SEATTLE – An Oregon man who was the victim of a 35-year-long identity theft said Thursday he's so happy about an arrest in the case that he could kiss the special agent who handled it.
"I can't believe this has finally come to a head after all these years — it's like I've been released from prison," Tom Lesh, of Coos Bay, told The Associated Press. "I was just talking to Special Agent Matt Lavelle and I want to kiss him."
Lesh, 66, said he's known since the 1970s that his brother's friend stole his identity, and he appealed to everyone from the IRS to the suspect's own mother for help — to no avail. As the decades wore on, he said, he spent "thousands of hours" writing letters to credit card companies, banks, insurance companies and government agencies, trying to clear his name.
"At one point I thought about getting a hit man, but I worried that with my luck, they'd get the wrong Tom Lesh," he joked.
Finally, early this year, a Premera Blue Cross insurance fraud investigator named Sandy Larson took up the case. Premera had received claims for treatment a Tom Lesh received at Northwest Hospital in Seattle, but the real Tom Lesh told the company it wasn't him.
Larson forwarded the matter to Lavelle, a special agent with the Social Security Administration's Office of the Inspector General. Lavelle tracked down the suspect, a 58-year-old truck driver whose real name is Clark Mower, and arrested him Wednesday near his Seattle home. He was charged in U.S. District Court in Seattle with aggravated identity theft, Social Security number misuse and unlawful production of an ID.
Mower faces a mandatory minimum of two years in prison and up to five years if convicted. His public defender, Peter Avenia, said Mower was ordered released Thursday on electronic home monitoring pending trial, but he otherwise declined to comment.
Lesh said he and his brother worked with Mower at a plastics factory in Los Angeles in the early 1970s, and that after his brother moved to Oregon, Mower followed him north.
One night, Lesh said, the two friends got drunk, and when Mower mentioned needing an ID to avoid a drunken driving charge in California, "My goofy brother must've said, 'Well, you should use my brother's,'" and gave Mower personal details such as his mother's maiden name and Tom Lesh's place of birth.
Lesh said his brother didn't know Mower had followed through with the plan. But soon, someone in the personnel department at his company informed him that a person in Oregon was using his Social Security number for work reasons.
Lesh said he figured out what happened when a friend went to Oregon and saw Mower. The friend reported back that Mower freely spoke about using Lesh's identity.
Thus began his long nightmare. From the 1970s into the '80s, the IRS tried to get Lesh to pay $10,000 in back taxes, according to Lavelle's affidavit in the case. In 1984, after Lesh moved to Oregon, he was denied a car loan and learned that thousands of dollars of bad debt had been incurred in his name. In 1986, someone using his identity filed for bankruptcy in Seattle after running up $139,000 in debts in Lesh's name.
"He had gotten an 18-wheeler with my credit, screwed it up and turned it into a bankruptcy," Lesh said.
In 1999, Lesh's doppelganger began receiving benefits from Washington's Department of Social and Health Services, even though Lesh had never lived in Washington.
Lesh said he never had to pay any of the obligations run up in his name, and he eventually had a fraud alert attached to his credit, so credit card companies alerted him when someone used his ID to apply for a new credit card. By providing statements from his employer and copies of his pay checks he was able to convince the IRS he didn't owe anything.
But beyond that, he said, no one would listen. He brought his case to state and local police, the Social Security Administration, and at one point even called Mower's mother, pleading with her to tell her son to stop.
Lavelle wrote in his affidavit that the suspect had taken out a Washington driver's license in Lesh's name, and the application for DSHS benefits included Mowers' address in northwest Seattle.
Lavelle called it the most satisfying — and unique — case he's ever worked on.
"I've never seen a case like this that went on for almost 40 years," he said. "We've made a very big difference in Mr. Lesh's life, and it's about time somebody did. He was at the end of his rope, and now he's on top of the world."