Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Online Crimes of Fake Soldier Go Unpunished

By the time Cari Johnson caught wind of a Lebanon (OHIO) man’s online scam, victims in California, Connecticut and Texas already had sent him laptop computers, keys to their homes, personal photos and care packages they believed were headed to American soldiers serving overseas.

But the case of James E. Middleton, 47, of Ohio, demonstrates problems with cybercrime investigations, which cross multiple federal and state jurisdictions and present other dilemmas for investigators used to fighting land-based crimes. As a result, authorities have declined to pursue criminal charges against Middleton even though he admitted to scamming people.

“Where did this occur? It’s not like somebody broke into your house and you can take fingerprints,” said Sgt. Jeff Mitchell of the Lebanon Police Department, which declined to charge Middleton.

Confronted in January by his victims and a police investigation, Middleton said he took responsibility for his misdeeds and blamed his actions on loneliness and agoraphobia, and the companionship and calming effects he gained in relationships built over more than a year with victims nationwide.

He tricked donors into believing he was three different soldiers, including a female. He has since returned some of the items or reimbursed his victims. “Maybe it’ll help somebody else to realize how something that starts out so small can go so totally out of whack,” Middleton said in an interview with the Dayton Daily News.

The FBI’s Cybercrime Division is the top U.S. law enforcement agency charged with fighting online scams. Cases like Middleton’s rank far below a long list of FBI priorities topped by protecting the country from terrorists attacks, foreign intelligence operations and espionage, cyber-based attacks and high-technology crimes.

“Is ( Middleton’s case) going to be something the FBI can devote its resources to? Probably not,” Washington-based FBI spokeswoman Jenny Shearer said. The inadequacy of the existing cybercrime law enforcement is the focus of continued global discussion.

In January, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime convened a meeting of international experts in Austria “with a view to examining options to strengthen existing and to propose new national and international legal or other responses to cybercrime.” In America, the FBI works with National White Collar Crime Center, a non-profit organization that tracks cybercrime rates and teaches law enforcement officials the latest techniques. The center and FBI, in partnership with the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance, formed the Internet Complaint Call Center about 10 years ago.

“What is unique about Internet crime is that a perpetrator can live in one state and perpetrate a crime in many other states. They cross jurisdictional boundaries,” said spokesman John Everett with the National White Collar Crime Center. Criminal justice in cyberspace Lebanon police said they were unable to prosecute Middleton, in part because the victims lived in three other states. A federal postal inspector said Middleton’s alleged crimes did not involve the U.S. mail system.

“It really irks me that nothing can be done,” said Johnson, who runs A Dollar to Care, a charity for soldiers and their families, from her home in Riverside. Her son, Dominic Johnson, is a military policeman with the Ohio National Guard. Middleton lives with his teenage daughter, and they share a personal computer. During an interview at his apartment, he said he had learned his lesson. “If I ever felt the want to do that, I would just get rid of my computer,” he said.

Multiple false soldier identities In a case involving a California victim, Middleton acted as a fictitious female soldier, Amy Anderson. For a Texas woman, he was soldier, Michael Wolfe. For a Connecticut woman, he was soldier Jason “Thumper” Hayes. In all three cases, Middleton had the victims send him care packages, believing he would get them to their special soldier through his fake connections at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Middleton met his victims in chat rooms on JustinTV.com, a website where people can post videos and pictures, request and listen to music, and engage in real-time chats.

Middleton said he began entering the chat rooms as fictitious soldiers to get noticed. “In my heart I knew I was wrong but I thought if I entered the room as a soldier it would be better and more people would want to talk to me,” he said in a statement to police.

Jennifer Schmitz of San Antonio, Texas, said she fell in love with soldier “Wolfe” after online communications and receiving love letters actually written by Middleton during a two-year period. “This was someone I put my life on hold for,” she said in a telephone interview. Acting as Wolfe, Middleton said he encouraged Schmitz to send him care packages and wrote her love letters. When Schmitz confronted Middleton by phone, “he said actually, ‘I’m in love with you,’” she said.

Middleton usually favored pretending to be “Thumper” when he communicated with Sheila O’Leary in Connecticut. However, she said Middleton pretended to be 21 different soldiers, as well as himself, during more than a year of contact. “I talked with all of them,” O’Leary said. “This was not his first time doing this.”

Middleton’s third victim, a California man whom he duped to believing he was a female soldier, declined to comment. Johnson said she became aware of Middleton through friendships she built online with the victims. She said her charity has a network of more than 5,000 soldiers and military supporters. Standing up for soldiers “Ninety-five percent of my postings, everything I type, usually is centered around the military or veterans,” she said. Johnson discovered Middleton was using photos of people in uniform to bolster his fake identities. “That’s what really made my blood boil,” she said. Johnson said Middleton should have been charged with crimes, including the Stolen Valor Act, a federal law that bars individuals from falsifying their military service. The law is in limbo due to constitutional challenges in three states.

Johnson said she is concerned that Middleton and others who get away with their scams will continue their alleged cybercriminal activities. ‘If they’re successful and they don’t get caught, what’s going to stop them?” Johnson said. “You can go online and pretend you are whatever or whoever you want to be.” Lebanon police said their investigation was hobbled by the advanced state of the case when Johnson notified them. “Mr. Middleton and these people pretty much had it worked out between themselves before we caught up,” Mitchell said.

Middleton said he began the scam following the deaths of his mother and other relatives. He said he was driven by loneliness that fed the agoraphobia he has suffered from for 16 years. “I started out, oddly enough, as a female,” he said. “It just absolutely snowballed.”

Middleton said his only military experience was when he twice failed to complete basic training at Fort Dix Army base in New Jersey. He also learned military terminology aiding him in pretending to be a soldier from family members. “I’ve had family members in almost every branch except the Coast Guard,” he added.

Since these incidents, Middleton said he goes online only to check the weather and look at maps. He said he no longer visits social networking sites. “I don’t enjoy the computer anymore,” he said, adding that new medication is helping deal with his mental issues. Still Middleton said he felt he deserved to be punished. “That part I still have no answer to,” he said. “How do you morally repay someone?”

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