“Who is he?”
The answer to that question could land a man now serving a ten-year prison sentence in the United States Federal Correctional Institution in Jesup, Georgia on a plane to Guyana.
For twenty-three years, he lived in Florida State as Lanail Thaddeus Hudson. But since his conviction two years ago on seven counts of aggravated identity theft, six counts of using a false social security number and one count of making a false statement on a passport application, he has been officially listed as “John Doe”.
Even with his conviction, he has maintained that he is Lanail Hudson, the name under which he had built a life in Jacksonville, Florida, where he worked and lived with a wife and two children.
“…This is the only name I’ve ever had, the only name I’ve ever known,” he told Ira Glass, host of public radio programme “This American Life” in an interview from the Jesup Federal Correctional Institution that was recently broadcast.
“I’m dubbed John Doe at this point. I hate when people call me. They don’t have the decency to say, well, call me Mr Doe. John Doe. To me, it represents a nobody, and this seems unreal,” he said.
But officials believe that he has refused to admit that he had been living under a stolen name because he is a foreign national and is trying to avoid deportation. Most of his arrest records do not list a country of origin or list the United States as the country of origin, except one from September 21, 1989, which lists Guyana as his country of origin.
“He could be wanted for a crime, could be a fugitive from his country. Even his wife thought he was from another country, but I couldn’t prove that he was from another country, so he can’t be deported unless you have proof,” State Trooper Richard Blanco said on the show’s October 25, 2013 broadcast, which featured the story of “John Doe.”
Blanco was the officer who arrested “John Doe” after he went to a government office in Jacksonville, Florida to get a new Florida state ID under the name Lanail Hudson. The trooper was called in because a man in Miami with the same name had flagged it, alerting the authorities to the fact that he had been the victim of identity theft and that someone was using a driver’s licence under his name.
When Blanco asked the man claiming to be Hudson for proof of his identity, he did not bargain for what happened next. “…He opens the backpack, and he starts pulling out all these identifications. Just numerous IDs. The passport, social security card, 20 to 30 pieces of identification on him,” he said.
The identification included a birth certificate, a government-issued ID that allowed the man under the name Lanail Hudson to walk around the port in Jacksonville unescorted and two naval IDs that allowed him onto US navy vessels.
“You know, he’s slinging all these identifications on the desk. This is me. This is who I am. These documents, these IDs depicted his photograph. So then I had a little doubt in my mind,” Blanco added, explaining that he then suspected that the man before him may have been the true Lanail Hudson, the identity theft victim.
Blanco subsequently ran the man’s fingerprints through their system and they matched those on file for Lanail Hudson, who had been arrested in 1989 and had also served time in prison. But Blanco’s doubts that the man before him was not who he claimed returned when he contacted the Lanail Hudson from Miami who had alerted authorities to the identity theft. A corrections officer in Dade County, Florida, he told Blanco that his problems had started when his wallet was stolen in 1989 with his driver’s licence and his social security card. Since then, he said the man using his name had bought cars and did not make the payments, rented cars and did not return them and even left hospital bills unpaid, ruining his credit.
“John Doe” was arrested and tried and he admits now that he couldn’t make his case because he had no way to prove that he was Lanail Hudson.
“…You know, I didn’t have a case. He had a mother that came in and said, ‘This is my son’ and a dad that said that. And I had no one to say that, and I think that was the turning point. I don’t know who my parents are. I don’t know if I have any siblings,” he said on the show.
During his trial, he claimed that he was raised by a woman named Gertrude Hudson. He said the woman, now dead, told him when he was 12 that she was not his real mother. He also claimed to have been homeschooled, which is how he explained not having any school records. Other records from his childhood, he added, were burned by a girlfriend after they had a fight in 1985.
“And that was the last time that I really had anything really tangible to reflect of my past. I still don’t have any of those things,” he said.
Asked whether he could see how his explanations look suspicious, he maintained the truth of his assertions. “Well, I don’t know how it would. I’m telling the truth as it is, what had happened. My perception of how it looked didn’t conceive in my mind. I’m just explaining what had happened in my past,” he said.
‘Bad, Bad Leroy’
Up to the time of his trial, the sole clue to the real identity of “John Doe” was the possible alias listed in police records of a previous arrest on September 29, 1989, when he was held for four charges, attempted murder and aggravated battery. Although he was identified as Lanail Hudson in the reports, police recorded that he sometimes went by the name of Leroy Mayers or Leroy Meyers.
It didn’t help “John Doe” that his nickname was Leroy. His wife, Rosemary also called him Leroy. During his trial, he explained that he had gotten into a fight when he was young and had beaten his opponent so badly that all his friends started calling him, “Bad, Bad Leroy”—a reference to the eponymous character in the folksong “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.”
But there were no records for Leroy Mayers or Leroy Meyers, which seemed like a dead end in the search for answers about the identity of “John Doe.”
However, the producers of “This American Life”, noticing that the police records of the attempted murder and other incidents in 1989 all occurred at one house, managed to find the people who had lived there.
Martha Rolle said “John Doe,” whom she knew for over a year, used to date her sister, who is now deceased. Asked if she ever heard the name Lanail Hudson or whether he called himself that, she said she did not remember that.
“What name did you know him by?” Glass asked her.
“Leroy. Leroy May—Meyers. I don’t know which one it is, but Leroy was Mayers. I knew him by that. I don’t know any other name,” she said.
When asked where he was from, she admitted that she did know but added that she thought he was from an island.
“I don’t know if it’s Barbados or somewhere, but he’s not from here. He’s not from here. He had an accent,” she said, later adding, “He sounded to me, he sounded almost like Jamaican, but not Jamaican.”
However, her brother, Jonathan Marshall, told the show that the man they knew as Leroy claimed he was from Trinidad.
“Leroy, he was from Trinidad. That’s where he said he was from, Trinidad,” Marshall said. “I used to talk to him all the time. He was staying at the church right in the back of my house. He used to go with my sister, and him and my sister used to fight a lot… and I just was constantly telling him to leave the girl alone. But he wouldn’t do it.”
Marshall was the person who Leroy was charged with attempting to kill, after he shot him outside the house.
“And when the police arrested him for it, this is one of the first times that they booked and processed this guy who everybody called Leroy as Lanail Hudson. This is the moment where it seems like he’s making the transition from one name to the other,” Glass explained.
At Marshall’s suggestion, the show contacted Pastor Selwyn Scott, the pastor at the church where Leroy had lived. Pastor Scott and his wife Thomasina both remembered Leroy. The Scotts, who chose not to record their conversation for the show’s broadcast, told producers that a member of their church had found Leroy living on the street when he was 19 or 20 and they put him up in the trailer behind the church. He stayed for around a year.
During this time, Pastor Scott said he talked with Leroy a lot and he claimed he was from Guyana. Pastor Scott had lived in Trinidad, Barbados, and Guyana, and he said that Leroy’s accent was definitely Guyanese.
Without prompting, it was Mrs Scott who mentioned Lanail Hudson. She said that Leroy found a wallet with an ID in it with a name like Lanail Hudson—she wasn’t sure if it was Lionel or Leonard or Lanail—and she said they told him to mail it back. But after Leroy left the neighbourhood, she said, she heard that the young man to whom the ID belonged had died and that Leroy had taken his identity.
September 30 marked two years since “John Doe has been in prison. In that same month, he lost an appeal of his sentence, which he challenged on the grounds that the court erred in sentencing and that it imposed an unreasonable sentence.
“…As the district court noted, Doe’s offense was quite serious. He used Hudson’s identity for over 20 years and used it to obtain driver’s licenses, passports, social security cards, and an identification card for a US naval base. The district court also emphasized the need to promote respect for the law and for deterrence. It noted the damage suffered by the true Lanail Hudson and the high likelihood of Doe to recidivate, particularly since Doe refused to tell the court his true identity,” Circuit Judges in the US Court of Appeals affirmed, while holding that the sentence was “substantively reasonable” in the light of record and factors.
While authorities try to answers the questions about the identity of “John Doe,” he is also faced with a very big one: Who will he be when he is released from prison?
“It’s a dilemma. You are not going to allow me to have a social security card? A birth certificate? What—how—what is—what life do I have? And I really don’t know how to deal with some of the things. I hope in time, I would able to find some solutions for what is going on at this point. At this point, I’m baffled,” he said.