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The curious cases of William James Clark

Austin Baird

William James Clark showed up at a gun show in Alaska's rain-soaked capital of Juneau on Aug. 7, 2010. Clark, then 36 years old, looked as though he'd had a successful military career: his Army uniform was decked out with an array of insignia and patches, most notably captain bars on his shoulders and lightning struck swords sewn into the left sleeve of members of the 10th Special Forces Group.

As Clark passed up tables of guns in favor of a Polaris salesman peddling all-terrain vehicles and the like, he caught the attention of U.S. Army Sgt. Louis Brandwein, a 25-year-old stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Brandwein later recalled to Army Times that Clark was a "ridiculously obese" guy in fatigues.

It didn't take much for the real soldier to spot glaring problems with Clark's uniform. Or with the imposter's questionable story: Why would an active member of the Green Berets, headquartered at Fort Carson, Colo., be looking to buy all-terrain vehicles for "his guys" at a gun show in Alaska, anyway?

Brandwein recalled the story later on the popular online gun forum, Georgia Packing. He wrote that he shouted Clark down in the parking lot and made him pull the insignia from his fake uniform. That interaction, coupled with apparently counterfeit Travis Air Force Base vehicle identification on Clark's car, was enough for Brandwein to push the information up the military justice chain, which eventually spurred FBI agents in Clark's direction.

The Feds quickly realized Clark had outstanding arrest warrants for a cross-country check fraud spree that stretched from Iowa to Alaska. In Alaska alone, he passed five fictitious out-of-state checks to the Alaska Marine Highway System under the pretense of military travel. The FBI found Clark in Juneau, and he later pleaded guilty to taking 224 people for a collective $66,893.52. He awaits sentencing in a Fairbanks jail.

At a glance, Clark's crime spree seems a couple notches above petty but not much different from the other 750,000 or so cases of check fraud that occur every year in the United States. But even though a dime-a-dozen crime is what did him in, Clark's road to the Last Frontier is anything but ordinary.

Clark has a penchant for living a fake life. One time he assumed control of the scene of a bridge collapse disaster that had every imaginable type of real government boots on the ground. Another time he nearly caused a made-for-TV international crisis when he told the Russian Embassy he was working with the U.S. military to assassinate then-president Vladimir Putin.

James M. Hackett, Clark's attorney in Fairbanks, declined comment when asked about his client, and an interview could not be arranged with Clark. But plenty of other people had plenty to say. Depending on who you talk to, Clark is a heartless conman, a brainwashed tool of the federal government or a victim of the system suffering from a mental illness without proper treatment.

Sunday morning, coming down 

In May 2002, the lone captain in control of a barge floating along the Arkansas River near Webbers Falls, Okla., fell asleep at the helm. The barge slammed into an interstate bridge crowded with traffic. Fourteen people died, dozens more were injured, and the 513-foot hole left behind prompted Oklahoma's governor to call the scene a disaster.

William Clark stumbled onto the scene and took advantage of the collective shock of the emergency responders and investigators with an unlikely story that somehow convinced them to allow him to take control of the cleanup for nearly three days.

Clark wore his reddish-gray hair in a high-and-tight fit to the standards of 670-1 Army Regulations, though the closest he got to a military career was high school participation in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps almost two decades ago. Beyond a lack of experience, his physique and demeanor should have been giveaways that he's not a soldier. The spare tire around his waist is the feature most people remember of his 300-something pound body, and that he has a tendency to lose sentences in his mind before they make it all the way out of his mouth.

But "Captain Clark," as he called himself on the bridge that day in Webbers Falls, glossed over his shortcomings with ease.

Clark later told Jerry Pippin -- a columnist for UFO Magazine and self-described conspiracy theorist who says he identified "Manchurian" undertones in Clark's story -- that he gave interviews to local media, as if he were in charge of the recovery efforts.

Clark even told then-Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating that he couldn't hold a press conference in his absence or with the bridge in the background, according to Pippin's interview.

The details of what led Clark to the scene and the motives behind his actions are sketchy. According to Pippin, Clark stopped randomly at a rest stop a few miles away because he had a "sixth sense" premonition that a disaster had taken place, so he rushed to the rescue while Oklahoma state troopers were still setting up barriers to prevent more drivers from getting onto the bridge.

Clark's story then takes a heroic turn: He claims to have boldly waded into the murky waters while "bumbling" emergency responders let victims drown or suffocate from oxygen deprivation in their submerged cars. Clark claims he saved a mother and daughter from a sinking car before the state trooper in charge forced him away from the river because of an undercurrent that was too strong even for the trained rescue divers that showed up. The lack of leadership, so he recalled to Pippin, is the reason he returned wearing Army BDU's with captain bars and Green Beret insignia shortly after state troopers forced him away from the scene.

Clark's account of the bridge collapse is probably fanciful, given that no one else can seem to verify his saving two women, and others are quick to suggest that he was up to no good from the start. 

Whether Clark's presence on the scene a few miles from the defunct Sequoyah Fuels Corp. was part of "a nuclear conspiracy," as UFO Magazine's columnist suggested, or something else entirely, Clark bounced when people like Webbers Falls Mayor Jewell Horne started to call the bluff after a couple days of his unique style of "leadership."

Associated Press reports at the time of the bridge disaster show Clark capitalized on his newfound role by stealing from the suffering community: He convinced a hotel in a nearby Arkansas town that he and other emergency responders needed a place to sleep, so he stayed a night for free. He also commandeered a truck from a local car dealership for the cleanup efforts.

After locals started to suspect they'd been had, Clark bailed in the truck he'd stolen and headed north to Toronto. He hid out in Canada for a couple days until Mounties tracked him down. He was shipped back to the U.S. and pleaded guilty to felony charges of impersonating a federal officer, theft of the vehicle and hotel room, and last but not least to felony firearm possession charges. Clark already had a prior conviction for a check fraud scheme on his record, so he spent five years in federal prison for the bridge episode. Clark was released under supervision in September 2007, but it didn't take long for him to return to old ways.

'There's a plot to kill Vladimir Putin' 

Less than two months out of prison, Clark found himself in federal custody and again on his way to prison for a stranger than fiction offense. According to an interview with Pippin, Clark began hearing "voices" discuss a federal plot involving special forces to assassinate then-Russian President Vladimir Putin:

"I remember hearing voices and stuff about it. I thought I heard people talking about a plot against the president of Russia, Putin or whatever his name is. I know how our government system is and that's why I called the embassy...they [sic] was talking about how they had someone that was close to him that was going to take him out."

Clark told Pippin he had no recollection of making the call until he was locked up again. In court, Clark argued he lacked the medication he needed to treat what he disclosed to Pippin as bipolar disorder and multiple personality disorder.

Both the "voices" and his troubles getting medication went unmentioned until he had been sentenced and was submitting handwritten appeals to the judge, all of which were denied.

Despite Clark's well-documented love for telling a tall story, the bizarre ploy gives fuel to the fire that Clark is a "Manchurian Candidate" brainwashed by the "federal government" and unleashed at their whim, according to Pippin.

In Pippin's mind, the strange twists add up to one coincidence too many: Clark fits the profile of "what the government would look for in a fall guy," said Pippin in a recent interview. "[He's] kind of a loser and a good ole boy, just the type of guy that never had a chance. He's a nice guy in a lot of ways, but he's also despicable ... He's the type of guy they would look for if [they] were going to use somebody as a tool to have a diversion. There was yellowcake that was just everywhere [at Sequoyah] ... so it seems like the perfect place for all the authorities to be distracted."

Conspiracy claims aside, Clark served a sentence of 21 months in prison for violating the terms of release from his role in the bridge disaster. True to form, he wasted little time finding trouble.

Clark's 'Last Frontier'

Clark's cross-country scheme that led him to Juneau and into Brandwein's crosshairs yielded 224 victims the Feds could prove, according to a statement from the Assistant U.S. Attorney for Alaska -- and possibly many more. Among the businesses Clark stole from was a small-town computer store in Iowa.

Late one afternoon in April 2010 at Neo Computers in Davenport, Clark convinced a salesman he was set to deploy to Iraq in 12 hours and that he needed a laptop. He paid for the $800 computer with a personal check tied to a nonexistent account. What makes the con all the worse is that Alan Millage, the store owner, is a 10-year veteran of the Air Force that ended his career with the rank of staff sergeant. He was suspicious from the onset but Clark danced through the familiar routine that had convinced so many others.

"Everything was in order," said Millage. "I've seen some fat guys in the National Guard so that's how I justified it at the time. I should have known better, and if he was Air Force I could have called the bluff. But I sympathized with him and the fact that he was about to deploy so I didn't think much of it at the time." Millage reconsidered obvious red flags from the transaction when the check came back as from an "invalid account" a few weeks later, which he says has never happened at the shop before or since. He didn't bother to try and call the bank and instead filed a police report.

After growing tired of what he called "slow police response" Millage started an investigation of his own and was able to track down Clark's real name by the driver's license and address Clark listed when he bought the laptop. Apparently Clark had left a real street address -- one that Millage said belongs to Clark's sister and father -- but he had switched the city from Davenport to Sioux City.

That information and a string of posts about Clark on Georgia Packing has given Millage some idea of the person that got off with his computer.

Millage isn't exactly on the edge of his seat waiting to get paid. He is, however, anxious for justice of some kind to be served for he and the others that were taken by Clark's lies.

Clark will be sentenced by a judge in Fairbanks this October. He could serve as many as 25 years in federal prison and get a $250,000 fine, in addition to the mandatory repayment to the victims of his check fraud scheme, according to the plea agreement signed by Clark and lawyers from the Department of Justice. It's also likely that Clark will be shuttled around to the five other states in which Army Times reports he has outstanding warrants.

Fraud offenses "usually (have) repercussions that catch up," said Stephen Cooper, the U.S. Attorney who presented the government's most recent case against Clark, in an interview. "He carried on this type of impersonation before, and it finally caught up to him again."

Contact Austin Baird at austin(at)alaskadispatch.com