Bob Hartle's Identity Crisis
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.
Arizona Coyotes vs. San Jose Sharks
TicketsTue., Nov. 1, 7:00pm
Phoenix Suns vs. Portland Trail Blazers
TicketsWed., Nov. 2, 7:00pm
Arizona Coyotes vs. Nashville Predators
TicketsThu., Nov. 3, 7:00pm
Arizona State University Sun Devils Hockey vs. University of Michigan
TicketsFri., Nov. 4, 7:05pm
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.
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.
And he damned sure wasn't about to do that.
Robert Bruce Hartle moved to Phoenix with his family in 1953, when he was 2 years old. He grew up in the yellow double-wide near South Mountain where he lives today. He went to South Mountain High School, dabbled with Rio Salado Community College and worked at AlliedSignal like his daddy did. He married and divorced--twice to the same woman--and, after the second divorce, in 1984, he decided to escape his life and the Phoenix heat and run off to Alaska. There he met his current wife, Joann, and the two of them moved to Iowa and settled in.
Scott Clinton Gilbert came to Phoenix in 1989, and eventually moved into a dilapidated trailer next door to Hartle's mom.
Gilbert is dark-haired and mustachioed with a black rose and a marijuana leaf tattooed on his shoulders. And though he is a truckdriver and diesel mechanic by trade, his resume reads like the lyrics of a Merle Haggard tune.
According to court documents, he'd been busted for robbery and disturbing the peace as a teenager in California. In 1988, he was convicted of grand theft and insurance fraud in Florida for buying trucks, taking them out of state, selling them, and then reporting them stolen to get the insurance company to pay off the notes on them. He was sentenced to probation, but he jumped supervision right away to move to Phoenix.
He was not able to stay out of trouble; his rap sheet shows a 1990 arrest for drug possession in California. Gilbert had approached a pair of police officers and told them that someone had bugged his truck and his hotel room. He was wired and virtually crawling out of his eyeballs, and the cops found that he was carrying methamphetamine--and a California driver's license that identified him as Scott Jason Pauley.
But he was calling himself Carl Lee Lunden when he moved into the South Phoenix trailer park and befriended Hartle's mother. Patricia Hartle had been widowed for years, a lonely woman in poor health. "Carl" would let her ride along on cross-country truck runs. She thought he loved her and she let him move into her life.
And she let him take her son's name.
"He told my mother he'd been in a messy divorce in Florida and he beat up his ex-wife's lawyer and there was a warrant out for his arrest," says Hartle. "He told her he needed a new identity to get a job at a good trucking company."
What would it matter? Bob had disappeared into Alaska with no intentions of ever coming back. Patricia Hartle agreed to the little deception, and when they married in September 1991, they applied for the marriage license using her maiden name and her son's name.
Gilbert had already written to the social security office in Glendale, claiming he'd lost his social security card and asking for a duplicate; he wrote to Washington, D.C., as well to apply for a second social security number in Hartle's name, just in case. And he sent off to South Bend, Indiana, for a copy of Hartle's birth certificate.
With those documents in hand, he drove to Nevada and applied for driver's and truckdriver's licenses and, using them as photo ID, was able to obtain Arizona driver's licenses.
Patricia Hartle always called him "Carl," but for all intents and purposes, he had become Robert Bruce Hartle, and bounced through a string of truckdriver jobs.
"He's lived as me for so long, he really believes he's me," says the real Hartle.
And he was living large.
Because he liked Las Vegas, the impostor Hartle told his new wife, he bought a double-wide in Henderson, Nevada. When he tired of it, he sold it to an elderly couple, apparently pocketed the down payment, and let them assume the payments. The house remained in Hartle's name.
He talked Patricia into taking out a $20,000 mortgage on her Phoenix double-wide; it had been paid for by the time her first husband passed away. He got onto all of Patricia's credit-card and bank accounts, tore through her credit, and then, when she had to declare bankruptcy, he told creditors that he was her son, in order to keep her debts off his credit report--or rather off Hartle's credit report. He had other plans for that, and was well on his way to bankrupting Bob Hartle when he got caught.
Meanwhile, Patricia's health was failing. Gilbert took out three life insurance policies on her.
"He knew she was a bad diabetic," says Bill Hartle. "He would buy her apple pies and sweets and stuff. You don't give that stuff to a diabetic."
After she'd had her leg amputated, he'd taken her out of the hospital, and when he left for work in the morning, he would sit her in a chair with a cell phone and her pain medication, and leave her there. Patricia's sons later found that all the windows had been screwed permanently shut from the outside, and all the light fixtures had 200-watt bulbs in them, and they theorized that Gilbert was hoping the place would catch fire.
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.
He'd left a box inside the front door with his .357 magnum and his bogus work papers. When Hartle and the police searched the trailer, they found boxes of forged papers: resumes in Hartle's name, faked tax returns, blank automobile titles, notary stamps, credit applications. In effect, he'd left all the evidence Hartle would eventually need to figure out Gilbert's scheme.
If he could get someone to look at it.
Gilbert had purchased a motorcycle in Hartle's name and left it on the back porch of the double-wide. Hartle called up the dealer and told him to come get it, which he did.
Gilbert had been a regular at the dealership, says Jeff Chapman, manager of Kelly's Kawasaki.
"He'd come in here and sit down and have lunch with us when he was getting his bike serviced," Chapman says. "You would never have expected in a million years that this guy wasn't who he said he was. He was good at his job."
Then, since Hartle had already figured out that he would be told he was not the victim, he had Chapman contact the Mesa police to see if Gilbert could be prosecuted for fraudulently obtaining credit to buy the bike. Ultimately, Kelly's was able to resell the machine for more than was owed on it, so the dealership did not suffer any dollar loss that might have made it a victim, either.
Hartle's an old-fashioned, black-and-white kind of guy, raised to believe that if something is wrong, the authorities will fix it. And so he claims that he launched into the same argument with a Mesa police detective that he'd already had with a Phoenix detective. The detective, who has since retired and did not return New Times' calls, said that Gilbert had only committed a misdemeanor, which the county attorney would not pursue.
"It was like a carbon copy [of his conversation in Phoenix]," Hartle says. "These guys must all meet and say this is what we're not going to do.
"I said, 'Look, you do your job, and I'll worry about the county attorney. I reported a crime to you. It's your job to investigate it. It's your job to write a report in a manner that the county attorney will prosecute. That's it. Your job isn't to speak for the county attorney. Your job isn't to talk me out of nothin'.'"
Hartle eventually found an agency willing to arrest Scott Gilbert: the New Hampshire State Police.
Shortly after going on the lam, Gilbert had made the rounds in New Hampshire, trying to borrow $5,000 on the accounts he had opened in Arizona. Hartle had already closed the accounts, and the lenders called him to report Gilbert's whereabouts. Then Hartle notified the New Hampshire Motor Vehicle Department, so in July 1994, when Gilbert tried to get a New Hampshire driver's license in Hartle's name, he was arrested, and, after conferring with Hartle, a New Hampshire judge released Gilbert on bail and ordered him not to leave the state.
The New Hampshire authorities discovered that Gilbert was wanted on a Florida fugitive warrant; the state of Florida, however, did not want to spend any money to get him back. Arizona authorities still were not interested. As late as November 1994, the Mesa Police Department was telling the Iowa newspapers that the county attorney was not interested in pressing charges.
Hartle stayed busy, however. He called the U.S. Post Office and had its officials ferret out Gilbert's bogus post office boxes and close them. He called General Motors in Dearborn, Michigan, and asked why it was extending credit to criminals, and GM responded by repossessing the truck Gilbert was driving in Hartle's name.
"Them guys are so gung ho, they get excited about all this," Hartle says of the authorities in New Hampshire. "They went out to the house with the dealer and the local police and repossessed the truck. And [Gilbert] come out screamin' and yellin' that he was making the payments on it and that he was Robert B. Hartle, and he was going to sue them. And they was just laughin'."
Gilbert was beginning to get shook. He called Hartle in Iowa.
"What do you want from me to get you off my back?" he asked.
Hartle responded, "It's real simple. You just come to Arizona, get arrested, go to prison, and I'll send you cigarettes."
Gilbert refused. "There's not a law enforcement agency in the United States that will do anything to me. I'm going to use your name until I decide not to," he told Hartle.
Hartle closed the conversation. "I'm not going to live my life playing catch-up with you," he said. "I know where you're at now. So I've got two choices: Either I can convince law enforcement people to do their job, or I can come and find you and take care of it myself. It's as simple as that."
By August 1994, Hartle was spending so much time and energy and money trying to fight Gilbert long-distance that he finally decided to quit his job and sell his house and move to Phoenix to be closer to the battle. His mother was ill and alone, and she asked if Hartle and Joann would move in with her.
A new nightmare began for Hartle. His mother wasn't eating, and she was only sporadically taking her medication other than pain pills. Hartle had found bottles and bottles of pills in her medicine chest, and he took them all to his mother's doctor and asked which she should and which she shouldn't be taking. The doctor told him to flush them all down the toilet. Then, when Hartle started rationing his mother's medicines, she fought back.
While Hartle was at a new job, she called Adult Protective Services and claimed that Hartle was abusing her. Diabetes can be a mood-altering disease.
"We ended up getting a lawyer, us boys," remembers Bob's brother Bill, "because it got to be such a financial mess and the way she was being."
The lawyer suggested that the three brothers back away lest their finances get any more tangled with hers, especially given the uproar she had been causing.
Tragically, in the midst of straightening out the mess--and trying to get her marriage annulled--Patricia Hartle was killed in a car accident. While riding with a neighbor, the pickup truck they were in was broadsided by a car at an intersection.
The three sons were so estranged from her by that time that they heard the news from a sister who was living in Alaska.
The only reason Bob Hartle's case was ever taken up by the authorities came from an angry letter mistakenly sent by an assistant U.S. attorney who didn't want to be bothered by Hartle's troubles.
Hartle had contacted senators and congressmen both in Iowa and Arizona. Only Iowa Senator Tom Harkin took interest and persistently lobbied the U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix by mail.
Dan Drake, in the U.S. Attorney's Office, was charged with responding to Harkin's inquiries.
"It's fair to say that we had the same reluctance at the outset that any federal agency would in a situation like this, because of the time and the energy required, the diversion of resources from other cases and things of that sort," Drake says now. "There are lots and lots of things that go wrong with the world, and some of them can be addressed by federal authorities, and some can be addressed by locals."
In November 1994, after several rounds of letters from Harkin's office that were improperly addressed to an earlier U.S. attorney, and because the letters didn't seem to acknowledge the responses that he'd already sent, Drake dashed off a nasty letter in a fit of pique.
He addressed it to Harkin's predecessor, started off by saying, "It appears we have gotten on your monthly dunning list, which is unfortunate," and then petulantly informed the senator that Janet Napolitano had been U.S. attorney for nearly a year.
"It was meant to be tongue-in-cheek," Drake says, "and was not meant to go out. Unfortunately, it did."
New Times did not see Harkin's response, but judging from Napolitano's apology letter, it was spicy.
"I also have asked Mr. Drake to personally see to it that this matter is given high attention," she wrote.
The U.S. Attorney's Office got on the case, and Drake, in fact, threw himself into the task.
Drake acknowledged that Gilbert's fraudulent bank loans and use of credit cards fell under federal jurisdiction, and he enlisted the help of the FBI. And he had a hunch about Gilbert's guns that came true when he had them traced by federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents. Gilbert was a convicted felon, prohibited from owning firearms, and, as Drake's hunch panned out, he had bought them under an alias, Carl Lee Lunden, while he was a fugitive.
On February 8, 1995, Gilbert was indicted in federal court on charges of making false statements in the acquisition of a firearm; of being a fugitive in possession of a firearm; of false statements in connection with a loan application; and false use of a social security number. He was extradited to Arizona two days later, and the following July pleaded guilty to two of the charges, and was sentenced to 17 months in prison. Both offenses had been committed under the name Carl Lee Lunden.
Hartle was not a victim in either crime.
Meanwhile, Bob Hartle had found willing ears in the Arizona state government. He appealed to then-speaker of the House Mark Killian, who referred him to Representative Tom Smith of Phoenix.
"Bob was somebody off the street and they said, 'Yeah, yeah, we'll take care of it,'" Smith remembers. "They didn't count on his tenacity. They were shifting it around, and I don't think they were very serious about it."
Smith contacted Jerry Landau, the Maricopa County Attorney's liaison to the Legislature, who in turn lighted a fire under the Mesa Police Department. Gilbert was indicted for two counts of perjury and three counts of tampering with a public record, all felonies. And in October 1995, Gilbert pleaded guilty to one perjury charge and was sentenced to four years in prison to be served after his federal sentence had been served.
Although Gilbert had used Hartle's name while applying for the illegal marriage and driver's licenses, the crimes had actually been committed against the state agencies that issued those documents. Gilbert went so far as to apologize in court to the Hartles at both of his convictions and later at a parole hearing. But technically, Bob Hartle was still not his victim.
As of this writing, Hartle has not completely cleared up his credit report. All during his fight, he found that if he contested charges on the report, they would be immediately removed--and then after 30 days and a cursory investigation, they would be put right back on.
More than three years after he first discovered Gilbert's masquerade, he still has not been able to convince a mortgage company that he did not buy a trailer home in Nevada. Even though an ATF investigator wrote to the mortgage company after Gilbert's federal conviction and told them that Gilbert had been impersonating Hartle, the mortgage company responded by recommending that Hartle attend credit counseling. At last report, the federal investigators were trying to obtain the original loan application and submit it to handwriting analysis.
Hartle has also made a personal mission out of fighting stolen-identity crimes. In April 1996, Governor Fife Symington signed "the Hartle bill," which had been proposed by Tom Smith to make it a felony to appropriate names, birthdates or social security numbers of another person "for any unlawful purpose or to cause financial loss to the other person."
In late March of this year, Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona introduced the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1997, making it a federal felony to use another identity for deceitful purposes, punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
None of which guarantees that any law enforcement agency will pursue the crime.
While attempting to clear up Hartle's mortgage problems, an Arizona Department of Banking employee named David Sprehe had his briefcase stolen out of the trunk of his car.
"My life was in that briefcase," Sprehe says. His credit cards and checkbook were gone, and he turned to Hartle for advice on how to set his records straight. Then he went to the Phoenix Police Department.
"The quote that was given to me was that I was not a victim," Sprehe says. "It was a victimless crime. I wasn't threatened. There was no harm to me."
Hartle has since assembled a list of nonvictims: the man who had his identity assumed by a deadbeat dad escaping child-support payments; the man who had his identity taken by a shadow who rang up $23,000 of credit in two weeks, and so on.
Essentially, it's always open season for identity fraud. And as assistant U.S. attorney Dan Drake points out, Gilbert's mistake was to assume the identity of a living person who had enough connections and enough smarts to figure out who was ripping him off. He could easily have assumed a fictitious name, used it up and then moved on and started over as someone else.
Because the law enforcement agencies are overwhelmed with more immediate, more violent or more easily investigated crimes, the new laws won't necessarily be enforced.
"To some extent, where you end up is a prioritization," says Drake. "There are limited resources . . ."
As for Hartle's case, Drake continues, "All that means is, go to a senator and complain, and then we end up being driven in the cases we prosecute based on other factors."
Politics, in other words, as opposed to the usual priorities toward prosecuting violence and large-scale fraud.
Meaning that even if you have an open-and-shut case, you still may not get anything done about it.
Hartle remains furious.
"They just flat out give up and refuse to do anything," Hartle says. "Unlike other victims, I had all the evidence in my hand and presented it to them and they refused to take it. That's the part that really ticked me off.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.