Thursday, April 20, 2000

Impostor lives lie 12 years




By Laura Pulfer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Every time I saw Ann Schlesinger, I would ask again if I could tell her story. For years, she has refused. Politely but firmly. Finally, I think I just wore her down.

        Ann says she decided to talk about it because she hopes her story might help somebody else. Maybe it is a cautionary tale in our age of flinging our personal and numerical histories into cyberspace. A tale of greed, surely. But more than that.

        If there is a moral to this story, it surely comes from this elegant woman whose identity was crudely stolen nearly three decades ago.

        It began at the University of Cincinnati in the late 1960s when Wilma Alford bought a used book belonging to another student, Ann Stace. Inside was an old test paper with Ms. Stace's Social Security number on it.

        Wilma Alford asked around. Ann Stace, who had earned a master's degree in speech and theater from Miami University, was an A student in UC's speech and hearing therapy program. Wilma Alford, who had flunked Speech 101, decided to take a shortcut.

Dazzling interview
        The younger woman used Ann Stace's Social Security number to get a transcript of her UC records, which she used to obtain teaching credentials from the states of Arizona and Georgia. She later worked in the California school system and was angling for a job at a Florida university.

        She posed as the Cincinnati speech pathologist for 12 years before she was caught.

        “She took all the things I had worked for,” says Ann Stace — now Ann Schlesinger. “When I got my Ph.D., she went in and asked for a raise.”

        Jim Cobb, an administrator at Florida Junior College in Jacksonville, said “she'd dazzle your booties off you. She's absolutely the best interview I ever had.” Mr. Cobb's secretary, however, smelled a rat. The woman looked too young to be the 43 years she claimed.

        The administrator pushed a little harder on the routine scrutiny of her resume. Eventually, an official of the American Speech and Hearing Association called Ann to check on the application.

        “That's when I knew I had a problem,” Ann says.

Cautionary tale
        Dr. Schlesinger learned that her transcripts had been requested at least a dozen times — only twice by her. A few months later, the impostor pleaded guilty in California to grand theft and forgery. In 1985, she was sentenced to five years in prison.

        Wilma Alford had a California driver's license, credit cards and a U.S. passport — all in Ann's name. And that was before the Internet. That was before cybershopping.

        “There are more and more avenues for somebody to steal from us,” Ann Schlesinger says. “I want people to be careful. I want them to know what can happen.”

        She is willing to be a cautionary tale, but not a victim.

        She systematically wrote letters and made telephone calls taking back her own name, getting rid of debts. She started her own company, EXEKUSPEAK, which provides training in public speaking. She keeps a quotation from theologian Charles Swindoll: “I am convinced that life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent how I react to it.”

        The Cincinnati woman was determined to be more than the sum of her paper trail. And she decided the way you live your life is something that can never belong to someone else. So, Wilma Alford stole a lot from Ann Schlesinger.

        But not everything.

        E-mail Laura at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393.

       



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