Special Reports

Real Chuck Swanson moves in on his ID thief

A dentist bill for $286.73.

That's what finally pushed Chuck Swanson over the edge.

For most of two decades, the Utah man had lived with the vague notion that somebody, somewhere had been using his name.

Though he came from a prominent family and always paid his bills, Swanson frequently was told he had bad credit. Creditors even occasionally tracked him down and ordered him to pay debts he knew weren't his.

"I never paid the bills," Swanson said. "I said, 'Those are not mine.'"

"Yes, they are" was the standard reply.

And that usually was the end of it. He refused to pay. And his credit rating suffered.

But something about that bill from an Enumclaw dentist - for removing somebody else's teeth - had him grinding his own.

Rather than wonder or fume, Swanson did something. In December 1996, he hired a team of lawyers and detectives to finally resolve his troubles.

Swanson had tried to do the same thing in the early 1980s, when he first suspected someone might be using his Social Security number.

That lawyer failed, and throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, an unhappy Swanson simply took care of problems when they arose.

"It was just little annoying things for 20 years," he said.

During that time, he learned to be creative.

If he wanted a credit card, for example, he got it from the local bank, rather than from a large national bank. The local bankers knew him, because he did a lot of business with them.

Other times, Swanson went without credit.

"I was forced to pay cash for a lot of things that maybe I would've borrowed for," he said.

Swanson put Seattle attorney Joseph Ahern on the case and learned the dentist bill went back to 1991. Someone claiming to be Chuck Swanson had visited the dentist in Enumclaw once in January and again in February.

Ahern persuaded the dentist's lawyers that his client, the Chuck Swanson who ran a multimillion-dollar foundation in Utah, wasn't the same guy who had his teeth pulled and didn't pay.

It ended up costing Swanson nearly $1,300 - far more than paying the dentist $286.

But the trouble didn't stop there.

In September 1999, Swanson again turned to his Seattle attorney after the IRS claimed he'd failed to report income from Washington state.

He'd won the battle over the dentist bill, but obviously that wasn't enough. If he really wanted to end the decades of frustration and embarrassment, he'd have to find his impostor.

This time, Ahern turned to Robert Stockham, a private detective in Kenmore.

Stockham started by searching court records and turned up an arrest warrant related to a drunken driving charge, issued in King County District Court in 1998, for a W. Charles Swanson.

The paperwork gave him the bit of information that would lift the veil on the fake Swanson.

Stockham knew the DUI arrest meant the fake Swanson had had his fingerprints taken. And if that person had been arrested before he took Swanson's name, those fingerprints should be on file with the FBI - under the impostor's real name.

After running into several dead ends, Stockham finally worked his way to a source in the state government and soon had the name Swanson had sought for so long - Heinz Schirmaier.

Before closing the case, the investigator wanted more background information on his man, so again using court records he found Schirmaier's latest ex-wife, the former Connie Swanson.

The woman, who had since remarried, was shocked to hear that her former husband had a secret life. She gave Stockham some details about their life together and made a few phone calls.

A few days later, Connie called the investigator to report she'd heard through friends that "Chuck" was working at the Kent Bowl.

On March 14, 2000, Stockham called the bowling alley and verified that "Chuck Swanson" was working there as a short-order cook. Though he worked there only a few months, he left a mark.

A heavy drinker, Schirmaier often annoyed waitresses by messing up orders and grew angry when co-workers didn't like his special German dishes.

When he wasn't working, though, the man who'd been married and divorced five times still attracted the ladies. Partial to singing "Peggy Sue" at karaoke bars, he sported a shoulder-to-elbow tattoo of a woman in a bathing suit.

And he still had money problems, despite his boasts to co-workers about how profitable the sausage cart he ran on the side had become.

After 22 years, the name Chuck Swanson was losing its magic for Heinz Schirmaier.

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.

The life Schirmaier abandoned included a 5-year-old daughter who longed for his return, a 9-year-old stepson and three ex-wives. Schirmaier never returned, moving first to Portland and later to the Tri-Cities, where in 1982 he married for the first time under his new name.

The marriage ended a few months later when his wife discovered his true identity. Within a year, Schirmaier married again and the real Chuck Swanson made his first attempt to find the impostor.

After traveling the country working in the film business, the real Chuck 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 finally track down the stranger who was using his name and ruining his credit.

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.

Today: 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.