When John Robert Skelton got caught last summer stealing the identity of a deceased aide to a United States senator, federal authorities called the crime "despicable," and a spokesman for U.S. Customs said the agency was pleased to end the charade.
But the suspect's lawyer calls his client's actions more tragic than criminal. He needed medical care to treat HIV that only doctors in America could provide, the attorney said, adding that Skelton did not use his false name to profit from the victim in any way.
Instead of pleading guilty to aggravated identity theft, which would have required the judge to imprison the 41-year-old for a minimum two years, prosecutors allowed him to admit to the lesser crime of making a false claim of American citizenship.
U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett sentenced Skelton March 11 to the time he had already served when he was detained in July — three days — and ordered him to go immediately from the courthouse to the airport and take the next flight back to his home country of Great Britain.
"This wasn't a situation where he intruded upon someone else's ongoing life and caused the kinds of problems that often accompany the use of someone's identity," said Joseph L. Evans, a federal public defender, noting that his client didn't take out a credit card or bank account using his assumed name.
Evans praised authorities for being "understanding" and said that "at the end of the day, because it was such an unusual situation, the judge I think quite reasonably thought it was appropriate for him to just go home. … He's a guy with a special medical condition that prompted him to take steps that almost anyone else would have done."
Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said in an email that "the judge imposed a sentence that was within the range recommended by the federal sentencing guidelines. In imposing a sentence, it is appropriate to consider the defendant's motive and any loss to the victim."
The family of the man whose identity Skelton took and lived under for 16 years, Kurt Branham, could not be reached for comment. But Branham's sister, Rhonda Lee Bocook, said in July that Skelton's actions brought back a torrent of grief from her brother's death in 1994 at age 28.
Branham, who grew up in Kentucky, had worked as a legislative aide for Sen. Mitch McConnell on issues that included missing and abused children. A spokesman for McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, did not comment on the case.
Skelton had come to the U.S. in the mid-1990s to visit friends. He was diagnosed HIV-positive while in America, Evans said. At the time, non-U.S. citizens were not allowed to enter or remain in the country after being diagnosed with the virus that causes AIDS. That law was rescinded two years ago.
Court documents, including a statement of facts read into the record when Skelton pleaded guilty, say he became involved in a relationship and wanted to remain in the U.S. but couldn't because of the law. Evans said the fact that treatment at the time was more advanced here than in Great Britain was another factor.
In 1995, Skelton reviewed a list of names provided by a friend and chose Branham's because it was the most English-sounding. He obtained Branham's college transcripts over the Internet, along with his Social Security number and other personal information. He obtained a birth certificate and a Maryland driver's license in Branham's name, according to Evans and court documents.
Skelton moved around and spent five years, from 2000 to 2005, teaching English in Colombia, South America. He returned to the U.S. and moved in with a roommate in a historic rowhouse on Wheeling Street, between Light and Charles streets in South Baltimore's Federal Hill neighborhood.
Skelton worked for a private company in public relations, Evans said, but he would not be more specific. He described his client as refined, speaking with a distinct British accent, fluent in five languages and proficient in playing the saxophone and piano.
The attorney said Skelton never used his assumed identity for profit. He turned his paychecks into cash, and had no bank account or credit cards. He did take health insurance offered through his job.
In 2005, he applied for a U.S. passport under Branham's name, and obtained one through a company called Urgent Passport Services Inc. Officials discovered the fraud during a routine check in 2009 with a computer program that compares passport information against a master Social Security death list.
FBI agents interviewed Branham's family in West Virginia and compared notes. Court papers said Skelton had memorized parts of Branham's life to develop a credible, alternate story. But he made a critical error: He wrote on his passport application that his eyes are blue. The man whose identity he had assumed had brown eyes.
Agents with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol arrested Skelton in July last year at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport when he got off a plane from London. Court documents say he had used his fraudulent passport many times to travel overseas.
Evans, his attorney, said that at the time of his arrest Skelton was planning to return permanently to London, in part because of advancements made in treating his disease.