Grave Robbers

Even in the great beyond, no one is safe from identity theft

But that's the nature of a lot of fast-buck frauds, says Dennis Pompa, chief investigator for the Texas Department of Insurance. "People believe they've invented a scheme so far out there, nobody will ever be able to unravel it. With all the money flowing, for some reason their greed far exceeds logic, and they don't worry about the flaws. They lose sight of getting caught because of the extraordinary greed."

On September 12, 2001, while the rest of the nation was consumed with the terror attacks that had occurred the day before in New York and Washington, D.C., two men walked into Texas Mustang Auto Sales in North Dallas. The shop specializes in lightly used Jaguars, and the two customers had their eye on a new black XK8 convertible priced at $55,000, recalls owner Peter Bulban. "A credit union we did business with back then said the guy was OK for the credit. They told us to go ahead and deliver him the car."

The next day, Bulban says, the credit union changed its mind. They had begun checking some of the data on the credit application--employment history and the like--and discovered they'd been duped. The car buyer, who federal authorities allege now was ex-con Gary Allen Grace, had used the name, Social Security number and detailed credit history of a 57-year-old Dallas businessman and former Peace Corps volunteer who had died nearly a month earlier. Grace provided an authentic-looking insurance card, a W-2 tax form and a drivers license bearing the dead man's name. He filled in a number of items on the credit application--his employer and business addresses, for instance--with bogus information, but made all the right references to the dead victim's fine credit history.

Richard Surrell, one of the few victims of the ring who is alive, woke up one day in California to learn he owned this house in the 6100 block of Anita Street in East Dallas. Trouble was, he never bought it.
Mark Graham
Richard Surrell, one of the few victims of the ring who is alive, woke up one day in California to learn he owned this house in the 6100 block of Anita Street in East Dallas. Trouble was, he never bought it.

"This could have been caught, but it wasn't," says Bulban, who realized his only recourse was to try to lure the buyer back to the dealership. "The credit union wasn't going to pay us for the car. So I was out 55 grand."

Bulban says he called all the phone numbers the buyer had listed on the application, and told someone at one that actually worked that the Jag's license plates were ready for pickup.

On September 17, William Tisdale arrived at Bulban's office in a brand-new silver Porsche convertible to pick up the plates, according to a Dallas police report.

Bulban had enlisted the aid of a Dallas police detective who had agreed to stake out the dealership. But just as the suspect was expected to arrive, Bulban says, the detective insisted on taking his lunch break, and he left the stakeout.

Bulban and three employees were left to capture Tisdale themselves.

According to a police report, Tisdale got nervous as Bulban's men began maneuvering a car to block him in, and he ran out of the office and jumped in his Porsche. He squeezed it past one of their cars, then turned and aimed it at another employee who was standing in the drive and yelling at Tisdale to stop. The man jumped aside just as Tisdale roared by. As he fled the Forest Lane car agency, an employee at the wheel of an old Chrysler gave chase.

The Chrysler rammed Tisdale's car twice as it peeled down a side street, and a few blocks farther, Bulban's man forced the Porsche onto a grass median, then ran it into a curb, flattening one of its tires. With his car disabled, Tisdale grabbed a couple of bags and fled into a field along Denton Drive.

Minutes later, two DPD patrolmen responded to Bulban's 911 call, and they summoned a police helicopter. From the air, the pilot spotted Tisdale hiding in a ditch.

He was arrested and indicted a few weeks later on felony assault charges for trying to run down the dealership's employees.

Bulban says police let him talk to Tisdale about the stolen Jaguar as he sat cuffed in the squad car. "I climbed in next to him and said, 'Tell me where I can find my car.'" Bulban recalls. "He looked back at me and said, 'I don't know what you're talking about. I've never seen you in my life.' He was so convincing, he almost had me doubting myself. That man is cold. Very, very cold."

From Tisdale's car and belongings Dallas police gathered 13 counterfeit Texas drivers licenses bearing the photos of William Tisdale, his brother Michael and four other people involved in their ring. The names on the licenses belonged to 12 different people, all of whom had died that summer. They also found printouts from the computer database provider, Farmers Insurance "risk assessment score details" and several full credit reports on men who had died that summer.

Despite the wealth of evidence gathered from Tisdale's car, it would be almost 11 months before search warrants were served at the Tisdales' homes and offices--during which many more identities would be stolen--and nearly two years before they would be indicted.

U.S. Attorney Jane Boyle declined through a representative to comment on any aspect of the case, and specifically declined to answer a question about the pace of the investigation. "The excuse we got, and it made sense, was that this happened right after 9-11," says Bulban, who said he was expecting justice to be swifter. "The federal government was so tied up with anti-terrorism that it took awhile to get around to this."

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