Bob Hartle's Identity Crisis

A con man stole his good name and good credit; the law wouldn't help him get it back

When her sons who were still in Phoenix would raise their concerns about her health and her husband, Patricia Hartle would tell them to back off, and they would listen dutifully.

As Bill Hartle says, "She was still our mom."

From a law enforcement standpoint, there are more pressing matters to deal with than a simple case of misstated identity. A majority of criminal fugitives, drug dealers and con men assume aliases and commonly gather the necessary documents they need to carry out their schemes or to pass as regular law-abiding citizens. Cross-country truckdrivers apply for driver's licenses with fake names that they can present to traffic cops so that they don't lose their real license and their livelihood. It would be logistically and financially impossible to track down all those infractions, and so they are usually uncovered only during the investigation of a more violent or more costly crime.

Besides, you can call yourself what you want. There are no copyright laws for persons' names. Any urban phone book could have a Robert Hartle or two. What's one more?

Furthermore, Gilbert had not forcibly taken anything from Hartle, had not threatened him, had not directly cost him any money--yet. Any money charged on the fraudulent credit cards and loans was not Hartle's problem anyway; it was the problem of the banks that issued the loans and the insurance companies that covered the loss. So, regardless of any statutes on the books, the cops had more important things to worry about.

"What the problem was," says Arizona state representative Tom Smith, who eventually came to Hartle's aid, "is that it's such a low priority in the scheme of things with the police department, they put no effort into it."

"They consider these crimes to be property crimes," says Hartle, and the buzz is that property crimes take a back seat to violent crimes in an overwhelmed legal system in the 1990s.

In fact, it is a felony in Arizona to apply for a driver's license with a fraudulent name, but that statute is so far buried in the state's automobile regulations that even the DMV investigators seemed not to know it. The Phoenix and Mesa police would point to a misdemeanor in the criminal code for presenting false ID, and they weren't about to make the big bust for that.

But Bob Hartle wasn't interested in being shut out of the system when his good name was at stake.

Over the phone, he badgered the DMV investigators into putting a flag on Gilbert's phony Arizona driver's license so that at least he couldn't move to another state and take out another.

He called every creditor on his infected credit report and closed all the accounts, and asked that he be contacted if anyone tried to reopen them.

The Mesa Police Department had somehow figured out that "Carl" was really Scott Gilbert, but it wasn't interested in pursuing him.

Hartle wrote letters to every agency he thought might help him: to the state attorney general, the county attorney, the Phoenix Police Document Crimes unit, the governor, the U.S. attorney, the FBI, the mayor of Phoenix and other elected officials. Without fail, he would get a polite response saying that his case had been referred to one of the other agencies he had already written to, who would then politely refer to yet another. His phone bill was so high from the long-distance calls he was making to Phoenix that the phone company asked him if he wanted to install a discounted business line.

His lawyer suggested he might have an easier time convincing law enforcement officers to go after Gilbert if he went to Phoenix to meet with them in person. So in May 1994, Hartle decided to take three weeks off from his job and come to Phoenix to take back his identity.

Hartle surprised his mom in the middle of the day, explained what was wrong and then took her and a box of official paperwork he'd collected to the Phoenix police headquarters, where he spoke at length with Detective Craig Buchanan, who refused to even look at his box of documents or write a police report.

"Under the laws of that time, he was not the victim of that crime," says Buchanan. "In order to have taken a police report, I would have had to have a victim."

Hartle was frazzled, but cordial, Buchanan says.
"He said he understood," Buchanan continues. "He didn't like it, but he understood it."

When Hartle gave up and said he was leaving, the cops asked if there would be trouble when he confronted Gilbert.

"Probably so," Hartle replied, "because I do not have a good attitude about this."

Gilbert usually carried a handgun with him, Hartle's mother pointed out. So now, with the threat of violence, a pair of police officers decided to give Hartle an escort to his mother's house. But Gilbert was already gone.

When he'd come home to an empty house, his invalid wife gone, Gilbert went to the neighbors to ask what they knew. When they told him that Patricia's boy Bob was in town, he didn't even bother to pack a bag, he just jumped in his fraudulently obtained pickup truck and drove nonstop to his sister's house in New Hampshire.

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