Special Reports

Swanson: Camera rigger grows into prominent philanthropist

Chuck Swanson was the wrong guy to steal from.

For one thing, he would eventually be rich enough to catch a thief.

Heinz Schirmaier didn't know the danger back in 1978, when he assumed the identity of a stranger named Walter Charles Swanson in a bid to escape the troubles of his own life.

In those days, the real Chuck Swanson was a camera rigger, making commercials for the likes of FosterGrant sunglasses and helping to film Paul Newman's foray into auto racing for brewer Anheuser-Busch.

He was having fun, but he wasn't rich yet. He wasn't prominent, either, though he was the son of a well-known podiatrist and shoe store owner in Ogden, Utah.

But in the 22 years since Swanson lost his wallet, giving Schirmaier the information he needed to begin life as a new man, Swanson became both.

Today, Chuck Swanson is the chairman and CEO of the Dr. W.C. Swanson Family Foundation, the charitable foundation that bears his father's name.

He drives around town in a burnt-orange Hummer H2 sport-utility vehicle and travels frequently to Mongolia and other far flung countries as part of the foundation's work.

His office, three blocks from the house where he grew up at the base of the Wasatch mountains, is filled with plaques honoring him for his work on behalf of children and law enforcement.

The Children's Aid Society recognized him in 1997. The Ogden branch of the NAACP gave him a Peace Maker award in 1998. In 2000, he was named an honorary sheriff.

"He's basically the salt of the earth," says Ogden police Chief Jon Greiner, who as a child bought shoes from Swanson's dad and goes bear hunting in Alaska with the younger Swanson.

A far cry from the other Chuck, who by the time he was exposed had become an alcoholic short-order cook running from his life as Heinz Schirmaier.

The two men would likely have never crossed paths had Swanson not lost his wallet while passing through Denver's Stapleton International Airport in 1978.

Or if Schirmaier hadn't been so desperate to start over.

Or if Swanson had not been willing - and able - to spend more than $30,000 to hire a team of lawyers and private detectives to track down the man who'd stolen his identity.

Walter Charles Swanson was born Jan. 13, 1946, and grew up in blue-collar Ogden, adopted at birth by W.C. "Doc" Swanson, who ran his podiatry practice out of the shoe store he ran from 1926 to 1968.

His adoptive mother, who died when Chuck was 4, was Lorna Wattis Swanson. The Wattises, one of Utah's "first families," founded a construction and mining empire.

Swanson's dad remarried when Chuck was 13, and the family, which now included a step-sister, moved outside of Ogden to the little town of Roy.

Swanson went to Salt Lake City to attend a private Episcopal high school, and, after graduating in 1965, attended the University of Utah. He quit after a year.

The war in Vietnam was escalating, and Swanson enlisted in the Air Force, hoping to keep some control over his fate rather than wait to be drafted.

After he got out of the service in 1970, Swanson enrolled at the Center of the Eye School of Photography, run by a National Geographic photographer in Aspen, Colo.

After that, he worked as a commercial studio photographer and fell into a career in filmmaking. His first television job was as the location manager for a FosterGrant commercial filmed in Aspen.

A few years later, Swanson went to work for Free Wheelin Films, working on TV commercials, sports films and feature-length movies.

This was around the time Heinz Schirmaier was in Denver, making a name for himself with a troupe of stunt men and women called Janet Lee's International Daredevils. Schirmaier's signature act was "The Tunnel of Death," in which he rode a motorcycle through a series of flaming barrels.

Swanson doubts he ever crossed paths with the motorcycle stunt man. He doesn't remember filming any motorcycle races, or meeting anyone named Heinz Schirmaier.

By the late 1970s, Swanson was traveling a lot - filming auto and boat races - and didn't immediately realize he'd lost his wallet.

Once he discovered it missing, he canceled his credit cards and got a new driver's license.

"The usual hassles," he says now.

He didn't know the half of it.

For the next few years, Swanson suffered no lasting consequences from the theft. He went on with his life, moving from Denver to Oregon, back to Denver and eventually to Utah.

He now lives in the Ogden Valley with his wife, Tami, who also works for the foundation. Between them, they have five children - his two sons and her two daughters and a son.

When the first signs of trouble appeared in the early 1980s, Swanson didn't make the connection to the lost wallet.

"Just little credit dunners," he says.

Later he ran into trouble getting a business loan and then a mortgage. By the time his impostor began causing him serious trouble, Swanson had become prominent in his own right, as the head of his father's $60 million foundation.

When his father died in 1990, Swanson moved home and took over the foundation, transforming it from a modest enterprise into a powerful force in the community and throughout the world.

The foundation gave away about $15,000 per year during Doc Swanson's lifetime. The family gathered around the kitchen table and decided how to distribute the money.

The organization grew tremendously after the elder Swanson's death. He had been a shrewd investor and left most of his sizable fortune to the foundation. With Chuck Swanson at the helm, the sum grew even more through the boom times of the 1990s.

Today, the foundation makes about 200 grants per year, totalling about $2 million.

And the foundation found new missions at home and abroad.

Its chief cause now is donating medical equipment and training doctors in Mongolia. It also supplies funding for documentary films. One of them, "A Story of Healing," was Swanson's brainchild and won an Oscar in 1997.

About that time, years of minor annoyances caused by his impersonator started to mushroom.

Jason Hagey: 253-941-9634



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.

A serial in seven parts

Sunday: Second chance for a daredevil.

Monday: Nearly exposed as a fake.

Today: The real Chuck Swanson.

Wednesday: 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 Website at www.tribnet.com/news/projects/id_theft