By Daniel Silliman
When Douglas Yutaka Rhoades was arrested on charges of impersonating a federal officer, he joined the relatively sparse ranks of people prosecuted for the crime.
"It's not that common," said Stephen Emmett, spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. "And it's less common that we go forward with prosecution."
The FBI investigates cases of people impersonating FBI agents, but deals with them on a "case-by-case basis," according to Emmett. Some impersonators use bogus bureau credentials in elaborate scams, asking for financial assistance, or access to private information, in a play to steal from law-abiding and FBI-trusting citizens.
Federal prosecutors allege Rhoades, a 42-year-old Jonesboro man suspected of abusing young girls and charged with possessing child pornography, may have used the credentials to get people to trust him with children. His ex-wife and close friend both believed he was an FBI agent, working undercover to investigate rogue agents and child pornography. According to the FBI, though, he never worked for them and confessed, when arrested, to buying the official-looking badge from the Internet for $50.
Such serious misrepresentations, backed by fake identifications, can cause unsuspecting citizens to trust someone they shouldn't, and can damage the FBI's representation.
"We take great pains as an agency to gain the public's trust," Emmett said. "If someone trusts that you're an FBI agent, that opens them up and they trust you ... We're going to go after the egregious impersonators."
Most cases of impersonation that come to the attention of the FBI, however, aren't thought to be so serious. The agency, in those cases, will attempt to stop the misrepresentation without making an arrest or attempting to prosecute.
"The reasons rum the gambit," Emmett said. "It might be a private investigation and somebody's stepping over the bounds, flashing a badge and trying to gain access ... It might be an ex-boyfriend trying to intimidate someone. Some cases might merit us going out and talking to them and issuing a cease and desist."
On the local level, Clayton County Police Capt. Greg Dickens said the department catches a number of impersonators every year, but the people are rarely dangerous.
"A lot of times," he said, "you'll get people doing it as a defense mechanism. You know, 'Don't talk to me like that, I'm a police officer.' Or a lot of times it's a dementia problem. They do it just because they're in a fantasy world."
In one case, years ago, Dickens said, a man's employment application was rejected and he went on to pretend he was a police officer for a number of years.
"It's not generally used to pose a threat or harm anyone," the captain said, "but regardless of what their motivations were, we can't tolerate that. I'd compare it to an armed robbery with a plastic gun. It's about what you're making people believe, and not really what you're capable of."
While detectives and federal agents are still investigating Rhoades, to see how he may have used the fake badge found in his back pocket, the 42-year-old man sits in prison and awaits the indictment of a federal grand jury.
Emmett said real FBI agents understand if citizens are a little suspicious, and are patient enough to let people verify their identification.
"The FBI phone number is listed in every phone book: (404) 679-9000," Emmett said. "We do understand the need to verify the ID of an agent. No agents is going to be running around flashing a badge, if they're undercover."