Who is Rachel Yould? Is she a victim of domestic violence or a schemer who took on two identities to get rich?
Did the 37-year-old ex-beauty queen and academic scholar fraudulently use two Social Security numbers and two names to obtain more than $600,000 in student loans to enrich herself, as federal prosecutors maintain, or was she sexually abused as a child, raped as a young woman and forced into hiding with a new identity?
That depends on whose side of the story you believe.
Yould's defenders say she was victimized twice; first as a child and then by a Social Security Administration program that helps victims of domestic abuse hide from their tormenters by providing new Social Security numbers.
They say overzealous prosecutors — fired up by Homeland Security's concerns about terrorism and the misuse of Social Security numbers — came after Yould, the 1996 Miss Anchorage winner who has no criminal background.
"This is a persecution," said Irene Weiser, executive director of Stop Family Violence, a national group that helps victims of domestic and sexual violence.
Identity in question
Weiser said about 14,000 people have availed themselves of the Social Security identity program, and while there have been some similar problems the pursuit of Yould is the worst she's seen.
Prosecutors contend that Yould is a schemer who used a government program intended to help abuse victims to get around limits on government-run student loan programs.
They contend that when the Fulbright and Rhodes scholar who was accepted into Oxford University's doctoral program maxed out several educational loan programs she devised a scheme to get more money using her two identities.
Federal prosecutor Retta-Rae Randall said it wasn't the government that blew Yould's cover by exposing both her maiden and married names on court documents. It was Yould.
"She used both names," Randall said.
What is certain is that Yould is in legal trouble, facing felony charges of mail and wire fraud and making false statements to influence a bank. She is to go on trial next spring.
Yould declined to be interviewed for this story on the advice of her public defender, Richard Curtner, who also declined comment.
Working the system?
Prosecutors say beginning in June 2001, Yould applied for 26 student loans and 21 of those involved some sort of misrepresentation or false information.
They contend that after Yould, then known as Rachel Hall, reached the lifetime cap on several government-run education loan programs she applied for a new Social Security number under the program for victims of domestic abuse. The new number was issued under the name Rachel Yould in July 2003, after she married Brett Yould, also from Anchorage.
Most Americans are provided with one Social Security number for their lifetime, regardless of changes in name.
Prosecutors say Yould lied to lenders to get more loans. Tactics allegedly included falsifying pay stubs for herself and her husband and falsifying documents from Keio University in Japan.
Yould and her husband returned to Anchorage in February. She was indicted the following month. The indictment alleges that Yould used both her names and numbers to obtain more student loans. Prosecutors say she used her former name as her co-signer on a loan for $240,000.
They say that on an application for a Smith Barney investment account, where the $240,000 ended up, Yould said that she worked for the International Institute for Strategic Studies in the United Kingdom and made $525,000 a year. Her association with the institute was as an unpaid research assistant, prosecutors say.
They say she lied about her finances in order to buy a condominium in Anchorage and used a loan disbursement to put $3,789 in escrow.
Yould spokeswoman Valerie Harris said Yould's legal situation is the result of a well-intentioned but ineptly run government program.
In short, Yould is a victim of bad advice, Harris said.
"A lot of women fall into this trap that Rachel is now experiencing," said Harris, who heads the Save Amelia Campaign, a group that advocates for abuse victims who have received new Social Security numbers and are accused of wrongdoing.
Harris said Yould never sought to have her abuser prosecuted because she was too ashamed and afraid. But, she said, by 2002 and after her abuser repeatedly got information about where her credit card was last used to track her down, and after being issued a temporary restraining order but denied a permanent one, she looked elsewhere for help.
In 2003, she applied to the SSA program for victims of domestic violence and after a review of evidence of abuse was granted a new Social Security number under her married name.
"She was given a new identity, a new Social Security number and a new birth certificate — the whole nine yards," Harris said.
Harris said the agency told her it was not only OK to use both names and numbers, but also "told her she could apply for a loan using her old identity as a co-signer."
All the advice was over the phone, Harris said.
Dorothy Clark, a SSA spokeswoman, said when a domestic abuse victim requests a new Social Security number, a mandatory in-person interview is conducted. The applicant is told that once they are issued a new number they can't use their old number under any circumstances.
Using the old number defeats the whole purpose of the program, Clark said.
It only makes sense, Clark said.
"We are trying to maintain confidentiality," she said.