FORT WORTH — When Brig. Gen. G.B. McDowell passed away on Veterans Day 2011 near Seattle, condolences in an online guest book lifted up his son, Col. Michael Douglas McDowell.
Top military officers, like now-retired Maj. Gen. J.T. Furlow, wrote that it was a pleasure to have known Michael McDowell’s father and to have served with Michael McDowell throughout the years.
“You are a warrior of valor, a knight of devout courage, and a soldier of the highest order,” Furlow wrote to Michael McDowell. “Your Father is looking down from Heaven proud of the son he raised. Godspeed as you promote up to the very rank your Father held.”
Retired Gen. David Petraeus, then director of the Central Intelligence Agency, left his own heartfelt message for McDowell and his fiancee at the time, Christy.
“My staff and I are praying for you and Christy and your mother as you go through this time of sorrow and grief over the loss of your father,” Petraeus wrote. “General McDowell was a great man and leader, and I am confident that you will accomplish even more than he did in his lifetime.
“Thank you for your devout and faithful service to your country and for being a great man that leads by example.”
Current and former board members of the Fort Worth Police Officers Association, who had come to know “Colonel Mike” over the last decade, chimed in.
“It is with deepest regret that I did not have the opportunity to meet this great American and service man. And a great honor to call his son and legacy a friend,” wrote Sgt. Stephen Hall.
But the legacy, it turns out, was a lie.
McDowell, 57, has never been in the military. Neither had his father — actually an Irving evangelist who died in 1985 while leading a revival in California.
The comments from top military officers were fake; investigators believe they were written by McDowell to go along with the phony obituary that he’d created for his father.
“I thought the guy did a pretty good job writing that. It’s better than I could have done,” Furlow said in a telephone interview from East Texas.
“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of these people out there that are taking away the glory of people who have done things. … This individual has to be sick to do stuff like this.”
Now, McDowell faces criminal charges as local and federal investigators continue to dig into a ruse that they say spanned at least 15 years and enabled him to fool government agencies and immediate family members.
He was arrested this month in Fort Worth on suspicion of impersonating a public servant and could face charges ranging from forgery and tampering with a government document on the state level to impersonating a military officer on the federal level.
Investigators have uncovered evidence that McDowell acquired special access for at least one Fort Worth police association board member to tour the Washington Navy Yard when it was closed to the public.
He persuaded Texas Department of Public Safety employees to issue him valid driver’s licenses without his picture or fingerprints because of his work as an “intelligence officer.”
And he obtained Purple Heart recipient license plates.
“We jokingly refer to this as the old Leonardo DiCaprio movie, Catch Me If You Can — the military edition,” said Fort Worth police officer Brad Thompson, lead investigator in the case.
Just how far McDowell’s impersonations reached and what else he may have gained remain under investigation.
“One of the issues that came up from one of our people who was in D.C. was that he met him inside the secure area of the airport, dressed in his uniform, and picked him up in a vehicle with government tags,” Thompson said. “We heard that from multiple people, that he picked them up in vehicles with government tags on them.”
McDowell, who police say has acknowledged posing as a military officer, did not respond to several messages from the Star-Telegram seeking comment. His attorney, Charlie Burgess, also did not return repeated phone calls.
B.G. “Jug” Burkett, a Vietnam veteran and author of Stolen Valor, estimates that 70 percent of those who invent or embellish military records “do it out of low self-esteem,” motivated by the automatic respect that such distinction can bring.
“The general thing he is doing is not uncommon. But how elaborately he has done this, he’s at the top of the heap, obviously,” Burkett said.
Something wasn’t right
The unraveling of McDowell’s scam began after an impromptu visit to Police Chief Jeff Halstead in December.
Halstead had met McDowell once before, introduced to the then “colonel” in 2010 by Sgt. Rick Van Houten, then police association president, during a luncheon. McDowell gave the chief a business card that said “Col. Michael McDowell, USA Directorate for Counterintelligence near/middle east operations.”
Halstead did not initially recognize the man in uniform waiting in the lobby of his office Dec. 28 but invited him in after being reminded by McDowell of their previous introduction.
McDowell explained that he’d been promoted to general and was in the area working from Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth and Fort Hood.
He offered to set up a special tour of the White House or the Pentagon the next time the chief was in Washington, D.C., and said he was “happy to help” if the department ever needed him, according to McDowell’s arrest warrant affidavit.
Halstead, who had worked with high-ranking military officers while with the Phoenix Police Department, said he believed that something was amiss.
McDowell’s uniform seemed ill-fitting. He smelled heavily of cigarettes. A challenge coin that McDowell presented to prove his military membership came in a case that looked old and worn.
Still bothered by the meeting two months later, Halstead asked his special investigations section to check into whether McDowell was an impostor.
His double life soon began to fall apart.
‘This guy was a fake’
The Defense Intelligence Agency told officer Thompson that McDowell was not an employee, and other federal agencies confirmed that McDowell hadn’t been in the military at all.
A special agent with the DIA inspector general’s office told Thompson that McDowell was an impostor who had been warned in August about the consequences of impersonating a military officer.
That warning came after Flower Mound police became suspicious of McDowell while working a domestic dispute in which he had reported that his wife, Christy, repeatedly hit him with a set of car keys Aug. 5 at an apartment they shared.
Two days after the alleged assault, McDowell told investigators that he didn’t want to pursue charges and that the Army would provide her help.
As proof, he gave the detective a letter on Army and Defense Department letterhead and from a commanding officer in counterintelligence that ordered McDowell to bring his wife to Washington, D.C., for an evaluation at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
“There was something that just didn’t sit right,” said Capt. Wess Griffin, a spokesman for Flower Mound police.
McDowell apparently told the feds that he would stop the impersonations.
But four months later, the “general” strolled into Halstead’s offfice.
Fort Worth police launched a full investigation. On May 2, McDowell was arrested on suspicion of impersonating a public servant. He was released from the Mansfield Jail on May 7 after posting bail.
“I knew in my mind within 15 minutes that this guy was a fake, but it took a lengthy investigation to prove it to my heart,” Halstead said. “I have such deep respect for our military. His fraud became very offensive to me.”
Perfecting the con
McDowell played his character well.
Inside his briefcase, he carried files labeled “Top Secret.” He sometimes handcuffed the case to his wrist while in public.
During meetings, he’d place three cellphones before him. When he couldn’t be reached on his D.C. phone number, his voice mail message informed callers that someone from the command staff would get back to them.
Once, an officer overheard him talking top-secret military matters on his cellphone.
“I’m not on a secure line and that information is back in the office, but off the top of my head, I’m thinking North Korea or Syria,” McDowell was heard telling the caller.
He later admitted that no one was on the other end of the line, Fort Worth Detective Mike Carroll said.
In a May 2 search of his north Fort Worth home, police seized three military uniforms — the dress blues he’d worn while meeting with Halstead in December and two field uniforms. The medals and ribbons adorning his uniform included the Distinguished Service Cross.
Police took away bags of apparent military records and found scores of letters to and from women in which he used a fake military rank.
“He had some correspondence with [U.S. Sen.] Kay Bailey Hutchison’s office back when she was still in office,” Thompson said. “… We do know that he represented himself as a military officer to her office to obtain passes for the White House.”
The oldest documents uncovered were a card and an envelope, addressed to “Maj. McDowell” and mailed to a Hurst post office box in 1998.
McDowell’s Facebook page, in an area viewable only by friends, reads like an impressive résumé, beginning with his 1974 graduation from Irving High School and listing military schools and military jobs, ranging from the Army Ranger School to the National War College.
Inquiries by the Star-Telegram found that only the part about high school is true.
“I think, by and large, he sold it to people who had never been around the military much,” Thompson said. “If he was interacting with real military, he would almost always seem to interact with a different branch.”
McDowell’s real employment history is far less impressive.
He was a licensed peace officer for a short time in the late 1970s and early ’80s, working less than two years for the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department and only two months for the Highland Village Police Department, documents show.
He’d also worked as a car salesman, a volleyball referee and a security guard, police say.
‘He could walk the walk’
Word of the ruse shocked McDowell’s friends, several of them Fort Worth police officers.
“There just never was really anything that would make you suspicious, even for us,” said retired Sgt. Jon Fahrenthold, a former Irving High classmate who McDowell had reconnected with in the past 10 years. “He had done his research, and he could walk the walk and talk the talk.”
In high school, McDowell was known as “Doug” — a tall kid with curly hair who sang in the school’s a cappella choir and had a beautiful tenor voice.
McDowell told Fahrenthold that he now went by Mike because of his military profession.
“He said it just sounded more macho, a guy thing,” Fahrenthold said.
Van Houten met McDowell about seven years ago through another police association board member.
He would introduce McDowell to Hall two years later while board members were in Washington for National Police Week and, eventually, to Halstead, at the 2010 luncheon.
“I wouldn’t have introduced him to the chief had I not believed him and thought he was a friend,” Van Houten said. “I was completely fooled by it.”
Many of those interviewed by the Star-Telegram say that McDowell liked to offer things and once coordinated a White House tour for police association board members.
On the day of the tour, a uniformed McDowell met the Fort Worth officers outside the White House but didn’t accompany them inside.
“I was very unimpressed with the tour,” Van Houten said. “It was just your standard White House tour that anybody can do.”
The officers say they were disgusted upon learning McDowell was not who he purported to be.
“It’s one thing to impersonate somebody you’re not, but to impersonate anyone in the military, especially with everything the military has gone through over the past 10 years,” Van Houten said. “To claim to be part of that when he clearly isn’t, it’s shameful.”
‘He’s in like a fantasy world’
McDowell had other secrets, too, including being married to two women for the past year and a half.
One believed that he was a military officer. The other had no clue.
McDowell and his first wife, Karen, married on Dec. 7, 1979, and have two grown daughters.
The couple separated in May 2011, just seven months before McDowell married his second wife, Christy, at a Las Vegas chapel on Christmas Eve.
Reached at her north Fort Worth apartment this week, Karen McDowell said she had believed that Christy was just a girlfriend of McDowell’s and that she didn’t know that the two had gotten married.
She said she filed for divorce May 10 after learning about McDowell’s arrest.
Karen McDowell said she doesn’t believe that McDowell would impersonate a military officer. She said that although he had uniforms and even Purple Heart license plates, she believed that he was just fascinated by the military.
“He’s a nice guy,” Karen McDowell said. “... 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.”
Even if he has done what he’s accused of, Karen McDowell said, it didn’t hurt anyone.
“He’s in like a fantasy world, I think,” she said.
It was a fantasy world that McDowell apparently wanted to keep alive even after death.
Police recovered a letter he wrote to Karen McDowell and his two daughters in 2009, to be opened if he died.
In it, he confided about his double life as a military intelligence officer whose mission was to pose as a civilian and gather information vital to the country’s national security. He wrote that an accident at a jewelry store in 1993 had been staged by the government to provide income for his work.
Until this month, Christy McDowell believed that her husband was a military officer and that Karen McDowell was his ex-wife.
In a message to the Star-Telegram Sunday, Christy McDowell said that learning the truth behind her husband and marriage has plunged her into depression. She said she sensed something wasn’t right with her husband all along.
“He kept telling me that I was crazy but time and time again I found things wrong, that didn’t make sense,” she wrote. “He had lied to me so much that I really thought I was crazy.”
A relative, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation, said she suspects that McDowell’s jealousy of his half-brother might have prompted the military ruse.
Gerald “Jerry” McDowell was a Marine captain who’d served and been injured in Vietnam and was a Purple Heart recipient. He died in 1999 at the age of 55.
“The jealousy just kept growing and growing and growing until it exploded into what you have now,” she said.