FORT WORTH — A Fort Worth man who wove an elaborate web of lies, convincing friends, family and even some government officials that he was a brigadier general in the Army, fessed up to his ruse Tuesday, pleading guilty to impersonating a public servant.
Michael Douglas McDowell, 57, also pleaded guilty to bigamy, stemming from his December 2011 marriage to Christy McDowell while still married to his estranged wife, Karen, the mother of his two grown children.
He was sentenced to five years deferred adjudication probation in each case.
“For the better part of 15 years, this defendant perfected the art of stolen valor,” said Tarrant County assistant District Attorney Joshua Ross. “The lengths to which he was willing to go were prolific; including wearing an officer’s uniform and medals, as well as obtaining purple heart license plates, none of which was earned. He even wore a uniform to his marriage to a woman who believed him to be a military officer, and who was not aware of his other marriage.”
“Considering those in uniform rarely ask for anything more than an occasional ‘thank you,’ Michael McDowell’s actions are profoundly offensive,” Ross added.
Charles Burgess, McDowell’s defense attorney, did not return a message seeking comment.
The truth unravels
Fort Worth police began investigating McDowell after the “general” paid an an impromptu visit to Police Chief Jeff Halstead in late December 2012.
McDowell, who had been introduced to the chief in 2010 while then posing as a colonel, told Halstead that he had been promoted to general. He offered to set up a special tour of White House or Pentagon for the chief and said he was “happy to help” if the department ever needed him.
Unbeknownst to Halstead at the time, the visit came just four months after Flower Mound police had grown suspicion of “General McDowell” while investigating a domestic dispute involving him and his second wife.
Flower Mound police alerted federal officials, who apparently warned McDowell to stop the impersonations.
Inside Halstead’s office four months later, the chief noticed McDowell’s uniform appeared ill-fitting and smelled strongly of cigarette smoke, not befitting of a man with such high military rank. A challenge coin given to the chief by McDowell came in an old, worn case.
Troubled by the encounter, Halstead later asked his department’s special investigations unit to look into McDowell’s background.
McDowell, they would learn, had never been in the military.
An elaborate ruse
McDowell had gone to great lengths to sell people on his story.
From his north Fort Worth home, police seized military uniforms, apparent military records, correspondence with U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s office, and scores of letters to and from women in which McDowell used his fake military ranks, the earlier dating 1998 when he identified himself as a major.
He was sometimes seen with a briefcase handcuffed to his arm. He had a D.C. phone number with a voice mail informing callers that someone from his “command staff” would call them back.
His medals and ribbons included the Distinguished Service Cross. His car featured Purple Heart recipient license plates. He had persuaded the Texas Department of Public Safety to issue him driver’s licenses without his picture or fingerprints because of his work as an “intelligence officer.”
He told friends, including many Fort Worth police officers that he liked to hang around with, that his father was a brigadier general who had passed away on Veterans Day 2011 near Seattle.
To lend credence to his claim, investigators believe McDowell created a fake obituary for “Brig. Gen. G.B. McDowell”, then wrote his own condolences in an online guest book, including from top military officers like retired Gen. David Petraeus, then director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Rick Van Houten, president of the Fort Worth Police Officers’ Association, was among those misled by McDowell.
“I find it despicable that he chose to disgrace our members of the armed forces in the way that he did,” Van Houten said Tuesday. “Police officers and members of the military share many attributes in duty, honor and sacrifice and for anyone to impersonate them as he did puts him with the lowest of the low. I want to applaud the hard work of the members of the Fort Worth Police Department for bringing McDowell to justice.”
Halstead said he appreciated the work by officer C. B. Thompson, the lead investigator in the case, as well as the entire special investigations unit and the district attorney’s office.
“They worked diligently on this case, and we expected a plea agreement considering all the evidence and facts they obtained,” Halstead said. “It is very troubling that Mr. McDowell disrespected our prestigious military we all hold in such high regard.”
Family members fooled
McDowell’s two wives had been among those kept in the dark.
His first wife, Karen, didn’t believe her estranged husband would impersonate a military officer when interviewed by the Star-Telegram in May. She said she believed Michael McDowell was simply fascinated by the military and, as such, had collected some memorabilia.
“He’s a nice guy,” Karen McDowell previously told the Star-Telegram. “… Somebody’s blowing this up to what it isn’t. From what I’ve known of him, he’s too smart to do anything crazy like that.”
But Karen also acknowledged not knowing that her husband had married, Christy McDowell, a woman whom Karen believed was just his girlfriend.
But marriage records show McDowell had married Christy McDowell at a Las Vegas chapel just seven months after separating from his first wife.
Christy McDowell believed Karen McDowell was her husband’s ex-wife. She also entered the relationship with McDowell believing he was a high-ranking military officer.
“He kept telling me that I was crazy but time and time again I found things wrong, that didn’t make sense,” Christy McDowell wrote to the Star-Telegram in May. “He had lied to me so much that I really thought I was crazy.”
Karen McDowell filed for divorce from her husband on May 10 after learning of his arrest in the impersonation case. The divorce was still pending as of Tuesday, court records show.
Karen McDowell could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Christy McDowell declined to comment.
Deanna Boyd, 817-390-7655 Twitter: @deannaboyd