Video: Fighting cancer and an I.D. thief

NBC Universal Anchors and Correspondents
By Josh Mankiewicz Correspondent
NBC News

This story aired on Dateline, Christmas Day 2005

Eric Drew seemed to have all the luck in the world. He was energetic, successful, with a great family and a beautiful girlfriend. Drew was a software consultant and part-time model who had grown up in Northern California and worked around the world.

Josh Mankiewicz, Dateline Correspondent: It sounds like an enviable life.

Eric Drew: Ah, I envy it now. Ha.

Eric also wanted to give something back. That was always a part of him, says his adoptive mother Cindy Drew.

Cindy Drew, Eric’s mother: We got him when he was five weeks old and he was big for his age and has always been big in spirit, heart and stature.

Nearly every month for about eight years, Eric donated to the Red Cross – not money, or blood, exactly, but the part of blood called platelets which are essential in the treatment of many illnesses, including cancer.

Mankiewicz: You felt it was your duty to help out other people?

Drew: I just found doing any kind of a volunteer work very rewarding.  You know a lot more rewarding than—than doing just—work for pay basically.

But in a way he couldn’t have planned, at 35 years old, those donations to others would end up saving his own life.

Drew: I went in to give my platelets and they your red cell count is actually a little bit on the low side.  Which means “You’re slightly anemic.”  And you know, “You look a little bit pale, maybe you should go see a doctor.”

It felt like the flu, but it wasn’t. Eric’s doctor was as puzzled as his patient, and sent him to a specialist.

Drew: Within that week of going from going to the Red Cross to donate, to having these doctors evaluate my condition – during that week I got more and more sick.  Every day, I was twice as sick as the day before.  And it happened very fast.

A frightening diagnosis
It couldn’t have been more frightening: a rare and deadly form of the blood cancer leukemia — and it was rapidly shutting down his body.

Drew: That doctor said, “You’ve got about five days left to live without treatment.”

Mankiewicz: Five days left.

Drew: At the most.

Cindy Drew: It was a direct hit to your heart, to your solar plexus, to your way of life. My baby was dying.

Maybe it was a karmic refund for all his blood donations that Eric found out in literally the nick of time giving him a chance to survive.  The news would be the start of a two year painful ordeal of chemo, radiation and, untried treatments.   He’d find himself fighting not only for his life, but in an odd twist — for his good name as well.

By the end of January 2003, Eric was hanging on, but so was his cancer. For the next year, he’d find himself in three cities calling a series of hospital beds home. His early warning had given him time to slow his illness, but despite that, he still had the disease that was threatening to kill him.

Eric began to look for a bone marrow donor, perhaps his only chance for survival.  As an adoptee, his parents and siblings didn’t match up genetically.  But in that desperate search, Eric also found an opportunity to do some good for other leukemia victims.

It turns out one thing chemo and radiation can’t kill is a Type A personality.

Drew: The only way that’s gonna save my life is to find a bone marrow donor.  There are hundreds and thousands of people out there looking for bone marrow matches themselves, why don’t I, you know, use my resources, which I had a lot of—to put together a bone marrow drive. 

Mankiewicz: This is a rhetorical question, which is why not do that?  I’m guessing there were people, doctors maybe, maybe members of your family who thought that you should not be knocking yourself out to do something so public spirited at a time when you were gravely ill.

Drew: Well, but keeping myself busy was a mental salvation, I think, that I found.

Eric raised nearly a quarter of a million dollars and signed up some 700 marrow donors for other leukemia victims. But for Eric, no luck. There was no bone marrow match for him.

He had no choice, but to try an experimental treatment offered by doctors at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.  There he’d get a  bone marrow transplant, using bone marrow that only matched up genetically with his own by half.

Eric was told there was only a small chance he would even live. But he again went through painful radiation and chemo to prepare his body for this risky treatment.

And then something strange happened: Eric began to receive some unexpected attention.

Drew: About a week to ten days after I moved to Seattle, that I started getting calls from credit card companies, banks, creditors, saying, “Thank you very much for your application. Can you please verify this information.”

Eric didn’t know what they were talking about. Before he’d moved to Seattle, he had pared down his finances and closed a number of credit card accounts. Now, suddenly there were new accounts. It made no sense.

Drew: I immediately responded back to them and said, “I had never sent an application in here,” and “This is a mistake. Please nullify this application.” And then I hung up and moved on.

But moving on wouldn’t be so easy.

After treatment, collection notices
January 2004: Months after arriving in Seattle for treatment, months after Eric’s phone calls to the credit card companies, Eric was just barely well enough to sit up in bed and look at the mail that had been piling up.

Drew: When I finally came out of what I call my "transplant coma," I had piles of collection notices that had come in from saying I owed this money, I was default on this account, this and that.

It turns out most of the credit card companies had not cancelled those applications for new accounts that Eric didn’t know anything about. And there were now even more fraudulent accounts.

Drew: And I lost it. I was literally throwing glasses and breaking ‘em and swearing and, you know, just very, very upset. I couldn’t believe that I was struggling for my life, you know, and that people were attacking me and violating me.

It wasn’t an accident. It was identity theft, committed against a man who was already at his weakest and most vulnerable. As Eric’s life seemed to be slipping away — someone somewhere out there was stealing what little he had left.... and by then had rung up more than $10,000 in fraudulent charges.

Even though the companies had contacted Eric to confirm the new accounts, most wouldn’t cancel the cards without a signed document proving that the real Eric Drew was really Eric Drew. It was something the fake Eric Drew never had to do.

Mankiewicz: Normally, the way out of that is to provide a lot of documentation to the credit card companies. Which is kind of a pain, I’ve had to do it, I think a lot of people of had to do it. You were not really in a position to do that.

Drew: No, I was, like you said, I was on my back, full chemo, in a hospital.

Now, out of his so-called "transplant coma," Eric sent in those forms. He also called every law enforcement agency he could think of: the police, the FBI, even the Federal Trade Commission.

Eric says law enforcement told him his case was too small to chase down. And it’s true, with some $52 billion in identity theft each year in this country, one person who has been hit for $10,000 can’t be a priority.

But for this Type A cancer patient, what angered him was that what little he did have was being stolen. As he started feeling better, Eric decided that he didn’t just want to stop the credit cards — he wanted to stop the bad guy.

Drew: I thought to myself, “The only way I can stop this mess from getting any bigger is to actually go after this guy and catch him.”

Going after the culprit wouldn’t be easy, especially from his hospital bed. And as it turned out, what Eric would eventually find at the end of a long trail of clues would enrage him.

Drew: This guy obviously took a look at me, looked at my disease, and said, “He’s probably gonna be dead within the next couple of months.”

Cindy Drew, Eric's mother: We kept saying lie down. You’re sick. You can’t follow through on this. You have to give it up for awhile.

His mother wasn’t so happy with his new role as crime fighter. In truth, no one was.

Josh Mankiewicz, Dateline correspondent: Did your doctors think this was a good idea?

Eric Drew: Not at the time.  Not at the time.  They heavily advised against it.  You know, "Look, Eric, let this go.  Cancel the cards.  Deal with it later.”

But Eric couldn’t let it go, couldn’t deal with it later. He didn’t know if there would be a later.

Playing detective in search of his ID thief
His first move: getting a copy of his own credit report— where this newly-minted detective found his first lead:  an address for the fake Eric Drew in Southeast Seattle, the home of a woman named Gibson. It was a name that meant nothing to Eric. Even as sick as he was, it spurred him on, and out of that hospital bed.

Drew: I unhooked my hoses and put on my backpack with my pumps in it, pumping chemo and everything else into me.

Mankiewicz: Just a second.  Just a second.  You unhook your chemo, in the hospital.  You put it into your backpack.  It’s, what, still going into your arm?

Drew: Mm-hmm. (Affirmative.) Into my chest, yeah.

Eric Drew shows off the backpack full of chemo that he transported with him as he did his own detective work to find the identity thief.

Mankiewicz: And you go out on this little expedition to fight crime?

Drew: (Laughs) I guess if you put it that way, yeah.

Mankiewicz: He wants to go to that house, you never said to him, “Sweetie, this might be a bad idea.”

Cindy Drew: When he’s gets something in his head, he goes and does it.

Eric Drew: And I drove out to that house.  And I found that house.  I took pictures of it.  I took pictures of me in front of it.

Then he turned the tables on the thief who had stolen his good name: Eric filed a change of address with the post office for the fake Eric Drew. So the fake Eric’s mail would come to the real Eric’s mailbox.

Drew: That’s when I started receiving the bank statements.  All the statements from all the different cards. 

He was getting closer, learning where the fake Eric shopped and what he bought. But really how much detective work can a man sick with cancer do? 

Finding help from a local TV station
With law enforcement ignoring him, and his doctors and family telling him to ignore everything but his cancer, Eric decided to turn to the public: He put out a press release.

Luckily for Eric, it was a slow news day when that press release landed on the desk of reporter Chris Daniels at King-5, the NBC affiliate in Seattle.

Chris Daniels, King-5 reporter: I don’t know if it was just there was a lack of news that day or what.  But they said, “Chris, go check it out.” 

He was a reporter’s dream, in that he kept great notes about this crusade he’d been going on to find the truth. 

Daniels took Eric’s notes and began calling all the stores where the fake Eric Drew had shopped. 

In that first time after King 5 reported the news, Daniels found someone who remembered not only Eric Drew but what he bought.

Jon Krohngold, who runs a card shop on Seattle’s First Hill says he sold several statues to the thief last November. Krohngold’s Hallmark store is in an area called Pill Hill, where most of Seattle’s major medical centers are found, including the one where Eric Drew was getting his treatment. 

Could that be a clue? Could someone with a connection to Pill Hill be helping Eric Drew's thief?

Krohngold: He just looked like a just a regular typical guy, you know.

Regular, typical, but with a key difference from the real Eric Drew:

Krohngold: He was an African-American.

Now, Eric knew he was looking for a black man, and the story on King-5 turned up the heat: Eric and reporter Daniels started to get calls from people with possible leads.  As he checked out one of those tips, Eric put on his back pack full of medicine again and went to meet a stranger at the Seattle waterfront.

Drew: I could barely walk.  I had a cane. I had the backpack on, pumping--  fluids,  and antibiotics and stuff, into my chest all the time. 

As a leukemia patient, Eric’s immune system was severely compromised, which meant being out among people could be deadly. A common cold could send  him to intensive care. Now he was going out to meet a stranger.

It turned out, the man on the dock didn’t have a cold, but he didn’t have any solid information either. The dock was a dead end.  But across town,  reporter Daniels was hot on the trail.

Daniels: I was able to go down the list.  I called every single store that was on this list and said, here’s the deal, told ‘em Eric’s story.  “What I’m looking for is some surveillance video.”

They needed just one piece of tape, and Lowe’s Hardware had it.  But there was a catch, Lowe’s said they could only give the tape to law enforcement. So reporter Daniels called the Seattle police, the same cops who originally had told Eric his case was apparently too small.

Daniels: I said, “Hey, I tell you what.  I’ve got three purchases that I know about.  I’ll tell you when these purchases were made. I want the video.  We’ll put it on the air and see where it goes.”

Maniewicz:  That sounds to me like you’re doing the police’s job for them. 

Daniels: I don’t want to say that.  But there was a lot of work done.

With a TV station on the other end of the phone, this time the Seattle P.D. agreed to help.

The next day Chris Daniels put that video on the air. On February 26, 2004, the real Eric Drew and all of Seattle got a glimpse of the man playing the part of Eric Drew in a Lowe’s Hardware security video. And under the winter coat, one could see an important clue: The fake Eric Drew was wearing hospital scrubs.

Mankiewicz: Did you recognize that person?

Drew: No I did not. I did not. 

Mankiewicz: Eric didn’t recognize the man.

Daniels: No.

Mankiewicz: And you didn’t recognize him.

Daniels: No.

Mankiewicz: But it wasn’t long before people called in.

Daniels: People said, “I think I know who that guy is.  And I think he works at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.”

It was the very same hospital where Eric Drew was receiving his treatments, and struggling to stay alive.

Mankiewicz: How long before you had a name?

Daniels: Less than 24 hours.

Mankiewicz: And the name was?

Daniels: Richard Gibson.

Meet the ID thief
Richard Gibson, a 42-year-old father of three was a lab technician who tested Eric’s blood at the hospital.

Mankiewicz: Did that name, Richard Gibson, mean anything to you?

Drew: Well, the Gibson name sure did.

The house Eric had visited two months prior, camera in hand and chemo in back pack. The people there were named Gibson.  He had been on the right track... only someone had listened.

Mankiewicz: He was the guy who tested your blood after it was drawn from you?

Drew: That’s right.  My blood was drawn from me every day for eight months.

Mankiewicz: And so your thinking is that Mr. Gibson saw somebody who was terminally ill, and probably was not gonna be needing his credit very much longer.

Drew: Very little chance of me making it through.

Mankiewicz: And took advantage.

Drew: Absolutely. Without a doubt. 

Cindy Drew: To pick on somebody—knowingly pick on somebody who is so ill and in such dire situation, you can’t have a soul.  You can’t have a heart.

Richard Gibson turned himself in to the Seattle police on March 2, 2004.

Eric was still quite ill, and just getting the bad news that the treatment that had brought him to Seattle in the first place, hadn’t worked at all.

FBI agent James Rogers who eventually handled Eric’s case says hospital patients are very vulnerable to this type of crime, but that this case was particularly outrageous.

Mankiewicz: When most people check into a hospital, they usually have bigger concerns on their mind than their credit or protecting their privacy?

James Rogers, FBI:  Oh, that’s correct. I wasn’t surprised that it happened in a hospital. I was just more, I guess, irritated by the fact that somebody was picking on a poor cancer patient that’s fighting for his life.

It turns out that besides picking on the wrong cancer patient—one who fought back, Richard Gibson picked on a cancer patient at exactly the wrong time.  Gibson wasn’t charged with identity theft at all, but with something more serious. In Seattle’s Federal Court, Gibson became the first person charged under a new law with the wrongful disclosure of medical information for financial gain. In Gibson’s case, he wrongfully disclosed Eric’s information from his medical records to get all those credit cards.

Though Gibson plead guilty, he says he didn’t know who Eric Drew was or that he was a terminally ill patient. 

The judge didn’t buy Gibson’s claim of ignorance. He called Gibson’s acts "the most deplorable he’d seen in his 15 years on the bench." And though the prosecution was asking for a one year sentence, the judge gave Gibson more— the maximum of 16 months.

Eric had hoped to be in court on the day of sentencing, he wanted to tell the judge his side of the story. But he was too sick to get there and had to tell it on videotape.

By then, Eric was in Minneapolis at yet another hospital fighting not crime, but once again, leukemia.

What's the responsibility of credit card companies?
The arrest of Richard Gibson was some consolation. But, Eric believes Gibson didn’t act alone.

Mankiewicz: Is Mr. Gibson the only culprit here?

Drew: No. I think the biggest culprits are the people that are handing this money out. These banks have no right to go out handing criminals money in my name, with my Social Security numbers, with my identity, without doing the due diligence to verify that it was me.

We wanted to ask the credit card companies about Eric’s case, about why those fake cards weren’t suspended with Eric’s first phone calls and about easy availability of credit. None of them would agree to talk to “Dateline” on camera, but they did tell us that the companies do all they can to help people  with identity theft problems, and that in America, people want convenient credit.

Mankiewicz: Most people just call the credit card company and say “Those are not my charges,” and they don’t have to pay?

Rogers: Right.

Mankiewicz: Eric wouldn’t do that?

Rogers: No, he wouldn’t settle for that. It  was more personal to him, and it was more of the principle behind it, that somebody was going to take advantage of his situation and try to use that against him when he’s fighting for his life.

In Minneapolis, Eric underwent yet another experimental treatment—using umbilical cord blood— a procedure which had only been tried on about 600 adult leukemia patients. It was a last hope.

But this time, it worked.

So how is Eric’s health?  A year after that last experimental treatment, his body is finally cancer-free.

And how is Eric’s credit? He’s still fighting to get it cleaned up. It turns out that for him, it was easier to get over cancer than identity theft.

But maybe one trying issue helped the other. 

Drew: The identity fraud gave me something that I can sink my teeth into, that I could go after, that I could be angry at.

Mankiewicz: So crime fighting as cancer therapy?

Drew: Fantastic.  I recommend it to everybody.

Eric continues to work for other victims of leukemia and identity theft. Click here to check out The Eric Drew Foundation.

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