Longform

Will the real Rick Strandlof please stand up?

Let me address some relevant background info. The majority of the last twenty or so years has involved me lying, deceiving, cheating or in general being a terrible human being.

Meet Rick Strandlof. On his Facebook page, the 35-year-old puts up a funny and exceptionally intelligent front. He is single and sarcastic. He likes cheese, Star Wars jokes, Starbucks and the outdoors. He's not a fan of Lana Del Rey, and he hates Republicans. He posts at least three times a day on average, and his nearly 200 followers know him as an outgoing, well-read college student and political activist who is blunt with his opinions and generous with his friendship. But this is the third personal profile Strandlof has created in the past five years — and the only one that might be real.

"I'm now Colorado's second most stupid impersonator," he joked last month. The link accompanying that quip told the story of Michael Maher, a Denver man who pretended to be a firefighter and allegedly stole equipment as real firefighters battled the High Park flames. Strandlof himself is no stranger to false identities, though he is now a stranger to many who once called him a friend.

Some of them knew Strandlof as devoutly Jewish attorney Rick Gold. He has also gone by Rick Pierson, a name half his own and half his stepfather's that can be tracked through a series of mental-health records and fraud charges in Montana and Nevada. But his most infamous creation was Rick Duncan, a seriously injured Marine captain with a Purple Heart, a Silver Star and PTSD. Duncan's story, which regularly prompted tears from his own eyes and those of others, earned him credibility with vets, politicians and law enforcement as he volunteered to raise money and awareness for veteran causes. But in 2009, his lies earned Strandlof a new entry on his criminal record, when he was charged with violating the 2006 Stolen Valor Act.

Last month, however, Strandlof earned the opportunity to start anew. Again. In a decision that cited his case, the Supreme Court overturned Stolen Valor, rejecting the law because it violated the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech; the charges against Strandlof were dismissed soon after. But can Rick Strandlof survive in the real world?

"[You're] a close second," one Facebook friend commented after Strandlof joked about his "stupid" impersonations. "Don't sell yourself short."

******

I am trying to be here in my brokenness and my imperfection and destitution. It is terrifying. Utterly. Fucking. Terrifying.

Rick Strandlof's high school yearbook has no senior photo of him, just a brief note that he is "not pictured." Back then, his friends in Missoula, Montana, would have known Strandlof as Rick Pierson. The 1995 Sentinel Bitterroot includes only one photo of Strandlof, whose last name is incorrectly noted as "Pearson." Ironically, it is from a drama performance.

Richard Glen Strandlof was born in Montana on May 14, 1977, a difficult child in a difficult situation; his birth father abandoned the family early on. "There were educational issues, psychological issues, sibling issues, legal issues," he writes on his blog (the source of the highlighted quotes in this story). "My mother tried valiantly, for years, with every fiber of her being and then some, to keep together a family that was tearing itself apart at the seams. Top off this shit sandwich of a life with an alcoholic husband and what do you get? I will tell you what you get: a bigger shit sandwich."

Strandlof was regularly in trouble both in school and outside of it, and things only got worse when, at fifteen, he came out as gay to his mother and a counselor. He did not expect his family's reaction: They rejected and abandoned him, he writes. And once he was cut off from his family, his mental illness took hold. In the few interviews that Strandlof has granted to the media, he has said that doctors diagnosed him with both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. (His Montana mental-health records are sealed.)

In 1997, the Missoula County District Court convicted Strandlof — then known as Richard Pierson — of writing bad checks, a felony, and sentenced the twenty-year-old to five years in prison. Even behind bars, Strandlof was already thinking out of the box. In December 1998, representing himself pro se, Strandlof filed a lawsuit against Aramark Correctional Services, the company in charge of the food at the Cascade County Regional Correctional Facility, claiming it had exposed him to an agent of cancer. Strandlof alleged that jail officials gave him a "fruit-flavored beverage" that he drank "twelve separate times" between November 4 and 16, 1998, according to court documents. The lawsuit revolved around that beverage's warning label, which mentioned a saccharin component Strandlof told the court was a "known carcinogen"; he asked for $10 million in damages to compensate for the jail's negligence, his emotional distress and his "future loss of life enjoyment." The court refused his request in October 2000 — after Strandlof neglected to file the requisite paperwork.

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Kelsey Whipple
Contact: Kelsey Whipple