Special Reports

Secret Service agent confronts Schirmaier about his true identity

Kirk Arthur had never seen anything like the case of Heinz Schirmaier.

Arthur, a special agent in the Secret Service's Seattle office, usually spends his days tracking down the modern version of an identify thief.

That version usually involves a crook who steals checks or pre-approved credit card applications from mailboxes, uses computer programs to alter the documents and runs up expensive bills in someone else's name.

But "Heinzy," as Schirmaier became known among the Seattle agents, was different.

In the 22 years Schirmaier had lived as Chuck Swanson, there was no sign he ever meant to steal money from the real W. Charles Swanson, the Utah man whose name he'd commandeered to escape his own failed life.

Heinz Schirmaier just wanted to be "Chuck Swanson."

His case was different in another aspect, too.

It was all but solved.

By the time the file landed on Arthur's desk in 2000, a team of lawyers and detectives working for the real Chuck Swanson had already found the impostor.

All that remained for Arthur was to interview Schirmaier and write a report for the federal prosecutors who would seek an indictment.

"It was a done deal," Arthur recalled.

Arthur wound up talking to Schirmaier three times before finally arresting him, without a struggle, at Schirmaier's apartment in Federal Way.

The first was in March 2000 at Kent Bowl, the bowling alley where Schirmaier, then 60, was a night-shift cook.

Arthur and another agent showed up in the evening and spoke with Schirmaier in the workshop behind the pin rack. It was the only semi-private place the agents could find to confront him.

With pins crashing in the background, Arthur read the cook his Miranda rights and went straight to the question: What's your name?

He didn't flinch.

"My name is Heinz Schirmaier."

He hadn't been that man for more than two decades. Since 1978, he'd lived as Chuck Swanson, marrying and divorcing twice, starting a couple of businesses and leaving a trail of bad debts.

His previous life - another three failed marriages, six children, a criminal charge and a brief career as a motorcycle daredevil - must have seemed like a figment of his imagination.

In an instant, it all came back.

With an air of resignation, Schirmaier answered the Secret Service agent's questions.

He was a German national.

He'd come to Chicago in the late 1950s.

He'd met a guy named Walter Charles Swanson in a Denver bar in 1978. The guy gave him his wallet. Or maybe Schirmaier had found it. He couldn't remember anymore.

Once he had the new name the wallet provided, he went to Portland and worked as a salesman. He was transferred to the Tri-Cities, where he got married. He and his wife moved to Enumclaw and ran a tavern.

Now he's got a business on the side, a hot dog stand on wheels that he takes to farmers markets and fairs - The Wurst Meal on a Bun.

Schirmaier attributed his long-running deception to wanting to avoid discrimination because of his intensely German-sounding name.

Arthur finished the interview. But he wasn't through with Schirmaier.

The agent quizzed him a few weeks later at the Kent Police Department. Schirmaier talked again about his fraudulent life as Chuck Swanson, though he changed a few details.

This time he said he'd found Swanson's driver's license in a liquor store in Denver in 1978. And he said he took the new name to escape a bad marriage.

Before wrapping up the interview, Arthur asked Schirmaier to empty his wallet. The agent confiscated every piece of identification with the name Walter Charles Swanson.

Arthur conducted his final interview with Schirmaier in November 2000. This time he got a written statement from Schirmaier, who confessed to stealing Swanson's name and recounted his years of deception.

Schirmaier left the interview a free man, but not for long. Arthur wrapped up his investigation and handed the case over to prosecutors.

The case file bounced around from one prosecutor to another, frustrating the real Chuck Swanson no end. He had gone to the trouble of finding his impostor, he grumbled, but government bureaucracy made him wait for a conclusion.

Finally, on June 7, 2001, a grand jury indicted Heinz Schirmaier on three counts relating to identity fraud.

On June 11, Arthur went to Schirmaier's Federal Way apartment and arrested him.

The life of lies was officially over.

Jason Hagey: 253-941-9634


The background

In 1978, faced with a coming court date and mounting child support, Heinz Schirmaier somehow obtained a driver's license and Social Security number for 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. After traveling the country working in the film business, Swanson eventually came home to Utah to run the charitable foundation named for his father.

By the late 1990s, he had the resources - and the determination - to find the stranger who was using his name and ruining his credit.

Swanson acted after being sued for an unpaid dentist's bill that wasn't his. A private detective tracked Schirmaier to the Kent Bowl.

A serial in seven parts

Sunday: Second chance for a daredevil.

Monday: Nearly exposed as a fake.

Tuesday: The real Chuck Swanson.

Wednesday: Fresh start, same old failure.

Thursday: Tracking down an impostor.

Today: 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.