Man who impersonated lawyer remains a mystery

August 16, 1992|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Staff Writer

Nobody knows who this 40-ish guy with a goatee really is.

Not the police, not private investigators, not even the man's Carroll County girlfriend.

About all they know at this point is that the man, who has been living in Mount Airy and impersonating a lawyer for more than a year, is apparently not about to tell anyone who he is any time soon.

Oh, sure, things were going quite well in his phony life in Maryland. Friends and even a client knew the affable and articulate man as Bruce Donald Willis and knew that he was a lawyer who moved here from Minnesota.

They knew he could draw up corporate legal documents -- he apparently knows his Maryland law -- and they were given no reason to believe that he was anything more than an honest attorney.

He even had an authentic birth certificate.

That was until someone -- authorities won't say whether it was his girlfriend, his clients or a friend -- got suspicious.

In June, the real Bruce Donald Willis of Minneapolis got a wind of his Maryland namesake.

And the prominent partner in the big, powerful, conservative firm Popham Haik was not amused.

"This whole thing is really quite embarrassing, almost hokey," the real Mr. Willis said from his office last week. "I would have liked for this not to have happened at all."

By all indications, the impostor probably shares the sentiment.

Called "John Doe" in Carroll County District Court records since his arrest after a June 19 traffic stop, the mystery man has admitted that he is not Bruce Donald Willis.

That's as far as he's gone to identify himself, and, as a consequence of his reluctance to come clean, he has been residing in the Carroll County Detention Center since then on $75,000 bond.

Earlier in June, Mount Airy private investigator Michael Mills got a call about the fictitious Mr. Willis, court records show. On June 9, Mr. Mills tracked down the real Mr. Willis in Minneapolis.

"Mr. Mills confirmed that there was only one Bruce Donald Willis legally licensed to practice law in the state of Minnesota," court records said. Mr. Mills' investigation also showed that the man was providing legal services to a Taylorsville storage company on a $250 a week retainer. He even drew up articles of incorporation papers for the company.

Several people in Mount Airy, when interviewed by Mr. Mills, identified the man as Bruce Donald Willis, "an attorney from Minneapolis," the records said.

Mr. Mills contacted the state police, who arrested the man while he was driving a black Ford Ranger. He did not have a driver's license with him, and he reportedly told the officer that his only identification was a birth certificate and a Social Security number obtained in Kansas City, Mo. The number is assigned to another man, who is now dead.

"John Doe" was charged with several misdemeanors, including impersonating an attorney, practicing law in Maryland without being admitted to the bar, theft under $300 and providing a false statement to police. He could face up to three years in jail if found guilty of the charges.

Jail is apparently where the man seems to be inclined to stay, at least in the short term.

And as long as he is mum on who he is, the police and the courts are obliging.

"Somebody who refuses to tell us who he is usually raises a lot of red flags," said Tfc. Najeeb Shah, an investigator at the Westminster barracks. "It usually means he is running from something or hiding from someone."

Trooper Shah said state police investigators had run Federal Bureau of Investigation fingerprint checks, military service checks and crime computer checks, all to no avail. He is DTC circulating a wanted poster -- with the mystery man's mug and fingerprints -- to police agencies up and down the East Coast and throughout the Midwest.

"We're trying to find out about this guy," Trooper Shah said.

One theory, espoused by the mystery man and given slight credence by authorities, is that he is hiding from organized crime.

"He presented to me a question," Mr. Mills said last week. "He said, 'Suppose you worked for a firm that laundered money for organized crime, and you had family members you wanted to protect? What would you do?' " Mr. Mills called the assertion "plausible" but declined to comment further.

Whoever the man is and whatever he is hiding from, the real Mr. Willis is concerned about what his phony namesake has done to his name. Mr. Willis' firm has offices in Washington, D.C., and he sometimes argues cases in the nation's capital.

"Of course, I'm concerned what this man has done to my name and reputation," Mr. Willis said, before declining to discuss the man further.

So far, the man has told authorities that he meant no harm to Mr. Willis and that his name was chosen at random. He agreed to stop using Mr. Willis' name. The man declined to be interviewed for this story.

The name Bruce Donald Willis is not among Maryland's licensed attorneys, according to the Maryland State Bar Association.

The mystery man's attorney, James F. Salkin of Baltimore, could not be reached for comment.

The man's trial on the misdemeanor charges is scheduled for Friday.

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