Grave Robbers

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

With all the stolen vehicles on the road and new thefts occurring at a pace of several a month, at least four of the co-conspirators were arrested while the ring was in operation, not counting William Tisdale's arrest at Bulban's shop.

One was arrested in Plano in a stolen Corvette. Another was stopped in Dallas on a motorcycle whose temporary tag a Dallas patrolman astutely spotted as fake. In that instance, the cops ran their suspect down in a 90 mph chase. Two more, a man and a 63-year-old woman known as "Granny," were arrested in DeSoto using fake ID to buy a Ford pickup, a $40,000 deluxe model with leather seats.

Somewhere along the line, defense lawyers in the case speculate, one of them talked, or provided agents a key to tie it all together and obtain warrants to go after the Tisdales. On July 24, 2002, a horde of agents moved in on the brothers, who were bold enough to have saved in their homes and offices many of the documents they used to carry out their plan.

A couple of mugs: William R. Tisdale Jr., left, and his brother Michael K. Tisdale are accused of sifting through the obits and stealing the identities of the recently deceased. Their alleged spree netted cash, cars and some free shopping at Neiman Marcus.
A couple of mugs: William R. Tisdale Jr., left, and his brother Michael K. Tisdale are accused of sifting through the obits and stealing the identities of the recently deceased. Their alleged spree netted cash, cars and some free shopping at Neiman Marcus.
Robbing the dead: Jennifer Koury, an Austin musician and restaurateur, was among more than a dozen Texans targeted by the identity theft ring. She hadn't even been buried by the time thieves had stolen her credit information, faked a drivers license and went to town with her accounts.
Robbing the dead: Jennifer Koury, an Austin musician and restaurateur, was among more than a dozen Texans targeted by the identity theft ring. She hadn't even been buried by the time thieves had stolen her credit information, faked a drivers license and went to town with her accounts.

There was more evidence parked in front of Michael Tisdale's agency in Flower Mound. That day, the indictment alleges, he was "in sole possession of and driving" a shiny new Porsche stolen more than a year earlier with a dead man's ID.

If convicted on all counts, Michael Tisdale faces a maximum of 45 years in prison and a $1.5 million fine. His brother faces up to 15 years and $500,000.


Whom did all this credit grave-robbing hurt? The ultimate victims of identity theft are the banks and lenders that provide credit, but the deceased marks' relatives say they were the hidden victims of the crime. It fell to these grieving survivors, hit when they were down, to sort out the problems and clean up the mess.

"I did a lot of crying on the phone," says Ava Hardesty, a San Diego social worker whose sister's accounts were looted in the Tisdale scam. "It was awful, a real low blow having to deal with this on top of the death."

Her sister, Austin artist/singer/restaurateur Jennifer Koury, died in early March 2002. A feature obituary in which the 45-year-old Koury was remembered as "the essence of a '70s flower child" ran in the Austin daily paper days later.

"They moved so fast," Hardesty says. "Before the funeral they were opening accounts in her name."

In the indictment, the Tisdale ring is accused of stealing one vehicle in Koury's name, but Hardesty says that is only part of the story. The scammers opened new credit lines in her sister's name and got cash and merchandise, too, she says. "They even paid off one of her cards with a balance transfer," says Hardesty, who acted as the executor of her sister's estate. "Someone did that with another account they opened in her name and then used. Nobody even asked for a signature."

Hardesty says she straightened out her sister's accounts after dozens of hours of pleading with creditors. "They handled things, but they handled them very badly," she says. "I never talked to the same person twice."

Richard Surrell, who holds the distinction of being the only live person connected to the credit victims in the case, says he spent more than 200 hours working to get his identity back.

He says he has no clue how the Dallas ring singled him out, but he received a warning a few months before the February 2001 house purchase that someone had stolen his personal information from the company that processes his payroll check. "I can only guess that's where it started," he says.

The $265,000 in mortgages on the Anita Street house was his biggest problem, but the thieves went wild with the rest of his credit lines as well. Four months after he began riding herd on his credit accounts, he says, someone was still trying to change the mailing address on his personal checking account.

In July 2001, 10 weeks after he made his first complaint to the company's president, Countrywide removed the home loans from his credit history. A Countrywide spokesman did not return calls seeking comment on Surrell's case.

Dallas police were less responsive to his problem, Surrell says. "I had to call 14 times before I got someone to talk to me."

He first became aware someone was using his credit when a salesman at Manufacturers Auto Leasing in Dallas called him in late April 2001 and asked him if he was relocating to Dallas and leasing a new car. He says Manufacturers was willing to go through with the deal and trap the thief, but nobody at DPD took them up on it. "I was told that until something was taken, there was no crime."

In the Tisdale indictment, Manufacturers Auto Leasing is listed as one of the ring's chief targets, the source of six cars. The Tisdales may be going to trial, but other scammers with similar methods keep walking through the door, says Gary Vaughn, a manager there. "We had one come in recently, and he was so convincing, he spent three days negotiating with us on the monthly payments," Vaughn says. It took a detailed look at the man's credit history and documents to spot the fraud, Vaughn says. "He'd been borrowing money at [a sub-prime lender], and that didn't fit." His proof-of-insurance card also turned out to be a fake, but it took a phone call to check it.

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