Joe Johns | BIO
Charismatic and inspiring, people seemingly couldn’t get enough of the compelling personal story he had spun – that he was a graduate of the Naval Academy, was at the Pentagon on 9-11, and was injured in combat in Iraq. For much of 2008, the people of Colorado believed this purported war hero - a forceful public advocate on behalf of veterans and a vocal critic of the Iraq War. He also worked tireless to elect anti-war candidates, appearing in several political ads.
The only problem? It was all a lie – down to his name. Rick Duncan was really Richard Strandlof.
We spent three days basically following up on a lot of fine reporting in Denver by KUSA's Jace Larson and the local newspapers. As you can probably imagine, reporting on someone who had moved from state to state, and spent a good amount of time living as somebody else, is a little tricky. The CNN Research Library found over 300 people with the name Rick Duncan in Colorado alone.
We had to cross-check and confirm a lot of stuff ourselves - contacting the Pentagon, the Naval Academy, members of Congress, the FBI, local veterans, prosecutors, and many others - to try to establish that Strandlof wasn't who he said he was. I even talked on the phone with a man who identified himself as Strandlof's ex-boyfriend (Strandlof is gay).
Many of the people we talked to felt betrayed and even a little embarrassed that they had fallen for Strandlof's con. Now that the truth had been uncovered, many of them were reluctant to appear on-camera because they said they didn't want to interfere in an on-going federal investigation into whether Strandlof swindled anybody. No charges have been filed, and it’s not clear whether any ever will be.
Only one person agreed to an interview - Lt. Col. Hal Bidlack, who had used Strandlof in his campaign ads last year in an unsuccessful bid at Congress.
It became clear to me and producer Joneil Adriano that if we were going to get to the bottom of it, we had to pursue an interview with Strandlof himself. By the time we started digging into this story on Monday afternoon, Strandlof was in fact already sitting in jail. Not for any alleged fraud, mind you, but on unrelated traffic charges from an incident in 2008. But even more urgently, we learned that Strandlof would likely be released the very next day.
Given his past history of moving around, and the difficulty of getting a permanent address or phone number for him, we knew that we had to act fast if we were going to get to Strandlof before he was released from jail. So we talked to Senior Executive Producer David Doss about how to handle it, and we decided that the best way was to use CNN's vast world wide resources. I wrote a letter to Strandlof requesting an interview. Joneil emailed that letter to a CNN producer based in Denver, who then printed it out and sent it off with a messenger.
The letter was hand delivered to the Colorado Springs jail around 9:00 p.m. local time on Monday night. Strandlof was scheduled to appear in court at 8:30 a.m. the next day. There was no guarantee that he would even see the letter before he got to court. But at least we made the effort.
On Tuesday, Strandlof was indeed released. He plead guilty to the traffic violations and was sentenced to time served (he had been held since May 19). We continued working on our story without hearing a peep from Strandlof.
Then on Wednesday evening, just as we were finalizing on our story - a surprise. Strandlof contacted me by e-mail and said he might be interested in giving an interview after all. He wanted to get his side of the story out. I talked to him on the phone a couple times. And then Strandlof decided to do it. We arranged for him to get to a studio in Denver, and he was on our air later that night - his first interview since being released from jail.
The decision to come clean on national TV probably wasn't an easy one. I give him credit for doing so and talking about it after all this.
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