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Mobtown Beat

Identity Transplant

Patient ID-Theft Alleged At Hopkins

By Chris Landers | Posted 2/18/2009

Bill Wall is a large man with close-cropped hair and the bearing of a military man, which he is--a major in the Army's 729th Brigade Support Battalion. His wife Deborah is tiny, blond, and full of an energy that belies the fact that for more than 10 years she has been suffering from a disease that attacks her kidneys.

In 2004, her illness became bad enough that her husband was sent home early from deployment in Afghanistan, and in October 2005, when she was hospitalized at Johns Hopkins for a kidney transplant, he spent a month by her hospital bed, letting the mail pile up at their Perryville home.

Upon her release, the Walls found that one of the things in their stack of mail was a notice from Chase, the credit-card bank, congratulating them on moving to a new house--something they hadn't done.

The Walls' response to that notice eventually led to a three year, multi-agency law-enforcement operation, which uncovered half a million dollars in fraud, and the indictment, last month, of a Hopkins employee and another Baltimore woman. Prosecutors claim the two worked together to steal information from patients and used it to open fake credit-card accounts.

Deborah Wall was reasonably sure that the credit theft was connected to her stay at Hopkins, especially after her kidney donor, a friend from out of state, reported a similar theft. Wall says the three days both of the women were in the hospital was the only time they were together, and it was too much of a coincidence.

The Chase card was used to purchase new wood floors for a house on Dudley Avenue in Belair-Edison, but the Walls say they had trouble getting law enforcement to act, due to the multiple jurisdictions involved--they were in Perryville, the house was in Baltimore City, and the flooring store was in Anne Arundel County. They took it upon themselves in November 2005 to check out the house.

The first time, they say, they sat in their car outside the house and called city police, but no one was home. A few days later, they tried again at night. Bill Wall says he had to argue with the city officer who responded to get him to check it out, and when they knocked, the occupant gave a false name.

"But they had nice flooring," Deborah Wall recalls.

"They sure did," her husband affirms. "They had some beautiful hardwood floors. And the biggest-screen TV I've ever seen."

At the city officer's direction, they went themselves to swear out an arrest warrant at the courthouse. A few days later, armed with the warrant, they returned to the house and called 911 again. This time, Bill Wall says, six or eight police cars swarmed the place. Shanell Bowser, of Dudley Avenue, was charged with identity theft, and found guilty in Baltimore District Court in April 2006. She was sentenced to two years' probation, an outcome that the Walls consider a slap on the wrist.

Meanwhile, the couple began talking with John Bergbower, a former major with the Baltimore Police, who heads the security investigations unit for Hopkins' East Baltimore campus.

Bergbower declined to speak for this article, referring questions to the Secret Service agent who investigated the case. Calls to the Secret Service were unreturned as of this writing.

The Walls credit Bergbower with getting the ball rolling on a three-year investigation that led to the recent charges against Michelle Johnson, a patient-services clerk at the hospital and a high school friend of Bowser's, according to the federal indictment, which says Johnson continued working at Hopkins until May 2007. Hopkins spokesman Gary Stephenson would not discuss the investigation, but the Walls say they received updates from Bergbower and other investigators during that time, and that Johnson was under surveillance at work. Contacted by telephone, a woman who identified herself as Michelle Johnson says she had nothing to say about the charges. Bowser's attorney could not be reached by phone or e-mail as of this writing.

Stephenson says Hopkins makes efforts to perform background checks on employees, but while it guards against the theft of patient information from the outside, employee theft presents a difficult challenge.

"The truth of the matter is you can't screen out all the bad apples," Stephenson says. "No organization can, try as they might. It's an unfortunate fact of modern life."

Marcia Murphy, spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein's office, declined to discuss the case beyond the information contained in the indictment. She confirmed that, in addition to Hopkins and the Secret Service, the U.S. Postal Service and the Department of Housing and Urban Development were involved in the investigation.

The indictment is short on detail, but it charges the two women with obtaining fake credit cards with a combined limit of more than $500,000 and using the cards to buy $169,390 in merchandise. In addition to hardwood floors, the indictment lists computer equipment, televisions, utility and cell-phone bills, and goods from Victoria's Secret among the items purchased with the fake cards. The indictment lists five victims, identified only by their initials. Murphy declined to say whether there were more.

Despite the speed with which the credit theft was uncovered, the Walls still face credit difficulties. Deborah Wall says the black marks on their credit have a snowball effect--once one credit-card company reports them, others raise their rates.

Her health remains poor. The transplanted kidney started to fail within days, and a few months after the operation she was back on dialysis treatments.

"That's really tough," Bill Wall says. "All the prep work for a transplant, which takes about a year to make it happen. Then to have the disappointment of losing it. And then it just compounds it to come home and find all this credit mess."

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