I ended up in a press release issued by the Department of Justice last week — I believe that was a first for me. Fortunately, I was not the subject of the release. My book, Your Evil Twin, was used by prosecutors to help put a notorious identity thief behind bars for 17 years. That criminal was James Rinaldo Jackson, whom I had named “The Father of Identity Theft” in my book almost 20 years ago.
Thus ended — for now — a crazy episode in my life that involved an old prison pen pal and a federal case in which I was asked to help both the prosecution and the defendant.
Most recently, James had lit fires in his house and kept a woman and her three children hostage while trying to destroy evidence after police surrounded his place …and soon after, tried to use a dead man’s identity to buy a Corvette.
To James, that was a pretty typical Tuesday.
James’ story is so convoluted, episodic, tragic, and amorphous that I can only hope to offer you a glimpse in this email. I’m hard at work looking for broader ways to tell this crazy story. While he’s now going to be in a federal prison for 207 months, likely the rest of his life (he’s 58), I can’t help thinking his story isn’t really over.
I hadn’t thought about James for nearly a decade when I received an email from the DOJ about his case last December. James had been in and out of jail and managed to squirt back out into public life again and again. This time, DOJ wanted to throw the book at him — MY book — and a federal agent wanted to know if I had any additional evidence I could share.
I had spent a couple of years writing letters back and forth to James when he was in jail for previous crimes. In thousands of single-spaced, typed pages, he had disclosed amazing “how I did it” details about his early days committing insurance fraud, and then trail-blazing in ID theft.
Like all journalists, I was in a strange spot. Generally, reporters don’t share information with prosecutors unless compelled to do so by a court. On the other hand, it really is best for James and the rest of the world that he be protected from society and vice versa.
While I pondered the situation and made plans to cover his sentencing hearing in Tennessee, I was contacted by James’ court-appointed defense attorney. James had told his legal team that I could be a character witness for him at sentencing. His letters to me were always framed as an effort to warn the world about a coming wave of ID theft — and he was right about that. He thought perhaps I could help the judge go easy on him.
I called journalism ethics experts to discuss my next steps and stalled. Then, Covid hit. James’ sentencing was repeatedly delayed. I suspected he might somehow get out of a long jail sentence. But last week, he was put away for a long time without my involvement.
“Aggravated identity theft and schemes to defraud or compromise the personal and financial security of vulnerable and deceased victims will not be tolerated,” said U.S. Attorney D. Michael Dunavant in the press release. “This self-proclaimed ‘Father of Identity Theft’ will now have to change his name to ‘Father Time’, because he will be doing plenty of it in federal prison.”
James has done some very bad things, and hurt a lot of people. Still, I felt a strange sadness. I thought about all the opportunities he had to set his life straight; all the second chances wasted. He just couldn’t NOT be a criminal. I’ve met other criminals like this in my life. One rather pointedly told me, “I just get too comfortable.” For some people, it seems, comfort is intolerable.
If you could indulge me for a bit, let me go back in time, to when I was first contacted by prosecutors about James:
When a federal prosecutor sends you an email with a subject line that’s the title of a book you wrote almost 20 years ago, you call immediately.
“This is probably the least surprising call you’ve ever received, but James is in trouble again,” the prosecutor said to me.
James Jackson had recently tried to burn his house down with his female friend and her kids held hostage inside, sort of. Then after that, he was arrested at a car dealership while trying to buy a car with a stolen identity. A Corvette. James doesn’t do anything small.
The prosecutor had found my book when they executed a search of James’ home and his life. Of course he did.
Two decades ago, James Rinaldo Jackson — the man often credited with ‘inventing’ identity theft — was my prison pen pal. I was a cub technology reporter at MSNBC and I had latched onto a new, scary kind of financial fraud. It was so new, the term identity theft hadn’t really been coined yet. James was my teacher. We spent years corresponding; I often received 2-3, 4 missives a week. He’s hopelessly OCD, and the letters were often dozens of pages, single-spaced, impeccably typed. Slowly, but surely, hidden inside pages of rambling prose, James unraveled for me all the tricks he used to steal millions of dollars, to amass a fleet of luxury cars, to impersonate a Who’s Who of famous CEOs and Hollywood personality of the 1990s – often armed only with a payphone and some coins.
At one point, James stole Warner Bros CEO Terry Semel’s identity, and sent Semel the evidence to him home via FedEx, in the form of a movie pitch — “Really, sir, it would be an important film. People are at great risk,” he wrote. For good measure, he included evidence of stolen IDs from famous actors he hoped star in the movie.
James Jackson’s misadventures became the core of my book about identity theft, Your Evil Twin, published in 2003. In it, I dubbed James The Father of Identity Theft. The name stuck.
Years later, James served his debt to society, got out, and we finally met. He was beyond charming, and I liked him. It was easy to see why people would give him hundreds of thousands of dollars. He became mini-famous for a while, He starred in infomercials about tech crimes. The last time I saw him, we spoke on a panel together in New York at a bank fraud conference. I remember riding up a glorious escalator with him in the Heart of Times Square, and he beamed that someone else was paying for his $400-a-night hotel room. James could easily have become another been Frank Abignale, the real-life criminal-turned-hero from the film Catch Me if You Can, who now nets 5-figure payouts for speeches.
Instead, he couldn’t even be James Jackson.
James insatiable desire to be someone more important than himself — not to mention his desire for Corvettes – couldn’t be tamed. James took that escalator and just kept going down, so low that he eventually found himself once again surrounded by police. A new fleet of luxury cars had attracted law enforcement attention. It’s crazy, but when I heard about the fire, I was sad for James. I know what happened. He panicked and started lighting computers and paperwork on fire, hoping to destroy the evidence.
To James, crime was always just a game. He never “hurt” anyone; he just talked his way into the nicer things in life. In fact, he usually targeted people who’d recently died – stealing their money is rather trivial – so where’s the victim? The way he flaunted the proceeds, it was also obvious to me that James was always desperate to be caught. Who tries to buy a Corvette while on the run for trying to burn down your house with your family inside?
The prosecutor called me for help putting James behind bars for good. He wanted more evidence that would convince a judge and jury that James is beyond reform, that 20 years ago James had told me things that still possess him today. And I have (had? It was a long time ago) mountains of letters that might sound like confessions to a jury today.
This is, to say it mildly, an unusual request. Journalists don’t share information with prosecutors. But then, James is a most unusual case. It would be good for James, and the rest of the world, for James to be kept away from telephones and computers forever. But that’s not my job. So, now what?
An excerpt of my book detailing James Jackson’s original crimes, originally published by NBC News, can be found here:
Eventually the NYTimes covered some of his story:
Here is James on an infomercial, about as close as he ever came to straightening out his life:
Here’s a local story about the more recent fire at James house and his arrest
And here’s a local story about his sentencing, with plenty of details from Your Evil Twin