The Great Pretender
Still wet from the shower, Shawn Pelley was popping a Nickelback CD into his stereo when he glanced outside and noticed the three men. Wearing trench coats and jeans, they were clustered under the awning of a Spanish farmacía and looking up at the window of his apartment on Avenue C in New York's East Village. Even though it was pouring rain, none of the three men carried an umbrella.
Pelley first took them to be perverts trying to peep up at him as he got ready to go out clubbing on this particular Friday night. He switched off the lights and wriggled quickly into a pair of black nylon Prada pants and a Helmut Lang V-neck. Twenty-six years old, Pelley was tall and gaunt and usually wore expensive jewelry and a confident smirk. His ease crumbled, however, as he looked more closely at the street below. The corner was dark and deserted, lit only by failing streetlamps. The men on lawn chairs in front of the bodega had closed up shop, and the kids in hoodies had disappeared into the squalid apartment buildings. At 11 o'clock on a rainy night, the three middle-aged white men stood out like pink flamingos in the Central Park Reservoir.
“Oh, my God, I think they're cops,” Pelley hissed to his roommate, Francisco Cornejo, a plump, cross-dressing Mexican who liked to be called Frances. “You're crazy,” Cornejo shot back without looking up from the video game he was playing. Pelley had reason to be worried. On his bed was a black Prada messenger bag full of birth certificates and fraudulent driver's licenses and credit cards Â— many of them in the names of Massachusetts lawyers. The Cape Cod native had spent the past 16 months crisscrossing the country, hijacking the identities of unsuspecting strangers and turning their credit into hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of cash. He switched the television channel to monitor the security camera watching the front door. The men were now directly in front of the building, and through the intercom he could hear them speculating about whether he had gone out or gone to sleep.
“They're definitely cops! Grab everything you can!” Pelley yelled. Together, he and Cornejo gathered cash and jewelry and ran up some stairs and through a sliding door that led out onto a patio. “You better be able to get up on that roof!” Pelley threatened Cornejo as he pulled himself up over a ledge slick with rain. He cringed as he heard the booming blow of a battering ram against the door of his apartment, then the screeching of the alarm he'd set before they left. He reached down to haul up Cornejo. Then, crouching low, the two of them jumped to the roof of the building next door.
Back in the apartment, U.S. marshals and FBI agents busted into the comfortable fourth-floor walkup, finding a $12,000 Panasonic plasma screen TV, an antique chandelier, and a $4,000 embroidered Versace duvet on the bed. While they spent precious moments searching, Pelley and Cornejo were forcing open a door on the rooftop of an adjoining building, and scrambling down the stairwell to Third Street below. Once on the ground, Pelley paused to glance around the corner at the cops milling on the street. Then he and Cornejo darted out of the doorway, hailed a cab, and shot off into the rain.
Pelley was used to leaving everything behind at a moment's notice. Only a few days before, he had walked away from $140,000 at a bank. Months earlier, he'd abandoned a furnished apartment in California. Before that, he'd left a gray Porsche at Miami International Airport to keep the cops from getting too close. “You don't get attached to any of this stuff,” he says. “It's just material stuff. I'm not going to get arrested for a piece of furniture.”
In fact, that's exactly what he was arrested for Â— “material stuff.” Over the course of a year and a half, he had racked up more than half a million dollars in clothes, jewelry, first-class flights, and hotel rooms Â— eluding the FBI and local police in a brazen, stranger-than-fiction, cross-country fraud. Only the determination of one dogged U.S. marshal finally put him behind bars. At rest on a blue-cushioned chair in a visiting room at the Old Colony Correctional Center in West Bridgewater (he has since been transferred to a federal prison out of state), Pelley seems oblivious to the razor wire visible through the windows. A smile plays around his lips as he talks about hundred-thousand-dollar shopping sprees and celebrities he met at boutique hotels. “When I talk about this stuff, I'm not in jail,” he says, his eyes lighting up like a child's.
His face is not what you'd expect of a master con man, as authorities describe him. Thick eyebrows hang over two sad eyes, which project a polite, almost feminine deference that lowers your guard before he says a word. It's easy to see how he gained the confidence of counter clerks and telephone operators. Sitting here in jail, his eyes implore you to like him, even understand him. “Who was I stealing from?” he says. “Banks and insurance companies. Well, I don't think that's so bad. As far as I know, the victims just got a few hours of aggravation.” And it's true that his victims suffered less than some victims of identity theft, whose psyches are shattered and whose credit is completely wiped out when an opportunistic thief takes over their lives. Still, they all had to spend hours, days, even weeks struggling to reclaim their names, all the while suffering the anxiety of not knowing when or where Pelley would strike next Â— and whether their credit would ever be restored.
On some level Pelley knew the pain he was inflicting. But it wasn't enough to keep him from a life of crime. Identity thieves are often drug addicts who steal other people's credit cards to finance their habits. For Pelley, the stealing itself was the high. “Once you get the lifestyle of spending $4,000 on a pair of shoes, it's addicting,” he says. “I don't use drugs, but if there were an equivalent, my drug would be the money, or just seeing if I could get away with it.” He relished the money, but even more he loved the person it allowed him to become Â— someone smart enough to perpetrate daring schemes, generous enough to share with those around him, and savvy enough to outwit the most tenacious pursuers.
Most of us don't steal for the simple reason that when we look in the mirror we don't want to see a thief staring back. But when Shawn Pelley looked in the mirror, he didn't see a thief at all. He saw the dashing, young playboy he had lived his life trying to invent.
When he was 14, Pelley took a bus from his home in South Dennis, on Cape Cod, to Manhattan. After that, he ran away from home whenever he was unhappy Â— which was often. His mother was an alcoholic who drank screwdrivers for breakfast and hurled verbal abuse over the dinner table. His parents separated when he was three, and his mother moved in with his stepfather, a man Pelley describes as the kind of person “who would call you a fucking idiot if you fell and skinned your knee.” The abuse took its toll. In grade school, a teacher observed Pelley bribing other children with candy and money in exchange for promises of friendship.
Growing up, he found other ways to curry his friends' favor. Though his stepfather ran a nursery, there was always cash around the house. (According to a report filed with the court, Pelley said his stepfather “sold marijuana.”) When he went to the mall, he'd grab one of his stepfather's credit cards, forge his name, and treat his friends to clothes, food, and records. He started spending more time in New York, where he dropped Ecstasy and danced into the mornings with rich kids. Though he had girlfriends, he often stayed with men he met in bars, who gave him spending money along with beds to sleep in. “I fooled around a little bit,” he admits, “but I was naive enough to think that the people were with me because they cared about me.”
When he would go home, however, a new line of abuse was waiting for him Â— his parents demanding to know if he was gay. “They would snap at me out of the blue about it,” says Pelley, who considers himself bisexual. “So I left.” Moving in with relatives in western Massachusetts, he continued to lash out at his family. Dropping out of school in ninth grade, he and a friend broke into his stepfather's mother's summer house on the Cape and stole clothes, a VCR, and a book of blank checks. Later, he stole her Citibank card and Mercedes, and spent more than $2,500 at the Holyoke Mall. Pulled over on the way home, he was arrested with the stash and spent eight months in jail. His capture only emboldened him, however. Once freed, he bounced from one foster home to the next, running away each time.
On one of his jaunts, he finally thought he'd found the role model he'd always wanted. Dr. Stephen Grosse was a high-living dentist, a fixture in Philadelphia's gay community, who wore designer suits and drove a Porsche. Taken with Pelley, then 17, Grosse invited him to move in. “I was smitten,” Pelley says. “This was the life I wanted.” For weeks, Grosse lavished attention on Pelley, taking him to parties and political fundraisers. He might have let him stay longer if friends hadn't convinced him to call the police, who told him Pelley was an underage runaway. Grosse handed Pelley $1,000 in cash and sent him packing. The blow had barely worn off when Pelley learned his mother had died. She had spent an afternoon boating and drinking with friends and then flipped her car on the way home. Pelley saw his stepfather for the final time at his mother's funeral. A month later, he was jailed again for forging $4,600 worth of checks.
Soon after his release in December 1994, Pelley, inspired by the glamorous life he'd tasted with Grosse, boarded a Greyhound bound for Los Angeles. He checked in at Covenant House, a Christian home for wayward youth, where he met Francisco “Frances” Cornejo, who had just come north from Mexico, fleeing a family horrified by his urge to wear women's clothing. (In jail awaiting deportation back to Mexico, Cornejo couldn't be reached for comment.) The two lost boys became soulmates, spending hours strolling Venice Beach and shopping at Beverly Center, where they used a duplicate of Pelley's stepfather's credit card he'd brought West.
They also went to jail together. Over and over, Pelley promised to show Cornejo the sights around New York, until one day they used the credit card to book a flight. But Pelley's stepfather had finally put a fraud alert on the account. While the two were lounging in their suite at the Sheraton New York Hotel and Towers, a knock came at the door. Pelley opened it to the blue uniforms of the NYPD. “It was the worst experience,” he says of the arrest. The humiliation of the booking, mug shot, and cold prison cell cut through his new self-image. “When I was doing this, I became a totally different person,” he says. “When the whole thing crumbled, I thought, How did I think I could get away with this?” But his arrest didn't inspire him to become a better person Â— only a better thief.
The first time James Loughman heard the name Shawn Pelley was in a letter from his law school, asking for reimbursement for transcript copying charges. An attorney in the town of Adams, Loughman puzzled over the document, wondering why a Florida inmate had asked for his transcript. He filed the letter away, waiting for the other shoe to drop. It soon did. Credit card bills started rolling in Â— more than $50,000 in all, taken from cash advances at casinos in Vegas and Atlantic City. “God knows how many calls I made to straighten it out,” he says. “I was always a step behind the guy.”
Along with Cornejo, Pelley had spent six months in jail on Rikers Island. Less than two months after his release, he was picked up again in Florida, where he had cashed $15,000 worth of checks stolen from his landlord. Awaiting sentencing, he convinced a fellow inmate, a homeless man named Eric Agostini, to sleep in his bed, while Pelley went free in his place. But he was on the lam again for only a month before he was picked up at a Neiman Marcus in San Francisco for using a fraudulent credit card. Shipped back to Florida, he spent the next two years thinking about what had tripped him up.
Every time he'd been caught, Pelley figured, it was a photo or signature that gave him away. The only way around that was to make them match his own. Browsing in the prison library, he came across a law directory that listed schools and graduation years of attorneys. He picked James Loughman's name at random, and dashed off a letter saying he was a client and wanted to verify Loughman's credentials. A few weeks later, the transcript arrived, listing Loughman's courses, his grade point average, and, in an upper corner, his social security number. After his release on June 21, 1998, Pelley, now 22, sent away for Loughman's Massachusetts birth certificate Â— a public record that was available to anyone for $12. Armed with these documents, he applied for a Florida driver's license with his own photo on it. From there, he hit the Internet, obtaining copies of Loughman's credit reports. He called a credit card company, explaining that he was a lawyer traveling on business. Could they overnight a duplicate of his card to a hotel concierge desk in Miami? Yes, he'd be happy to verify his mother's maiden name. Social security number? Of course. Thank you, have a nice day.
Just like that, he went from being a penniless convict to a rich, young lawyer. Over the next four months, he repeated the process with half a dozen Massachusetts lawyers, stealing a total of $109,737. He chose young lawyers because they were apt to have fat lines of credit, and Massachusetts because it's one of only a few states that allows unrestricted access to birth records.
He made a driver's license for Cornejo, too, in the name of Therese Scibelli, a Boston attorney. Together, the two got an apartment in Los Angeles and fell into a routine of clubbing and shopping. They flew to Miami, Boston, and San Francisco, checked into four-star hotels, and ate expensive dinners. The scheme became even simpler when Pelley discovered he didn't need the transcripts. He could call the Social Security Administration, say he forgot his number, and read the answers off a victim's birth certificate in response to questions asked to confirm his identity. “I say to myself, How stupid could these people be?” he says. “They don't secure people's information.” (A spokesman says the Social Security Administration no longer releases numbers over the phone, after learning of Pelley's frauds.)
Actually, Pelley's method was more elaborate than those of most identity thieves. Most are opportunists who get credit cards by “shoulder surfing” (glancing surreptitiously at someone's number) or “dumpster diving” (rifling through trash for information). “They rely on the fact that the credit-granting industry doesn't check much more than a social security number before granting credit,” says Beth Givens of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. “The industry is as criminal in my mind as the identity thief.”
Meanwhile, cracking down on identity theft has never been more urgent. Of the estimated 700,000 cases committed annually, fewer than 5 percent are even investigated. Driven by the ease of applying for credit online, identity theft is now the fastest-growing crime in the country, says the FBI. But most local police departments can't afford to mount the complex investigations needed to combat it. “If you are going to cause a one-time theft of $2,000, you are probably going to get away with it,” allows Ben Berry, supervisory special agent in the FBI's New York white-collar crime unit. “If you are going to take over other people's identities over time, then we are ultimately going to find you.”
Pelley's first wave of identity theft might have lasted longer than four months if it weren't for a chance investigation by a U.S. postal inspector. When Loughman ordered a copy of his own credit report, he found an address in Los Angeles where he had never lived, and which he reported to the postal inspector. Pelley was napping on the afternoon of October 28, 1998, when the doorbell rang. Looking out the peephole, he saw the postal inspector on his doorstep. Waiting until he'd gone, Pelley quietly ran out the door, only to find the inspector around the corner, gun drawn. Pelley started screaming, “You can't shoot me! You can't shoot me!” When the inspector came after him, Pelley kicked him in the chest with one of his clunky new Fluevog shoes. The two fell to the ground wrestling, and the gun popped out of the inspector's hand. Pelley took off down the street and hid behind some trash cans. Police cars and a helicopter started sweeping the block, and when someone yelled through a bullhorn that they were going to bring out the dogs, that was too much. Pelley stood up and surrendered.
Taken back to Massachusetts, he pleaded guilty, again, and got a 34-month sentence, with an additional three years of supervised release. Now any more violations would put a new agency on his trail Â— the U.S. Marshals Service.
Paul Sugrue has one word to describe what gets him up each morning: “Fugitives.” Stick-thin and speaking almost in a monotone, he'd look boyish if it weren't for the bushy goatee covering his mouth. A deputy marshal in the Boston fugitive investigation unit, he has a cramped cubicle for an office, where he pored over stacks of documents to track Pelley's movements. On one corner of his desk is a stack of awards, one of them still wrapped in cellophane. Sugrue got an award for this case, too. To him, Pelley was just another guy to track down Â— and a probation case at that, nothing compared to the clock-ticking investigations under way when a murderer or a rapist is on the run. “This kid was just a pain,” he says. “I just wanted to get it over with.”
Pelley got out of jail on April 13, 2001, and briefly considered going straight: He even collected job applications at the Cape Cod Mall. Aggravated by the restraint prohibiting him from working in any job involving credit cards, he went back to what he knew best Â— running. And when he fled the state on May 17, he became a fugitive.
Sugrue got the warrant on September 10, 2001, the day before the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. After that, like every other law enforcement agency, the marshals were scrambled for homeland security, and it wasn't until mid-October that Sugrue picked up Pelley's trail Â— which was then five months cold.
Knowing that Pelley liked to target attorneys, Sugrue took out an ad in the Massachusetts Bar Association's newsletter asking for fraud victims to contact him. His phone wouldn't stop ringing. “It was document after document,” says Sugrue. “Every day, you'd find a new name and start tracing that.” Each time one of the names matched a license in Florida, New Jersey, or Vermont, Sugrue called that state to get a copy. Each time, there was Pelley's face staring back at him.
But knowing who Pelley was and what he was doing still didn't tell Sugrue where he was. Only one break early in the investigation pinpointed a location. On October 16, 2001, Los Angeles cops pulled over a Porsche. While they were checking the license, the car took off, screaming through the back roads of the city. By the time the police found the car, it was abandoned. The license with Pelley's picture found its way into Sugrue's file.
By this time, Pelley had the routine down: Birth certificate. Social. Driver's license. Credit card. Cash. He took so many trips to Atlantic City, he lost count of how much he had stolen. “At any one time I'd have $100,000 just sitting there,” he boasts. As his means expanded, so did his tastes. He leased two Porsches and bought a Hummer H2. In Miami, he stayed at the Delano and cruised South Beach. In Los Angeles, he partied at the Chateau Marmont, where he says he met celebrities, including Shannen Doherty. (He claims he also met Matt Damon, whose credit card he obtained but never used, and Casey Affleck, who he defrauded of $28,000.)
Not content to stay in the States, he visited more exotic destinations: Puerto Rico, Tokyo, Cyprus. He spent most of his free time shopping. In New York, Pelley would grab a Godiva truffle at Rockefeller Center, and then, with the chocolate melting on his tongue, drift up Fifth Avenue, stopping in at Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Bergdorf Goodman, before resting with his packages on the fountain outside the Plaza hotel. “He was the type of guy who liked you to give him a lot of attention,” says Anthony Ibanez, a sales associate at Barneys New York. Pelley basked in the privileges lavished on heavy spenders. “If you go into a store more than once, they automatically know your name,” he says enthusiastically. “They bring you Champagne and finger foods. It's great.” One afternoon, he bought a $50,000 gold-and-diamond Panther necklace at Cartier. On another occasion, he became enamored with Cartier's $3,000 Love bracelet, and bought two for himself.
He was deliberately vague about where his money came from, telling people he had inherited it, or that he worked for his father. Most of his new friends knew him as J. P. Hermes, a name he'd lifted from one of his victims, Jeffrey P. Hermes, a lawyer at Brown Rudnick Berlack Israels in Boston. Early on, he set up a bank account in Hermes's name and funneled the money into it. “I'm half angry, half mystified,” the real Hermes says now about why someone would steal his identity. When agents alerted him to the fraud, he spent a dozen hours a week for three weeks clearing his name. “I was upset, and I wanted to get rid of that feeling of vulnerability, but in the end I just had to live with it.”
To seal his new identity, Pelley let people think he was the heir to the Hermès clothing line. “The only thing I thought strange was that he didn't speak French,” says Laurie Malen, Pelley's personal trainer at Chelsea Piers, who spent hours gossiping with him when Pelley didn't want to work out. “He was charming, not in a debonair way, but a shy, disarming way.” Not everyone was so enamored. A former boyfriend who asked not to be named found Pelley spoiled and self-involved. Once, when the two were shopping at Gucci, the friend admired a $4,000 leather jacket. Like the third-grader trying to buy friendship with candy, Pelley bought one for each of them. “He was always trying to prove himself to me, and I wouldn't understand that. If you are so rich, why do you need to impress me?”
By this time, Pelley was spending almost all of his time in New York, where he hung out less with Cornejo and more with a crowd of buff Chelsea boys he befriended. “I confided my most private moments to him,” says one. “When the FBI knocked on my door, I had a nervous breakdown.”
Meanwhile, Pelley reconnected with his sister, who visited New York with her three-year-old son. Pelley told her he worked at a bank. “The only time I had fun was when my sister came to visit,” he says. Maintaining genuine friends and multiple frauds at the same time proved draining. Walking the boardwalk between casinos with $50,000 in his pocket one day, he had a flash of doubt about the life he'd chosen. “My whole reason for doing this was to find something that was missing, but I never found any of it.”
He flew to Cancun alone for his birthday and spent the afternoon lying by the pool. But by evening he was lonely, and flew back home. When his sister finally discovered he was pulling frauds again, she begged him to turn himself in. But he stalled. It was the only life he knew.
In almost a year of hunting Pelley, Sugrue had turned up dozens of leads, and even set up a few stakeouts, but his net always came up empty. The closest he came was an apartment in Long Beach, California, that Pelley had left without a trace. Sugrue did catch a break in April 2002 Â— a year after Pelley had left prison Â— when Pelley wired $96,500 from a victim's investment account to a New York bank and an Atlantic City casino. Because of the amount of money involved, Ben Berry's FBI investigation team now joined the hunt, working directly with the credit card companies to establish Pelley's pattern. With Pelley holding on to his cards just long enough to get cash advances, their only hope was to get in front of him, to find an identity before Pelley used it.
On July 31, 2002, a bank in Plymouth tipped off Sugrue to a $140,000 home equity loan that Pelley had applied for in the name of Paul Saltzman. Along with several other agents, Sugrue stood around inside the bank branch all day waiting for him to collect the check. He never did. (Pelley won't comment, since there is still a warrant out on this incident.) But by cross-referencing Saltzman's name with car rental dealerships in the area, Sugrue found that Pelley had rented a Land Rover.
He asked an FBI colleague in New York to drive by the one address he had for Pelley there: an apartment building on Avenue C in the East Village. Passing by in a driving rain, the agent called Sugrue a few hours later to report excitedly that the Land Rover was parked out front. Sugrue gave the go-ahead for a raid, but when U.S. marshals called back around 11 p.m., they told him Pelley had eluded them again, escaping over the rooftops.
Rattled, Pelley and Cornejo decided to lie low, checking in at the Crowne Plaza Hotel on 42nd Street. At the same time, Pelley called MBNA America to have a credit card from one of his victims sent to the Waldorf-Astoria. On Saturday, August 17, 2002, two weeks after the East Village raid, he sent Cornejo to pick up the card. He didn't know that the FBI, working with MBNA, had finally gotten one step ahead of him. Dressed in the gray jackets of hotel employees, U.S. marshals were manning the counter when Cornejo walked though the lobby and asked for a package at the desk. That's when he felt the hands on his shoulders.
Pelley was at a friend's apartment when he called Cornejo for a status report. Cornejo said he had gotten the card without any problem, though when Pelley asked him for the number on the back, he said there wasn't one. Pelley asked twice if Cornejo had heard from his mother, their personal code for when something went awry. Twice, Cornejo said he hadn't. “All right,” said Pelley, “I'll meet you in front of the Crowne Plaza in 20 minutes.” Pelley drove three times around the hotel, checking for anything suspicious. Seeing nothing, he parked across the street, when suddenly a gun flashed in front of him.
He floored the gas, almost running over a deputy U.S. marshal, and veered around the corner and onto 2nd Avenue. Coated with sweat, he ran several red lights, a black Intrepid full of marshals on his trail. In front of the Queens Midtown Tunnel, he rammed through five stopped cars, breaking windshields and popping air bags before coming to a stop. He grabbed his Prada bag with the credit cards, $20,000 in cash, and $100,000 in jewelry, and ran toward the tunnel. National guardsmen posted at the entrance saw a dazed, bloodied man sprinting toward them and leveled their submachine guns. “Don't make us have to shoot you!” a voice barked.
Pelley dropped as agents surrounded him, grabbing his hands and cinching them with handcuffs. There would be no more running. As they were pulling him away, a New York television crew arrived to capture the scene. When Pelley tried to hide his face, he says, the cops lifted his head, forcing him to face the camera.
Pelley pleaded guilty to the New York wire fraud indictment and was transferred to Boston for sentencing. The total prosecutors settled on for his thefts was $592,000. Although financial fraud can carry a 30-year sentence, the indictment in New York held a maximum of only five years, to which another two years was added for breaking his supervised release Â— for a total of seven. “He's going to end up spending most of his time from 18 to his 30s in jail,” says his attorney, Michael Andrews. “As he matures, he might decide he wants more out of life.” Sugrue, for one, is skeptical. He's put the file into a drawer where it will remain Â— for now. “I hate to be a pessimist,” says Sugrue, “but I don't for a second think he's going to come out and get a job.”
For his part, Pelley dreads the thought of looking for entry-level work when he gets out of prison. He wonders if he could teach banks or credit card companies how to protect themselves, the way Frank Abagnale Jr. did after his capture for his career of fraud depicted in the movie Catch Me If You Can. Now in a federal penitentiary in upstate Pennsylvania, Pelley still thinks about shopping bonanzas and police chases. He thinks about his sister and new nephew, and about his disappointment with Cornejo, who turned him in at the end. Most of all, he's still grappling with his own identity. Is he just another petty thief? A savvy criminal who beat the system? Or that smooth-talking lawyer he convinced so many people he was? “It's a beast that takes on its own body,” he says. “I'm Shawn Pelley, but I'm not Shawn Pelley. I'm the person I created. You always want to levitate to the better person, the person with all this money Â— but you are always who you are.”