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He had uniforms and medals and a stack of framed, official-looking awards: a Purple Heart and a Silver Star, a seal Team One membership, a certificate of completion for a naval underwater-demolition course. That would be crazy.
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A mericans love a con man. Con men thrive in times of upheaval. The country was rapidly urbanizing; previously far-flung places were newly linked by railroads. Americans were meeting more strangers than ever before, and thanks to a growing economy, they had more money than previous generations.
The age of the internet, with its infinitude of strangers and swiftly evolving social mores, has also been good for con men. Of those, more than 14, were for relationship fraud, a number that has more than doubled since After weeks or months of intimate emails, texts, and phone calls, the putative boyfriend will urgently need money to replace a broken laptop or buy a plane ticket home.
Derek stands out for how remarkably prolific he was: He often had two or three separate relationship scams going at a time. T he police released Derek after 48 hours, telling Linda they wanted to build a stronger case.
By then he was long gone. While Linda sorted through her finances, her sister-in-law delved into old news articles about Derek, looking for any information that might be useful in bringing him to justice.
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Most of the women quoted were anonymous, or referred to only by their first name. A woman named Cindi Pardini, however, had used her full name. A tech professional living in San Francisco, she said Derek had stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars and , airline miles from her over the course of a few months in She was in touch with about a dozen victims. The second daughter, Sarah, was a fabrication. And she talked with one of his childhood friends, who said that Derek, who had grown up in a wealthy suburb of San Francisco, was trouble from an early age.
Cindi was in touch with one of his earliest victims, a woman who had met Derek in the early s and had been convinced that he was a medical student conducting important cystic-fibrosis research. Cindi added Linda to a group text with several other victims, and Linda found some comfort in swapping stories with them, and in seeing that they were far from stupid. If anything, Derek seems to have preferred intelligent women; his victims included a doctor and a couple of women who worked in tech.
Linda herself was an engineer at a nuclear-power plant. He told her he was a lawyer with a big downtown firm; in reality, he was hiding out from a warrant for defrauding the Saint Paul Hotel. When she reported him to the police, she was told that legal action would likely be a waste of her time and money. But JoAnn still regrets not taking Derek to court.
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He used different names and occupations, but the identities he took on always had an element of financial prestige or manly valor: decorated veteran, surgeon, air marshal, investment banker. Con artists have long known that a uniform bolsters an illusion, and Derek was fond of dressing up in scrubs and military fatigues.
He tended to look for women in their 40s or 50s, preferably divorced, preferably with a couple of kids and a dog or two. Many of his victims were in a vulnerable place in their lives—recently divorced, fresh out of an abusive relationship, or recovering from a serious accident—and he presented himself as a hero and caretaker, the man who would step in and save the day.
Derek seems to have counted on the fact that credit-card abuse is often not taken all that seriously by law enforcement when the victim and the perpetrator know each other. He conned a number of victims within the state of Minnesota. The judge denied the motion. About six months later, Derek was released. F or years, Derek had evaded punishment by moving around; local police had limited ability to chase him across state lines.
They began tracking his progress across the country, using social media to share updates and information—and to warn others. After Missi explained what Derek had done, Vicki agreed to pass on any information she learned. Through a family member, Vicki heard that Derek had left Minnesota and was hiding out with his mother in Sedona, Arizona—where, lo and behold, he had an outstanding warrant for an old DUI. Urged on by Missi, Vicki alerted the local police, who picked him up in early September and held him in the county jail for a few days.
Still, Derek had a remarkable ability to keep perpetrating the same scam. She soon discovered that he had stolen and pawned some of her jewelry. He was arrested, pleaded no contest, and was taken back to jail, but was bailed out and never showed up for his sentencing.
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C onsume enough media about scam artists and, strangely enough, you too might find yourself wanting to date one. The con man looks good in a suit and is in on the joke. Instead of moving on with my life; instead of living. Even more damaging than the financial ramifications was the damage to their fundamental faith in the world, that bedrock sense that things are what they seem.
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He won over their parents, friends, and co-workers; he convinced hotel clerks and Mercedes salesmen and bankers and real-estate agents and doctors. He was able to finagle country-club memberships and hospital admissions. He met actual Navy veterans, who took him at his word.
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For Missi and Linda, their crossed paths have resulted in the peculiar sort of friendship that can arise from shared trauma. We talked about Derek for four hours, dissecting his actions and puzzling over his motivations. Late in the evening, Linda told another wild part of the saga, involving a half-million-dollar house Derek was going to buy for them before the escrow money mysteriously went missing. She suddenly sounded very sad. O n May 17, , Richie Tailor left the townhouse he shared with his new girlfriend, Dorie, to have dinner with his brother and sister-in-law. Dorie was idly scanning through pictures on the iPad Richie had left behind when she saw one that brought her up short.
It was a screenshot of an Instagram post showing a man in a hospital bed. When she googled Derek Allred an alternative spelling he sometimes used , she found the trove of news stories and mug shots. Suddenly, all those fraudulent charges that kept cropping up on her credit cards made sense. Dorie printed out the articles and brought them to the police department in The Colony, the small town outside Dallas where she lived. Like so many of the other victims, she stumbled on Cindi Pardini. The two women talked on the phone. Dorie made sure to show the Colony detectives pictures of Derek in his Navy uniform, and the detectives contacted the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
Under the Stolen Valor Act of , seeking profit by using phony military honors is a federal crime—which meant that NCIS could launch a multistate investigation. After Dorie caught on to him, Derek began staying with his other girlfriend, Tracie Cunningham. He had some of that. Real dramatic. Just after Memorial Day, Tracie finally dumped him. She pulled up to the patient loading area.
This is for justice for other people. W ith Derek finally in custody, his victims celebrated, texting one another grim fantasies about the future that awaited him in prison. NCIS agents interviewed victims around the country, whose stories bolstered the case that Derek was a habitual offender. A few days before Christmas, Derek pleaded guilty to two counts of identity theft and one count of mail fraud, charges with a combined maximum penalty of 24 years in prison.
In the meantime, they continue the slow work of putting their lives back together. Missi has finally gotten to the point where she can make jokes about Derek with her daughters. Linda has started tentatively dating again, after more than a year. The other day, when she was out to dinner with a guy, she peeked in his wallet, just to make sure the name he told her matched the name on his ID. How had he finagled his university email address and ID card?
Did he have a secret stash of money somewhere? And then there was the question I imagined was unanswerable, but that I needed to ask anyway: What did it feel like to be so skilled at faking love?