The Man with the Stolen Name
They know what he did—including that he voted for Donald Trump. They just don’t know who he is.
The pictures portray one man. In the first, a line is shaved into his hair and a small gold hoop juts out of the left ear. That was in style on June 24, 1997, the date of the photo. Brown eyes stare forward. Taken seven and 16 years later, the other photos show him with a receding hairline and fuller jowls.
"Do you know this individual?" the State Department asks.
The man is described as 5-feet-8, in his early to mid 40s. He is believed to have arrived in South Florida in the late 1990s. He has a Caribbean accent and could be from Antigua, Barbuda or Jamaica. He "would have disappeared from a community around June of 1997," the State Department said. He might go by "Chris" or "Richie."
A marshal asked if he had voted in 2016. He said he had—for Donald Trump.
It reads like a BOLO advisory—"Be On the Lookout"—for a fugitive. But the man is not missing. He was in the custody of US marshals, awaiting sentencing on Tuesday.
For more than two decades, this mystery man, who refuses to disclose his true identity, lived as someone else. He raised a family in suburban Maryland while passing himself off as a soldier, duping state motor vehicle administrations, passport officials and even the same US Attorney's Office now looking to imprison him.
Convicted in mid-November, he faces up to ten years in prison for passport fraud, five years for Social Security fraud, five years each for two counts of voter fraud and a mandatory two-year consecutive sentence for aggravated identity theft.
His attorneys say their client is an immigrant who just wanted to live in the United States. They plan to appeal.
"The offenses for which he was convicted arose from his efforts to live within the confines of our legal society," federal assistant public defenders Laura Abelson and David Walsh-Little said in a statement.
The name he assumed—Cheyenne Moody Davis—was stolen from a US citizen born in the Virgin Islands.
The theft occurred at about the same time the real Davis began a prison term in Antigua for armed robbery and escape.
The incarcerated, it turns out, are easy marks for identity thieves and, as that crime grows—up 16 percent according to an annual study released last year—more prisoner Social Security numbers and names are being stolen for tax fraud and other purposes. With limited or no access to computers, credit checks or social media, prisoners may not discover that their identities have been stolen until after they are released.
Identity protection is widely available to most citizens, but prisoner advocates and identity fraud experts say little is being done to safeguard prisoners. One proposed solution is for prisoners to have the ability to freeze their credit when they begin their sentences. Without such protections, it's unlikely many prisoners are even thinking that they could become victims of identity theft.
"With a lot of prisoners I suspect that it's more about how we get through the day," said Adam K. Levin, former director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs and a founder of identity protection and consumer advocacy companies CyberScout and Credit.com. "It's not like you would expect a lot of people who are in prison to be checking their credit reports."
More than 24,000 fraudulent tax returns were filed in 2015 using prisoner Social Security numbers, according to the most recent statistics available from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. The refunds sought on the returns added up to more than $1.3 billion, an increase of $300 million since 2012. And those numbers are incomplete. As of May, the IRS was still investigating more than 32,000 more fraudulent returns filed by prisoners in 2015.
Prisoners perpetrate some of this fraud, selling their personal information to identity theft rings on the outside for a share of the spoils, but recent cases also show that inmates often don't know their identities were stolen.
In January, a Crown Point, Indiana, man was sentenced to 61 months in prison and ordered to pay more than $550,000 after prosecutors say he filed false tax returns using the identities of inmates without their knowledge.
In February, a Woodbury, Tennessee, former inmate was sentenced to 57 months for stealing the identities of fellow inmates and dead relatives to file false income tax returns. He received $56,000 in illegal refund checks that he deposited with forged signatures after his parole.
In March, a Newport News, Virginia, woman was sentenced to 54 months in prison after she was convicted of doctoring income tax filings for others from 2013 to 2016. Federal prosecutors said she conjured up imaginary dependents for clients using the identities of prisoners incarcerated with her husband.
Identity thieves typically favor the credentials of children and dead people because there is less risk of being detected, said Eva Velasquez, president of the nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center. Prisoners present the same opportunity.
"Here’s someone who's going to be off the map for five or seven years," Velasquez said.
It took nine years—1997 to 2006—before federal authorities detected that Cheyenne Davis had become a victim of identity theft. If it wasn’t for a routine visit to the US consulate that Davis was given during his prison stint in Antigua it might have gone undetected longer. Looking up Davis's file, consulate officials noticed that a passport had been issued in his name, triggering a years-long investigation that targeted a thief who didn't run or hide but stubbornly stuck to his story.
The thief's refusal to give up his alias sets his case apart, and has consumed countless man-hours of government effort.
The first time the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service confronted the man they call John Doe in 2013, he told the agents he had served in the military from 2005 to 2008 and had recently been discharged from the US Army Reserves.
When agents asked for proof, he said he had lost his Department of Defense ID card.
When they asked where he had obtained his GED, he couldn’t remember.
When they asked him to identify an older man in a photo they showed him, he didn't know that it was the real Davis's father.
But the man maintained he could still prove who he was. He promised to get back to the agents.
When the federal agents eventually came back in December of 2015, he told them his military yearbooks and documents had been destroyed. The agents had checked into his claims that he had been a military police officer with the 200th Military Police Command at Fort Meade and found no trace of him in the Army, at all.
Did you serve in the military? the agents asked.
He refused to answer.
Just how deep the lies went became apparent on February 8, 2017, when federal agents arrived at a complex of squat brown and black apartment blocks in Columbia, Maryland, with a search warrant.
An Army sticker affixed to the door greeted agents when they walked up to Apartment 301. Inside, they found handcuffs, 16 assorted technical knives and pepper spray. A blue Anne Arundel County police patch lay on the bedroom floor, a blue police response light sat in a black bag under a table in the living room and 9mm ammunition was stocked in a hall closet. Several military uniforms were found, including shirts labeled "military police."
Agents also found tax forms and pay stubs under various names.
Who are you? investigators asked, placing him under arrest.
"Cheyenne Davis," the man insisted.
He cloaked himself in patriotism, wearing Army gear, and plastered a "Wounded Warrior" sticker on the trunk of his 2006 silver Mitsubishi Eclipse.
As marshals drove him to the US District Courthouse in Baltimore that morning, he began excoriating President Trump's aggressive deportation of undocumented immigrants. A marshal asked if he had voted in 2016. He said he had—for Donald Trump.
Before they could establish the fraud, Diplomatic Security Service agents first had to prove that the imprisoned Cheyenne Moody Davis was the real Cheyenne Moody Davis. They interviewed Davis at Her Majesty’s Prison in Antigua and found him credible. They flew to St. Thomas and showed his mother a photo array that included the imposter and her son. They showed the same array to Davis’s father in Lauderhill, Florida. Both parents identified the incarcerated Davis as their son.
At each step, authorities confronted the mystery man with stronger evidence, hoping he would give up the long con. He insisted he was just a normal working man raising a family in Maryland.
"What is undisputed in this case is that our client has lived in the continental United States since 1997, with no criminal record and a consistent history of working and paying taxes," his lawyers said.
Upon the stolen name, Davis's impersonator had constructed an identity that was partly fact and partly fiction. He got married, worked at Walmart and Weis supermarkets and rose to the position of assistant manager. He was sued for divorce proceedings in 2010, but the case was dismissed on a technicality. (They remain married.) He sued another woman for custody of a child in 2014.
The man he was existed alongside the man he apparently wanted to be. He cloaked himself in patriotism, wearing Army gear, and plastered a "Wounded Warrior" sticker on the trunk of his 2006 silver Mitsubishi Eclipse.
He posted a selfie on Facebook wearing an Army cap with three chevrons—the rank of sergeant—and a fleece jacket with name plates that said "DAVIS" and "US ARMY." His 80-some online friends included medical professionals, fitness trainers and secretaries. They awarded him "likes" for photos that showed him as a loving husband or boyfriend, and for images that made him out to be a veteran. "Glad to be your friend," one wrote.
Over the years, a range of county, state and federal agencies had been taken in, issuing driver’s licenses and a Social Security card, registering him to vote and even calling him as a witness in federal court.
It was, naturally, a fraud case. In November 2016, he raised his hand and was sworn in as Cheyenne Moody Davis, witness for the prosecution. Working as a grocery store manager, he had called the police on a customer whose credit cards kept getting declined. When the prosecution asked him if the customer had wronged the store by trying to commit fraud, he responded: "Yes." Prosecutors won a conviction. Three months later, the mystery man was himself arrested.
His success as a prosecution witness was not the only time the imposter had demonstrated his comfort with the legal system. Arrested three times for alleged crimes that included domestic assault, he successfully requested an expungement of all the charges from his criminal record when none resulted in convictions.
His luck seemed to run out in the US district courtroom of Judge A. David Copperthite. When the imposter’s public defender argued that his client should be released with an electronic bracelet to the custody of his wife, the judge was unpersuaded. If the defendant failed to show up in court, the judge said, he wouldn't know how to write up a bench warrant.
"I do not even know what name I would use," the judge said.
A version of this article was originally published by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the US criminal justice system. Sign up for the newsletter, or follow the Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.