He strolled into the police station in Chelsea on Jan. 4 wearing a Harvard sweatshirt, a “Wounded Warrior” cap and military dog tags dangling from his neck. He said he was Jeremiah Asimov-Beckingham, a veteran of Afghanistan, wounded in combat, now working as an executive for an airline. He had come to the station to pick up his car.
His new BMW had been impounded, he believed, as evidence in a random crime. But it was a ploy. The police were hoping to lure a man suspected of forging checks in Cambridge, Mass., to steal $70,000 and the BMW, which they had tracked to a Manhattan garage. They put Mr. Asimov-Beckingham in handcuffs and charged him with larceny.
Investigators soon learned that the man’s name was not Asimov-Beckingham. He had never been wounded in combat, nor had he ever served in the military. New York detectives and Homeland Security agents found an Indiana birth certificate in his immigration file showing his name as Jeremy Wilson, born in Indianapolis in July 1973. It was the oldest document in the file, so they charged him under that name.
Still, his identity was a puzzle. He had spent 25 years stealing Social Securitynumbers and fabricating new aliases, leaving behind a thicket of confusing and falsified records. Six weeks earlier, he had been released from a federal prison in New Hampshire, where he had served six years for identity theft as Jeremy Clark-Erskine. But he had more than 27 aliases in five states. His birth certificate had been altered several times. Even his citizenship was in doubt. He had been deported more than once as an illegal immigrant. Now he is at Rikers Island, awaiting trial.
“There is so much misinformation about me, no one can say with absolute certainty who I am,” he said in an interview there late last month.
Further complicating matters, Mr. Wilson, 42, was now calling himself Jeremy Keenan and claiming to be the son of a famed Irish Republican Army leader, Brian Keenan, who directed the group’s bombing campaign in Britain in the 1970s and later played a role in the peace process for Northern Ireland. (Mr. Keenan died in 2008.) Speaking with a light brogue, Mr. Wilson said he had evidence to prove his claim and hinted that he himself had been active in the I.R.A. in the 1990s.
Whatever his parentage, investigators say Mr. Wilson is a professional impostor and a skilled forger. Though fraud has become an increasingly invisible offense in a digital world, Mr. Wilson has stuck with a decidedly old-fashioned approach, stealing checks and creating new personas, occasionally with accents and falsified papers, the police said.
He has portrayed himself as a Scottish-born D.J., a Cambridge-trained thespian, a Special Forces officer and a professor at M.I.T. He has posed as executives from Microsoft, British Airways and Apple, always with a military background. He pretended to be a soldier seeking asylum in Canada to escape anti-Semitic attacks in the United States. He once maintained an Irish accent so well and for so long that his cellmate in an Indiana jail was convinced that he was an Irish mobster.
“You have to give him some grudging respect,” said Brian A. Clark, his cousin and also a victim, having had his identity stolen by Mr. Wilson in the early 1990s. “He’s a proper villain. He’s just got flair.”
The exploits of Mr. Wilson — if we can agree to call him that — have drawn comparisons to those of Frank Abagnale Jr., the notorious con artist whose life was chronicled in the 2002 film “Catch Me if You Can.”
He fits the profile of scammers who derive as much pleasure from hoodwinking others as they do from reaping a profit, said Louis B. Schlesinger, a professor of forensic psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The elaborate fictions these swindlers spin tend to inflate their own egos. “It’s always grandiose,” Professor Schlesinger said. “It’s always extraordinary.”
Criminals like Mr. Wilson also tend to lack empathy for their victims, experts said. “That’s their watch; it just happens to be on the other person’s wrist,” Mr. Schlesinger said. “They see the world very differently than you do.”
His most embittered victims say he has a gift for lulling people into trusting him, even when their instincts tell them something is not right. His lies are detailed, and he backs them up with forged documents, checks, letters, passports, court orders.
Miryam Weisberg recalled how Mr. Wilson had convinced her that he was a former soldier from Boston who had done tours of duty in Afghanistan. He told vivid stories of barracks high jinks, camp life and combat, she said. “He gave more detail than anybody that I’d ever known in the military,” Ms. Weisberg said. She dated Mr. Wilson briefly in early 2006, just after he escaped from an Indiana prison. The romance ended when he stole her car and credit cards and fled to Canada.
A few months later, he was jailed in Edmonton, Alberta, after being caught stealing passports at a youth hostel. He contacted Larry Derkach, the director of Jewish Family Services in Edmonton, and claimed to be a Jewish soldier who had suffered violent anti-Semitic attacks in the United States Army.
“The story, in some ways, was kind of far-fetched, but he has the gift of gab,” said Mr. Derkach, who added, “There were loads and loads of details that painted the story of a credible person in an unusual situation.”
Mr. Derkach was so taken in that he let the G.I. stay at his home, something he has rarely done. In about three weeks, Mr. Wilson managed to have new credit cards issued to him on Mr. Derkach’s account. Then he skipped town and ran up more than $17,000 worth of charges.
Almost a decade later, Mr. Derkach said he was still amazed by Mr. Wilson’s raw intelligence. As they worked on his case for refugee status, he recalled, Mr. Wilson quickly memorized a complex legal document and could quote sizable chunks of it verbatim. “I think he has genius capability,” Mr. Derkach said.
His life of duplicity started early. His family in Indiana said he pulled his first con job while still at a Jesuit high school in Indianapolis, coming to class in a wheelchair to gain sympathy, then stealing from other students. He was expelled and lost a scholarship.
He grew up in a home where money was tight and father figures inconstant, family members said. His father, Lonnie Wilson, and his mother, Patricia Clark, split up when he was a toddler. His mother remarried, to John Erskine, a hotel manager, but it was a rocky union, and they separated more than once.
Not long after Mr. Wilson graduated from high school, his grandfather took him in and tried to mentor him because he kept running afoul of the law, having been arrested for stealing a crossbow and a car. He absconded with the older man’s car and credit cards, wrecking the automobile in Colorado. “He became persona non grata with the family after that,” an uncle, Dr. Charles Clark, said.
It turned out that Mr. Wilson had taken more than the car. He also filched his cousin Brian Clark’s Social Security number and assumed his identity, procuring drivers licenses and credit cards, even cashing a $2,000 check.
“He is a con man and he knows what people don’t ask questions about,” Mr. Clark said. “He is one of the smartest people I ever met.”
Given the number of times Mr. Wilson has been caught, it is hard to call his career a success. In the mid-1990s, he served prison sentences in Ohio and Pennsylvania for forgery and theft. Immigration authorities detained him for several months in 1999 and 2000 after he tried to enter Washington State from British Columbia and two forged passports — one Irish and one Canadian — were discovered in his car.
Then in 2001, he was sentenced to eight years in prison in Indiana after he was caught running up $7,400 in charges at strip clubs and hotels on credit cards he had obtained under a fictional identity. He had been posing as Duncan C. MacDonald, a Microsoft executive, court papers said.
In March 2006, he escaped from a work-release program in Indiana and fled to Canada, only to be recaptured in May 2007 as he tried to slip back into the United States to see his dying mother, family members said.
He was briefly released a year later but was rearrested in August 2008 after he checked into a luxury hotel in Indianapolis, court documents show. He had charged the room to an Eli Lilly corporate account; he had persuaded the company’s accounting department over the telephone to give it to him.
Returned to jail in Indianapolis, Mr. Wilson spent his days doing push-ups on his knuckles and reading widely, devouring crime novels and newspapers. His cellmate at the time, Uriah Goins, recalled he was particularly interested in obituaries and death notices, which he would carefully tear out and stow away. He told Mr. Goins that he was “looking for relatives.”
Even in jail, Mr. Wilson played a character, Mr. Goins said. He talked ceaselessly in an Irish accent, regaling Mr. Goins with stories of serving in the Irish military. “He’s like an actor,” Mr. Goins said, pausing. “He’s definitely an actor.”
Mr. Goins, a D.J. and promoter, said there was something vulnerable about Mr. Wilson. When Mr. Wilson was released, it was Mr. Goins who picked him up and helped him find a place to stay. A friend, Michael Lafferty, had an extra room and Mr. Goins introduced them.
Mr. Lafferty said Mr. Wilson portrayed himself as a well-educated man, schooled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who had fallen on hard times and had a young child dying of cancer who wanted to see the Great Wall of China.
Three weeks later, Mr. Lafferty reported to the police that Mr. Wilson had run off with his credit card numbers, his Social Security number and an original birth certificate. Mr. Wilson fled to Chicago with a 19-year-old woman named Angela K. Stamm, whom he had met online through OK Cupid.
She said she believed Mr. Wilson’s story that he was a recently discharged British soldier named Finn Keenan who was facing deportation. They stayed in Chicago for a month, where he tended bar, she said. Then he told her the government had “found him.” They drove west to Missoula, Mont., where he started calling himself Angus Jocko Ferguson.
They found a place to stay with Reid Reimers, a theater teacher. He bonded with Mr. Reimers and his friends over a shared love of theater. He claimed that he had studied at Cambridge in England, and he was well-versed in Shakespeare. Soon, Mr. Reimers recalled, he was serving as M.C. at events and joining in rehearsal.
“He was — again, not surprisingly now — quite a good performer,” Mr. Reimers recalled. “The most disarming thing about him — he was kind of a nerd. He had this silly laugh. It wasn’t that he was charming or suave.”
He would disappear for days at a time, returning with duffel bags full of military gear and hinting about missions with a secretive commando force, said Mr. Reimers and Ms. Stamm, who now uses the surname Venado. But he was actually busy forging a new identity, investigators said. He had obtained a driver’s license with his new alias, having switched Mr. Lafferty’s Social Security number to Angus Ferguson with a forged court order in Chicago.
Mr. Wilson also visited Fort Harrison, a Montana National Guard training site, in late August and tried to get a military ID card and body armor, telling officers there that he was a captain in the Special Forces on a secret mission, investigators said. One officer who spoke to him became suspicious and called the F.B.I., which put out an alert.
Not long after that, he was arrested as he tried to enter Malmstrom Air Force Base near Great Falls with Ms. Venado. An alert guard discovered that the car was stolen. When F.B.I. agents interviewed him at the Cascade County jail in Great Falls, Mr. Wilson stayed in character. “He goes through the whole spiel about how he’s in the Fifth Special Forces Group,” Special Agent Ernesto L. Negron said.
Agent Negron noticed, however, that Mr. Wilson’s patches were in the wrong places, and he could not recall his commander’s name. Before the agent could check his fingerprints against a national database, he persuaded Mr. Reimers to post his bail and give him a ride back to Missoula. He packed his bags and left immediately, just an hour before agents knocked on the door, Ms. Venado said.
“He kind of came clean, and said, ‘I’m not in the Army Reserves and I need to leave,’” Ms. Venado recalled. “I was totally freaked out and didn’t know what to do. He asked me to come with him, but I said no. I didn’t trust him anymore.”
He rented a second car — a Mustang convertible this time — and drove to Los Angeles, where he began posing as a Scottish D.J. and video producer with the unlikely name of Angus Jocko Ferguson-Abramovitch, according to court documents. He also pretended to be a veteran who worked for Apple, persuading a Beverly Hills dentist to do $28,000 worth of work. He was finally arrested in January 2010 because the Mustang was towed. A pound worker alerted the Culver City, Calif., police that it was on a list of stolen cars.
In New York, Mr. Wilson is charged with forgery and possession of stolen property. He also faces charges in Cambridge, where the police say he set up a bank account under the name Jeremiah Asimov-Beckingham with a forged driver’s license, Social Security card and military discharge papers, then deposited more than $70,000 worth of checks drawn on the account of a local design company. He had lifted one of the company’s checks from a mailbox and printed checks with the same account number. He used the stolen funds to make the first payment on a leased BMW, then absconded to New York City.
On a recent morning, Mr. Wilson walked into a chapel on Rikers Island, wearing a khaki prison uniform. His head was shaved and he wore a short red beard. He was fit and compact, and looked young for 42. His body was adorned with Celtic tattoos. On the back of his head was a dent, a scar he claimed had been caused by a rubber bullet. He greeted visitors with a disarming smile and spoke in an educated voice that dropped in and out of an Irish brogue.
“People have a tendency not just to believe people, but to want to believe people,” he said when asked how he deceived his victims. “And that’s part of the wrong in the things that I have done, because I take that away from people.”
He spoke candidly about his past crimes but would not comment on the new charges against him. He feels no remorse, he said, for ripping off credit card companies and banks, but he is sorry for fooling people who befriended him. Every friendship in his life was built on lies and half-truths, he said, and they all ended with him running away, often with his friends’ personal information in his pocket.
“That’s the evil behind everything I have done,” he said. “I get involved with people who don’t deserve the betrayal that’s bound to come.”
Mr. Wilson consented to the interview, he said, because he had spent his whole life trying to obscure his identity and now wanted to reveal who he really was. He said his father was not Lonnie Wilson, the men’s store manager his mother married, but Mr. Keenan, the I.R.A. leader, with whom, he said, his mother had an affair in Northern Ireland in 1972.
It is not an entirely new claim. He first tried to argue that Mr. Keenan was his father in 2011, when he filed a lawsuit in prison asking a federal judge to declare that he was not an American citizen. At the time he was seeking to be deported.
The next year, he tried to convince his own sister, Mary Katharine Rybak. During prison visits, he showed her a notarized letter, supposedly written by their mother, to back up his claim of being Mr. Keenan’s son. She noticed their mother’s signature was not right. “I think he doesn’t know where the lies stop and the truth starts anymore,” she said.
Stephen Ure, an immigration lawyer in San Diego, said Mr. Wilson had hired him to help with his effort to be sent to Britain. In 2012, Mr. Ure said, he received DNA samples via courier that according to accompanying documents, had been taken years earlier from Mr. Keenan, Mr. Wilson and his mother. Mr. Ure had the samples tested at a California laboratory, and the results proved conclusively Mr. Keenan was Mr. Wilson’s father, the lawyer said. “If his story is not true, he’s done a lot of work to make it seem true,” Mr. Ure said.
But like everything in Mr. Wilson’s world, there is doubt, this time about the origin of the samples. The documents claimed that a British company, DNA Worldwide Group Ltd., had collected the samples in 2006 and then handed them over to officials at the Royal Bank of Scotland for safekeeping. The genetics company said, however, that it had no record of having done so, and its representatives said they do not recognize the documents.
Mr. Wilson said that he developed a long-distance relationship with Mr. Keenan and later involved himself in I.R.A. operations from 1993 to 1999. He provided no details. During that period, records show he was in and out of prisons in Ohio and Pennsylvania, spending only about 12 months free.
His reasons for bringing up his father’s identity had little to do with his current legal predicament, he said.
“I want to go home — I want to go to Ireland,” he said. “If I’m going to be hated, I want to be hated for the right reasons. I’m so tired of this.
“I am tired of feeling I have to lie to every single human being that I meet about the things that I have done and who I am,” he went on. “Because the truth is worse than the lies. The things I have done are worse than the lies I have told.”
He put his hands to his face and covered his eyes. Tattooed across his fingers in green ink is a Gaelic phrase, “Mair Fior.” He says it means “Stay True.”
Susan C. Beachy contributed research.