures hell 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 didnt like.
It made it look like I was a murderer, he says. Im not a threatening person. Im 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. Its 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 couldnt get any details from company officials, but my story said Debutts had access to customer information. So what was the deal?
Debutts says hes 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 customers 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 hed harvested information from Cingular customers, wouldnt he have posed as someone else?
The record doesnt show it. As Debutts talks, I ponder the point.
After Utah, everything went downhill, he says distantly.
Hes back on the phony drivers license again, the one with Michael Dorleys 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 Dorleys name. How did that square with all this talk of starting over?
I had to work, because if I didnt, I would be homeless, he says. I didnt have any ID with my name on it.
He says something that never occurred to me: After he shed his own identity, he didnt realize how hard it would be to get it back. He was stuck as Michael Dorley.
I didnt want to be him anymore, he says. I wanted to be myself.
Behind me, a guard steps into the room. Visiting hours are over. Ive been talking to Debutts for almost an hour. We have to hurry.
If Dave wants to come down and talk hes more than welcome to, Debutts says. I say Ill pass on the message.
Were done. The metal door opens. The guard looks at Debutts, who looks at me.
Im not a bad guy, he says.
Driving back from Seattle, I call Dave. My visit to the jail was a spur-of-the-moment thing. He didnt 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 didnt ask. Id forgotten about that promise.
Did he try to buy anything on Daves credit after the eviction? Dave saw a credit report showing someone tried to buy a computer using his name.
Again, I say I didnt 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 didnt. He disappeared completely.
I say I didnt 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 well talk later.
Other unasked questions tumble through my head, including one I really should have remembered: Why didnt Debutts leave the state after Dave and I exposed him? Surely that would have been the smart play.
Maybe he just wasnt 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 dont 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 its like
To be hated
To be fated
To telling only lies.
Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486