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Who’s the ‘slick fraudster’—the man claiming he’s an MIA or the U.S. military?

An MIA’s family will contribute DNA to prove the man lost to the jungles of Vietnam is their kin


 

Robertson family archives; Myth Merchant Films

As expected, the April 30 Hot Docs world premiere of Unclaimed—a Canadian documentary about a man emerging from the Vietnamese jungle claiming to be a U.S. soldier given up for dead in 1968—has ignited a firestorm of media controversy. In a Maclean’s story last week, I explored the film in detail, and conducted the first media interview given by Alabama’s Gail Metcalf, the niece of MIA John Hartley Robertson, and his family’s official spokesperson. After a cathartic reunion with the self-proclaimed MIA in Edmonton, which stretched over five days, Metcalf and her family—including Robertson’s sole surviving sibling, Jean Robertson Holley—were utterly convinced the man is their “Johnny.” Meanwhile, the movie’s Alberta director, Michael Jorgensen, has had dealings with the the U.S. military that point to a possible cover-up. He said he met with one official who lied to him that Robertson’s brother (now deceased) and his sister, Jean, had cooperated with the military and provided DNA—which the family denied.

Immediately after news reports of the film’s sensational discovery went zinging around the globe, came an equally sensational backlash—a rash of headlines declaring that the man claiming to be Robertson was in fact a “slick fraudster” whose “hoax” had already been uncovered by the U.S. military.  The news originated from a U.S. military memo that was fed to the U.K.’s Daily Mail website. According to a 2009 memo from the Defense Prisoner of War Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) that surfacedMailOnline, the man, Dang Tan Ngoc, came to the attention of U.S. personnel in Vietnam in 2006, claiming to be Sgt. John Hartley Robertson, reported killed in action during a special forces mission over Laos in 1968. The memo states that, under questioning, the man admitted that he was not Robertson, but that he tried to pose as him again in 2008, and was fingerprinted at the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh—and that the FBI reported his prints did not match those in JHR’s records.

The memo states: “In 2009, the Vietnamese man was interviewed again by U.S. officials, who collected fingerprints and hair samples for analysis. The FBI analyzed the fingerprints and they were determined not to match Robertson’s fingerprints on file.  The mitochondrial DNA sequences from the hair samples obtained were compared to family reference samples taken from Robertson’s brother and one of his sisters. The Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL) determined the DNA sequences from the Vietnamese man did not match either of Robertson’s siblings.”

This report, which never reached Robertson’s family, contradicts their version of events.  In an interview, Jorgensen told me the family—who say they require no proof for themselves—will provide DNA samples to convince a skeptical world that have indeed found their missing relative and to draw attention to the Pentagon’s failure to communicate with relatives of MIAs. The filmmaker, meanwhile, says the U.S. military has lied before about the Robertson case. He said an official from its Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA) told him Robertson’s brother (now deceased) and sister had already provided DNA, when in fact the sister maintains they’ve not been approached by the military and have never contributed DNA.

Jorgensen also points out that if what the memo says is true, standard operating procedure requires the military to inform the family about any reports of someone claiming to be a lost MIA relative, even if they are false. According to Metcalf, her family received not a single report of men falsely claiming to be Robertson until last March, when she went to a Department of Defense briefing for family members of POWs/MIAs in Birmingham and was given a report with an account of some 30 false claims, including mentions of Dang Tan Ngoc, but there was no reference to the DPMO’s 2009 analysis of his fingerprints and DNA.

Finally, if this 74-year-old enigma is a scam artist, it’s one strange scam. “A scam implies you’re out to get something,” Jorgensen told me. “Here’s a guy who, by his own family’s admission, has never asked for a thing. His only wish was to see his sister before he dies. She said to him ‘What do you need? Do you need money?’ And he said, ‘Nothing. I just wanted to see my family one last time.’ ”

Having spent a lot of time with Ngoc/Robertson, the filmmaker adds, “I don’t think he’s capable of perpetuating a scam.” And anyone who has seen the documentary would likely concur. If he’s a scam artist, one with the apparent motive, he deserves an Academy Award. “I don’t need to be convinced one way or the other,” says Jorgensen. “But I believe the circumstantial evidence strongly indicates this man is John Hartley Robertson. What’s perplexing to me, if this guy’s a fraud, and is not Robertson, there’s a guy living in Vietnam who looks very much like him, and knows things about his family that no one could possibly know. So who is this guy?” Not to mention the fact that the man was willing to have his last molar extracted by a Vietnamese dentist, allowing a lab back in the U.S. to do isotope tests, which proved conclusively that he grew up America.

Given the family’s concern, and the serious allegations that have been made, it seems the onus is now on the Pentagon to explain itself, beyond  the scope of a 2009 memo that has surfaced in a British tabloid. At the very least, it’s puzzling why Robertson’s family has been kept in the dark.

For the record, before publishing my original story, I requested an interview with an official from the JPRA. After several days, I received a blanket denial of Jorgensen’s allegations via a Dept. of Defense spokesperson, but was unable to talk to anyone from the JPRA, or anyone with first-hand knowledge of the case.

Despite what the latest round of headlines claim, this story is far from over.


 

Who’s the ‘slick fraudster’—the man claiming he’s an MIA or the U.S. military?

  1. Answered a lot of questions. Good point about a “scam artist” wanting something more than just wanting to see his family.

  2. “Knee-jerk media buy Pentagon charge that MIA story in #Unclaimed @HotDocs is a “hoax.”

    You keep writing one sided articles. You don’t bother to call the DPMO, MIA groups skeptical of these claims, and actual on-the-ground resources who have been warning about this scam for years. You keep just going back to the film maker. And when a newspaper like The Independent (not sure if you’ve ever read it, but they’re not exactly a friend of the US military industrial complex) actually gives BOTH sides of the story, you call them “knee-jerk”. Golly.

    “Finally, if this 74-year-old enigma is a scam artist, it’s one strange scam.”

    Simply because you or the film maker can’t think of any possible scam or motive, therefore there is none and the safe money bet is he is who he claims to be? I’ll refer you to the logical fallacy “argument from ignorance”. As WotP notes below, there can be many, many reasons for this man to keep coming back hoping his mud will finally stick. Citizenship for his kids is one. Investigate hoaxster Frédéric Bourdin (as a film critic, I’m surprised you didn’t hear about the movie based on his life and you didn’t instantly think of this as an example how a family can be fooled) and see how easily he got a US passport when he convinced a Texas family he was their long lost child.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2008/sep/28/crime.unitedstates

    According to the fake warriors page on the claim, the man in the film was first paraded around by a heroin smuggler. If true, it’s possible there are drug smugglers behind him who think they could benefit from American citizenship for him or his children. In the minds of drug smugglers, with him or his kids as mules, it would make for much easier passage across SE Asian borders. Having traveled a lot in Asia, I can tell you how quickly you are waved through South Korean and Chinese customs when you have a Canadian passport. My American friends in Korea report similar hands off treatment flashing their American passports.

    http://www.fakewarriors.org/phonies/phonies486.htm

    Look, this Time/Economist reporter with REAL on-the-ground knowledge in Vietnam was calling it a hoax April 28, days before the “leak”.

    “Fingerprint and hair analysis both showed no match. Separate bio sample analyzed by FBI showed Asian haplogroup”

    https://twitter.com/geoffrey_cain/status/328664455267364867

    Hey, why not contact him? Or why not contact green beret Don Bendell who has already exposed this guy?

    https://www.facebook.com/donbendell/posts/10151445377613095

    Or why not contact National League of POW/MIA Families. These are the people who created the POW/MIA flag made official by congress. They’ve been calling BS on this story before the Mail article.

    https://www.facebook.com/notes/national-league-of-powmia-families/information-regarding-john-hartley-robertson-reporting-and-unclaimed/10151569836768850

    Why are all these MIA groups, who really believe there are MIAs still in Nam, rabidly skeptical of the JHR claims? Look, you’re a journalist from a major news org. Why not call these people and groups for their side of the story?

    All we have is a film maker’s POV, the part of the family that believes the claims (the wife and kids have yet to chime in), and a “dragon in a box” claim. A simple test will resolve if there’s a dragon in the box. But no one is doing it. Everyone offers all sorts of reasons why the box can’t be opened. And anyone who suggests this dragon in the box claim has been proffered before is labelled “knee jerk”.

    Really, I expected better of Maclean’s magazine.

    • What does his sister have to gain? Do you think you would not recognize your sister or brother even 50 years later?

      • “What does his sister have to gain?”

        What does his sister have to gain getting a DNA test? Is this what you’re asking? Maybe let’s start with a better question. Do you believe you must have hope of gain before you do anything?

        “Do you think you would not recognize your sister or brother even 50 years later?”

        Personally, no. I’m too well aware of the power of wishful thinking and suggestion. Is it possible relatives can be fooled into thinking a stranger is their kin? Yes, please see the real life story of Frédéric Bourdin.

        • I recognize classmates from high school 30+ years later. I am certain I would recognize my brother. People’s mannerisms and facial structure do not change. The way they laugh, use their hands to talk, the structure of their teeth do not change unless they have had extensive dental work. We are not talking about “relatives”, we are talking about siblings who were both adults when they last saw each other.

          • “I am certain I would recognize my brother.”

            I’m not. And your certainty is not evidence until you’ve been put to the test, right? Have you ever lost a brother/sister/child, been told the person was found by award-winning film makers and a valiant Christian missionary, and then asked to determine the truth of the claim? Please research what effect the power of suggestion and wishful thinking can have on people. It is not that incredible of a claim to me an aged sister thinks she’s meeting a brother she’s not seen 44 years.

            “We are not talking about ‘relatives’, we are talking about siblings who were both adults when they last saw each other.”

            Again, see the real life story of Frédéric Bourdin for a case *exactly* like the one in Unclaimed. It really does happen.

          • I did see the story of Frederic Bourdin. He came to a family who lost a son when the child was 13 years old. Even though Frederic had brown eyes and their son had blue eyes, they believed Frederic was their son. As I said in my comment, this brother and sister were both adults. You could be right about the power of suggestion but then again you could be wrong in this case. Why not let it play out with the DNA testing results? You certainly have nothing to lose. It isn’t even your family.

          • It’s not my family. I’m simply calling out this film critic on credulous reporting and unwarranted conspiracy mongering. He’s introducing contradictions that are clearly not contradictions if he simply picked up a phone.

  3. “Jorgensen also points out that if what the memo says is true, standard
    operating procedure requires the military to inform the family about any
    reports of someone claiming to be a lost MIA relative, even if they are
    false. Strangely, according to Metcalf, her family has received reports
    of over 30 false claims over the years, but nothing about the man they
    now claim as kin who was allegedly bent on scamming the military.”

    http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/pwmia/S134_4/1.pdf

    If you review this DPMO document, it appears that claim by Jorgensen is simply not true. See item 2. It’s heavily redacted and a bit hard to read. But it sure seems to state JHR’s wife was contacted and “she didn’t want anything to do with it.” It would seem to me, having been clearly told she (the legal next of kin) wanted nothing to do with the man in the film, the military would not bother her subsequently or end around her and go to other members of the family. Jorgensen’s contradiction appears to be not a contradiction. All I did to find this was look in the same directory as the “leaked” publicly available memo others discovered on the Library of Congress web site.

    Brain, here’s a suggestion. Why not call the DPMO and verify the veracity of Jorgensen’s claim? Or at least get their side of the story?

  4. Where did the WotPS’s comment go? Surely you’re not censoring dissenting opinions. Let me try and reproduce his points.

    “Seems to me the onus is now on the Pentagon to explain itself, beyond just leaking a 2009 memo to a British tabloid.”

    No. The 2009 DPMO document has been freely available on the Library of Congress site since May 2009:

    http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/pwmia/S134_4/

    A Reddit user discovered it several days before the Daily Mail and Independent “knee jerk” articles:

    http://www.reddit.com/r/worldnews/comments/1d4lou/left_behind_in_vietnam_john_cant_understand_why/

    I, myself, “leaked” the document directly to you several days before the Mail/Independent article:

    http://www2.macleans.ca/2013/04/24/whats-hot-at-hot-docs-4/

    The Daily Mail article does not indicate the DPMO passed them the document. Only someone (possibly a reddit user) passed them the document. In humble opinion, a document freely available and has been freely available for 4 years on the library of congress site and revealed by reddit users does not constitute “leaking a memo”.

    “He said an official from its Joint Personnel Recovery Agency told him
    Robertson’s sister and (now deceased) brother and sister had already
    provided DNA, when in fact the sister maintains they had no contact with
    the military and have never contributed DNA.”

    The DPMO statement indicates they had reference samples from the brother and one of the three sisters. Two are dead. One is alive, 80 years old, and might not have been the one asked for the sample. As I indicated previously, we cannot expect an 80 year old woman to have a perfect memory of what her brother and one of her sisters did between 1992 (when the military started collecting mtDNA samples) and the passing of the brother and sisters (I know one passed away in 2006). It might be worth a call to the military to see how they collect such samples. Do they ask the person not to mention the sample to other members of the family until something substantial is found? Merely hearing your sister was asked for a DNA sample might instill false hope.

    This issue, it seems to me, might be easily resolved by (here’s that idea again), a journalist contacting the DPMO. Do you believe the US government collects biological samples for matters this grave and does not get some kind of signature from the person? If I were a lawyer advising the US government I would recommend some kind of liability waver (mitigating the USG’s responsibility for false hope etc.) The family claims no sample is on file. Surely, if there are samples on file, the DPMO would have a document signed by the donor. I have no clue how publicly available such documents are but it starts with a journalist actually calling a real source.

    “A scam implies you’re out to get something,” Jorgensen told me. “Here’s a
    guy who, by his own family’s admission, has never asked for a thing.”

    If i recall, WotPS noted the man in the movie has two children by his Viet wife. People in Asia will go to great lengths to get their kids American citizenship. They will arrange holidays in the USA shortly before birth, have the child on US soil, and procure the baby citizenship that way. Parents will even get GIs to adopt their child.

    “Not to mention the fact that the man was willing to have his last molar
    extracted by a Vietnamese dentist, allowing a lab back in the U.S. to do
    isotope tests, which proved conclusively that he grew up America.”

    They should make the report public and subject to peer review. We have to believe a film maker has interpreted complicated scientific results correctly. All I know is I have seen many times lay people draw incorrect conclusions when they try to read scientific papers. Is the isotope test (was it for oxygen or strontium?) accurate enough to eliminate the possibility the man’s adult teeth were formed in France? The DPMO seems to indicate the man in the film is a Frenchman or part French. My understanding of isotope testing is they compare the oxygen and/or strontium levels to levels in tap water where they think the person’s adult teeth were formed. If the teeth match the water reference sample, it’s evidence the person’s teeth formed in that area. However, what is the possibility areas of France have similar oxygen and/or strontium isotopes within error bars?

  5. So, if I understand correctly, the likely response to claims of this being a fraudulent story are this: the US Government cannot be blindly trusted in calling this man being a fraud, because they have every reason on earth to falsify documents, as if this is a true story, it would be an epic-scale embarrassment to the US Government.

    Now, assuming for the sake of argument that this were true, as far as I know, there was only one non-Government independent scientific analysis of this man: that molar he volunteered to have extracted by a dentist for the sake of study. It was taken to a lab, and the results supposedly clearly indicate a man born in the southern USA.

    What is the official response to this? Is this test truly definitive one way or the other? Are there any other attempts regarding other scientific methods to prove origin of birth (by independent labs, of course)? My guess is this would go a long way towards putting this story to rest, one way or another.

  6. A scam artist pretending to be a missing US serviceman can’t cash in before his identity is verified, can he? If he’s still living in abject poverty, it’s because he hasn’t been able to fool the right people yet. He hasn’t been able to fool the US government and never will, so he played the next best hand: going straight to the family and playing on their emotions, courtesy of the filmmakers. If the US government isn’t going to pay him, he probably thinks he can milk the family for some cash before his time runs out.

    • The film maker seems to be saying “Since the man established by the government as a fraud didn’t ask for money, he could not be a fraud.”

      Some people have a hard time getting their mind around the idea there are other rewards besides money.

      • You’re a manic control freak.

  7. I dont believe . 45 nam ma quen mat tieng me de that buon

  8. Another on-the-ground Vietnam journalist who helped make the movie The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Disappearance_of_McKinley_Nolan states:

    “It’s unfortunate that the filmmakers behind ‘Unclaimed’ felt compelled to cave and create fiction out of reality.”

    https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/vietnam-old-hacks/psbSBiedIrg

    Note his link to this document:

    https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=forums&srcid=MDE3NDY2MTE2NjM3NTg0NjYyMTIBMDk4MjE1MTIzOTI2MjA1MzcwNjcBR1BIUWE0X2N3TDhKATQBAXYy

    “Moreover, biological material provided to a known scam artist by Mr. Ngoc and eventually confiscated by FBI agents in 2010 was determined to be from a haplogroup most commonly associated with Asian individuals.”

    There are loads of real journalists in Vietnam intimately familiar with this story for years who have huge reason for skepticism. Please, Macleans, could you actually start trying to talk to sources other than just the film maker? The have direct contact with people like Gary Sydow (Director of Research and Analysis ):

    http://www.dtic.mil/dpmo/biographies/

  9. well mr karl. it seems that you arewell versed on these events , all the info youve got this from is from these old dpmo docs. on the net. however whats not in the docs. is our many experiences with jhr (ngoc) or (an unknown us gi. proven now by isotope science) Nelson whom i called to meet us via thru ross milosavec in austrailia. he did indicate that after interview he felt he was not a us citizen but vietnamese, but you must understand jhr could not trust the many that he was in contact with, which any common sense man like yourself or let alone a specially trained sog gi. would do. apparently you havent spent time in communist countries or ones like cambodia like ourselves have. i called nelson back and he canceled his flight and came back at 2 am to reinterview with definite proof of a particular body part that would not be missing on a vietnamese or any asian unless their were rabbi’s running around vietnam in the 1930’s. thats when harry mccullip of perot group got involved after i sent pics of jhr and his missing body part and after 5-6 months of playing with perot group im sure usg wanted him to mess this all up again and mishandled our dna, maybe im wrong but we know he outright lied to tom and I. this is just page 1 of events there is many more. i have only written this to you because of your posts are somewhat premature , the audience of dressed military personnel gave a standing ovation to this film you have not seen , like others with such comments from people who have not seen this yet. please give this time, if dna is not proven in favor , remember the isotope he is at least a man in uniform who is lost and should be vetted.

    • “proven now by isotope science”

      No. The filmmaker makes a claim about a forensic report but has not released the analysis for peer review. I spoke with an archeologist familiar with this form of isotope detective work and she found it curious no specifics were given. It would be nice if the filmmaker released the document so we can see how he came to the conclusion.

      Let me quote her:

      “It does seem vague to say someone is from the U.S. but not from France,
      given the size and complex geology of both countries. I suspect the lab
      could be more specific if asked, but the more important point is that
      isotopes give a range of possible locations and can rule out some
      locations…”

      Many times I have seen lay people quote mine a complex and nuanced scientific result and claim firm conclusions that are simply not present in the findings. Creationists are brilliant examples of this:

      http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/quotes/mine/contents.html

      “apparently you havent spent time in communist countries or ones like cambodia like ourselves have.”

      No. I have not. But as I’ve labored to point out, those who have (journalists, green berets), are pretty universal in their opinion that this man is a faker. You seem to be the outlier.

      Believe what *you* want. I’m merely documenting the vast amount of real skepticism and reasons for skepticism easily available to this Maclean’s movie critic. Sources he ignored on multiple occasions that could have offered important balance to a story that has the potential to give false hope to MIA families.

      “the audience of dressed military personnel gave a standing ovation to
      this film you have not seen , like others with such comments from people
      who have not seen this yet. please give this time, if dna is not proven
      in favor , remember the isotope he is at least a man in uniform who is
      lost and should be vetted.”

      Do not conflate emotionally compelling with factually compelling. The objective facts (DNA, finger printing) clearly compel deep skepticism. You might want to conspiracy monger like the filmmaker and, apparently, the film critic. However, as I’ve also taken pains to point out the so-called inconsistencies the filmmakers parades about to hint at a conspiracy are simply not inconsistencies when you read the 7 available DPMO documents.

      And, indeed, I would be happy to see an independent DNA test. It would be really great if this dragon in a box merchant finally opens the box, instead of hand waves away why the box can’t be opened. If the test is positive, and the man in the film is JHR, I will be truly happy. And I will happily eat any crow you wish to serve me. I’ve set a pretty clear goal post. What is your goal post to abandon your belief this man is JHR? (I assume you’re feeling the safe money bet is he’s JHR.) If the DNA test is negative, will you abandon this belief? Could you set your goal post? I did.

  10. So. The Robertson family raised funds for a DNA test on Ngoc and compared it with a relative of John Hartley Robertson. Guess what? Not a match. The man in the film is another in a long, long line of Vietnamese hucksters preying on families of MIA/KIA vets. And reporters like Brian D. Johnson are happy to aid these hucksters instead of listening to Green Berets and investigative journalists on the ground in Vietnam who are all to familiar with Ngoc and men like him.

    Johnson, will you be issuing some kind update and retraction? Or are you happy to let articles like this exist in the Internet which can then be used by future hucksters to victimize other families with false hope?

    http://www.gofundme.com/JohnHRobertson-DNAfund

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