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Southland official’s war story was fiction

Times Staff Writer

Xavier Alvarez, the newest director of Three Valleys Municipal Water District in Claremont, had a personal story so harrowing he came to be known as the “Rambo” of the water board.

He said he was a 25-year veteran of the Marine Corps. In 1979, he rescued the U.S. ambassador during the siege of the embassy in Tehran. He was shot twice, hanging from a helicopter, removing the American flag on the way out.

He also said he was married to a “Mexican starlet” but couldn’t be seen with her because of all the paparazzi; played ice hockey at a minor level for the Detroit Red Wings; and had been a cop in Downey until he was let go for excessive force.

But when Alvarez, 49, told a gathering of water officials that he had received the Medal of Honor -- an award held by only about 100 living people -- a call soon came from the FBI.

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Authorities say Alvarez never served in the military. Last month, he became the first person in the nation charged with making a bogus claim of having a medal for valor, according to the FBI.

“When this award was given over the years, it meant something extraordinary,” said Assistant U.S. Atty. Craig H. Missakian. “The more phony war heroes we have running around claiming the honor, the less the medal comes to signify for the handful of soldiers who actually earned it, and for the country as well.”

Alvarez said he planned to fight the charge. He is expected to appear in court next month and could face up to a year in prison.

Many people have been prosecuted for wearing unearned medals or for lying about military service to get veterans benefits. But this year, under the new Stolen Valor Act, it became a misdemeanor even to claim medal honors, whether to pump up one’s reputation at work or to pick up a woman at a bar.

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Alvarez may have a tough time challenging the law, according to constitutional law experts who say lying is not protected by the 1st Amendment.

Doug Sterner, a veteran in Pueblo, Colo., was behind the law’s passage. Over the last six years, Sterner has been building a database of the military’s valor-medal recipients and, in doing so, ran across various charlatans.

People often would contact him through his website, www.homeofheroes.com, inquiring about a relative. Sometimes it was heartbreaking work -- telling a son his deceased father was not the hero he had claimed to be.

Sterner began working with an FBI agent, Thomas A. Cottone, to ferret out the frauds. But under the law at that time, impostors could be prosecuted only if they actually wore the medals.

“We were getting really frustrated because these people were getting through the loopholes,” Sterner said.

His wife, who was in college at the time, suggested in a term paper that the law be changed to forbid false claims of having earned military medals.

The couple pushed their local congressman, John T. Salazar (D-Colo.), to introduce the Stolen Valor Act. President Bush signed it into law in December.

“If we don’t maintain the integrity of this, if you don’t police the phonies, the real ones lose their meanings,” Sterner said.

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Since the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles announced the case, the Three Valleys water board has been left wondering who Alvarez really is: There is no record that he is married to a starlet, that he worked as a cop or that he played for the Red Wings.

Alvarez, in a phone interview, declined to say what his day job is -- or if he has one.

He didn’t deny claiming to have received the Medal of Honor. People routinely say things at board meetings “just to entertain the public,” he said.

The federal charges are the work of his political foes, Alvarez contends. When he was asked to specifically address the charges, his response was disjointed.

“There’s people who go up there and say, ‘Oh, I’m homosexual. And I belong to the homosexual community.’ I don’t say anything about that. . . . I’m a rookie at this. You get nervous.”

He said he was a member of the American Legion Department of California and would “continue raising money for veterans.”

The American Legion could not confirm his membership.

Alvarez broke into electoral politics in 2002, with a run for Pomona City Council, followed by a mayoral campaign in 2006. In the latter election, he got 85 votes. When he ran for the water district -- which supplies water to about half a million people in eastern Los Angeles County -- the new mayor of Pomona, Norma Torres, endorsed him. This time, he got 3,854 votes, beating his challenger by 50 votes.

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Torres said Alvarez was a community activist from a hardscrabble neighborhood in south Pomona. She said he never told her he was a war hero.

“It’s unfortunate that this has all come up,” she said.

Three Valleys board member Dan Horan said every time he heard Alvarez introduce himself, he delivered tales of valor.

“He told me he was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam and the Viet Cong ground troops shot the helicopter and severed the fuel line,” said Horan, a former Marine and a Korean War veteran. “They landed in a field. He and the crew got out, fixed the fuel line under fire, and he got everybody out.”

Alvarez would have just turned 17 when the last American troops pulled out of Saigon.

He was on a tour of water facilities this summer when his personal history came into question.

Southern California Edison had invited him to join about two dozen public officials for a three-day visit to the Big Creek hydroelectric facility in the Sierra Nevada. On the ride up, an Edison event planner, Melissa Campbell, struck up a conversation.

“He said he was in the service and retired after 29 years as a sergeant major,” she said.

Campbell, a former Marine, replied, “It’s good to have you. Semper fi.”

Later, Campbell said, she asked Alvarez in which conflict he earned his medal. He told her about the Iran hostage crisis.

Campbell said she was blown away. “It was like having a rock star,” she said.

Alvarez said he concocted military exploits because Campbell was annoying him and he wanted to get rid of her. “Everything I told her was a total lie, just so I could hold her off,” he said.

Campbell eventually grew suspicious and later called the FBI.

The agency subsequently retrieved a tape of Alvarez introducing himself to the Walnut Valley Water District board in July.

“Do you want me to say something about myself?” Alvarez asked on the tape. He cleared his throat.

“I’m a retired Marine, 25 years. . . . Back in 1987, I was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.”

He cleared his throat again.

“I got wounded many times. At the same time. . .,” he said, laughing, “I’m still around.”

joe.mozingo@latimes.com


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