Special Reports

A case of identity – FAQ

Details, details – a few of them didn’t make it into the story of Kenneth Debutts and his victims. Some of those questions are answered here. If more arise, I’ll try to answer them through this FAQ.

– SR

Q: How do we know this story is accurate? You're writing about a friend of yours – aren't you biased?

A: Yes. Shortly after the confrontation with Debutts, I met with editors and we discussed it.

First and foremost, I couldn't be objective. I was writing about my friend, and my own unlooked-for involvement in a strange situation.

That's not the way things normally get done at a newspaper. The editors needed certainty – some independent fact-checking to make sure this story wasn't a fantasy.

Collectively, executive editor David Zeeck, managing editor Karen Peterson, and my boss, Randy McCarthy, leader of the crime and breaking news team, took several steps:

- All three editors read the entire story closely.

- McCarthy met personally with my friend Dave, and listened to his story.

- The editors asked me to arrange a final interview with Debutts, with another reporter or editor present, where he could offer his side of the story. I tried to do this, using the only e-mail address I had for Debutts, but he did not respond.

- The editors consulted the Poynter Institute, "a school for journalists, future journalists and teachers of journalists" that provides a source for best practices in the industry. They spoke with Bob Steele, an expert in media ethics. Steele advised them to have another reporter fact-check the story.

– Editors assigned my co-worker, Adam Lynn, to interview the key sources in the story.

- Adam, a straight-up reporter, spoke with most of my sources. He interviewed Dave and the real Michael Dorley, sent questions to Chester Clagett in Nevada, spoke to John Awai of the Renton Police Department and Michael Broom of Cingular Wireless. He tried and failed to reach Kim Brown, the first victim of Debutts, who posted the "con artist alert" web site that described her dealings with him.

The sources Adam reached confirmed what I'd found: Debutts had an active arrest warrant in Las Vegas, he'd lived with Michael Dorley, the Renton police were also investigating and the connection to Cingular Wireless was real.

Q: Three victims in the story say Kenneth Debutts gained access to their credit cards and personal identifiers – how did he do this so easily?

A: Trust. He gained their trust. It’s that simple. Each victim – Kim Brown, Michael Dorley and my friend Dave – described the same scenario: Debutts moves in as a roommate, looking and sounding sincere. At times, he’s home alone, and he gets into their personal files without their knowledge.

Q: How did Debutts get a driver’s license with Michael Dorley’s name?

A: They were roommates. Dorley said Debutts could use the computer. The computer was in Dorley’s bedroom. So were all of his personal files, every one clearly labeled, including those that held his Social Security number and birth certificate.

According to the arrest warrant, Debutts obtained the new license by providing a “birth certificate and/or a Social Security card” to the Department of Motor Vehicles in Nevada.

Q: But Debutts didn’t look like Dorley – wouldn’t Nevada licensing officials notice the discrepancy if they checked the photo on the old license?

A: You’d think so. According to Dorley, the agency officials didn’t notice. He said they were “embarrassed” when he filed his original criminal complaint. A crime against an individual became a crime against a state agency.

Q: Are there any other victims in Las Vegas?

A: Yes. As the story indicates, I found a second active arrest warrant for Debutts in Nevada. It was filed in April 2005, before Debutts moved in with Dorley. The charge was theft. The victim was a wireless phone vendor.

I spoke to the co-owner of the company, Vincent Yaldo, who said he filed the report with Las Vegas police. Debutts worked at the company around the time he was living with Kim Brown. The warrant accuses Debutts of removing money, cell phones and other equipment from the business.

Q: So that’s two arrest warrants for Debutts in Las Vegas, and police never arrested him?

A: Right.

Q: Why not?

A: I never got a good answer. It’s tempting to say the cops botched it, and I wouldn’t argue, but here’s some cold reality:

a) Courts issue warrants all the time.

b) They don’t lead to instant arrests.

Warrants are the hairballs in the drain of the legal system. They can linger for months or longer. Want one? Skip a court date on a traffic ticket. It’s that easy.

Police run warrant patrols now and then to catch up on the backlog. Even then, they target violent types. Debutts ranked lower on the food chain. He was wanted for theft and identity fraud. When the first warrant dropped, he moved. When the second arrived, he fled the state.

Q: The story says Nevada didn’t extend the arrest warrant for Debutts to Washington even though they found out where he was living – why didn’t they?

A: I asked the same question of Nevada officials on Jan. 2. Kevin Malone, spokesman for the state Department of Motor Vehicles, gave this thick answer via e-mail:

The DMV warrant has not been formally extended. However, this does not preclude the possibility of us seeking extradition if Mr. Debutts is apprehended. A law enforcement agency that apprehends a suspect will contact every agency which has a warrant for that suspect regardless of what is stated in the warrant. The agency then makes a decision whether to actually seek extradition at that time. This is not a requirement of an agency and, therefore, is not an absolute. It is a common occurrence. In addition, authorities in WA are aware of the Nevada DMV warrant and dialogue with them is open. We will not disclose any further details of this contact.

Q: That's a spokesman talking - who's the boss in Nevada who decides whether to extend arrest warrants?

A: Malone said the decider is Troy Dillard, Compliance Enforcement Administrator for the Nevada DMV.

Note that Dillard represents one agency: the state Department of Motor Vehicles. His decision only applies to the warrant filed by his agency. He has no authority over the other warrant.

Q: Did the Nevada DMV know about the second warrant?

A: Yes. Malone said so.

Q: They knew about it, and they still didn't want to extend their warrant?

A: Right.

Q: The story suggests that Debutts lived in Seattle before moving in with Dave – do you know any more?

A: I tried to track this down, but there weren’t many clues – phone numbers were disconnected, and addresses didn’t pan out. In some respects, I had luck on my side with Dave and Michael Dorley: Dave was a friend, and Dorley left a legal paper trail.

Q: Debutts worked in technical support at Cingular Wireless – did he escape with personal information from Cingular Wireless customers?

A: I asked. Cingular wouldn't say anything.

Q: Your story said Michael Dorley and Kenneth Debutts both lived in New Hampshire. That’s a pretty big coincidence, isn’t it?

A: That bugged me, too. I puzzled over it for a while, and asked Michael Dorley about it. He said it was coincidence, nothing more. In New Hampshire, the two men lived in communities about 20 miles apart – out here, that’s the rough distance between Tacoma and Kent. Dorley said the local connection made him feel more comfortable with his roommate at first, because they could talk about life back home.

Q: Your story mentions Aaron Davis, leader of a veterans group in Utah, who said he would send a copy of Debutts’ discharge papers. Did he?

A: No. Aaron Davis never followed through. He did not respond to multiple calls after our initial conversation.