Archive for Friday, July 27, 2001

Stolen identity scheme unravels for Bethel College football player

July 27, 2001


— At first, Lonnie Webster just wanted a driver's license. So when his own was suspended, he used the identity of his 16-year-old Florida friend, James Odom, to get a new license when he moved to Hawaii.

Eight years later, the scheme has landed Webster in jail and threatens to upset the athletic eligibility of the college where Webster excelled as a fullback on the football team.

It took Webster believed to be in his early 20s at the time he assumed his friend's identity two years to get a high school diploma from Kailua High School in Hawaii under the name James Odom, the school said. In 1996, Bethel College in North Newton recruited him to play football.

Before his arrest and jailing in Harvey County on charges of identity theft, forgery and making a false writing, he was a semester shy of completing his degree at the small liberal arts Mennonite college.

He attended school on scholarships and college loans and worked at a pizza parlor to earn money all under the name and Social Security number belonging to Odom.

Now age 29, Webster's ruse has been uncovered after the real James Odom the stepson of a Pensacola, Fla., police detective was turned down for a car loan.

"What makes it unreal is the amount of years this went on," said Newton Police Det. T. Walton.

"He is not a bad young man (he is) a nice fellow," Walton said.

Webster was in the Harvey County jail, and law enforcement officials there would not allow him to be interviewed. His Newton attorney, Bill Brown, was not in his office and did not immediately return a phone message left by The Associated Press.

Ruse unravels

Years of alleged lies began to unravel last week when the real Odom a painter in Pensacola who never finished high school got a copy of his credit report after being turned down for a car loan.

The report was filled with college loans and court judgments for bad credit entered in Harvey County, Walton said. Odom took the credit report to his stepfather, Pensacola Police Det. Ted Chamberlain.

It didn't take Chamberlain long to put things together and contact Bethel College before reaching Walton at the Newton Police Department.

Chamberlain said his son was only 16 when he and Webster, who was five years older, became friends and "hung around" together.

"It doesn't seem anybody understands how it went on this long," Chamberlain said.

His son, now 24, is glad the situation is getting straightened out, he said.

Walton got a subpoena July 20 to obtain student records, and he matched mug shots and fingerprints to Webster, who was arrested later that day.

Disappointing to college

The scheme has shaken Bethel College, a four-year liberal arts college associated with the Mennonite Church USA. The 600-student campus is in the small central Kansas community of North Newton, about 30 miles north of Wichita.

"It comes as a big disappointment," college president Doug Penner said Wednesday. "We value integrity as an important ethic for our educational program and for our faculty, staff and students. This is a rude violation of that expectation of ourselves, and in a small community that is particularly significant."

Bethel College has contacted the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics and the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference about the case. The school hasn't heard back about what effect it might have on its conference athletic eligibility, Penner said.

Dawn Harmon, director of sports information at NAIA headquarters in Olathe, said the NAIA was in the process of conducting its own investigation.

"It would be premature for us to comment when we don't have the facts," she said.

All-conference player

Webster was recruited to Bethel after then-head coach George Papageorgiou saw him play at an all-star game in Hawaii.

He enrolled for one semester in 1996, dropped out, then enrolled again in 1998. He played in parts of four seasons before he was injured last year after playing in only two games.

Webster earned honorable mention recognition from the KCAC after the 1999 season.

Walton, the detective, said Webster has told him he took his friend's identity because he wanted a driver's license and a way out of Pensacola, and it snowballed from there.

Though he was attending school as James Odom, Webster told Walton that he had planned to graduate after the upcoming fall semester and would ask Bethel to put the name "Lonnie Webster" on the diploma, Walton said.

Webster mistakenly thought the school could put the name on the diploma, though Bethel policy only allows minor changes, such as middle initials or nicknames.

His status at Bethel is in doubt. He's only a few classes short of getting a bachelor's degree in liberal arts.

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