To all outward appearances, Robert L. Chesney was an impoverished deaf man, one of hundreds of elderly and disabled residents at the federally subsidized Angelus Plaza downtown who lived from one government check to another.
Neighbors said that if he stood out in any way, it was because of a single vanity: To cover his baldness, he always wore a pale blue fishing hat.
When federal agents searched his apartment in July, however, they found more than a dozen hats ranging from baseball caps to a beret. They also found 15 boxes and three steamer trunks full of birth certificates, bank statements and Social Security cards--not to mention more than 200 California Department of Motor Vehicles ID cards, each bearing Chesney’s picture and somebody else’s name.
At last count, Chesney was receiving retirement or disability checks under at least 29 names, authorities say.
“It appears that this is the largest individual rip-off of Social Security by any one individual,” declared Assistant U.S. Atty. Mike Howard in San Francisco, who said the government plans to seize $1.3 million found so far in dozens of bank and investment accounts Chesney set up around the country.
Chesney has pleaded not guilty to 18 felony counts of filing false claims and converting government money. Trial is scheduled for Oct. 1. Through an attorney, he declined an interview from jail.
Perhaps more curious than the men Chesney purported to be is Robert Leroy Chesney himself. At 59, he had compartmentalized his life to such a degree that when news of his arrest spread through the nation’s close-knit deaf communities, each circle of acquaintances seemed to have known a different man.
In Grand Central Market, where elderly men and women from Angelus Plaza gather each afternoon for coffee, they talked in sign language about Chesney the threadbare loner who spurned their friendship.
In Long Beach, former co-workers at the Press-Telegram talked about Chesney the talented printer who had sued the company, acted as his own attorney and received a lucrative settlement that included a $25,000 gift to a local agency for the handicapped.
And, across the country on the campus of prestigious Gallaudet University, the world’s only liberal arts university for the deaf, some of the most prominent hearing-impaired men in the nation knew Chesney as a onetime classmate, a brilliant man of great promise.
All of his diverse former acquaintances were asking the same two questions: If what authorities say is true, why did he do it? And, given the fact that he lived as a pauper and a notorious tightwad, what on earth did he plan to spend the money on?
“I might try a hypothesis,” said Dr. Larry Stewart, a Gallaudet psychology professor who was one of 35 members of Chesney’s graduating class of ’57. “One, he was smart enough to know how to screw the system. Two, he himself may have felt he had been screwed by life. So, why not get even?”
From what it is possible to piece together of Chesney’s life from acquaintances and public records, he was born in Texas and became deaf after a bout with spinal meningitis at age 10. While many deaf people came to see their handicap as simply another trait, like one’s race or eye color, Chesney never seemed to lose his anger over being deaf, perhaps because he knew what hearing meant. He once said he missed music more than anything.
The son of a struggling tree trimmer, Chesney was raised among what one friend called “poor rednecks,” who constantly complained about the federal government putting its heel on the neck of the poor.
Growing up on the cusp of enlightenment about the deaf, he was part of the first generation of young deaf people offered a serious education. Identified early on as highly intelligent, he was sent at state expense to the Texas School for the Deaf, a boarding school in Austin.
Short and stocky, Chesney was very health- and body-conscious, according to classmate Roger Pendergraft, now president of the Washington State Assn. for the Deaf. As if determined to prove himself, Pendergraft recalled, Chesney took up boxing and once swam the Colorado River.
Both men went on to Gallaudet on scholarships.
“He shunned alcohol and called anyone who drank it a fool for spending money on the stuff,” said Pendergraft. “His goals after high school were always money oriented . . . given his penchant for saving his money and always looking for ways to make more, I always pictured him as becoming a rich man.”
While in school, Chesney worked as a printer during summers and enjoyed dressing well and asking women out to expensive dinners. But he never seemed to date anyone more than twice, Pendergraft said.
“I don’t remember him ever having any close friends, and I think that his unwillingness to share was part of the problem,” said Stewart, who recalled once asking Chesney for a cigarette and being turned down.
Still, classmates recalled Chesney as exceptionally smart, a good communicator who loved literature and talked of writing a novel someday. However, he chose as his twin majors political science and history.
Chesney was editor of the yearbook. Under his picture the caption read, “Bob . . . another of the class’s ‘little men’ . . . his size doesn’t affect his ability to argue . . . loves to tease the ladies . . . (Plans to) teach and or tickle the Linotype.”
Job opportunities for the deaf, even the college-educated, were few in the 1950s. Many went into printing, in part because the loud presses wouldn’t bother them.
Chesney wound up in various jobs at newspapers in Chicago and Kansas City, friends said, then moved to California. By the late 1970s, he was an experienced, if eccentric, printer at the Press-Telegram in Long Beach.
“When I first met him, he showed me his (savings account) passbook and he had $100,000,” said Sanford Diamond, a co-worker. Chesney, he said, told him he had earned the money through stocks--and frugality.
“He idolized money,” Diamond said. ". . . Whenever he’d lose a dime in a food machine, he’d try to crack it open.”
Meanwhile, at home he was receiving multiple bank statements showing he was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to a former roommate, Harry Tremaine, now a teacher at Golden West College.
“He called it ‘his wad.’ I asked him what he was hoarding it for and he said, ‘to make a bigger wad,’ ” Tremaine said.
Chesney also took computer classes at Golden West and tried to develop a computer system to bet on horse races, he said.
As the technology of printing changed and hearing people with no college degrees were made supervisors over him, Chesney became bitter, co-workers said. When he was injured on the job, he went on long-term disability. In 1982, he sued the Press-Telegram, alleging he was the subject of discrimination.
Chesney acted as his own attorney, poring over lawbooks in the county law library downtown. He pursued the suit for five years, filling four volumes with legal briefs and condemnations of discrimination against the deaf.
In 1987, the case was settled with the Press-Telegram agreeing to pay him $150,000, followed by annual payments of at least $20,000 through the year 2006. Federal authorities said he never disclosed that income when applying for disability benefits.
As part of the settlement, the Press-Telegram published an announcement that Chesney “had filed the suit in order to publicize the plight of the handicapped. . . .” Chesney designated the type size of the announcement.
Another part of the settlement was a $25,000 donation by the publisher to the Dayle McIntosh Center for the Disabled in Anaheim, an agency that had once helped Chesney with paperwork and telephone calls.
“He never even called us up to tell us we were going to get the money,” said Peg Hall, community relations director of the center. “After we got the money, we tried to call him to invite him to lunch, but he really wasn’t responsive. He never came.”
Even as Chesney was fighting for the rights of the deaf, he was “terrorizing” elderly deaf neighbors at a federally subsidized apartment complex, Pilgrim Tower in Los Angeles, according to residents, who said he’d chase them out of the recreation room.
Sitting in the recreation room this week, speaking in sign language, more than a dozen elderly men and women recalled him as a “bighead"--a disparaging term older deaf people use for younger ones who have the advantage of an education.
“All of us were afraid of (him),” said Frances Raymond, a gray-haired woman who was president of the resident council when Chesney lived there.
Jeanette Osborn, who managed the building, said Chesney finally was asked to leave in 1982 because he was such a “bully.”
He moved to Angelus Plaza, but told acquaintances different stories about where he was living. One of them, Tremaine, said Chesney grew secretive and increasingly interested in stocks and other investments. He complained that a small group of rich men--such as David Rockefeller--controlled the nation, Tremaine recalled.
“Bob was a relatively honest person,” Tremaine added. “But I think he was feeling justified in ripping off the ‘feds’ because all those rich people did that.”
Through the 1980s, Chesney routinely took his meals at a church soup kitchen in the MacArthur Park area, often playing chess while eating.
It was about 1988, according to government attorneys, that Chesney apparently came up with a way to collect multiple disability and retirement benefits.
The scheme purportedly began in the library, where Chesney would glean biographical data about public personalities, using reference works such as “Contemporary Authors.” Pretending to be those people, Chesney would write away to their home counties, give their birth dates, fathers’ names and mothers’ maiden names, and ask for copies of their birth certificates.
He then took the birth certificates to the DMV, posed for pictures, and took out ID cards in their names. Afterward, according to court records, Chesney began a two-year quest through Southern California, applying for disability and retirement checks at Social Security offices from Orange County to Riverside.
According to the indictment, Chesney used the name of author Richard Wright to apply for benefits in Inglewood, and also went by J. W. Corrington, who was listed in “Contemporary Authors” as the writer of “A Project Named Desire.” Investigators have not yet matched all his names to real people, according to Howard.
For each ID card, authorities said, Chesney wore a different hat or disguise. When he made required visits to agencies, he appeared to duplicate the dress in the ID card.
“I suspect one of the reasons he got away with it was because there was probably a sympathy factor,” Howard said. “Chesney was deaf, and he didn’t dress flashy. He just went in and fooled the Social Security people by being kind of a sorry subject.”
The government attorney said Chesney often got extra stipends by claiming he lived in his car and had to buy his meals at restaurants. At the same time, he added, Chesney was writing the state Franchise Tax Board asking for renters’ credits of $60 a year.
To sustain his scheme, according to court records, Chesney set up post office boxes and bank accounts in different names all over Southern California. Because he often claimed to be homeless, government agencies did him the favor of making direct deposits into his accounts.
“It appears he had a lot of time to devote to this,” said Elliott Kramer, a regional official of the Office of the Inspector General, the agency that began investigating the case after a bank teller noticed that Chesney appeared to be making deposits under different names.
His arrest July 10 stunned his neighbors.
“I don’t know what he was accumulating it for,” said next-door neighbor Golda Chilton, 74. “I’d buy stuff . . . nice furniture and nice clothes. Not him. He didn’t seem to have a penny.”
She recalled only one hint that Chesney had more money than the other low-income seniors: After lunch at a soup kitchen, he came home and cooked himself a steak.
Federal investigators tracked down bank accounts in Chicago, Kansas City, Boston, New York, San Francisco and elsewhere. Most of his portfolios contained conservative investments, according to Kramer.
Still unclear is how much of the money found in Chesney’s accounts is his “wad” and how much belongs to the government. At last count, Kramer said, Chesney appeared to have received more than $400,000 in federal checks since 1989. Because the government can sue Chesney for treble damages for filing false claims, it is seeking to freeze the entire $1.3 million found to date.
Kramer said the episode doesn’t mean the Social Security system needs additional checks and balances. “It would be difficult to be able to do more than the Social Security Administration is doing at the present time,” he said.
Chesney’s arrest was proof that the system worked in the end, Kramer said, adding, “He’s certainly not going to get any more benefits.”
Maybe. Maybe not.
On the day he was arrested, Chesney signed an affidavit swearing that his personal assets were limited to $500 and a van. When he stands trial for bilking the federal government, he is scheduled to be represented by an attorney from the federally funded public defender’s office.
Asked whether her client was legally entitled to such representation, his attorney, federal Public Defender Amy Karlin, said, “no comment.”
Why, given that he had more than $1 million when he was arrested, did he not simply pay his $50,000 bail, walk out of jail and hire the best attorney in town?
“Bail doesn’t earn interest,” Pendergraft speculated wryly. “And he gets free room and board.”