Storme Aerison sits stiffly in the courtroom, his hands cuffed behind his back and his dyed blond hair woven into a ponytail, black roots showing, sideburns growing. He smiles beneath the fluorescent lights. This hearing in Colorado Springs is a long way from the sparkling waters and flashing cameras of Tahiti, but for Aerison, who has been called both a con man and a cover girl, glamour has been reduced to an orange jail jumpsuit.
Aerison, who was born Charles Daugherty but changed his name in 1992, has been charged with check kiting, credit-card fraud, theft and jumping bail. If convicted on all counts, the 37-year-old could spend the next 31 years in prison. Aerison has pleaded not guilty. His attorney, Donita Rolle-Jackson, says there's more to his story than meets the eye.
"This case needs to be seen as someone who has possible mental-health issues, and not as someone who is a willing pariah against society," Rolle-Jackson says.
Come spring, Aerison might get a chance to explain. On Friday, El Paso County District Court Judge Richard Hall set a trial date for April 15, 2002. Although negotiations for a plea bargain continue, an open airing of the case could be interesting, according to Will Bain, assistant district attorney.
"I suggest you be there," he says.
Aerison was born on June 1, 1964. His father, Leo Daugherty Jr., once told a newspaper that his son was a "perfectly normal" kid who played baseball and hung out with the guys but traded his athletic gear for cheerleading pompoms in high school. Then one Halloween, "he put a dress on."
Not long afterward, police say, Aerison began impersonating women, using the names of former beauty-pageant winners. In 1984, posing as a female Air Force Academy student, he stole a $15,000 car from a Colorado Springs dealership; that crime earned him four years' probation and mandatory counseling.
Five years later, as Shannon Ireland Trump, the fictitious niece of billionaire Donald Trump, Aerison joined the all-woman cheerleading squad for the now-defunct Colorado Springs Spirit football team. Wearing pancake makeup, contact lenses and bangs, he performed dance routines on the sidelines and anchored the cheerleading pyramid before his masquerade was discovered and he was booted off the squad.
Aerison then began working the phones, choreographing fashion sessions and compiling a modeling portfolio, his alleged victims claim. He even hired a limousine driver and a bodyguard to recruit models and potential boyfriends, one of whom he reportedly took to a high school prom.
In 1990, Aerison enrolled at Coronado High School in Colorado Springs as a seventeen-year-old transfer student from Greece named Cheyen Weatherly. For eight days, the then-26-year-old man attended classes wearing women's blazers, skirts and high heels. He sang soprano in the choir and joined the all-girl cheerleading squad, where he performed in uniform during at least one pep rally. School authorities became suspicious after students reported seeing stubble poking through Aerison's makeup. After the school investigated Aerison's records, the 5' 10", 155-pound man was yanked from his morning classes and arrested in the hallway for criminal impersonation.
With the media clamoring for his story, Aerison appeared on Sally Jesse Raphael's TV show and explained that he had been molested by babysitters, teachers and family friends from when he was five until he was past twenty and had developed a multiple-personality disorder in order to cope. He wasn't guilty of impersonation, Aerison explained, because he sincerely considered himself to be a woman: His dominant personality was Shannon Ireland. He was convicted anyway and sentenced to two years' probation and more mandatory counseling.
In the mid-'90s, Aerison resurfaced as Storme Ireland, the imaginary half-sister of supermodel Kathy Ireland. In that role, Aerison produced posters, calendars and T-shirts featured on a now-defunct Web site that described Storme Ireland as a nineteen-year-old woman with green eyes, dark-blond hair and a 38-inch bust.
Those who say they were duped by Aerison insist the illusion was perfect. Aerison spoke in a soft, breathy voice and wore heavy makeup and loose clothing to mask his masculine attributes. He presented what appeared to be legitimate contracts, magazine covers and calendars during interviews. He brought an entourage of staff members and assistants to modeling sessions. He hosted lavish dinner parties, spent wildly and lived like a reclusive celebrity. Despite a flat chest and broad shoulders, one photographer said Aerison "moved like a broad" in front of the camera and had "a great pair of legs."
Maybe so, but John Amundson, a fraud-and-forgery detective with the Colorado Springs Police Department, says he's never seen a legitimate magazine cover or calendar shot featuring Aerison. The photos he has seen -- particularly the bikini shots -- appear to be Aerison's heavily made up face superimposed on the bodies of actual women. Victoria's Secret ordered one of Aerison's Web sites closed because of the unauthorized use of its models, the detective says.
But while Colorado Springs police received numerous complaints from hotels, rental-car companies and merchants around the world who claimed they'd been bilked out of at least $100,000 total during Aerison's photo sessions, authorities could never compile enough evidence to file charges.
Then in January 2000, Aerison was charged with writing $185,000 in hot checks on a closed Colorado Springs credit-union account and pocketing more than $20,000 in cash and merchandise, including airline tickets for members of his DreamTeam crew, who were preparing for a calendar shoot in Tahiti. Despite those charges, police say, Aerison's scams continued.
That spring, Aerison befriended Joshua Hurd, a teenager, on the Internet and offered him a place on the DreamTeam. Two weeks before the crew was to go overseas, Aerison asked Hurd's mother to buy plane tickets and film on her credit card. The woman agreed. Aerison promised to repay the $13,626 in fifteen days, but instead, police say, he wrote a $15,000 check on the closed credit-union account, disregarded a judge's order to stay in Colorado, violated his bond and left for location with Hurd and the rest of his crew.
Michael Bernatchez was a secondary photographer on that trip, hired on the recommendation of a friend who'd traveled with the DreamTeam to Hawaii in 1999. While he was in Tahiti, Bernatchez's sister read a story about Storme Aerison in Westword ("The Broad Was a Fraud," June 8, 2000), and contacted both her brother and the Colorado Springs police.
"After I found out, I looked for definite signs," Bernatchez told Westword last year. "And there weren't a lot of them. What he does with his manhood, I don't know. There was no bulge or anything. She doesn't give a normal person any reason to doubt. She's very discreet. She plays up the Christian angle. She walks around in sweats and T-shirts. She always wore a towel until the actual shot was taken. The makeup was already done. But one thing I did see is that she had an uplifter. With a little photography and a computer, you can enhance it and make the appearance of a B cup. Other than that, I never knew."
Bernatchez returned to Colorado, minus the $1,100 he'd lent Aerison. When the rest of the crew arrived back home, Aerison was arrested for violating bail. During the booking, Amundson says, a female deputy began to pat Aerison down, but the detective waved her off.
"That's not a female you're doing," Amundson said. "That's a male."
Then Aerison spoke up: "It's okay. I have both sexes."
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In September 2000, authorities charged Aerison with stealing $13,600 from the Hurds and writing a hot check for $15,000. That same month, Amundson added another charge of credit-card fraud to Aerison's growing file. Between February and November 1999, Aerison had opened two American Express cards in another man's name and charged $53,752. Aerison said the man, William Boyd, had sponsored the swimsuit calendar, but Boyd told police he never gave Aerison permission to open the accounts.
With the charges mounting, Aerison again skipped town, this time missing a February 12, 2001, hearing in Colorado Springs and traveling from Alaska to Florida with a longtime friend. Dennis Blackwell, a Colorado Springs bail bondsman who stood to lose $155,000, traced the fugitive to Daytona Beach. After flashing a photo of Aerison at a 7-Eleven, Blackwell and Daytona Beach police found Aerison hiding under a pile of clothes in a bedroom closet, sporting a five o'clock shadow and a T-shirt "with little hearts on it."
After the March 21 arrest, Aerison tried to contest Colorado warrants that listed him as a white female. He was a black man, Aerison told a Florida judge, but he was extradited anyway and placed in the men's section of the El Paso County jail.
And there he remains in protective custody, awaiting trial. "Our case is solid," Amundson says.