NORFOLK, Va. — In a Norfolk courtroom in 2002, Robert Anthony Nolan was sentenced to two years in federal prison for lying to the FBI after being accused of posing as a Navy SEAL.
A website dedicated to exposing fake SEALs had given him a five-star rating on its “Wall of Shame,” its most ignoble designation, meaning the “claimant is ‘incorrigible’ and continues to make claims despite proof that his claims are not supported by government records.”
At sentencing, Nolan promised to turn his life around once he was released.
A decade later, the Virginia Beach man says he has been as good as his word.
Curt Ruggles begs to differ.
Ruggles, a semi-retired mechanic in Florida, says Nolan has been at it again, spinning a richly detailed and believable yarn about his SEAL past.
He was so taken in, Ruggles says, that he spent months working on an experimental aircraft that Nolan hoped to sell to the Navy for use by its SEAL commando teams.
The two ultimately had a falling-out over the pace and cost of the work, and the test aircraft now sits grounded in a hangar at a Florida airport, its key components disabled by Ruggles – a precautionary measure, he says, because the craft isn’t safe to fly yet.
Nolan calls it an act of sabotage fueled by vengeance. He reported it to the local sheriff’s department, which later sent an investigator to question Ruggles.
Only then did Ruggles resort to an Internet search to learn more about his erstwhile business associate. He was shocked, amazed and angered to discover Nolan’s history as an alleged SEAL poseur.
The details differ from case to case, but the overall story line is familiar. As the home to half of the Navy’s elite sea-air-land commandos, Hampton Roads is replete with SEAL wannabes. Dozens have been outed over the years – and if anything they are popping up more frequently since a Virginia Beach-based SEAL team killed Osama bin Laden last year, according to Don Shipley, a retired SEAL in Chesapeake who helps expose fakes.
“They’re coming out of the woodwork,” Shipley said. “It seems to be getting worse. And they’re going to greater lengths than harmless barroom boasting.”
The Nolan case is unusual in that it includes a criminal prosecution in federal court.
In the 2001 trial, prosecutors said Nolan portrayed himself as a former SEAL to persuade investors to lend him money for his import-export business. He was accused of mail and insurance fraud and lying to FBI agents when he denied threatening to kill a former business partner and falsifying his military discharge papers.
The fraud charges were dropped when Nolan agreed to plead guilty to the lying charge. In addition to the prison sentence, he was ordered to pay restitution of $167,000 to investors and insurance companies that were victims of his scheme.
Not only was he never a SEAL, he received a less-than-honorable discharge from the Navy in 1992 after going AWOL for 53 days, according to court records.
Nolan says the allegations that he claimed to be a SEAL were bogus, then and now.
“I have never claimed to be a Navy SEAL,” he said. “Never in my life.” A recent polygraph test supports his contention.
He said he is paying the court-ordered restitution on a schedule of payments.
Ruggles knew none of that history when Nolan hired him in January to install avionics and a new engine in an experimental aircraft dubbed the “Stalker.” It’s a powered parafoil – a small, lightweight craft attached to a parachute.
“This thing intrigued me,” said Ruggles, 64, a onetime Army helicopter pilot in Vietnam who lives in Lake Placid, Fla. “I’ve always been into mechanics, and I lived and breathed this thing. It was a very satisfying job, a labor of love. Then he turned it into a god-damned nightmare.”
Nolan, 49, told bewitching tales of his SEAL exploits, Ruggles said. “It was a real elaborate story – very, very believable. I’m not a gullible guy, but he nailed me good.
“He wove a very intricate web, with a lot of character development. It was like a novel.”
Nolan often spoke of friends in high places, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whom he referred to as a surrogate father, Ruggles said.
Another name he dropped repeatedly, Ruggles said, was that of retired Rear Adm. Tom Steffens, a former SEAL in Virginia Beach who spent decades in leadership positions in naval special operations.
Steffens has been a consultant on the Stalker project, Nolan said in an interview – a claim Steffens corroborated.
Ruggles said Nolan paid him $80,000 for parts and labor over eight months before abruptly suspending the work in late August.
He said he still doesn’t understand why Nolan halted the project.
“We were within two to three weeks of having it in the air,” Ruggles said. “All I can think of is, he ran out of money.”
When Nolan demanded that Ruggles turn over the aircraft, Ruggles said he disabled it to ensure that no one would try to fly it before it was flightworthy.
In late October, Ruggles said, he was visited by a deputy from the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office who – prompted by a call from Nolan – told him he was investigating a case of possible attempted murder.
The investigation was quickly closed. According to the deputy’s report, he told Nolan the dispute was a civil issue between him and Ruggles.
“I don’t give a damn if he does sue me,” Ruggles said. “I’d love to tell this story in court.”
Nolan said he suspended the project because of cost overruns and what he called “irrational behavior” by Ruggles. “He was paid almost $100,000 and sabotaged an aircraft engine,” Nolan said. “Tampering with an aircraft engine is a federal offense.”
Nolan vehemently denied that he ever told Ruggles he had been a SEAL.
“How much of an idiot am I?” he said. After doing federal prison time, “do you think I would be insane enough to portray myself as a Navy SEAL?”
After learning of Ruggles’ accusation, Nolan took a polygraph exam which indicated he was telling the truth when he denied posing as a SEAL. The polygraph examiner, David Goldberg, said he is convinced of Nolan’s veracity.
He has trained and worked with SEALs, Nolan said. He has also flown an earlier version of the Stalker onto local military bases, undetected by radar, to demonstrate security lapses, he added. As proof of his actions, he showed a reporter emails from base personnel acknowledging the incursions.
It’s Ruggles whose behavior has been “unethical, criminal and wrong,” Nolan said. “I did not do a damn thing wrong.”
The Stalker is registered with the Federal Aviation Administration in the name of a corporation, Innovative Flight Solutions Inc. Its address is Nolan’s home, a condominium in the Lynnhaven area of Virginia Beach.
The registered agent listed in State Corporation Commission papers, Stephanie Smith, no longer represents the company, a spokeswoman said. Smith’s law firm, Poole Mahoney, secured a $16,450 debtor’s judgment against Nolan in 2010. Nolan said he has repaid the debt.
Meanwhile, the Stalker sits in a Florida hangar, having never yet been airborne. Ruggles has given up possession of it, and Nolan said he has dispatched a crew to try to get it into flyable condition.
They are doing it without the services of Ruggles or those of Hank Austin, the Stalker’s designer and test pilot. Austin was killed, along with his wife, Aug. 24 in a crash of another powered parachute in Michigan.
Virginia Austin, Hank Austin’s sister, said she is unaware of any claims by Nolan to have been a SEAL.
“He’s just a businessman, a gentleman who could get backers” for the project, she said.
“There were cost overruns,” she added. “My brother was very upset about it.”
Ruggles says his $50 hourly rate was a bargain.
He said he decided to go public with his story because he doesn’t want anyone else to learn about Nolan’s past the hard way. “I’m afraid he got the money to pay me by scamming somebody,” he said. “I wouldn’t want somebody else to be taken and not to have done anything.
“I thought I could read people pretty good. But obviously I can’t.”