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.
After his release, he moved to Nevada and exchanged Pierson for his given name, Strandlof. In April 2005, the Reno police arrested Strandlof for stealing a gold Ford Explorer he'd rented and neglected to return. After arranging to move his case to Washoe County's Mental Health Court, Strandlof pleaded guilty and spent an additional nine months in jail for the gross-misdemeanor offense. Soon after he got out, he and Jeremy Weed, his boyfriend, moved to Colorado, where Strandlof could exercise his burgeoning interest in politics.
"I'm a whore for a cause," he admits on his blog.
The ease with which I convinced myself that all was well did not come as much of a surprise to me, as I have a well-documented track record of convincing people to believe things that are not true.
In 2007, Army Specialist Garett Reppenhagen met Rick Duncan at a meeting of the Colorado Springs branch of Iraq Veterans Against the War. The local group had about ten consistently active members, which quickly came to include Duncan.
Duncan was a charming, outgoing and intelligent — if "really weird" — man who didn't hold anything back, the group's members recall. "The first thing he ever said to me was, 'Hi, I'm Rick Duncan, a former Marine captain. I have two fake knees and a plate in my head,'" remembers Army Specialist Kyle Briggs.
At that initial meeting, Duncan shared what would become, with the occasional quirk or plot hole, his official story: He'd graduated from the prestigious United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, and the military career that followed was brilliant but blighted. On his third tour in Iraq, the Marine captain was on a routine intelligence mission when an IED, or improvised explosive device, struck his amphibious military vehicle. "I remember him breaking down in tears telling the story," Reppenhagen says. And he'd tell the story over and over, often over beers at Jack Quinn's, the bar where the Springs members of IVAW would bond after outreach events. According to one version of Duncan's tale, the vehicle held five soldiers, three of whom died while the fourth sustained wounds less serious than Duncan's. The next morning, Duncan woke up in a military hospital somewhere near Fallujah, where he underwent surgery that put a metal plate in his head and gave him two fake knees. For his role in the incident, he earned the Purple Heart.
Except that he didn't. No part of Duncan's military story was true. (A Richard T. Duncan did graduate from the Naval Academy — in 1948.) But for two years, Strandlof's exceptional acting talents and the details he pulled from online accounts of other soldiers were enough to convince the members of IVAW that he was legit. In his blog, Strandlof admits using the Internet to further his game of pretend. "I was very proud to live by my wits," he writes. "OMFG."
To join the IVAW, a vet was required to apply through the national branch, proving eligibility by sending a copy of his DD214 form, the paper that came with release from active duty. But somehow Duncan managed to get his name included on the national IVAW listing of all branch members online. "Locally as a chapter, we didn't really do a lot of investigation to see if someone had been a national member," Reppenhagen says. "But we probably should have."
Because the other members of the Springs IVAW were predominantly Army vets, they knew little about the Marines. "He could have said any number of things and I wouldn't have known the difference," says Army Specialist Mike Flaherty. And Duncan did say any number of things: In addition to describing his decorated active-duty career, Duncan also claimed to have been inside the Pentagon on September 11. He didn't share many details, but everyone knew that day was tough to talk about. Later, at a public event he staged to memorialize the victims of 9/11, Duncan choked up.
Duncan had no problem talking about his post-traumatic stress disorder, though. Unlike other members of the group with PTSD, he talked about it constantly, incessantly. While remembering his time in Iraq, he would cry or freak out and fly into a rage. He was depressed, he said. He was demoralized. He had night terrors. He hated that his brothers and sisters — his fellow Marines — were still out there. "He was manic-depressive," Reppenhagen says. "He went on pretty crazy mood swings of being extremely happy and loud and rambunctious to being moody, these two very big extremes. Before I knew he was faking, I credited it to his PTSD."
"He was your weird friend who you were always wondering what was going on," remembers Flaherty. "He would flaunt his PTSD, whereas the rest of us would try to keep it at bay. It seemed like every hour for him was just a bad PTSD hour."
Duncan was as hard-charging in private life as he'd been in his pretend public duty. He was an anti-war, anti-conservative activist who could get "fired-up" about anything from immigration to gay rights — and his new friends admired his guts as an openly gay vet. He joked about his sexuality when vets wondered how he'd escaped Don't Ask, Don't Tell. "He just told us people knew, that he told them they could out him if they wanted and no one ever did," Briggs says. "He made it sound like he had a good relationship with his Marines and they all liked him a lot."
But sometimes his joking went too far. Over beers at Flaherty's house or in local bars, he told rowdy and occasionally vulgar stories. He made anti-Semitic comments, says Army Specialist Ben Schrader. He also had large tattoos — a voluptuous lady angel and a matching busty devil — on his calves, which is "tacky" for an officer, Flaherty says. There were a few other strange behavioral tics. He never talked to his former deployment companions, and he never referred to any of them by name. He constantly brought up the scar on the right side of his head, which he attributed to the metal plate, but it was oddly small. He told his friends that the traumatic brain injury meant he wasn't allowed to drive, and yet he was often offering rides to the liquor store.
Duncan told the vets that he and Weed shared a house and a truck on the southeast side of Colorado Springs, but were building a new home. "At the time, he said he was building a house in Woodland Park, and he used to say that it was cold and damp in his basement and that when his head hurt he would go down there to help the swelling," Briggs recalls. But when the couple suddenly broke up, Duncan had no money and no place to stay — a strange problem for a seriously injured vet who should have been collecting significant monthly medical benefits and would have had access to a number of military resources. "I have a shoulder that clicks and insomnia and I get paid $389 a month," says Briggs. "How would an officer of his caliber with a metal plate and two fake knees have been that poor?"
After the IVAW protested at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August 2008, Duncan agreed to pay $150 a month in rent if he could stay on a couch in Flaherty's living room. He bought groceries and kept to himself, keeping his few bags of belongings in his car and eating pancakes alone. Flaherty remembers watching television with Duncan one day while both of them were lying on couches in the living room. "He started going through these little fits, making these scared noises and twitching," he says, mimicking Duncan's grunts. "I'd be like, 'Rick, are you all right?' and he'd act like he was snapping out of it. It seemed like too much of a production to believe it was real, but then I started feeling bad about those thoughts." A few weeks later, Duncan was gone — without forking over his share of the rent.
But Duncan was usually easy to find. If there was a camera around, says Flaherty, Duncan was usually in front of it, and he tended to take on a spokesman role for the group. For both public and private gatherings, Duncan donned camouflage pants and a tan cap decorated with the Marine Corps' eagle, anchor and globe. But he also worked hard, raising funds and organizing a wide range of projects. With the Warrior Writers campaign, for example, Duncan and other members of the IVAW volunteered stories about their wartime experiences. "He was all about the Marine Corps," Briggs says. "It consumed almost all of his life."
Duncan even launched his own military nonprofit, the Colorado Veterans Alliance. As its representative, he spoke at events organized by big-name local politicians, including Jared Polis and Mark Udall, and became a poster boy for such anti-war organizations as VoteVets.org. At one point, he claimed his organization had more than 30,000 members. After a CVA rally, Duncan invited supporters to a barbecue by his office in southeast Colorado Springs; inside, he organized financial and non-perishable food donations for soldiers' care packages. In retrospect, those who helped wonder if those packages ever went out.
But it was another action that made them really begin to question Duncan. In symbolic protest, the Springs branch of the IVAW would frequently set up a model Army guard tower in Acacia Park, where they would sit, dressed in their uniforms, passing out fliers and talking about their opposition to the war in which they had served. While preparing for one of these protests in early 2009, Duncan accidentally backed his red Toyota Tacoma into a gas main — but rather than wait for the police to arrive, he fled the scene as gas seeped into the air. From 8 a.m. until 3 p.m., neither the vets nor the cops could find Duncan, and the police, in particular, were growing insistent that he be located.
Looking back, Flaherty knows why Duncan wanted to avoid the police: "What was he going to do when they took his ID in front of all of us and called him Mr. Strandlof?" Then again, he also remembers Duncan pretending he had lost his ID. "And what about his criminal record?"
The tipping point came when staffers in Udall's office learned that Duncan was claiming to be working for the senator, which they told the board of the CVA wasn't true. Boardmembers were already concerned that the organization wasn't yet a legal nonprofit. And the person who had submitted the paperwork was one Rick Strandlof, not Duncan. Now, looking into the founder's background, they learned that a Rick Duncan hadn't attended the Naval Academy in decades. He hadn't served in Iraq. He hadn't won those medals.
The CVA board contacted the FBI, and investigators tracked Rick Duncan back to Rick Strandlof and his matching criminal records in Montana and Nevada. The Springs branch of the IVAW started getting calls from Veterans of Foreign Wars USA, the American Legion and various branches of Veterans Affairs. News of Strandlof's lies reached the Denver Post, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and scores of other media outlets; Strandlof went on Anderson Cooper 360 to explain himself. But critics attacked him online, calling for punishment on the CVA's Facebook page and its official website, both of which were rapidly removed from the Internet. (The group is now disbanded, but still listed on a number of military advocacy sites.)
And in Denver, a federal district court formally charged Strandlof with violating the Stolen Valor Act, citing him for five misdemeanors.
During his first and only tour in Iraq, Briggs heard the news from his father. In the months leading up to his deployment, Duncan had offered Briggs all kinds of advice based on his own experiences there: "Keep your head down," he encouraged. "Give 'em hell."
"Rick Strandlof is a dirtbag. He researched being full of crap," Briggs says today, and the local members of the IVAW didn't appreciate him unloading crap on them. "Each individual was so filled with anger that there was never really any question of talking to him. The only question was whether we would go find him. For a while, I was down."
Others who knew Strandlof as Rick Duncan vacillate between anger and pity...and curiosity about what happened to the money he raised. Some remain firmly convinced that his heart was in the right place, even if his Purple Heart was decidedly not. "The record will show he definitely has a soft spot for veterans, and I dig that," Flaherty says. "When the news broke out, we were all like, 'What a piece of shit,' and dumped on him, but then we realized he did a lot of good things for the community. But you don't have to pretend to be a veteran to have done the good things Rick did."
Flaherty continues: "He is a good person, from what I can tell, and he doesn't have to put on these facades to belong. I think that's his main struggle: He's just never going to feel like he fits in anywhere. You can't start any relationship under false pretenses, because ultimately, you're always going to be caught."
He pauses to consider. "He's like the Mr. Magoo of espionage."
Maybe it was done to protect myself from something I was threatened by, that was going to somehow hurt me. Maybe someday this will be revealed to me. Maybe someday it will not.
What would become the Stolen Valor Act began as a college assignment at Colorado State University in Pueblo. At the time, 47-year-old political-science major Pam Sterner was looking for a topic for an essay assigned by her public-policy professor. The assignment — write about a law that isn't working or one you'd like to exist — struck her as wildly open-ended, but she eventually found her subject while listening to a conversation between her husband, Vietnam vet Doug Sterner, and a friend in the FBI.
"Through them, I knew that Title 18 wasn't working," she says, referring to the federal law that she thought could be strengthened with language that later became Stolen Valor. Policymakers had penned those provisions before the dawn of modern technology, when it was easier to falsify a DD214 without being caught by a quick e-search. Still, those who violated it had to be caught wearing the medal they falsely claimed as their own, not just lying about it. "It just seemed unconscionable to me that anyone would be allowed to lie like that," Sterner recalls.
After Sterner finished her 25-page essay, titled "The Stolen Valor Act of 2005," Sterner arranged a meeting with then-representative John Salazar, a veteran who sympathized with her goals; he tasked his staff with drafting a formal bill based on her essay. Two years later, in December 2006, President George W. Bush signed the Stolen Valor Act into law. Its updated provisions made it illegal to fraudulently claim a number of lesser medals, and broadened the requirements for misrepresentation: People could now be charged with violating the act for lying out loud or affixing Purple Heart plates to their Volvos.
But on June 28, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Stolen Valor Act. The case that prompted that decision involved one Xavier Alvarez. "Lying was his habit," Justice Anthony Kennedy said bluntly in the court's decision. The California man had lied about a spot on the Detroit Red Wings hockey team, and he'd lied about a wedding to a "starlet from Mexico." But when the 25-year veteran of the Marine Corps lied about winning the Medal of Honor, he committed a crime.
At least that's what prosecutors at a U.S. District Court in central California suggested. A conviction for violating the Stolen Valor Act could typically mean up to six months in prison, but lying about the Medal of Honor, the most prestigious military award possible, upped the ante to a potential year behind bars. Attorneys for Alvarez, who was facing two counts, argued that the act itself violated his freedom of speech. After the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to hear their case en banc, the lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, Strandlof's case was also going through the courts. In federal district court in Denver, Judge Robert Blackburn had ruled that the act infringed upon constitutional freedoms. Appeals judges disagreed, however, and on January 27, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Stolen Valor Act.
Then came the Supreme Court's ruling. "The Nation well knows that one of the costs of the First Amendment is that it protects the speech we detest as well as the speech we embrace," Kennedy wrote. "Though few might find [Alvarez's] statements anything but contemptible, his right to make those statements is protected by the Constitution's guarantee of freedom of speech and expression. The Stolen Valor Act infringes upon speech protected by the First Amendment."
Four days later, on July 2, all Stolen Valor charges against Strandlof were dropped.
Any investigation into Strandlof's false military claims is "essentially dead," says Jeff Dorschner, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office. But that may not be the end of that office's dealings with Strandlof.
"Now, after that case involving the medals, he apparently assumed a different identity and was involved in a new scheme," Dorschner adds. "The question of whether he is being investigated for that scheme is a question we never answer."
Some of Strandlof's former friends say the FBI has contacted them for an investigation into his next identity, a short-lived personality named Rick Gold. "It is the purpose of the Department of Justice never to confirm or deny any investigation," Dorschner says. "I can tell you, though, that I don't know why anyone would lie about that."
Six months and one day ago, I was alone, homeless, broke, hopeless, dealing with untreated mental illness and didn't have a reason to live.
Rick Gold was born in Tel Aviv in the late 1970s to a loving but stereotypically overbearing Jewish mother. He spent most of his life on a kibbutz in Kabri, where he studied and learned Arabic, English and Urdu in addition to his native Hebrew. As he grew up, he remained close to his heritage, if not its teachings. Like many upwardly mobile Jewish youth of his generation, he identified with the religion but practiced it infrequently. So when, years later, he moved to Denver to specialize as an oil-and-gas attorney at Patton Boggs, his new friends in the city's young Jewish professional community had no reason to doubt his story.
At least not at first.
With Eric Rosenberg, a Jewish twenty-something who works as a financial analyst, Gold founded the Denver Flash Mob, and the two staged a dozen events across the city while attracting hundreds of followers. The effort grew quickly, bringing with it donations and an intern hired to help manage its affairs. Around the same time, Gold began to study religious texts with a local rabbi in order to reconnect to his heritage.
Rebecca Saltzman met Gold early last year through Rosenberg. Gold's outgoing nature and natural charm gained him quick entry into their social circle, where, over Shabbat dinners and regular devotionals, Gold gradually revealed more of his past: While his mom, grandparents and siblings remained in Israel, he had moved to San Diego and earned a bachelor's degree in geology at the University of California-San Diego in 1998. Later he enrolled at the University of Southern California's Gould School of Law, getting his degree in 2006. And somewhere in between, he completed army training for the Israeli Defense Forces, serving as an intelligence officer from 2002 to 2007.
Thanks to his dad's American passport and his own dual citizenship, combined with a devout calling to military life, Gold split his service between the IDF and the U.S. Marines. He told his new friends that he'd served as a captain until a traumatic brain injury led to his discharge. If he sometimes mixed things up, he said, they could chalk it up to the metal plate in his head — the result of an IED hitting his Humvee during a third and final tour in Iraq. And they did, attributing any unexplainable plot twists or subtle inconsistencies in his retellings to the scar on the right side of his head. "That was genius," says Saltzman, a psychotherapist who is familiar with PTSD-stricken veterans. "He couldn't have picked a better excuse."
Gold was successful and exuberant, if occasionally manic, and his only negative quality seemed to be a persistent body odor. "My children commented on it," says Yona Eshkenazi, director of StandWithUs, a ten-year-old pro-Israel nonprofit that Gold joined early last year. "He smelled like someone who doesn't use deodorant."
Today she attributes that scent to the fact that Gold was probably homeless at the time. Strandlof confirms this on his blog: "I sat in various Starbucks and other locations with my laptop, my reusable coffee cup, my Sigg water bottle, with expensive fancy shoes, wearing my Northface jacket while engaging in heated conversations with nonexistent people on a disconnected cell phone."
In January 2011, Denver police officers arrested Strandlof for first-degree felony trespassing after he pried open a locked window at the University of Denver Iliff School of Theology and stayed there until discovered. He pleaded guilty and served seven days in jail. In August of the same year, he pleaded guilty to shoplifting.
Eshkenazi met Gold in March 2011, when he called to ask for her support in opposing a speaker on the Auraria campus discussing Israel Apartheid Week — which she insists is more like "Hate Israel Week." She accepted, and sat with him throughout the speech, during which she remembers having to calm down Gold so that he wouldn't react to the speaker insulting "his heritage." After that, the two became fast friends. Eshkenazi admired Gold's passion for Israel, and regularly invited the single, gay, conservative Jewish lawyer to her home for Sabbath dinners. They talked about his childhood in Israel, and "he knew the beaches and the specifics," says Eshkenazi, who has visited the country several times. Gold claimed that Danny Ayalon, Israel's deputy foreign minister, was a family friend, and Gold offered to bring him to Denver for an event. "He must have done a lot of research," she adds.
When Saltzman took a trip to the Social Security Administration downtown to get a new card, Gold accompanied her — and promptly entered the line intended for international citizens with foreign passports. "What did he do when he got to the front?" she asks now. "It's not like he was actually from Israel. Did he just say 'Oops" and sit down?"
When the two became Facebook friends, Eshkenazi noticed Gold using Foursquare to check in at locations across the city. Whole Foods and Starbucks were his favorites, though he also checked in from Patton Boggs and "Rick's Home," an address at 33rd and Clay that does not exist but would have stood between two actual buildings in Highland. When Saltzman picked him up, Gold would meet her in the alley. What his friends knew of his place — which he said he bought with a military payment — they learned from the photos he posted on Facebook. "He had a messy kitchen," Saltzman remembers. "I guess it turns out he had no kitchen." And although he claimed to own an Audi with the license plate "BTCHPLZ," Gold's friends only saw him ride a bike. But like Rick Duncan, Gold said that his license had been suspended for medical reasons. And Gold wore only one pair of shoes, a stinky pair of Vibram Five Fingers.
At one point, Gold told Saltzman that he'd quit Patton Boggs to become a self-defense instructor at Colorado Krav Maga. Because he was in great shape, she believed him. (Months later, instructors at Colorado Krav Maga put out an Internet warning that Strandlof had never worked for the company.) But he still had his law degree, he assured her, and would be happy to adjust her will for her.
In June 2011, Gold volunteered to man the StandWithUs booth at PrideFest. But during the second day of the event, onetime Colorado House candidate Paul Rosenthal, who'd met Rick Duncan and then seen him unveiled as Strandlof, recognized Gold. He called Eshkenazi and left a message. By the time she got the news, Gold had disappeared — taking with him the group's fliers and promotional materials. Gold's closest friends in the Jewish community gathered to draft a message to him, in which they cut ties permanently and encouraged him to seek mental help. Saltzman took her concerns to the FBI, where an official greeted her with this: "Our friend Rick's at it again!"
"What was most disturbing to me is that he visited our home a few times and met our children. Not that I thought there was danger," Eshkenazi says. "But it was like being friends with someone who was a ghost. He didn't really exist." When she told her children that, they didn't take the news well.
On his Facebook page, Gold had written his name in both English and Hebrew. But instead of simply spelling "Gold" phonetically, which is the correct approach, he translated it into the Hebrew word for "gold." At the time, Saltzman didn't think much of it. Today she realizes it showed he was never Jewish. This has been the most hurtful realization for those who knew Strandlof as Gold.
After his fall, Saltzman contacted Strandlof's sister, Katie Pierson, and told her of Rick's latest guise. "He thinks he's Jewish?" Pierson responded. "Ha ha fml!" Later, she concluded, "All I can say is cut your losses an tell him to leave u alone..."
God please guide me and keep me in this time and place.
On a cold night last fall, Richard Strandlof, zipped into a North Face jacket, stood over a steaming pot. His gloved hand dipped an oversized spoon into the soup. "Who wants some?" he asked those standing in line in front of Occupy Denver's former home in Civic Center Park. "I didn't make it and I can't vouch for it, but I can smell it, and it smells good."
The month before, Strandlof had joined the Occupy Wall Street movement, carving out a niche in Denver's anarchist kitchen, the Thunderdome. There he worked the equivalent of a part-time job cooking and serving free food made from donated ingredients to anyone who stopped by and asked for it. He rotated mornings, afternoons and nights down at the park, and he made a new group of friends, many of whom now follow him on Twitter and Facebook, where he uses his real name.
Only a couple of weeks after he started volunteering, they learned about his other names.
Around the last week of October, someone put together Strandlof's activism and his criminal record and called him out on Twitter. Nervous about what this would mean to his new, real life, Strandlof pointed his accuser to his blog — rickstrandlof.blogspot.com — where he now writes about his past transgressions and his current twelve-step program as a member of AA. (He recently claimed eleven months of sobriety.) Some of his former friends follow the blog. Most don't. Some believe it. Some don't.
"I'm worried that this is just another persona: Recovery Rick," Eshkenazi says. "I don't know if he's genuinely in recovery, and I find it hard to believe what he says at this point."
Friends at Occupy Denver say they've watched Strandlof grow into his own — though they're not sure exactly what that means. Perhaps Strandlof isn't, either. When news of his history reached the group, he cracked jokes about it. Making small talk at the Thunderdome with both strangers and friends, he told of taking classes at Metro State (which is true); but on his Facebook page, he now says he's a geology major at the University of Colorado Denver (not true). He spoke about the difficulty of dealing with Don't Ask, Don't Tell as an openly gay vet (not true) and about the difficulty of dealing with a family that rejected him based on his sexuality (true).
In the same month he joined Occupy Denver, he reached out to Saltzman in an attempt to apologize.
"Since we last spoke," he wrote her on Facebook, "I have connected with several agencies and am getting therapy — both medication and counseling. Things are a little better, but you know stuff like this doesn't go away overnight. If I might ask, could you please relay a message to...others that I deceived that I never had any ill will towards them? What I saw was a warm, inclusive community that I wished in some way I could be a part of." Saltzman says she's forgiven Strandlof, but she has not written him back.
Still, Rick Gold has more friends on Facebook today than does Rick Strandlof.
None of Strandlof's former friends at IVAW have spoken with him, either, though Flaherty swears he has seen Strandlof twice. Last fall, as he walked to the 16th Street Mall, he passed Strandlof at the Occupy Denver encampment. And two weeks ago, he spotted Strandlof on a bicycle in Commons Park. "My reaction was that I wanted to push him over, and I don't know why," Flaherty says. "I didn't want to hurt or harm him, but I wanted to express anger in a physical manner. Next time. Next time I'll say something."
If he came upon Strandlof in a supermarket, Briggs says, he'd ask Strandlof why he lied — but he wouldn't stop there. "This is going to sound messed up, but personally I think a guy like Rick who claims to have been blown up and had both his knees replaced and a plate put in his head in Iraq, I think he should be put in a truck and sent to Iraq and have both of his knees blown up and a plate put in his head," he says, pointing to the potential impact that lying about military service — stolen valor — has on all veterans. "I know it's not a feasible option, but I wish there was a way that the people who do those things could experience their lies."
Meeting with Westword over coffee to discuss a possible story, Strandlof expressed a wish to distance himself from his past, or at least a curiosity to see if that's even possible. Weeks later, when he decided not to participate, he said he was thinking of his current self. Rick 3.0. He doesn't want to think about those earlier versions anymore, he said.
And neither, really, do his former friends. They now mumble about "hindsight being 20-20" — though their vision today might be even stronger.
"I'd ask him what he was thinking and then let it go," Briggs says. "I try not to hold grudges. I wouldn't get angry. I understand people are messed up and desperate. But I don't know if any of us ever reached out to figure out that 'Why?' question.
"I wish someone had."
There will be those who claim that I am a terrible human being and should have all manner of terrible things done to me as a result. They are probably correct. Or not.
Get the Weekly Newsletter