Las Vegas Identity Theft Case Ends After 15 Years

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An identity thief who caused his victim 15 years of suffering that sometimes bordered on the Kafkaesque pleaded guilty this week in a Las Vegas courtroom.

Arthur Gerald Jones, 73, has been ordered to pay restitution to both the Social Security Administration and to the man whose identity he stole, a 50-year-old Veterans Affairs hospital nurse named Clifton Goodenough.

Jones pleaded guilty to one count of felony identity fraud. He will be sentenced Jan. 31 and he might get jail time, a Clark County court official said.

Jones' attorney, asked by ABC News for comment, did not make himself available.

But court documents and Jones' own statements to authorities tell a complicated story.

In 1979, Jones cast off his identity and fled his home and family in Highland, Ill. He bought on the black market -- for $800 -- Goodenough's Social Security number and other information. Adopting a series of aliases, he moved first to Florida, then in 1988 to Las Vegas, where he found work as a bookie at a casino. Back in Highland, the missing Jones was legally declared dead in 1986.

Jones used Goodenough's Social Security number to pay taxes on his Las Vegas winnings and other income. For a time, the IRS didn't seem to notice it was doing business with two Goodenoughs with the same ID number. Goodenough at that time lived in Illinois. He thinks the IRS took no notice because he and Jones were filing their separate returns to different IRS regional offices, Goodenough told ABC News.

That changed when Goodenough moved to Arizona in the mid-1990s. Now, the fake Goodenough and the real one were filing returns to the same office. Goodenough said he began hearing from the IRS, which wanted to know why he wasn't paying taxes on the "extra income" he was earning in Las Vegas. He told them he hadn't been to Las Vegas and hadn't earned money there.

Jones, apparently, wasn't paying taxes on all his earnings.

Goodenough's relations with the IRS worsened to the point where in some years he found himself having to spend a week's worth of time writing to the IRS, talking on the phone with the IRS or making trips to IRS offices. Then one day in 1998, he went to get $20 from an automated teller machine and was told he lacked sufficient funds.

"The IRS took your money," the bank said.

He called the IRS. "I don't know what you're doing," he said he told them, "but it isn't me. I wasn't in Las Vegas, and I can prove it."

He got his employer to write a letter testifying to his whereabouts on the dates in question. Eventually, the IRS relented, and put the money back in his account, minus, Goodenough said ruefully, "the 75 bucks they charged me for the wire transfer."

Enough was enough, he decided.

He and his wife got the phone number for the fake Goodenough in Las Vegas. When they called, they found an amiable and easy-going guy who insisted there must be some honest mistake.

"He asked me what hospital I'd been born at," Goodenough recalled. " I told him Lake Forest , and he said, 'Yes, me, too.' He was a very good con man. He'd get me to tell him things, and then he'd say the same was true for him."

Jones magnanimously offered to change his Social Security number, so that Goodenough could avoid any future grief. "That told me something was really, really wrong," Goodenough said. "Why would a guy in his 70s be willing to change numbers with a guy 20 years younger, with such a shorter work life?"

He smelled a rat.

Having tried and failed to resolve his troubles by appealing to the IRS, to the Social Security Administration and to the Inspector General's office, Goodenough contacted Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., explaining that the fake Goodenough's shenanigans were hurting military veterans: Every hour he had to spend trying to extricate himself from his identity-theft nightmare was one less hour he could spend caring for his patients at the V.A. hospital.

McCain's efforts on Goodenough's behalf led eventually to Jones' arrest and prosecution.

Although the plea agreement does not specify the terms of probation, the Chicago Tribunereported, Jones could face three years of probation and repayment of $70,000 to the Social Security Administration and Goodenough, according to the Nevada attorney general's office.

Goodenough says he's happy, but not entirely so. He said he doubts that Jones will ever serve a day in jail. Whatever financial restitution Goodenough and his wife might get, it won't be enough to make up for what he's gone through.

"I'm supposed to quantify what he owes us," Goodenough said. "It's hard to find an example of identity theft that's worse than mine. It went on for 15 years. I'm still astounded it took this long to resolve this."

His own estimate for what he's owed, factoring in lost work days and the money he has spent defending himself, is $100,000. But no financial settlement, he said, can make him whole.

"The times I saw my wife crying?" he asked. "What price do you put on watching your wife cry?"