Updated: May 13, 2009 at 12:00 am
The leader of a statewide veterans group who fought for homeless veterans in Colorado Springs was in the Denver County jail on Wednesday, unmasked as a former psychiatric patient who posed as a wounded Marine officer and 9/11 survivor.
Federal authorities are looking into whether Rick Duncan, whose real name is Richard Glen Strandlof, could have pilfered money he raised in the name of Colorado veterans, said Daniel Warvi of the Colorado Veterans Alliance (CVA), the group that Duncan founded.
"We were all taken aback," Warvi said.
Strandlof, 31, who invented the name Duncan and claimed he was a former Marine captain and 1997 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, never served in the military and falsely claimed that he was in the Pentagon during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the group said.
Two members of CVA said the group became suspicious of the man they knew as Duncan after discovering inconsistencies in his personal story.
In a search of the Colorado Secretary of State's Office records, for example, they found that the name Colorado Veterans Alliance had been reserved by "Rick Strandlof," whom they had never met, the group said.
The group said it found that Strandlof had been a patient in a mental hospital in Washoe County, Nev., at the time of the roadside bombing in Fallujah, Iraq, that he claimed left him severely wounded.
CVA members contacted the FBI field office in Denver, which opened an investigation in early May and arrested him Tuesday night in downtown Denver on a traffic warrant originating in El Paso County.
According to Warvi, when an FBI agent asked whether he was Strandlof or Duncan, he responded "both," then requested an attorney.
Calls to the FBI Wednesday were not returned.
Strandlof was in custody at the Denver County jail in lieu of a $1,000 bond Wednesday.
He is wanted in El Paso County for failing to appear in court on a charge of driving with a suspended license. El Paso County sheriff's spokeswoman Lt. Lari Sevene said Strandlof will be sent to Colorado Springs to appear before a judge unless he posts bond in Denver.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Denver knew Strandlof by name, but said he couldn't confirm or deny whether Strandlof is under investigation.
According to sources, federal authorities are trying to find out what happened to $25,000 Strandlof raised during a New Year's Eve event in 2006 in Reno, Nev.
Last year, Strandlof drew headlines in Colorado Springs - including in The Gazette - by threatening to sue the city unless it suspended city-sponsored cleanups of homeless camps that Strandlof claimed were victimizing veterans.
The city suspended the sweeps in October and is still sorting through legal issues related to the cleanup campaigns along the city's creek beds.
Strandlof also told his story in televised advertisements for Hal Bidlack, a retired Air Force officer and Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for Congress last year in the district representing Colorado Springs.
Bidlack told The Gazette on Wednesday that he never had a reason to doubt the veteran he knew as Duncan, who was a volunteer in his campaign.
"We didn't ask him, ‘You say you were a veteran, show me your ID card.' We just don't do that," Bidlack said.
He said he feared Strandlof's being exposed as a sham will detract from much-needed efforts to improve services for wounded veterans.
The U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., said the school has no record of a 1997 graduate named Rick Duncan.
Marine Corps spokeswoman Capt. Amy Malugani found no record of Strandlof or his alias Duncan serving in the Corps, and that the unit Strandlof claimed to have served with in Iraq doesn't exist.
Under his invented identity, Strandlof proved to be a popular spokesman on veterans' issues. He is quoted in stories as recently as March, when he was interviewed by The Denver Post about a measure before the state General Assembly to cut tuition for veterans.
He often spoke vividly of being in the Pentagon on Sept. 11 when a hijacked airliner was crashed into the building.
"The duality of that day, the good and the bad that I saw that day, are forever etched in my mind and in my memory," he told KOAA television in an interview last year marking the anniversary of the attacks.
The Gazette quoted Strandlof on issues concerning homeless veterans. The Colorado Springs Independent wrote about him in articles about veterans struggling to deal with their experiences in war and PTSD.
On YouTube, Strandlof appears in desert camouflage talking about his "wounds."
"I was involved in an IED explosion that killed four Marines," he said. "I have a plate roughly the size of a, like, cup and saucer on this portion of my skull."
In the video, Strandlof also claims to have had a hip replacement and to have "had a finger blown off."
Strandlof often spoke of his mistreatment by Defense Department officials, saying they dragged their feet on giving him a disability retirement.
Warvi said there was to be a meeting in Denver Wednesday night to remove Strandlof as the group's executive director. The group wants to continue its work fighting on behalf of veterans in Colorado, including efforts to find transitional housing in Denver.
The group has not conducted organizational fundraising to date but worries that Strandlof may have been involved in "personal activities" that have not yet come to light, Warvi said.
Garett Reppenhagen, a past chairman of the local chapter of Iraq Veterans against the War, said he saw Strandlof collecting money for CVA during an antiwar poetry reading at Poor Richard's Bookstore in downtown Colorado Springs, telling donors it would be used for shipping care packages to men and women serving abroad.
It's unclear if that money ever made it out of Strandlof's pocket.
"I think that everybody kind of gave him the benefit of the doubt," Reppenhagen said.
"Every veteran should feel betrayed."
Pam Zubeck of The Gazette contributed to this story.
- Graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., in 1997
- Commissioned as an officer in the Marine Corps, attained the rank of captain.
- Survived the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon
- Served three combat tours in Iraq.
- Severely wounded in a roadside bombing in Fallujah. War injuries resulted in his having a plate in his head, synthetic ribs and a hip replacement.