By Matthew Hendley
By Monica Alonzo
By Monica Alonzo
By Monica Alonzo
By Stephen Lemons
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Dulce Paloma Baltazar Pedraza
By Ray Stern
Bob Hartle first found out he had an evil twin in April 1994.
His mother, who was living in Phoenix, was in the hospital to have a leg amputated because of diabetes. Hartle had been calling her from his home in Iowa every night, and one night, his brother John got on the phone in his mom's room and told Hartle to call him privately at home.
Hartle called his brother in Mesa later that night and got the bad news.
"He told me how my mother's new husband was bragging about having a driver's license in my name," Hartle recalls.
All three of the Hartle brothers were uncomfortable about Carl, their new stepdad. When their mother had first told them she was seeing a man who lived in the same South Phoenix trailer park as she, they assumed it was an elderly widower; their mother was in her late 60s.
Carl, however, was their age, in his late 30s, a heavy drinker who, when the brothers showed up, would create enough of a scene to keep them from coming back. Still, although they shook their heads thinking about the relationship, it was their mother's problem and not theirs to worry about.
Bob had never even met Carl, and this new tidbit was troubling.
The next day, Hartle called the Arizona Department of Motor Vehicles and learned that there were both a driver's license and a commercial driver's license registered under his name and social security number, even though he hadn't lived in Arizona for nearly 10 years. The DMV employee said nothing could be done about it until the license expired two years hence.
Hartle called a lawyer, and the lawyer suggested that Hartle had more serious things to worry about than a driver's license in his name. The lawyer told him to check his own credit report, something Hartle had never given much attention.
What he saw on his credit report nearly gave him a heart attack.
According to the credit bureau, TRW, he'd charged more than $100,000 worth of homes and cars and merchandise, mostly over the preceding two years. He'd been through a bankruptcy. He'd bought trucks and a motorcycle. He owned a trailer home outside Las Vegas. Furthermore, there were 14 pending inquiries to the credit bureau for purchases he'd applied for but that had not yet shown up as dollar amounts on the report. Two of them later turned out to be new pickup trucks. Only two or three entries on the credit report represented accounts the Hartles had actually opened.
"We just couldn't fathom anybody doing that to us," says Hartle's wife, Joann.
What Bob Hartle would learn over the next few weeks was that stepfather Carl had become his sinister mirror image, at least on paper. He'd married Hartle's mother using Hartle's name, taken out a mortgage on her paid-for double-wide trailer, maxed out her credit cards and forced her into bankruptcy. Then, like a financial carcinogen, he slipped into his stepson's good credit and made it bloat and fester like a cancer.
"Carl" was not even named Carl; he was Scott Clinton Gilbert, a drifter with felony convictions for vehicle theft and insurance fraud in Florida, and a whole string of past lives that he'd used until they wore out or until a better one came along. Although he had been shifting funds around enough to keep his payments current on the debt he'd been growing in Hartle's name, he would have eventually reached the limit. And then, Hartle supposed, he could have just packed up and moved into someone else's identity.
Except Bob Hartle wasn't going to allow that to happen.
Hartle went to the Phoenix and Mesa police, but they wouldn't help him at first. Nor would the Maricopa County Attorney, nor the U.S. Attorney, nor the FBI, nor the Arizona Attorney General. So he pursued an investigation of sorts on his own.
"Bob's the type of person that if you mess with him, he'll find a way to get back at you," says his brother Bill. "If you've done him wrong, he's going to make you do right by him."
It took more than a year, but Hartle got back at Gilbert.
Hartle, 46, is a blue-collared, regular Joe, red-haired, red-bearded and bespectacled. He's got a high school diploma and a factory job, not a law degree. But he wasn't about to swallow getting the run-around from the law enforcement agencies that were supposed to be on his side.
So Hartle harangued and badgered and bullied until he finally got the drop on a public official and forced him to do something. And then he used that toehold to force the next agency into action.
In the end, he not only got Scott Gilbert thrown in prison, but he got an Arizona state law passed to make identity theft a felony, and he's helped launch a federal bill in the U.S. Senate. He counsels other victims of this rapidly growing crime.
Of course, he still hasn't gotten his own credit report fully cleared.
What Hartle has learned is that, in the long run, it would have been easier to change his own name to get out from under his impostor's debt.