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Hunt for bogus war heroes uncovers thousands of hoaxers

During the past decade, some 4,000 men have been exposed while posing as combat warriors to fool women, scam federal benefits and reap undeserved praise. But the latest fake veteran to be uncloaked and convicted will carry an unofficial military rank to prison: “Captain Obvious.”

Danny Crane
Danny CranePinellas Country Sheriff's Office

Danny Crane, 32, earned that colorful moniker from the man — an actual wounded veteran — who used his two basement computers and a loose, national network of fellow amateur sleuths to unravel Crane’s lies and ultimately hand him to federal prosecutors. Crane, who lived in the Tampa area, was sentenced March 14 to one year and one day in federal prison.

“His uniform was all wrong. The discharge papers he posted online were wrong. His mannerisms were wrong. The only thing he had right were his tattoos. He was Captain Obvious,” said retired Army Staff Sgt. Fred Campbell, one of 10 veterans who operate a virtual detective agency called Guardian of Valor.

“For four months, I was eating, sleeping and crapping Danny Russell Crane. My wife was getting sick of hearing about it,” said Campbell, who lives in Tennessee and has paralysis on one side, sustained as a result of his military service. He is not paid for his online investigation work. “Most of these guys do it for the hero worship. They see the accolades veterans get. So they just wake up one morning and say, ‘Hey, I was a member of the Black Sheep Squadron!’”

Crane, who served less than three months in the Army — never in combat — conned the Department of Veterans Affairs out of $7,000 by claiming he was half blind, had once been shot in the back, suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and had 24 metal plates inserted in his face. In public, he routinely wore two Purple Hearts, a Distinguished Flying Cross and an Air Medal — none of them earned. Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Kaiser said Crane concocted the persona of “the most decorated man in Florida.”

“But in our world, the Danny Crane case is not unusual,” said Mary Schantag, a Marine widow who lives in Missouri and operates the Fake Warriors Project. Since launching that veteran-vetting venture on a shoe-string budget in 1998, Schantag said her nonprofit group — along with partners at similar sites — has revealed more than 4,000 hoaxers who falsely claimed military service or battlefield glory. It’s unclear how many of those 4,000 frauds later were prosecuted. A VA spokesman said such cases are not tracked by the agency.

“We had 22 phonies in 1998. I can get 22 in 48 hours right now,” Schantag said. “It’s all day, every day.”

Yet she complained that federal and state agencies often choose not to pursue charges against the bogus veterans, saying: “The lack of prosecution and substantial penalties drives us all crazy.”

'Out of sync'

The Supreme Court last June struck down the federal Stolen Valor Act, which prohibited people from falsely claiming they had been awarded a military honor. A majority of justices ruled that invented battlefield brags should be protected by the First Amendment right of free speech. The behavior becomes criminal fraud, however, if the mock vets obtain money or gifts from charities or from the government by using their ruse.

Like Campbell, Schantag is intimate enough with military protocol to be able to quickly spot imposters who may post their boasts on social sites like Facebook or who show up to speak at veterans’ ceremonies. For example, Crane simultaneously wore a Class A Uniform and Ray Ban sunglasses, which Schantag called “out of sync.”

And like Campbell, she uses Internet background searches and files Freedom of Information Requests with government agencies to corroborate a suspicious veteran’s claimed history. She also taps her personal connections with Navy SEALS, Army Special Forces, even military chaplains to double check her detective work.

“We make sure everything is square before we put these guys out there as frauds,” Campbell said. “We make sure they are 100 percent full of crap before we say anything negative toward them. We don’t do it to say, ‘Ha, Ha, I just took this guy down.’ We do it for the 18- and 19-year-olds who have lost every limb on their body but still go on.”

Last year, Schantag’s husband, Chuck, a Vietnam veteran wounded in 1968, passed away. Ferreting out military scammers had become one of his life’s passions. He was trying to sniff out an apparent new fraudster when he died. That case remains under scrutiny.

“He wanted history to be right,” said his widow. “He was a Marine through-and-through. For every lying Marine we found out there, that guy was messing up his Corps.”