Special Reports

ID thief moves to South Sound; real Swanson can't get a loan

Heinz Schirmaier's life as Chuck Swanson nearly ended in 1982, when his new wife went digging through a shoe box of his belongings and found an identification card in his real name.

But the close call didn't scare Schirmaier away from his new home in the Tri-Cities, or the idea of marriage.

Frances left town three months into their marriage, heading for Europe, never to return to him. Schirmaier kept on selling electrical cable.

And attracting women.

Less than a year after his divorce from Frances, he'd met Connie, his soon-to-be fifth wife - and the second Mrs. Swanson. The marriage lasted 10 years and never threatened Schirmaier's secret life.

Unlike Frances Swanson, Connie Swanson later said she had no idea Chuck Swanson wasn't who he claimed to be.

She didn't know he was a pioneering identity thief. She certainly never suspected his former life included an arrest warrant that remained on the books in Colorado. Or two children from a first marriage, two more from a second marriage and two others - a daughter and an adopted stepson - from his third marriage.

Connie declined to talk with The News Tribune, saying it "was a bad time in my life."

By the end of their marriage in 1993, she had concluded her husband wasn't trustworthy. She later told a private investigator he was a "huge liar" who lived off women.

In stark contrast to the man who'd lavished gifts upon his fourth wife, Frances, Schirmaier was jobless for three years and relied on her support most of their marriage, Connie told the investigator.

When they first met, he seemed intriguing. He explained his ability to speak fluent German by saying his father had been a diplomat. He said his parents had died in a plane crash when he was 17 or 18.

He said he'd inherited "a lot" of money, but claimed his broker had made bad investments and lost everything. He said he had no family left. He was secretive about his documents.

Together, Chuck and Connie Swanson left the Tri-Cities in 1986 and came to Enumclaw, where they ran the Phoenix Saloon and Eatery. He dabbled in his electrical business.

It was another fresh start for a man with an uncommon ability to remake himself.

But the new name failed him again, and he found himself in more financial trouble.

This time, it started with a combination of alcohol and guns. A fight at the Phoenix Saloon led to a shooting that wounded two brothers who later sued the tavern.

Though Schirmaier wasn't there when the shooting happened, he and his wife lost a $70,000 judgment against the business because a judge found their bartender shouldn't have served the shooter, who was obviously drunk.

One of the suppliers to his electrical business sued him for $7,900, and the State of Washington kept after him for unpaid taxes.

Against this backdrop, Schirmaier's stint as a saloon owner ended, as did his fifth and final marriage. Chuck and Connie Swanson were divorced Jan. 10, 1994.

When the couple split, court records show, the second ex-Mrs. Swanson took household furniture and a 5-year-old Subaru.

Schirmaier got a 25-year-old Chevy and a sausage cart business called The Wurst Meal on a Bun.

He couldn't have known it then, but his life as Chuck Swanson was nearly over.

A trip to the dentist three years earlier would prove his undoing. Schirmaier never paid the $286 bill for removing three teeth, and by 1996 the dentist's collection agency had tracked down the real Chuck Swanson in Utah and sued for the debt.

The real Swanson couldn't believe it. Not only had he never visited any dentists in Washington, he also had a full set of teeth.

How could he bring himself to pay a bill for removing teeth from another man's head?

He couldn't.

And he started having other troubles, too.

The IRS hounded him over unreported income from Washington employers he'd never worked for. Later, the FBI told him he'd failed a criminal background check when he tried to buy an antique rifle.

He was even more infuriated when he tried to refinance his home and was denied a loan, despite being friends with the local bank president.

After years of wondering whether someone was impersonating him - and years of trying to explain that he didn't really have bad credit - Swanson got serious in 1996.

"Talk is cheap until you hire a lawyer," he said.

So he got two.

"Look," he told them, "we've got to do something about this guy. I don't know who he is, or what he's doing, but it's got to end."

Jason Hagey: 253-941-9634


A serial in seven parts

Sunday: Second chance for a daredevil.

Monday: Nearly exposed as a fake.

Tuesday: The real Chuck Swanson.

Today: Fresh start, same old failure.

Thursday: Tracking down an impostor.

Friday: The past trumps the future.

Saturday: Finally meeting face to face.

Previous installments of "A counterfeit life" are on our Web site at www.tribnet.com/news/projects/ id_theft.


In 1978, faced with a coming court date and mounting child support, Heinz Schirmaier somehow obtained the driver's license and Social Security number of W. Charles Swanson and began living his life under the new name. Swanson, a young filmmaker who had lost his wallet at the Denver airport, only slowly came to learn he had an impostor.