June 11th, 2009
03:41 PM ET

How we landed the Rick Strandlof interview

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/06/11/art.veteran.imposter.kusa.jpg caption="Rick Strandlof said he was an Iraqi war veteran, went to the Naval Academy and was a marine."]

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/06/11/art.veteran.fraud.cnn.jpg caption="Strandlof spoke out on behalf of war veterans."]

Joe Johns | BIO
CNN Correspondent

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.

Filed under: Joe Johns • Joneil Adriano • Keeping Them Honest
soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Jim

    People believe what they want to believe regardless of facts. We are living in a shadow history where perception is truth, and every opportunist knows that. Look at what you believe, and ask yourself why you believe.

    June 11, 2009 at 10:30 pm |
  2. Mike Moon

    As a former Marine, I'm disgusted that someone would claim the title that I worked so hard to earn. This man should be very ashamed of himself. Not only did he disrespect every U.S. Marine who has ever served, he also disrespected veterans of every U.S. War. He should make a formal apology to all Marines by visiting U.S. Marine bases and speaking with the widows and other family members of actual U.S. Marines killed or injured in action. Only a Marine understands the pride involved with wearing the Eagle, Globe and Anchor insignia. This pathetic excuse of a man doesn't have a shred of the personal fortitude it takes to earn that right. He's nothing but a pathetic dog.

    June 11, 2009 at 10:08 pm |
  3. Edward

    The man wanted to be a veteran. Very easy fix, he looks of military age. Have him join Marine Corps and go to a war zone. I sure that would be a good punishement after FBI is through with him. Semper Fi

    June 11, 2009 at 6:08 pm |
  4. TG

    Great story and interview all the way around. My family and I were on the receiving end of a fake war veteran two years ago. This gentleman lived with us for 7 months and was someone that I had "known" for almost 20 years. (Amazing the things that happen when you fall out of touch for 6 years...) So many of us heard so many of the same stories as Strandlof told his victims. This went on for almost two years before we became suspicious and started digging. As with Strandlof; military service was not all this person falsified. It was just about everything. In hindsight, there was not one word of truth that came out of his mouth. The experience has unfortunately caused the hair on the back of my neck to stand up every time that I hear someone talking about their military service. Odds are; they have served honorably, but it is hard to not have a sense of wonder as to their truthfulness. This has made me realize what damage that these people do with their lies. They damage all veterans and active service members. They steal not only from those that are in involved with them directly, but ALL those that serve their country. Of course, they all get caught eventually. Lincoln said that no man has a good enough memory to make a successful liar. None the less, the damage that these people inflict endures long after they have been forgotten as the sleaze bags that they are. Of all the trials that our service people tolerate; this has got to be one of the worst.

    June 11, 2009 at 5:29 pm |
  5. Jaye

    of course he's a pathological liar, i think the mental health dept. needs to conduct entirely way more studies on this problem i for one think it is a mental health problem, these people cant help but lie its not like they want too, they're just wired that way.

    P.S. Great job on the interview Anderson

    June 11, 2009 at 4:20 pm |
  6. Josh

    I have had a few encounters with Rick "Duncan" Strandlof over the past eyar or so and something always seemed off. He had a reputation for being short-tempered, but we all just attributed it to PTSD. I'm glad to see that he has been discovered. There are many REAL veterans who I know that looked up to him and trusted him.

    He took advantage of vulnerable people who've put their lives on the line for our country and need real help because the government refuses to take care of them when they return.

    June 11, 2009 at 4:18 pm |
  7. Maren in Oregon

    The interview with Anderson was absolutely riveting! Anderson was not neutgral on this one and, Thank God for that! I would not personally want to be on the receiving end of the fire in his eyes when he demanded to know if this guy was a "pathological liat."

    Super job of last minute tap dancing and seriously good journalistic instincts. Kudos to everyone involved.

    Hint: Put Anderson in that position more often.

    June 11, 2009 at 3:57 pm |