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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Facial recognition saw through man who stole dead brother’s identity

The Margaret Chase Smith Federal Building in Bangor, Maine, where Napoleon Gonzalez was found guilty this week of using his dead brother’s identity for decades to claim extra retirement and veterans benefits.

By Mike Ives

For more than half a century, records appeared to show that there were two brothers by the name of Gonzalez who had been born two years apart in Puerto Rico. They later lived at adjacent addresses in a small town in Maine. Both were 5-foot-7 and 190 pounds, with brown eyes.

In fact, the younger brother, Guillermo Gonzalez, had been dead since 1939, prosecutors say. And his older brother Napoleon not only used his identity for decades to claim extra retirement and veterans benefits but also faked his own death in 1984 as part of attempted life insurance fraud.

All of that came to light after an official from the Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles used facial recognition software three years ago to determine that the photos on the two men’s driver’s licenses showed the same person. That led to an investigation and a jury trial that ended in a federal courthouse last week with Napoleon Gonzalez’s conviction on charges of identity theft, passport fraud, mail fraud and Social Security fraud.

Gonzalez could face up to 50 years in prison when he is sentenced, the Justice Department said Monday.

Harris Mattson, a lawyer for Gonzalez, said in a statement that he and his client planned to appeal, saying that the evidence was not sufficient.

A sentencing date has not been set, and Gonzalez was not taken into custody after his conviction, Mattson said.

At the time of his arrest, Gonzalez was a resident of Etna, a small town about 20 miles west of Bangor, Maine.

He was born in Puerto Rico in 1937, two years before his brother Guillermo, prosecutors said in a trial brief. Guillermo died as an infant. Gonzalez’s ruse began in the mid-1960s and later allowed him to collect extra benefits and to travel to Canada on a fake passport.

Gonzalez told investigators that his mother had taken him to get a passport using his dead brother’s identity in 1965, according to the trial brief. He said he had used that identity while working on an undercover investigation during his employment with the Air Force in the 1960s and to enlist in the U.S. Army as a reservist in 1979 or 1980.

The branch of the Air Force where Gonzalez claimed to have worked, the Office of Special Investigations, told investigators that while it was difficult to say with certainty because so much time had passed, it had not found any record of him working there, according to the trial brief. An Air Force representative confirmed Wednesday that there were no records indicating that Gonzalez had worked for the branch.

Gonzalez’s scheme took a dramatic turn in 1984. Prosecutors say he “purchased a corpse” of a person who had died in a car accident in Puerto Rico, and unsuccessfully tried to pass the body off as his own in order to falsely claim a life insurance benefit — even though he was living on the other side of the island with his wife and two children at the time.

That explains why Puerto Rican records still list Gonzalez as having died in 1984. Investigators from the Social Security Administration asked him about that in 2010 but closed their case and restored his benefits after he signed a sworn statement confirming that he was in fact still alive.

But Gonzalez’s dual-identity scheme began to unravel in January 2020, once authorities in Maine found two driver’s licenses in their system with photographs of the same man. When investigators came to his home that month, he admitted that he had collected benefits under both identities.

And that spring, after the government suspended his dead brother’s benefits, he sent a letter to the Social Security Administration signed “Guillermo Gonzalez.”

The agents returned to Napoleon Gonzalez’s home that summer. They had more questions.

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