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The Person Behind The Mask

Jerry Joseph was the star basketball player at Permian High School in Odessa, Texas. He was popular and well-liked by both students and teachers. He took advanced placement classes and excelled in them. All in all, he was the perfect high school student, except that he was actually 22.

The person who claimed to be 16-year-old Jerry Joseph was actually a man named Guerdwich Montimer. Montimer had already graduated in 2007 from Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he was also on the basketball team.

Montimer first registered as a junior high student and then progressed to high school using his assumed identity. He presented a Haitian birth certificate stating that he was born in 1994. Montimer is a naturalized U.S. citizen from Haiti, but, as Joseph, he said that he was not yet a citizen, explaining his lack of a social security card. He also told authorities that his parents were dead and that he was living with a friend in the dorm of a local university. After the friend moved away during the summer, Montimer was housed by the school’s boys’ basketball coach, Danny Wright. He shared a room with Wright’s 16-year-old son and converted to the family’s born-again Christian faith.

The 22-year-old apparently had little trouble fitting in at school. Steven Pipes, a senior football player at Permian, told The Associated Press, “Everyone just thought he was a big guy. He played the part good, skipping down the hallways acting goofy like a 16-year-old.” Pipes tried to convince Montimer to join the football team, but he declined, saying he preferred basketball.

The deception was discovered after 14 months when three Florida basketball coaches who had seen Montimer play during his first high school career saw him playing at an amateur tournament in Little Rock, Ark. After Montimer was recognized, his house of cards tumbled. He stuck to his story under police interrogation, but his fingerprints eventually revealed his true identity.

Montimer is now being charged with failure to identify himself to a police officer, tampering with a government document, and, most significantly, sexual assault. The sexual assault charge arises from claims that Montimer knowingly had sexual relations with a 15-year-old minor when he was in fact 21. The girl believed that Montimer was also 15 at the time. If convicted, he could face two to 20 years in prison and a fine up to $10,000.

Montimer made no money from his fraud. While he might have been hoping to secure a college athletic scholarship, that seems unlikely, since his true identity most likely would have come to light during the application process. So what led this grown man to go back to high school?

It seems that Montimer was driven primarily by the hope of once again shining on the court and being adored in the hallways. His mother, not in fact dead, told The Miami Herald that being a basketball star had meant everything to her son. She said that after she had urged him to think about his future after basketball, he had stormed out of the house. His mother did not hear from him again until he was arrested in Odessa. She told the Herald that, although she did not believe the sexual assault allegations, she was not surprised by Montimer’s use of a false identity in order to return to the court. “He would do just about anything to continue playing,” she said.

For many, glory and power, even without much money, are motivation enough. Otherwise the halls of Congress would be nearly empty.

The story demonstrates just how easily most people can be fooled at least some of the time. Even after Montimer’s identity was revealed and he had been arrested for two felonies, Wright, the coach who took him in, said, “If you didn't know this crazy story about him, and evaluated this from the year being with us, he's a great kid.”

Odessa’s embrace of Montimer shows a bright side of human nature, but it also shows our vulnerability to scammers — from pseudo high school kids to Bernie Madoff. They all take advantage of our trust and kindness.

Just last year, young residents of the trendy Brooklyn, New York neighborhood of Williamsburg were taken in by a young woman named Kari Ferrell whose actions earned her the nickname “the hipster grifter.” Ferrell, a con artist who was already on Utah’s most wanted list, arrived in Brooklyn loaded with false stories. While she used her own name, she made up details about her life, including claims that she had cancer, was pregnant, and was running from an abusive ex-boyfriend, in order to persuade young men to provide her with money and support. Her cute, stylish looks, along with a false resume, convinced Vice Magazine to hire her on the spot.

In another, stranger case, which surfaced in 2007, a Montana woman named Esther Elizabeth Reed stole the identity of missing person Brooke Henson and attended Columbia University under the false name. In Reed’s case, as in Montimer’s, there was no apparent financial motive. Because of the sophistication of Reed’s methods, she was temporarily suspected of international espionage. In the end, however, it became apparent that Reed had simply created her fictitious identities as a way to distance herself from her past and begin again.

In all three cases, most people accepted that these people were exactly what they claimed to be: a 16-year-old jock, a trendy but troubled young woman, and a confident college student. Strangers befriended them, excusing the oddities that should have been red flags.

Most of the time, we are right to believe in the good intentions and honesty of those we meet, but it is important to remember that, every now and then, what you see is not the same as what you get.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s most recent book, The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Anyone Can Achieve Wealth,” and Chapter 19, “Assisting Aging Parents.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s previous book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55.

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