The other me 

Adventures in identity theft -- care of my devious doppelgänger

The letter that ruined my autumn came on a Wednesday in late September, hidden among credit card offers and utility bills.

"YOU ARE HEREBY OFFICIALLY NOTIFIED," the letter began, "that your license and/or privilege to operate any motor vehicle in the State of Georgia is suspended as shown hereon."

"Hereon" was described further down as a DUI conviction 10 months earlier in Sarasota.

But I've never been to Sarasota -- sober or drunk. A few phone calls and cursing fits later, the truth dawned on me: I'd become a victim of identity theft.

Me.

Sure, I had read the nightmare stories of stolen credit card numbers and bogus driver's licenses. I knew that identity theft was the fastest-growing white-collar crime in America -- that Georgia ranks seventh in the number of identity thefts among states nationwide.

But these things are supposed to happen to the other guy -- not to me.

What lay ahead was a bizarre voyage of discovery, as I tracked the movements of a complete stranger who, it appeared, was passing himself off as me along Florida's Gulf Coast. I knew about the DUI, but what didn't I know?

The possibilities worried me. But I must confess they also intrigued me. I found myself perversely fascinated with my devious doppelganger. Maybe he was the id that I'd sublimated long ago. Maybe he was a lovable rogue who hotwires BMWs and gets his suite comp'ed in Vegas. Of course, he could also be a no-job loser with cheap tastes, who shoplifts from grocery stores and opens a can of Mace on security guards.

Whatever the facts, one truth would become quickly evident: I was now in a strange netherworld of law enforcement, where the normal rules of American jurisprudence are suspended. I was presumed guilty and had to prove my innocence, while the real culprit -- the guy who's done this before, who could be tracked down and arrested in one afternoon of focused detective work -- is free to do it again.

On the evening of Dec. 7, 2001, a 38-year-old unemployed cook arrived in Sarasota on a Greyhound bus and went directly to the Hideaway bar. Dressed in jean shorts, a black T-shirt and black sneakers, he wasted no time striking up a conversation with a fellow patron, a dark-haired construction worker. The two began shooting pool. Although they played for hours, no names were ever exchanged; the cook, for his part, was content to nurse just one beer.

At least that's the tale the cook would tell police later that night. His name was Brian Gregory Katacinski.

At some point, according to Katacinski's statement, the construction worker decided to lend him his car to drive to a nearby tavern called the Red Barn. There, Katacinski drank a "couple of beers" before he decided to return to the Hideaway. Outside, he got into a red 1995 Geo four-door sedan and headed east on Bee Ridge Road.

Sarasota was familiar territory for Katacinski. In fact, he had spent much of the past 10 years in central Florida, where he'd cut an impressive swath of forgery, credit card fraud and burglary. On the morning of Oct. 24, 1991, for example, the unemployed Katacinski used a pair of bolt cutters to break open a Realtor's key box at the Pinellas County home of Robert Weston. With the key, Katacinski entered the residence and stole jewelry and cash, as well as a Discover card that fueled a $5,000 shopping spree in stores such as Montgomery Ward and JCPenney.

When Katacinski was arrested that night in 1991, he was ultimately charged with three counts of burglary, six counts of credit card fraud, possession of burglary tools and two counts of grand theft that included stealing a gun. Each count was a felony. Four months later, he pleaded no contest and was sentenced to two years in prison, with a 109-day credit for time served.

Katacinski was released on April 28, 1992. Counting his pre-sentence incarceration, his total time behind bars was 178 days -- just under six months.

Back on the streets, Katacinski didn't deviate much from the m.o. that landed him in jail in the first place. Numerous arrests followed, mostly in Sarasota and Pinellas counties. Fraud. Unauthorized possession of a driver's license. Larceny. Forgery. But according to available records, only the rare case resulted in jail time. Whether by accident or design, Katacinski chooses crimes that, while not ignored by authorities, don't rise to the top of their priority list.

Which is probably why there's no record that he was arrested for allegedly pepper-spraying a Publix security guard who spotted him shoplifting in 1997. He drove off, leaving her disoriented and gasping in the parking lot, her eyes burning and her cell phone in pieces on the blacktop.

Brian Katacinski was due for some karma. And last Dec. 7, shortly after leaving the Hideaway, it found him.

While he was cruising east on Bee Ridge Road, a 53-year-old Sarasota woman named Cynthia Byler was up ahead, heading west and planning on making a left. As she made the turn onto Worchester Road, her Toyota and Katacinski's Geo collided. The impact sent Byler's car into a Ford pickup, which had been stopped at the intersection.

It was 8:42 p.m. Within a minute, Sarasota County Sheriff's Deputy William Miller was on the scene. Witnesses pointed to Katacinski, who had climbed out of the car and was walking down the sidewalk along Bee Ridge Road, back the way he'd came. Miller yelled to Katacinski to stop. But he just walked faster. When Katacinski turned to head toward the rear of a building, Miller followed him. The officer didn't have to go far. His way blocked by bushes and shrubs, Katacinski tried to return to the sidewalk, but was finally stopped.

Katacinski seemed confused, the deputy would write later; his eyes were red and watery. Miller wrote that he "could distinctly smell an odor of an alcoholic beverage on defendant's breath."

Katacinski was caught, dead to rights. Complaining of whiplash, he was taken to Sarasota Memorial Hospital for X-rays. Miller wanted him to take a blood alcohol test. At first, Katacinski refused, then agreed, and then questioned the officer about having a lawyer present. The waffling was an obvious stalling tactic. No doubt Katacinski knew that with each passing minute, he was sobering up. (Although he ultimately refused the blood alcohol test, a PBT test -- essentially, a Breathalyzer -- conducted by the hospital showed a level of .064. But that reading, according to Miller's report, came "well after the crash.")

A DUI charge, however, was fast becoming the least of Katacinski's concerns. Miller had found out that the Geo was not registered to Katacinski. In fact, the car had been stolen, and now Katacinski started explaining more about the generous dark-haired construction worker. Miller didn't bite.

As Saturday turned into Sunday, Katacinski was facing a whole mess of trouble: DUI, for refusing the blood alcohol test; leaving the scene of a crash; felony theft of a motor vehicle; and felony possession of stolen property (in this case, the Geo).

A bad night. Particularly bad if, say, you already have a colorful history with Florida law enforcement. Fortunately for Brian Gregory Katacinski, he had a trump card: a driver's license with my name on it.

Marooned at home, my license suspended, I took to the phones. It wasn't a clerical error, I found out -- at least not on Georgia's part. The citation clearly had my name, my driver's license number, my date of birth.

Then I remembered.

A year ago, in October 2001, I had gone to Asheville, N.C., for the weekend. Back in Atlanta, I noticed my driver's license was missing. I don't carry a wallet, so I figured that the license had fallen out of my pocket somewhere. Someone would find it and mail it back to me.

So I didn't report it stolen, or even lost. Instead, I waited a few months, using my temporary license -- which was long expired -- as my ID. It wasn't until I was ticketed at a roadblock that I found the motivation to line up with the rest of the dawn patrol at a driver's license testing facility on Moreland Avenue and get a new one. By then, I had figured my lost license was just that -- hopelessly and forever lost.

But now my license seemed to have turned up in the hands of a stranger, one whose sole occupation appeared to be that of professional loser. From the Sarasota County court clerk's office, I heard a list of the crimes committed under my name in 2001: felony trespass, DUI, grand theft auto. It sounded like they were all charges stemming from the one case.

But then the clerk said, "We also have you down for petty theft in 1997. And forgery in 1993."

My theory that my lost license from a year ago had ended up in this guy's hands was starting to crumble. It seems he had co-opted my identity years ago, and I was only now finding out.

Thus, I was introduced to Brian Gregory Katacinski -- aka Greg Green, aka Brian Gregory, aka Albert Keyser, aka Stephen Fennessy. On that December night a year ago, it was simply my turn. Katacinski turned over the driver's license in his pocket to Deputy Miller.

This is a critical point in the story. What I found out later was this: On Nov. 29, 2001, just two weeks before the accident on Bee Ridge Road, someone walked into the driver's license facility in Valdosta, Ga., and walked out with a license that, in every way but one, was an exact duplicate of the one I'd lost. Same name, birth date, ID number. Same weight. Same picture even. The only difference? A new address. That new license showed that I no longer lived in Atlanta, but on Gornto Road in Valdosta.

It was this ID that Katacinski handed to Miller that night in Sarasota. Katacinski had to be a little worried. After all, he was two inches shorter than the guy pictured on the license, 40 pounds lighter, six years older. Surely no cop would fall for that.

Deputy Miller did. On the numerous arrest reports, my name, weight, height and age are all dutifully entered from the driver's license. Never mind that right in front of Miller's face sat living proof to the contrary, his besotted head now propped up by a neck brace.

Katacinski one, Fennessy zero.

When it comes to restoring your good name, there's something reassuring about the clinical nature of the law. In the real world, memories are long and gossip is crippling. But in law enforcement, reputations can be destroyed -- and sometimes renewed -- with just a few keystrokes. Normally, this fact would scare the shit out of me. But it now became my best hope for redemption. In the case of Brian Katacinski/Stephen Fennessy, I was on a mission of erasure.

First, I learned that authorities in Sarasota had locked up Katacinski, who, of course, they believed was me. But three days after his arrest, a fingerprint examiner in the Sarasota sheriff's office discovered that the prints of the man they'd arrested belonged not to Stephen Fennessy, but to Brian Gregory Katacinski. The examiner, Brenda Viana, notified the prosecutor, and the case was amended accordingly.

Somehow, though, as the charges against Katacinski were either dropped or reduced, Sarasota sent a DUI conviction in my name to Georgia. Which is why, on a cloudy day in late September, I got a letter in the mail telling me my license was suspended.

So, since it was Sarasota that screwed up my life, it was Sarasota that could restore it.

Wrong. Sarasota needed permission from a higher authority. I found myself following two strings: Florida Highway Patrol troopers and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. From the Atlanta police headquarters at City Hall East, I faxed fingerprints to the FDLE, and then mailed them to trooper Faith Goodwin.

That's when the square wheels of justice cranked into motion: Tallahassee faxed Georgia motor vehicles, which then mailed me a second official letter a week later. Their tone this time was much more conciliatory, and lacked the bold caps. "You may retain license," it read, almost grudgingly.

At the same time, Brenda Viana, the fingerprint examiner who a year ago first noticed that Katacinski and I were different people, sent a letter to the FDLE, asking the agency to delete all references to me from Katacinski's record. "This has adversely affected that person, who is attempting to clear his name," she wrote.

I realized now that my name had been an alias for Katacinski. All of his crimes became my crimes, which was why it appeared our relationship went back 10 years. Last week, a search for my name in Sarasota's online criminal records turned up no results. Katacinski's crimes, though, were still there.

I was me again. Not him.

Perhaps I'm making the process of my exoneration sound easier than it was. It was, in fact, a pain in the ass. Over one week's time, I called and re-called officials in the Sarasota County Court, the sheriff's department there, the victim's rights office in Sarasota County, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, motor vehicle departments in Florida and Georgia, the Florida state troopers, the Georgia DMV's habitual violator unit, its license fraud unit, the Atlanta police.

The average time spent clearing up a case of identity theft is 175 hours; mine was probably around 100. But this includes only the time spent going through reams of paperwork, explaining my story for the umpteenth time to yet another bureaucrat, and withstanding endless hold times. It doesn't -- it can't -- include the countless hours I've spent obsessing over this guy. Who the hell does he think he is? Nor does it include the hours I spent trying to find Katacinski. I couldn't.

Carl Moulder understands this. He's head of the white-collar crime division for Gwinnett County police. Amid all the cases of embezzlement and forgery that Moulder's five investigators face are dozens of identity theft complaints. But despite his unit's best efforts, the reality is that most cases -- mine included -- become solitary hunts for the perpetrator. Police just don't have the time.

Says Moulder: "People say, 'This is a crime. You're supposed to do something about this.' I tell them, 'I wish I could.' But I get 200 to 250 cases a month. We can work about 50 of those. There's 150 cases that don't get assigned because we just can't work them."

Moulder prioritizes every complaint. He assigns the big ones -- those involving lots of money, a chronic offender or (perhaps most importantly) the best chances of prosecution. But most complainants get a letter explaining they're on their own.

"I get a lot of phone calls from people such as yourself who have been victims," he says. "They believe the police department is here to serve and protect and prevent this sort of thing from happening -- to go after the bad guys when it does happen. But so many times we don't have the personnel and the resources to do that. We have to go after the more prosecutable and larger crimes."

"Why," Moulder asks, "would you want to take a $500 theft and spend $10,000 prosecuting?"

And jurisdictional issues complicate matters. Victims quite rightly go to their local law enforcement agency to report an identity-theft crime. But the perpetrator could be across the state -- or the country.

Take my case: Atlanta police told me they would not conduct an investigation into this matter, since what Katacinski did took place in another state. And yet Florida authorities couldn't seem to care less about catching this guy. After all, they'd already gone after him for the "big" crimes -- the DUI, the grand theft. Spending time and money to track down this schmuck for something he did a year ago -- something that didn't physically harm the victim, financially or otherwise -- would be bad resource management. In cop-speak, the case is a "piece a shit."

Of course, you'd think that if there was one crime Katacinski definitely committed in Georgia, it was driver's license fraud. After all, someone -- and I can only presume it was Katacinski -- got a new license in Valdosta in my name. But investigators at Georgia DMVS are -- you guessed it -- understaffed.

"If we can find the guy, yes, we'll prosecute," an investigator there told me. "We don't have the manpower to go out and search for those people."

All of this is rather ironic, given that last May, one of the toughest laws in the nation against identity fraud went into effect in Georgia. Under the new law, Katacinski's ass could, theoretically, be hauled into a Fulton County courtroom and charged with identity fraud. If convicted, he could be thrown into prison for up to 10 years. I could also sue him for damages.

There are a few reasons why this won't happen. First, his crime against me occurred before the new law went into effect. Second, no jurisdiction in America would extradite someone for such a minor offense (even though "minor" is not how I would characterize it). Third, prosecutors in Georgia remain hesitant to invoke the new, tougher laws. They stay with the tried-and-true charges, the ones they know can get convictions -- old reliables like fraud, forgery, and theft by taking or deception. In fact, from what I could tell, there has yet to be a conviction anywhere in Georgia under the new statute.

Last month, I had lunch with private investigators Chris Appleby and Tripp Mitchell. Appleby is president of Proof Positive Investigations; Mitchell is president of the Georgia Association of Professional Private Investigators. Just as police are collecting more and more identity theft complaints, so are P.I.'s.

"Mostly, people let police handle it," Mitchell said. "They don't want to pay for a private investigator."

Every once in a while, though, the victims' frustration and quest for revenge convinces them to shell out $50 or $60 an hour to put their own detectives on the case.

"The people who hire us are fed up; they're not going to be a victim," Appleby said.

Using computer-assisted investigating, as well as good old-fashioned shoe leather, detectives have the time and incentive to find the guy. While they can't make arrests, they can track culprits down, scout out their movements and tell local police where they are.

"I did that with one case -- parked in front of the suspect's house and called the police. A few minutes later, four or five squad cars showed up," Appleby said.

"Police like that," Mitchell told me. "They want to close their cases."

I had to wonder if my case even existed, much less was open.

As they talked, I considered hiring them right there and then. All I wanted was a phone number. Better yet, an address. I just want to be there when he's led off in handcuffs. I'd like to testify at his trial. I have fantasies of him leaving the courtroom in cuffs, after being sentenced to two or four or six years. My life was inconvenienced, so naturally I'd like his ruined.

But then I look at the rap sheet on my desk, the endless list of charges, the pathetic mug shots, and I realize, Brian Katacinski already is ruined.

steve.fennessy@creativeloafing.com

Fight back: Some ways to prevent identity theft, and where to go if it happens anyway

Bad things happen to us all, and identity theft is happening to us more and more. Last year, 2,592 cases of identity theft were reported in Georgia. Many of those probably could've been prevented. Here are some tips:

  • Have personal checks delivered to your bank, and pick them up there. Identity thieves love to troll mailboxes.

  • Stop all those credit card offers from piling up in your mailbox. Call 1-888-567-8688.

  • Is your social security number on your checks or your driver's license? Remove it. You might as well be handing a bag of money to your local identity thief.

  • Check your credit report at least once a year. In Georgia, you can check twice a year before you're charged. Try www.experian.com, www.equifax.com or www.transunion.com.

    Of course, none of this may be sufficient -- in which case there are plenty of resources for identity theft victims. Perhaps the best website is Georgia's "Stop Identity Theft" network, at www.stopidentitytheft.org, a one-stop public/private resource with links to frequently asked questions, a list of steps to take, what the new law in Georgia says, and an online form to report your crime.

    Finally, talking to other identity theft victims can be extremely helpful. They can offer pointers on where to go, what to do and how best to plan your revenge. Unfortunately, we couldn't locate any local support groups for victims of identity theft. If you're interested in helping form one, or joining one, give Steve Fennessy a call at 404-614-1272, or e-mail him at steve.fennessy@creativeloafing.com.

  • Tags:

    Comments

    Subscribe to this thread:

    Add a comment

    Latest in Cover Story

    Readers also liked…

    • We need to talk about HIV 30

      The Southeast is the epicenter of the epidemic. And in Atlanta, it’s hitting young gay and bisexual black men the hardest.
    • The Year in Photos

      From Black Lives Matter to same-sex marriage, 26 photos that captured 2015

    More by Steve Fennessy

    • Gray day

      Music
    • Unrest

      Add It Up
    • Atlanta's Jack the Ripper

      Did a serial killer murder 20 women a century ago?
    • More »
    The Ultimate Doughnut Smackdown
    The Ultimate Doughnut Smackdown

    Search Events

    1. Goat Farm Economics 5

      Can art and good old-fashioned capitalism breathe new life into one of Atlanta’s most historic and overlooked neighborhoods?
    2. Solving downtown's homeless problem begins with taking the red pill 95

      Peachtree-Pine homeless shelter is the root of downtown's image problem
    3. Unanswered: CL's metro Atlanta officer-involved shooting database

    Recent Comments

    © 2016 Creative Loafing Atlanta
    Powered by Foundation