10 Terrible Cases of Mistaken Identity

What if your doppelganger ran off with your identity?
Jonathan Knowles/Stone/Getty Images

It's often said that we all have a double somewhere in the world. It's a haunting thought. In a sense, our identity is all we have. When it fails to form properly, we struggle psychologically. When it's stolen, we face fraudulent bills, ruined credit and a years-long nightmare of red tape. And when it's mistaken, well, far worse outcomes might await.

Perhaps that's why, in so many legends and weird tales stretching back centuries, encountering one's doppelganger tends to end badly. Thankfully, we live during the age of fingerprints, DNA and CSI, in the post-911 world of ever-more Orwellian identification requirements, and we've left cases of mistaken identity firmly in the past.


Well, perhaps not. According to a 2012 report in the Denver Post, "More than 500 people were wrongly imprisoned in Denver's jails over seven years, with some spending weeks incarcerated or pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit."

Such stories provide sobering reminders that a world run by bureaucrats contains at least as much of Kafka as Orwell — and maybe a touch of Rod Serling, as well. The people you are about to meet would no doubt agree.

10: 'Casino Royale' Craps Out

Peter Sellers was NOT pleased with what happened when he was mistaken for Woody Allen.
CBS Photo Archive/Harold Clements/Express/Getty Images

We begin with a lighthearted example of how mistaken identity can have unexpectedly expensive consequences, especially when it brings together a big-mouthed executive and a short-tempered performer.

Comedic acting legend Peter Sellers had a reputation for being difficult to work with. He was also a talented mimic and a bit of a smart aleck. So when Leo Jaffe, chair of Columbia Pictures, mistook him for his "Casino Royale" costar Woody Allen, he decided to roll with it. Unfortunately, Jaffe wanted to complain to "Allen" about Sellers, saying he wished they'd never signed him to the movie. Sellers became so incensed that he left the set — and the country. Perhaps he was especially upset because this wasn't the first time such a mistake had occurred. It had happened often on the set of "What's New Pussycat," which had especially irked Sellers, who at the time was at the height of his career while Allen was a relative neophyte [source: Lewis].


The film never recovered. In the end, Columbia finished it using stand-ins while editors struggled to cobble together something intelligible from existing footage [source: Lewis]. Today, the 1967 spy comedy is known in film circles as a legendary fiasco, but most agree there's plenty of blame to go around for the debacle, Sellers' tirade notwithstanding [source: Sikov].

9: The Assassin Who Stole My ID

Mossad assassins in Dubai used identities from Westerners living in Israel to kill the leader of Hamas.
Buena Vista Images/Stone/Getty Images

Imagine checking in with your favorite news source only to discover that officials in Dubai are looking for you in connection with a murder. And they're not seeking someone with your name or who vaguely matches your appearance — they want you specifically. You know this because they've published images of your passport ... except it isn't quite right. That's not your picture, or your signature, or your date of birth, but the rest is spot-on.

Now imagine the murder in which you're implicated is the assassination of Hamas chief Mahmoud al-Mabhouh.


That was the situation faced in 2010 by 26 westerners living in Israel, including Australian citizen Nicole McCabe, who was six months pregnant at the time and probably needed all that sleep she was about to lose thinking about death squads bent on payback [sources: ABC News, Herald Sun].

An intelligence expert told the Herald Sun of Victoria, Australia, that the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, which prefers to use real identities as covers for its agents, saw the large number of foreigners living in Israel as a perfect source. It didn't matter that they'd never been to Dubai, or that their passports had never been stolen — because the information was lifted from government databases, it remained beyond their control from the beginning.

At last report, the Australian government had offered little help to McCabe and her two fellow Aussies beyond a new passport. They strongly advised her to take it: The old one was likely to land her on wanted lists everywhere she traveled [sources: ABC News, Herald Sun].

8: The Two William Wests

Leavenworth prison almost contained two Will Wests.
Julie Denesha/Getty Images

Around the turn of the 20th century, criminals arrested in certain jurisdictions were put through a kind of anthropometry, a series of facial, skull and bodily measurements intended to serve as identification. Fingerprinting hadn't yet caught on, and the version of this procedure pioneered by French police officer Alphonse Bertillon was considered state-of-the-art.

So naturally, when the good people of New York sent Will West to Leavenworth prison, the record clerk followed procedure: He took West's measurements and sorted through the piled identification cards until one name remained: William West. This was bad news for Will, who claimed never to have had a previous run-in with the New York police. But there was his name, along with a set of nearly identical Bertillon measurements. Even the photograph on record was his spitting image [sources: Iowa Department of Public Safety, Olsen, Trimm].


Except it wasn't him. The William West on record, his near physical twin, was already in Leavenworth, serving a life sentence for murder. The discrepancy was soon resolved via fingerprints, and textbooks and speeches still cite the case as a classic example of the technique's usefulness. It's unclear what the consequences might have been for Will had the mistake not been caught; but at the very least, he likely would have received a harsher sentence for repeat offense [sources: Olsen, Trimm].

7: The Unfortunate Adolf Beck

Aside from being white guys with mustaches, Adolf Beck (left) and Frederick Meyer didn't actually look all that similar.
Public Domain/Wikipedia

Con artists say that an ideal persona should be charming but easily forgotten. The man who traveled under the names John Smith and Lord Wilton de Willoughby in 1877 and 1896, the same man who convinced women to part with their jewelry in exchange for rubber checks, was clearly a student of that school. Unfortunately for Adolf Beck, he bore a superficial resemblance to the man in question.

By now, you see where this is going.


Tragically, the entire matter might have been cleared up had the courts simply considered certain evidence, such as the fact that Beck was in Peru during the initial crime spree, or the somewhat more delicate detail that the original criminal (whose real name was possibly Frederick Meyer) was circumcised while Beck was not (that measurement was not among the Bertillon instruments). Instead, legal miscarriages multiplied into 15 convictions and 7 years of penal servitude [sources: Cathcart, Porter, Sydney Morning Herald].

However, the British courts had not finished with Beck. Three years after his release, the 60-year-old man was convicted of more Lord Willoughby crimes and faced an additional four to five years in prison. Happily, while Beck was locked up for the second time, the original crook was caught in the act. The Crown eventually released Beck and, thanks to public outcry, awarded him a sizable £5,000 in compensation. The case has since become a mainstay of British legal lore and a demonstration of the unreliability of eyewitness identification — at least 16 people positively identified Beck [sources: Cathcart, Porter, Sydney Morning Herald].

6: Worst Stork Ever: Medical Identity Theft

Just because one person's identity was stolen doesn't mean there aren't more victims.
BSIP/UIG/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Which would you rather have screwed up: Your credit history or your medical history? No need to answer. Thanks to medical identity theft, in which people use stolen identities to have medical procedures or expensive surgeries, you can have both.

Don't worry; it's even worse than it sounds. Take the case of Anndorie Sachs, a mother of four in Salt Lake City, Utah, who ended up on the wrong side of the law when a hospital reported that a newborn child under her name tested positive for illegal drugs. Problem was, it wasn't her newborn [sources: Engeler, Johnson].


Eventually, it emerged that a pregnant drug user had broken into Sachs's car, stolen her ID and had the baby under her name, leaving her with a $10,000 medical bill and a lot of explaining to do. Even after the truth came out (and after social services had interrogated her children), Sachs was not cleared until a DNA test proved the baby wasn't hers [sources: Engeler, Johnson].

Her legal and financial troubles behind her, Sachs now faces another problem: The thief might have provided different medical information to her doctors, which would have been listed under Sachs's name. However, Sachs has a blood clotting disorder and could die if given the wrong blood type. The hospitals say they've addressed these issues, but Sachs can't be sure, because privacy laws prevent them from showing her the records [sources: Engeler, Johnson].

5: Bartender Shaken by DNA Mix-up

The pattern of these DNA bands is unique to each individual, but some bands are shared by related people.
David Parker/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

In 2003, British police arrested bartender Peter Hamkin on suspicion of murdering a woman in Italy the year before. Now, bartenders know a lot of tricks, but killing complete strangers in countries they've never visited is not among them. Was this another case of eyewitness accounts gone wrong? No, although officials said he matched the description of the assailant. This time, the culprit was that unassailable mainstay of crime procedurals, DNA [source: Geddes].

DNA database matching actually compares only a selection of subsites on the strand known as loci. American labs use 13 loci, while in the UK 10 is the magic number, and suspects need not match all of them. If that sounds scary, consider this: Because countries don't always use the same areas, a proposed pan-European database would require a mere six loci for a match [source: Geddes].


This number once seemed like plenty — experts placed the chances of a false match among unrelated people at 1 in 113 billion. But in 2008 Arizona state crime lab analyst Kathryn Troyer found dozens of such matches when using the nine-loci standard common at the time, which suggests the subject might benefit from some reconsideration. It also sent lawyers nationwide on a genetic fishing expedition [source: Felch and Dolan].

Luckily for Hamkin, his initial match was not the end of the story. After a more detailed DNA comparison, he was exonerated and released, having spent 20 days in jail [source: Geddes].

4: Transplant Recipient Chilled to the Marrow

Bone marrow transplants can cause criminal mix-ups.
BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images

The previous story showed how the half-dozen to dozen DNA markers used in database matches could send police knocking down the wrong door. But can a true match still point to the wrong suspect?

Have you read the title of this article?


Police investigating one particular sexual assault case must have thought the case was going well. They had a semen sample with useable DNA, and it matched DNA of an Alaskan man already in the system. There was just one hitch: The man in question had been in jail when the crime was committed. Was it a mix-up in the system? No, although that's what technicians thought at first. In truth, the solution was even stranger: One year earlier, the jailed man had received bone marrow from the actual assailant, his brother [sources: Aldhous, BBC].

Today, bone marrow recipients sometimes retain some of their own marrow and end up with mixed genetic profiles. But in this case, the jailed man had lost all of his original marrow, and so he registered as a full match for the criminal in question [sources: Aldhous, BBC].

By the way, mixed DNA can also show up in cheek swabs if you've been smooching. According to a 2013 study, DNA can linger in your mouth for up to an hour, a fact that could potentially help catch sexual predators [source: New Scientist].

3: Identical Twins Beat the Rap(s)

A twin (or two) pulled an Ocean's 11-style heist at the German department store Kaufhaus des Westens, aka KaDeWe.
Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

No list of mistaken identity would be complete without a few evil twins. Here are a few cases in which a criminal used his fellow monozygote to escape justice.

Our first case takes us to Germany's famous Kaufhaus des Westens, the largest department store in continental Europe. In January 2009, one of the three thieves in masks and gloves who stole $6.8 million in jewelry from the KaDeWe left behind a latex glove. When die Polizei ran a DNA test on the sweat found within, they identified two matches: 27-year-old identical twins Hassan and Abbas O. (German law prevents their full names being used). Unfortunately for the officers, the thief did not leave behind a fingerprint: Identical twins have distinctive fingerprints, but they share 99 percent of the same DNA. Unable to pin down which brother, if not both, committed the heist, they had to let them both go [source: Himmelreich].


The news provides plenty of other evil-twin examples. In 2009, identical twins in Malaysia escaped a death sentence for narcotics trafficking when prosecutors failed to prove which one owned the smack. In 2011, an Arizona nightclub murder went unresolved because eyewitnesses disagreed about which twin actually did the killing [source: Palmer].

Although eyewitness accounts will likely always pose a problem, the science of epigenetics, reportedly holds some promise of distinguishing the DNA of twins [source: Palmer[url='http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2012/08/true_crime_with_twins_can_identical_twins_get_away_with_murder_.html']]. Epigenetic factors change how the same genes are expressed differently in different people due to environmental factors, life events or the substances we consume.

2: Single White ... Male?

Fingerprints were apparently the only differentiating factor between the two Brittany Ossenforts.
Monty Rakusen/Cultura/Getty Images

It would be irresponsible (not to say libelous) to assign a psychological diagnosis to our next case, even if drawing parallels to the film "Single White Female," which portrayed a woman with borderline personality disorder slowly assuming her roommate's identity, is inevitable.

One day in 2007, Brittany Ossenfort and her boss received a phone call asking for $1,050 to bail someone out of the Orange County Jail. The jailbird? Someone named Brittany Ossenfort. Yes, in an extraordinary collision of identity theft and bad judgment, Brittany's 18-year-old male friend, Richard Lester Phillips, had propositioned an undercover cop for a $30 sex act and been booked under her name. Ossenfort knew that her 5-foot-3-inch, 95-pound (1.6-meter, 43-kilogram) friend was a cross-dresser, but the rest no doubt came as something of a shock. Phillips convinced the police well enough to be housed with female inmates, so ... well done?


The matter was soon cleared up — sort of. Because policy forbids jail officials from altering name information in the computer database after booking, this crime will remain listed under Ossenfort's name. In fact, Ossenfort must now carry paperwork with her verifying that she has never been accused of prostitution, just in case police ever stop her and pull up her record. But hey, at least they took the information down from their website — eventually [source: Lundy and Hunt].

1: The Taylor University Car Crash

Whitney Cerak's family didn't find out she'd survived for weeks.
Gordon Chibroski/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

On a late spring day in 2006, a deputy coroner and a chaplain drove to a Michigan home to deliver the opposite sort of news that these trips usually entailed: They were going to tell the mother and father of Whitney Cerak that their daughter was alive. It was bound to be a bit of a shock. They thought they had buried her weeks earlier [sources: Myers, WTHR].

On April 26, 2006, a semi-truck driver had fallen asleep at the wheel, causing his truck to cross a median and crash into a Taylor University van containing nine people. One of the worst crashes in local memory, it killed five and hurled bodies and belongings more than 50 feet from the impact site. In the rush to save lives, a first responder had loaded Cerak into the evac chopper along with the ID of the deceased Laura Van Ryn — who closely resembled Cerak in hair color, bone structure and build [sources: Myers, WTHR].

In the weeks that followed, while Cerak slowly recovered from a closed head injury, 1,400 people, including members of her family, friends and classmates mourned her loss and attended her funeral, while Van Ryn's loved ones waited for the person they thought was their daughter to recover. Eventually, as the patient's behavioral inconsistencies mounted, they could no longer ignore their suspicions. Finally, when a therapist asked her to write her name, the truth was there in black and white: "Whitney" [sources: Myers, WTHR].

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Terrible Cases of Mistaken Identity

"The innocent have nothing to fear," eh? After researching this piece, I'm not so sure. Granted, most of these extreme examples involved flukes, but I turned up scores of other examples just like them. By the way, research shows that people are terrible eyewitnesses; it also reveals that juries are inordinately swayed by evidence that sounds like it came out of a CSI episode. So I think the lesson here is that due process, appeals and other legal protections are something that we want to keep around.

Or is it that, alibi-wise, jail is the safest place to be?

Related Articles

More Great Links

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