DENVER — A drug-dealing Army deserter and convicted murderer has finally been caught after assuming another man’s identity and living as him for 30 years.
The story of James “Little Man” Thompson, now 72, winds from eastern Oklahoma through the Vietnam War, to Colorado jail cells and to the inside of a federal courthouse in Denver, where in a shaky hand, Thompson finally signed his real name to the court records.
It all started in Oklahoma City, prosecutors said, when Thompson, a dealer, traded drugs for a customer’s identification card. At the time, Thompson had already spent four years in prison and been convicted of going AWOL from the Army in 1976 at the height of the Vietnam War. Thompson acquired the man’s ID sometime in the 1980s, and moved to Colorado a few years later, according to court records.
Oklahoma didn’t mandate photos on driver’s licenses until 1977, and experts say it’s likely Thompson was able to take advantage of the fact that few states had sophisticated and interlinked databases until decades later. Thompson apparently began using the other man’s name sometime around 1984, authorities said.
At the time Thompson joined the Army, it was common practice to fingerprint recruits, but those records were likely never entered into a computerized database. And with Oklahoma and Colorado’s criminal-record systems not connected back then, Thompson’s first Colorado arrest linked his fingerprints to his new, assumed name.
Today, the federally run National Crime Information Center lets police agencies across the country verify fingerprints and names nearly instantly.
“It was much easier before,” said Henry Bagdasarian, founder of the California-based Identity Management Institute. “It was primitive at the time, now we have different databases of maybe DNA or fingerprints.”
But while Thompson was apparently good at pretending to be someone else, he was equally bad at avoiding trouble. He kept committing crimes and kept getting caught, all under his old customer’s name. He got Social Security cards in the other man’s name at least four times, and then got a Colorado driver’s license — with his own picture on it — in 1995.
“Offenders are incarcerated using the name they are sentenced under,” said Colorado Department of Corrections spokeswoman Adrienne L. Jacobson. “Any other known names are added to the offender’s profile as an alias, but their incarceration name does not change.”
Colorado state corrections officials know Thompson under at least 14 aliases and with at least three different birth dates. His convictions include second-degree murder, drug dealing, and forgery, and he spent the better part of his life in Colorado behind bars or on probation or parole.
“While the defendant started using a different name, he did not veer from his habitual criminality,” prosecutors said in a court filing.
To add insult to injury, when Thompson got out of federal prison for dealing drugs in 2015, he applied for Social Security disability benefits under the fake name he’d been using for so many years, prosecutors said.
His fraud began to fall apart when the man whose name Thompson had been using also applied for Social Security benefits in 2016. Still living in Oklahoma, the now-homeless man discovered he wasn’t eligible because Thompson was already getting his money.
The man — whose name was not made public by prosecutors or in court records — then spent two years trying to prove his identity to the Social Security administration, homeless the entire time, according to court records.
Meanwhile, Thompson collected thousands of dollars in Social Security benefits, including disability benefits he wasn’t eligible for.
Thompson’s former customer finally began receiving his benefits in May 2018, according to court records, but the Social Security Administration didn’t forget about Thompson.
Working with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Denver, Social Security investigators secured a federal grand jury indictment in July 2018, and Thompson pleaded guilty in November. He was sentenced on Friday to 30 months in federal prison and ordered to pay back more than $900 he received from pretending to be the other man.
He was also forced to sign the plea deal under his own name, the looping cursive reflecting an older man’s hand: James Thompson.
“We want criminals to know if you commit a crime, particularly against vulnerable people and no matter for how long it goes on, the law will eventually catch up with you and there will be consequences,” said Jason Dunn, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado.