For years he used fake identities to charm women out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Then his victims banded together to take him down.
y the spring of 2016, Missi Brandt had emerged from a rough few years with a new sense of solidity. At 45, she was three years sober and on the leeward side of a stormy divorce. She was living with her preteen daughters in the suburbs of St. Paul, Minnesota, and working as a flight attendant. Missi felt ready for a serious relationship again, so she made a profile on OurTime.com, a dating site for people in middle age.
Among all the duds—the desperate and depressed and not-quite-divorced—a 45-year-old man named Richie Peterson stood out. He was a career naval officer, an Afghanistan veteran who was finishing his doctorate in political science at the University of Minnesota. When Missi “liked” his profile, he sent her a message right away and called her that afternoon. They talked about their kids (he had two; she had three), their divorces, their sobriety. Richie told her he was on vacation in Hawaii, but they planned to meet up as soon as he got back.
At 10 p.m., she sent him a final message: This is completely unacceptable. A few minutes later, she got a reply from Richie’s friend Chris, who said Richie had been in a car accident. He was okay, thank God, but the doctors wanted to do some extra testing, since he’d suffered head trauma while in Afghanistan. Chris sent Missi a picture of Richie in a hospital bed, looking a little banged up but grinning gamely for the camera. Missi felt a wave of relief, both that Richie was okay and that her suspicions were unwarranted.
When she finally did meet him in person, her relief was even more profound. Richie was tall and charming, a good talker and a good listener who seemed eager for a relationship. He could be a little awkward, but Missi chalked that up to his inexperience—he told her he hadn’t been with a woman in eight years. Plus, dating him was fun. Richie had a taste for nice things—expensive restaurants, four-star hotels—and he always insisted on paying. He kept a motorboat docked at a nearby marina, and he’d take Missi and her daughters out for afternoons on the water. The girls liked him, and so did the dog. Richie mentioned that his cousin Vicki worked for the same airline as Missi. The two women didn’t work together regularly, but they knew each other. Missi thought it was a fun coincidence. “Don’t mention us to her,” Richie said. “One day we’ll show up together to some family event and surprise her; it’ll be great.”
When Linda Dyas, age 46, got Missi’s message, she was in the house she shared with Rich Peterson, her boyfriend of seven months. Linda, who is tall and blond and funny, had been going through an ugly divorce when she’d met Rich on OurTime.com, and he’d seemed almost too good to be true: a Christian, a military vet, a fellow conservative. On their first date, after the server set down their plates, Rich closed his eyes and said a beautiful prayer. “I was blown away by that,” Linda told me when we met at a wine bar in St. Paul over the summer. “Here I was on a first date, and he’s actually going to stop and say a prayer in a restaurant. It was touching.” Linda was smitten. “Head over heels, you know?” she said. “Within two weeks, he was at my house all the time.”
After a few months, Linda lost her job with a financial-services company, but Rich made it seem okay. He found them a house to rent in an upscale suburb of St. Paul, one she wouldn’t have been able to afford on her own, and she and her 6-year-old son moved in. Linda hung her clothes next to Rich’s Navy uniforms; he displayed the framed certificates for his military honors—a Purple Heart, a Silver Star—on the walls. One day she stumbled onto paperwork for a $100,000 college fund he had secretly started for her son, and her heart surged.
Recently, though, the relationship had been rockier. Rich drank a lot, and his constant trips to the hospital—which he blamed on the persistent effects of his war wounds—were exhausting. When Linda received Missi’s message, she initially dismissed it as the rantings of a jealous ex. But for a few weeks she’d had a vague sense that things between her and Rich were askew in some fundamental way. When, a couple of days later, she finally opened the links Missi had sent, she realized why. “My first instinct was How do I get him out of the house?” she recalled. He solved that problem for her, announcing that he was once again in so much pain, he needed to go to the emergency room. Linda dropped him off and then called the police on her way home. She sat up for hours. At three in the morning, Derek told her he would catch an Uber home, and Linda alerted the police. When she saw the red-and-blue lights through her window, she sent Missi a message, letting her know that Derek was in custody.
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.com, 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.
Americans 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.”
The police released Derek after 48 hours, telling Linda they wanted to build a stronger case. (A police spokeswoman told me the county attorney had concluded that fraud charges probably wouldn’t have held up in court. Because Linda’s and Derek’s lives were so entwined, it would have been too difficult to determine which credit-card charges were fraudulent and which were authorized.) Seven months later, the police department finally issued a warrant for Derek’s arrest, on one misdemeanor charge of impersonating an officer. By then he was long gone.
While Linda sorted through her finances, her sister-in-law delved into old news articles about Derek, looking for any information that might be useful in bringing him to justice. Most of the women quoted were anonymous, or referred to only by their first name. A woman named Cindi Pardini, however, had used her full name. A tech professional living in San Francisco, she said Derek had stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars (and 660,000 airline miles) from her over the course of a few months in 2013. Linda sent Cindi a Facebook message, and soon learned that Cindi was a kind of unofficial point person for Derek’s accusers. Because her name was one of the only searchable ones linked to his, women who’d been scammed by Derek reached out to Cindi through Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. She was in touch with about a dozen victims.
Cindi wasn’t always easy to deal with. On the phone with the other victims, she’d ramble for hours about Derek and the trouble he’d brought into her life, how he’d drained her bank account, ruined her credit score, and undermined her sense of reality. “I was not in a good place,” Cindi admits. “This has taken over my life for the past five years. My friends and family are like, ‘Why are you still going after this? It’s killing you.’ ”
Altogether, Derek seems to have scammed at least a dozen women out of about $1 million since 2010. He used different names and occupations, but the identities he took on always had an element of financial prestige or manly valor: decorated veteran, surgeon, air marshal, investment banker. Con artists have long known that a uniform bolsters an illusion, and Derek was fond of dressing up in scrubs and military fatigues. He tended to look for women in their 40s or 50s, preferably divorced, preferably with a couple of kids and a dog or two. Many of his victims were in a vulnerable place in their lives—recently divorced, fresh out of an abusive relationship, or recovering from a serious accident—and he presented himself as a hero and caretaker, the man who would step in and save the day. Even women who weren’t struggling when they met Derek soon found their lives destabilized by the chaos he brought—they lost jobs, had panic attacks, became estranged from family members.
Yet, as far as the growing group of Derek’s victims could ascertain, he had never been charged for a crime against any of the women he’d scammed, only for defrauding businesses. Derek seems to have counted on the fact that credit-card abuse is often not taken all that seriously by law enforcement when the victim and the perpetrator know each other. Even in instances where the police pursued Derek, he’d typically serve a short sentence. Or he’d just skip town—like he did in November 2014, after he was caught racking up thousands of dollars in fraudulent charges at luxury hotels. When he was finally captured and brought back to Minnesota, prosecutors lobbied to escalate the charges and hold him on $100,000 bail.
For years, Derek had evaded punishment by moving around; local police had limited ability to chase him across state lines. But the women he’d victimized had no jurisdictional limitations. They began tracking his progress across the country, using social media to share updates and information—and to warn others.
Missi reached out to her former co-worker at the airline, Vicki, who was Derek’s cousin-in-law—that part of his story, at least, wasn’t a total lie. After Missi explained what Derek had done, Vicki agreed to pass on any information she learned. Through a family member, Vicki heard that Derek had left Minnesota and was hiding out with his mother in Sedona, Arizona—where, lo and behold, he had an outstanding warrant for an old DUI. Urged on by Missi, Vicki alerted the local police, who picked him up in early September 2016 and held him in the county jail for a few days. It wasn’t much, but the women took satisfaction in seeing him face at least some consequences.
Consume enough media about scam artists and, strangely enough, you too might find yourself wanting to date one. In The Big Con, perhaps the seminal book on American con men, David Maurer calls them “the aristocrats of crime.” The writer and critic Luc Sante once wrote that “the best possess a combination of superior intelligence, broad general knowledge, acting ability, resourcefulness, physical vigor, and improvisational skills that would have propelled them to the top of any profession.” On film, they’re played with a spring in their step and a glint in their eye: Think Paul Newman in The Sting, Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can. The con man looks good in a suit and is in on the joke. (“Humor is never very far from the heart of the con,” wrote Sante.) And who doesn’t want to be in on the joke? Our appetite for stories about cons is, in part, a way of reassuring ourselves that we’d never be so foolish as to be taken. It’s in our own self-interest to dismiss the victims of a con as greedy (you can’t cheat an honest man, as the adage goes) or just plain dumb: If being scammed is somehow their fault, that means it couldn’t happen to us.
Even more damaging than the financial ramifications was the damage to their fundamental faith in the world, that bedrock sense that things are what they seem. “My mind was all over the place—Am I being taken or am I being overly suspicious?,” Derek’s Las Vegas victim, Kelly, recalls. “It’s so far-fetched—you’re just like, there’s no way. He gets into your life, your family’s life, your finances. I didn’t know that people like him existed.” The damage rippled outward, affecting the women’s family and friends as well: “It just about killed my mother,” Linda said. “He would sit and talk with her for hours. She’s like, ‘Was all of it a lie?’ ”
On may 17, 2017, Richie Tailor left the townhouse he shared with his new girlfriend, Dorie, to have dinner with his brother and sister-in-law. Dorie was idly scanning through pictures on the iPad Richie had left behind when she saw one that brought her up short. It was a screenshot of an Instagram post showing a man in a hospital bed. “A BIG THANK-YOU for everyone’s prayers and support … Should be out of the hospital Monday,” the caption read. The name on the account was “Derek M Allred.” “I was like, ‘Heck, that’s Richie,’ ” Dorie told me. When she googled Derek Allred (an alternative spelling he sometimes used), she found the trove of news stories and mug shots. Suddenly, all those fraudulent charges that kept cropping up on her credit cards made sense.
Dorie printed out the articles and brought them to the police department in The Colony, the small town outside Dallas where she lived. “I thank God to this day that it was a female officer that took my statement,” she said. “She took it seriously.” While Dorie waited to hear if the police came up with any leads, she scoured the internet for information about Derek. Like so many of the other victims, she stumbled on Cindi Pardini. The two women talked on the phone. “I heard about all the havoc he left behind,” Dorie told me. “I vowed that there was no way there’d be another victim after me.”
After Dorie caught on to him, Derek began staying with his other girlfriend, Tracie Cunningham. But it didn’t take long for Tracie, who works at a post-acute rehab facility, to get sick of having him around all day. He was, she’d decided, entirely too whiny, constantly insisting that she drive him to the hospital for some emergency or another. “There are a lot of men out there who will get a little headache, and they think they have a massive tumor, that they’re dying,” she told me. “It’s a man thing. He had some of that. Real dramatic.”
Just after Memorial Day, Tracie finally dumped him. A few hours later, while she was at work, she got a call from the NCIS agent, who told her that she’d been dating a con man. Derek hadn’t stolen anything from Tracie as far as she could tell (“except time and a little dignity”), but when she heard about the other victims, she immediately agreed to help NCIS capture him.
With Derek finally in custody, his victims celebrated, texting one another grim fantasies about the future that awaited him in prison. NCIS agents interviewed victims around the country, whose stories bolstered the case that Derek was a habitual offender.
A few days before Christmas, Derek pleaded guilty to two counts of identity theft and one count of mail fraud, charges with a combined maximum penalty of 24 years in prison. As of press time, his sentencing hearing hadn’t yet been scheduled. His victims are hoping he’ll serve long enough that he’ll come out an old man, less able to flirt his way into women’s bank accounts.
In the meantime, they continue the slow work of putting their lives back together. Missi has finally gotten to the point where she can make jokes about Derek with her daughters. Linda has started tentatively dating again, after more than a year. The other day, when she was out to dinner with a guy, she peeked in his wallet, just to make sure the name he told her matched the name on his ID.
This past summer, I made an appointment for a video visit with Derek at the Denton County Jail, in Texas. I had so many lingering questions: Who was on the other side of the line when Derek had those hour-long conversations with his “daughter” or his “admiral”? How had he finagled his university email address and ID card? Did he have a secret stash of money somewhere? And then there was the question I imagined was unanswerable, but that I needed to ask anyway: What did it feel like to be so skilled at faking love?
I sat in the visitation room, doodling in my notebook as the appointed time came and went. I’d resigned myself to the idea that nothing was going to happen when the screen suddenly illuminated, and I saw Derek Alldred’s angular face and blunt chin, familiar from all those mug shots. He was in an orange jumpsuit, and the camera caught him at an awkward overhead angle, like an unflattering selfie. I told him I was a journalist, and he seemed unfazed. “I was going to decline the visit, but the guard said, ‘Are you sure? It’s a pretty girl,’ ” he said, flashing me a smile. By the end of our conversation, Derek said he wanted to tell his side of the story to me and only me, and promised we would talk again soon. I hung up the phone feeling a particular kind of journalistic high, an I-got-my-story cockiness.
Over the next few months, I spoke with Derek several times. He was never quite ready to reveal anything of substance in the half-hour blocks of time that the prison videophone system allotted us. He wanted to wait until a certain court date had passed, or he needed to consult his lawyer. “Two sides to every story,” he kept telling me. “Two sides.” He professed to want to be fully forthcoming with me, but our calls always seemed to get cut off at crucial moments; sometimes, he just never answered. At first, I chalked our communication difficulties up to the institutional roadblocks of prison communication, but they kept piling up.
It took me much longer than I’d like to admit to realize what I had felt that first day after I left the Denton County Jail and drove too fast past the hayfields of North Texas, singing along to Merle Haggard: that my future was sunny and full of promise, because I had met a man who was going to give me everything I wanted.