Ventura County jailers were taken aback in July when they discovered that a man serving a six-month sentence for an Oxnard spousal-abuse case was not the batterer--but his identical twin brother.
It turns out not to be the first time that the two brothers have made such a switch.
Donald Anderson, 43, now says he has done jail time three other times for twin brother Ronald Anderson. And more than 20 years ago, Donald says, he even took his brother’s place in the U.S. Army so his brother could enjoy life as a civilian.
While identical twins often amuse themselves by trading places in social situations, one expert on twins called the story of the Anderson brothers unprecedented, saying he has never heard an account of a set of twins actually carrying an identity swap behind bars or into uniform.
In 1970, Donald Anderson went to Korea in place of his brother, he said. No one was ever the wiser to any of the schemes the twins have pulled off in the past three decades, according to Donald--until last July when Ventura County authorities finally discovered they had the wrong twin serving the six-month jail term.
And now, the questions for the twins are plentiful.
Why would anyone serve someone else’s jail terms, let alone military duty? How could one twin even allow the other one to do such a favor? And how did the twins get away with their deeds for so long?
“The judge asked me why I did this, and I said my twin needed help,” Donald Anderson told The Times. “Not only am I talking about this now, but I am doing all the things I do because I love him.”
The twins have nine other brothers and sisters, but their father, William Anderson, 76, said his two identical sons have the closest relationship in the family.
The father, who lives in a senior citizens facility in Oxnard, also said the twins’ willingness to help each other has not always been a two-way street.
Donald--who has had troubles with the law himself over the years--typically ends up bailing Ronald out of difficult situations, he said.
“I know he has always looked out for him,” the father said of Donald, “and he still does.”
It appears, though, that Donald Anderson won’t be able to bail Ronald out of his most recent predicament.
Ventura County Superior Court Judge Charles W. Campbell sentenced Ronald to 14 years in state prison Wednesday in connection with the case that first exposed the twins’ jail switch.
The case originated on July 19, when police said Ronald jumped from behind a gate near the Stern Lane home of his estranged wife, Brenda, and choked the woman into unconsciousness.
Police caught Ronald shortly after the attack, but were bewildered. Ronald Anderson, they thought, was already in the county jail serving a six-month sentence for an earlier assault on his wife.
How could he be in two places at once? Easy, a friend of the Andersons told officers. His twin brother had turned himself in at the Port Hueneme police station four days earlier under Ronald’s name.
When his brother surrendered, jail officials had fingerprinted Donald Anderson, but did not believe they had any reason to run a check on the prints, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Maeve Fox.
Authorities released Donald Anderson from jail, but charged Ronald with attempted murder, spousal battery and robbery because he took his wife’s purse after choking her.
A jury convicted the man on each of the counts, and Superior Court Judge Charles W. Campbell on Wednesday sentenced him to the maximum prison sentence: 14 years.
In two separate interviews after the sentencing, Donald Anderson lamented his twin’s fate and expressed a desire to serve the 14 years for him if he could.
Jail officials would not allow Ronald to be interviewed.
Donald Anderson said he has served three other jail terms for his twin and spent six months in three different cities in Korea for him in 1970.
An expert on twin relationships said it is not unusual for identical twins to pull off switches. But Niels Waller, director of the California Twins Registry at UC Davis, said the Anderson case appears to be extreme.
“I’ve heard many, many stories of twins switching classes in high school and switching girlfriends and boyfriends,” said Waller, who is trying to track down every set of twins in the state for his most recent project. “But never switching for jail.”
Some experts consider the kinship between twins to be the closest relationship humans can have, Waller said.
“When one dies, the grief that is experienced by a co-twin is more profound than the grief that twin experiences with the loss of a spouse or child,” he said.
The Anderson twins have lived in Ventura County since about 1979, according to court records. Ronald Anderson was the first to come to the county when he landed a job as a jet mechanic at the Point Mugu naval station.
The twins and the other nine Anderson children were born and raised in inner-city Philadelphia. Their mother, Mary, was a homemaker and father William was a self-employed mover and hauler.
Donald Anderson said he and Ronald began switching identities as early as grade school. Donald said the tricks were harmless, such as switching classes without their teachers and classmates catching on.
It was shortly after their mother died in the mid-1960s that the twins started to land in trouble with school and law-enforcement authorities.
For instance, Donald Anderson was sent to a boys’ reformatory school for several months at that time after hitting a boy with a beer bottle for allegedly threatening Ronald.
“I’m aggressive and a hardhead, and I have a bad temper,” Donald acknowledged. “That’s why most of our friends would call me the evil twin and he’s the good twin.
“If you ran into him, he would say excuse me. If you ran into me, you would have trouble on your hands. I’m not going to let anybody take advantage of me. He didn’t see it that way.”
In the 10th grade, the brothers left home and rented a room together. “We shined shoes and took orders at the market, always together,” Donald recalled.
After they finished high school, however, Ronald Anderson decided to go out on his own and joined the Army. Donald says he was too stubborn and did not want to take orders, so he did not follow his brother.
Ronald Anderson finished basic training and came home for a 30-day leave before heading off to Korea.
The night before Ronald was scheduled to leave, he told Donald he did not want to go. He wanted to stay home and hang around the neighborhood with friends.
“Here I thought he had an excellent chance to get out of the ghetto,” said Donald, who had become somewhat envious of his brother’s achievements.
Ronald was scheduled to be a helicopter mechanic in Korea, and Donald considered himself a back-yard mechanic anyway. So he offered to take Ronald’s place in the Army, he said.
“I told him, ‘Well, I want to go. Let me try.’ He thought it was a joke,” Donald said. “I didn’t care if I got caught or not. It would have been better than hanging on the street corners.”
Donald Anderson said his brother agreed to the deal and used a broomstick to teach him Army rifle drills.
“After that, he told me how to tell an officer, how to tell a lieutenant, captains, colonels, and how to salute,” Donald remembered.
The next morning, Donald showered, shaved, cut his hair short and dressed for the Army--in full uniform.
As Donald was leaving the house to embark on his new career, his father sat at their kitchen table and sipped a cup of coffee. The elder Anderson realized what his sons were up to and did not approve of the fraud.
“I always told them, just don’t get caught,” the father said Thursday in an interview.
Donald Anderson said he spent two weeks in orientation in Seattle and stopped in Japan as well before arriving in Seoul, Korea, where he exchanged currencies and got various shots for diseases.
Once on the job with the Army’s 55th Aviation Missile Command, he said he rose to the position of a crew chief of the helicopter unit and was well-accepted by the brass. Some officers, he said, liked him so much that they even escorted him into clubs for noncommissioned officers. He said he was also a member of the company basketball team.
“When I got there, I was a helper on the crew,” Donald said. “When the guy who showed me what to do left, I was in charge.”
He said the only rough time he had was when he would bump into people who had gone to basic training with his twin brother. But nobody ever suspected the switch, he said.
Ventura County prosecutors said they confirmed that Ronald Anderson was supposed to have been serving a tour of duty during the time that Donald claims he was actually in the service.
An Army spokeswoman said there is little the service can do about the situation now.
“I’m not saying he didn’t do it,” Debbie Parker, the spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., said when told of Donald’s story. “But what I am saying is, if he did do it, we wouldn’t know about it” unless he was caught and tried for it.
Article 83 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice prohibits false impersonation in the service. It is punishable by a dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances and five years’ confinement, according to the uniform code.
But Donald said he is speaking out now because the statute of limitations on such an offense has run out. Parker confirmed that as true. She said the limitation for prosecuting false impersonation is five years.
After the service, Donald Anderson said he served a two-month jail sentence in Philadelphia for his brother. He also said he was arrested and thrown in jail after he came to Ventura County for traffic tickets his brother had gotten in his name.
He said he did the time, without ever telling authorities it was really his brother who was using his identification. For that matter, Donald added, he has also done jail time in Ventura County on his own behalf--after a recent petty theft conviction.
In the latest case of switched identities, Donald Anderson said he checked himself into the County Jail for his brother because Ronald was experiencing marital difficulties that had led him to abuse drugs and alcohol.
Ronald Anderson had been ordered to turn himself into the jail on June 14 for the spousal-abuse conviction. But Donald said his brother had no intentions of doing so. Donald said he checked into the jail without Ronald’s knowledge because he saw his brother was in trouble and did not want authorities looking for him.
“I took my brother’s place because he had all these problems,” said Donald, who has now moved into an apartment across the street from the jail in Ventura to be closer to his brother. “My brother has never been in jail (for a long time). I’ve been in jail. I could handle it.”
Authorities have speculated that Donald agreed to go to jail so his brother could have an alibi when he attempted to kill his wife on July 19. Brenda Anderson could not be reached.
“There was no plot to kill her,” Donald said. “I love my sister-in-law, for one thing. I would never hurt her.”
He said the judge should have given him the 14-year sentence.
“And if I could take my twin’s place now, I would do it.”