When Linda’s dog trotted into the room, Missi laughed. “Thumper!” she said. “I thought you were dead.” (Derek’s mother, they later learned, was also still alive.) On the surface, the two women didn’t seem to have much in common-Missi is grounded and easygoing, with a yin-yang symbol tattooed on her big toe, while Linda is a conservative Navy vet with a drawl that betrays her Texas roots-but they bonded over the absurdity of their shared situation.
He had hour-long phone conversations-ostensibly with his admiral, his faculty supervisor, or his daughter Sarah, three people who turned out not to exist-during which Linda could hear a voice on the other end of the line
The next day, Washington County police were at Linda’s house taking her statement when a delivery arrived, addressed to Rich Peterson. Linda handled the package gingerly; it felt like a missive from an alternate reality. One of the police officers told her she might as well open it: “It’s not like he’s a real person.” The box contained whiskey and chocolate and a sweet get-well-soon note from a woman whose return address was just a few neighborhoods away.
Linda texted Missi, who compiled a dossier of news articles documenting all of Derek’s misdeeds and dropped it off with the third woman, Joy (who asked to be identified by her middle name). That weekend, Joy stopped by Linda’s, and the two women split a bottle of wine, trying to piece together how they’d been taken so thoroughly. Joy, a 42-year-old IT director, had also met “Rich” on OurTime, in February. He’d told her he was a professor who volunteered at a homeless shelter downtown. (The women later found out that he had actually been living at the shelter before he moved in with Linda.) They’d dated for a few months, until “he started having just a ton of drama in his life,” Joy says. She broke it off with him but stayed friendly. On the Fourth of July, he sent her a picture of himself looking tan and happy, his arms around Missi and her kids on the boat that Linda had paid for. I bought a boat and took my sister and her kids out on it today, he wrote. My life has calmed down, want to try again? Joy decided to give him another chance. She later found that he’d stolen almost $8,000 worth of jewelry, her passport, and her birth certificate.
The false life that Derek-it was still hard not to slip and call him Rich-had constructed for himself was thorough: He had a University of Minnesota email address and an ID card that allowed him to swipe into university buildings. He would FaceTime the women from UM classrooms between classes. He had uniforms and medals and a stack of framed, official-looking awards: a Purple Heart and a Silver Star, a seal Team One membership, a certificate of completion for a naval underwater-demolition course. There were just so many props bolstering Derek’s stories that even when doubts had started to bubble up, the women had repressed them-there’s no way it could all be fake, they’d told themselves. That would be crazy.
The three women’s conversations had another recurring theme: “We also knew there had to be more victims,” Linda told me.
A mericans love a con man
In his insouciance, his blithe refusal to stick to one category or class, his constant self-reinvention, the confidence man (and he is almost always a man) takes one of America’s foundational myths-You can be anything you want to be!-to its extreme. The con man, the writer Lewis Hyde has argued, is “one of America’s unacknowledged founding fathers.”