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A Doubled Life : Robert Sullivan Is a Teacher. But the Man Claiming to Be Him at Inglewood High for 10 Years Isn’t, Police Say

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When the bells ring in a new school year today in Inglewood, Morningside High School will start out the day minus a longtime English teacher known for expelling kids from his class and teaching literature straight from the book.

To school administrators, he was Robert Eugene Sullivan, an experienced instructor who had been with the school for more than a decade. But police know him as Willie Clifton Wright, a convicted forger who allegedly assumed the identity of another, real teacher and who managed to fool his bosses and colleagues for more than a decade, until questions about a retirement account led to his arrest last week.

And to the real Robert Eugene Sullivan, an adult education teacher with the Los Angeles Unified School District, Wright was the agent of financial ruin.

Wright allegedly was not content to live a peaceful life under an assumed identity. Police contend that he used a phony driver’s license and Social Security card with Sullivan’s numbers and carrying Sullivan’s name to skip out on paying his taxes, file for bankruptcy and build up a mountain of unpaid credit card debt, leaving the real Sullivan, a frugal man who lives within his means, wondering for a decade why his credit record was going down the tubes. Sullivan pays bills with money orders because no bank will give him a checking account, and takes the bus because no one will grant him a car loan.

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“This man has stymied me for years,” said the real Sullivan. “My perfectly good credit is ruined. I would tell creditors, ‘You’ve got me mixed up with the other guy,’ but no one listened to me so I just lived with it.”

Aside from their age--58--Sullivan and Wright have little in common. The real Sullivan, born in South Dakota, has lived a life of public service, traveling to Chile and South Korea to teach English. He is a former Peace Corps member and has taught for 36 years.

The alleged impostor, who comes from Louisiana, was convicted in 1972 of forgery and writing bad checks, Inglewood Police Det. Paul Harvey said. He served time in Los Angeles County Jail, but how much time and what he did immediately after his release is unclear.

According to police, Wright said he bought the fake ID 10 years ago from a Los Angeles forger, using Sullivan’s name and official ID numbers embellished with Wright’s photo. With that in hand, Wright easily found employment with the Inglewood schools in 1986.

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Wright was released from Inglewood jail Wednesday on his own recognizance after posting a $2,500 bond and giving a post office box as his address. He could not be reached for comment.

Inglewood Unified School District officials would not comment on how Wright managed to fool them, teachers and students for 10 years into thinking he was a credentialed, experienced educator.

Morningside High teachers who were readying their classes Monday for the start of the school year were flabbergasted by the news, but not displeased to see the man they knew as Sullivan gone from the school. They called him an unpopular colleague and a questionable educator.

One teacher, who asked that his name not be used, said that when Wright worked as yearbook advisor during 1994-95, the yearbook lost substantial amounts of money, but that Wright was nonetheless angry when the position was taken away from him the following year.

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“He hated students, he hated life, and he hated himself,” the teacher said.

Other teachers said Wright was known for making students leave his classroom--four or five students a day.

“One day in June I walked into the principal’s office and there were about eight students from his class lined up in there,” said one teacher, who asked that her name not be used. “It didn’t matter whether you were a good student or a bad student. He threw everyone out.”

Former students said the same.

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“He expelled me from his class” for talking during lessons, said Jackie Lopez, 18, a senior who had Wright for 11th-grade English. “I ended up without a fourth period because there was nowhere to put me.”

Roberto Silva and buddy Ernesto Jose Ramirez said they were kicked out for talking. The sophomores had Wright when they repeated ninth-grade English during summer school, and they were both told to leave and not come back.

Wright’s identity as teacher Robert Sullivan might have gone on for many more years if the real Sullivan hadn’t decided to retire.

Sullivan had tried for years to track down the man who he felt was ruining his credit history. The Downey resident said he never imagined that someone had adopted his identity wholesale; he simply thought it was a coincidence that another Sullivan was teaching in the area.

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In April the State Teacher’s Retirement System sent Sullivan his first retirement paycheck. It was for twice the amount that Sullivan was owed because the other Sullivan’s money had also been included, but Sullivan, who prides himself on his honesty, sent the check back noting the disparity.

An investigation by the agency found that both Sullivans were paying into a pension fund managed by the agency, and into Social Security, and that identification numbers on the accounts were the same. They concluded that one of the Sullivans was a phony and contacted Inglewood school administrators.

Now that Wright has been unmasked, the real Sullivan is hoping for a second chance in his own life.

“For years the computer went, ‘Tilt’ every time I tried to get credit. Maybe now it will change,” said Sullivan, who was denied a debit card from Bank of America as recently as last week because of a bad credit history. “I learned to hate him.”

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And whatever mode of transportation he has to take, Sullivan plans to be in Inglewood Municipal Court on Oct. 3 to see his nemesis arraigned.


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