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10 Weird And Tragic Cases Of Mistaken Identity

Robin Warder

How many of us might have a doppelganger that we’re not even aware of—a completely different person living a completely different life out there who happens to look just like you? What happens if your doppelganger commits a crime? Your life can become a nightmare when you’re mistaken for the culprit, and the whole misunderstanding leads to bizarre or horrific consequences.

10Adolf Beck

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When Adolf Beck left his London flat on December 16, 1895, he was surprised to find a woman named Ottilie Meissonier accusing him of stealing from her. After Meissonier notified a policeman, the confused Beck was taken to the nearest station for questioning.

Meissonier claimed that Beck was a con artist who’d identified himself as “Lord Willoughby.” Three weeks earlier, he had used his charms to swindle her out of £30 worth of jewelry. Beck claimed she was mistaken, but by this point, the police had reports from 10 other women, each with a similar story. When these women also identified Beck as the perpetrator, officers charged him with fraud.

The police believed that Beck was actually a man named John Smith, who had served four years in prison for a series of crimes in 1877. Beck had been in South America in 1877, but he was still found guilty and sentenced to seven years in the same prison where Smith had served.

Beck was paroled in 1901, but history repeated itself three years later when another woman confronted him with the same accusation of conning her out of her jewelry. Beck went back to prison, but while he was locked up, the real “John Smith” was arrested for committing another crime. Smith bore a very striking resemblance to Adolf Beck, and when he confessed to all of Beck’s crimes, Beck was finally exonerated and compensated for his wrongful imprisonment.

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9Robert P. Casey

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Photo credit: Policy Council

Imagine an inexperienced, unqualified candidate elected because voters mixed him up with a known politician. Now imagine this scenario taking place with two different candidates in two different elections over the course of two years.

Robert Patrick Casey, father of current Pennsylvania senator Bob Casey Jr., was Pennsylvania’s Auditor General from 1968 until 1976. Afterward, Casey declined an opportunity to run for the office of Pennsylvania Treasurer. However, in an odd coincidence, an unknown Cambria County official named Robert E. Casey just happened to run for the position that year. Because many voters mistakenly believed they were voting for Robert P. Casey, Robert E. Casey won the Democratic primary and the election.

In 1978, yet another Robert Casey—this one also named Robert P. Casey—won the Democratic nomination for Lieutenant Governor. This Robert P. Casey taught biology and sold ice cream for a living. Thanks to this mix-up, the politician Robert P. Casey ended up losing an eventual separate gubernatorial election.

8Bernard Pagano

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In early 1979, five businesses in Wilmington, Delaware were robbed by the same armed assailant, who was nicknamed “The Gentleman Bandit” because he was very polite and apologetic towards his victims. When a composite sketch of the suspect was released, a series of anonymous tips led police to a very unlikely suspect: Father Bernard Pagano, a 53-year-old assistant pastor at a Catholic church in Cambridge, Maryland.

On February 27, Pagano was charged with five counts of armed robbery. Since Father Pagano was a very distinguished and well-liked member of the community, many people refused to believe that he was guilty, but seven witnesses positively identified him as the perpetrator.

Pagano’s defense team launched an investigation that led them to a more likely culprit: a former Pennsylvania postal worker named Roland Clouser. Pagano and Clouser looked very much alike, and Clouser felt so guilty over the idea of a priest taking the fall for his crimes that he staged more robberies after Pagano’s arrest, hoping to convince the police they had captured the wrong man.

In the end, Clouser finally came forward and confessed that he was the Gentleman Bandit. All charges against Father Pagano were dismissed, and he received a formal apology for his ordeal.

7Ralph Alsman

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In the early 1930s, America’s most wanted fugitive was undoubtedly John Dillinger, who’d robbed over two dozen banks. This situation caused a major headache for 25-year-old Ralph Alsman, a law-abiding citizen from Brookville, Indiana who was practically John Dillinger’s identical twin.

As if the physical resemblance wasn’t enough, both Alsman and Dillinger had a mole next to one eye and a scar on the left wrist. Since Brookville was only 87 kilometers (54 mi) from Dillinger’s hometown of Mooresville, Alsman was easily mistaken for the infamous outlaw. In fact, Alsman was mistaken for Dillinger so often that he was arrested 17 times.

Even when Alsman left his home state, he was still arrested in such cities as Detroit and Minneapolis. Although he was always released, Alsman often had to undergo stressful interrogation sessions to convince authorities he wasn’t Dillinger. Worst of all, Alsman was also shot 11 times and became justifiably paranoid that a law enforcement officer would kill him before he had the chance to prove his real identity.

Alsman’s ordeal finally came to an end when Dillinger was gunned down by federal agents on July 22, 1934. Because of his resemblance to Dillinger, Alsman was offered movie contracts, but he chose to end his 15 minutes of fame and turn them down.

6Stephen Waldorf

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Photo credit: Amazon

In January 1983, film editor Stephen Waldorf was driving a yellow Mini down a London road. He had no idea that a woman, Susan Stephens, was crouched in the rear seat, and when he found himself stuck in a traffic jam, he had no idea why two police officers approached him. When they saw Waldorf turn around, they opened fire, shooting him five times. Out of ammo, one officer then pistol-whipped Waldorf as he crawled out of the vehicle and then handcuffed the wounded man.

They’d mistaken Waldorf for David Martin, who’d been sentenced for trying to kill a police officer but who’d escaped prison on Christmas Eve. Susan Stephens was Martin’s girlfriend, police had seen her happen to slip into Waldorf’s car, and they mistakenly concluded Waldorf was Martin. When he reached toward the back seat, they assumed he was going for a weapon.

Both officers were charged with attempted murder, and though they were both acquitted at trial, Waldorf was compensated £120,000 for his ordeal.

5Joyce Ann Brown

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Joyce Ann Brown only learned she was a murder suspect when she read about it in the paper. Two days earlier, two women had robbed a fur coat store and killed the owner, Rubin Danziger, before fleeing in their rental car. Danziger’s wife survived the robbery, and when the suspects’ abandoned vehicle was found, the rental contract revealed the name “Joyce Ann Brown.” Since Joyce Ann Brown had an arrest record for prostitution, police showed her photo to Danziger’s wife, who identified her as one of the robbers.

Brown had a credible alibi on the day of the crime, so she turned herself in to police, hoping to convince them it was nothing more than a case of mistaken identity. However, she was charged with murder and aggravated robbery and received a sentence of 25 years to life.

The Joyce Ann Brown who rented the car was actually an unrelated Denver woman. She’d lent the car to her friend Renee Michelle Taylor, and evidence in Taylor’s apartment implicated her as the culprit. But authorities remained convinced that the wrong Joyce Ann Brown was Taylor’s accomplice. Even after Taylor was arrested and said the arrested Brown was not involved, the state refused to acknowledge their mistake.

Joyce Ann Brown remained in prison for nine years until 1989, when the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals finally set aside her conviction.

4Jeremy Lee Bass

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Photo credit: Strata

In early 2007, Jeremy Lee Bass was arrested for failing to show up in traffic court. He hadn’t committed any traffic offense—his brother had falsely used Jeremy’s name. Yet if this was the worst case of mistaken identity that Jeremy faced in 2007, he would have considered himself lucky.

On August 18, the man received a confusing phone call from the police, who informed him that his son, Jeremy Lee Bass, was dead. Meanwhile, Bass’s wife was receiving condolences about her husband’s recent demise. All this confusion came about because the papers had just published an obituary for Jeremy Lee Bass, who’d supposedly died in a tragic four-wheeler accident.

The real accident victim was a completely different man, Jeremy Charles Bass, who was pronounced dead at Gritman Medical Center. Months earlier, Jeremy Lee Bass had stayed at the same hospital while being treated for meningitis. The hospital mixed up their records and declared Jeremy Lee Bass dead.

This bizarre case of mistaken identity became an even bigger headache when the Bass family received a letter from the hospital. In addition to offering condolences over their loved one’s death, the hospital sent the family a $5,000 bill for the late Jeremy Charles Bass’s medical expenses. As a result, Jeremy Lee Bass had to go through a lot of red tape to get himself declared alive again and prevent his family from being stuck with a stranger’s debts.

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3Jesus Avila

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Siblings look alike, so several people have been convicted of their brothers’ or sisters’ crimes. One odd example of this involved a pair of brothers, Jesus and Ernesto Avila, both members of a Latino gang called the Young Crowd. On August 19, 1990, the Avila brothers and many of their fellow gang members were at a supposed baby shower at Ham Park in Lynwood, California. Members of a rival Crips gang soon showed up, and things got so heated that one of the Crips gang members, Demetrius Kidd, was shot behind the left ear. Kidd survived, and both he and another witness identified Jesus as the shooter.

Other witnesses said Jesus was in another area of the park during the shooting. It seemed very likely that Kidd had mistakenly identified the wrong brother and that Ernesto Avila was the real shooter. Ernesto himself admitted as much under oath, but a judge excluded this testimony from Jesus’s trial. Jesus was convicted of attempted first-degree murder and received life in prison.

Jesus’s lawyer, George D. Denny III, uncovered evidence that implicated Ernesto as the shooter, but instead of using it at Jesus’s trial, he withdrew from the case. At the time, Denny was also representing Ernesto on an unrelated case, and it would have been a major conflict of interest for him to implicate one client to help another. As a result, Jesus remained in prison until 2002 when his conviction was finally overturned.

2Patricia Noonan

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One of the most famous cases of mistaken identity happened in Indiana in April 2006 after a car accident killed one girl, Laura Van Ryn, and left another, Whitney Cerak, in a coma. The hospital mixed up the two girls’ identities, and this tragic incident wound up making national news. However, not many people know that this incident was preceded by a very similar tragedy in Iowa two decades earlier.

On the morning of November 10, 1984, two teenage girls—14-year-old Shawn Lake and 16-year-old Patricia Noonan—were traveling in a car with their fathers when the vehicle hit a school bus. Both men died instantly, and each girl suffered severe facial injuries. Paramedics declared Patricia dead at the scene.

The other girl was comatose and was rushed to the hospital. Since the accident had badly disfigured her, her face was heavily bandaged. In the meantime, Patricia’s family laid the dead girl to rest in a closed-casket ceremony.

Two weeks after the accident, the survivor finally came out of her coma, but both families received a shocking surprise. “Shawn” revealed that she was Patricia. A fingerprint check confirmed the claim.

Both girls were blonde and similar in size. Patricia had had bandages on her face, and no one got a good look at the corpse during the funeral, so no one had realized either’s true identity. Patricia Noonan went on to make a full recovery.

1Thomas Berdue

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Photo credit: McGowan Productions

On February 19, 1851, two men robbed San Francisco dry-goods merchant C.J. Jansen & Company and assaulted the proprietor before making off with $2,000 in gold coins. The following day, police arrested James “English Jim” Stuart, an infamous Australian career criminal. Stuart was identified as the robber, but there was one problem: The suspect denied he was James Stuart, calling himself another Australian immigrant named Thomas Berdue.

Authorities refused to believe this story, especially after several witnesses positively identified Berdue as James Stuart. Both Berdue and Stuart just happened to have a small scar over their left eye and an amputated section of their left forefinger.

Since no one believed Berdue’s claims, he stood trial for Stuart’s crimes. He received a 14-year sentence for the robbery, and things then got even worse for him. James Stuart was also wanted for the murder of a sheriff in nearby Marysville, so Berdue was found guilty of this murder and got a death sentence.

However, before Berdue’s execution could be carried out, he finally caught a lucky break. The real James Stuart was apprehended while attempting to rob a ship in San Francisco. Stuart confessed to the sheriff’s murder and the robbery, and on July 11, he was hanged a mere two hours after being sentenced.

Once news of Stuart’s execution reached Marysville, Thomas Berdue was finally exonerated of Stuart’s charges and released.

Robin Warder is a budding Canadian screenwriter who has used his encyclopedic movie knowledge to publish numerous articles at Cracked.com. He is also the co-owner of a pop culture website called The Back Row and recently worked on a sci-fi short film called Jet Ranger of Another Tomorrow. Feel free to contact him here.