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Telltale Tattoo Trips Up an Accused Killer After 10 Years

Justice: He drifted through many identities, many states, many girlfriends and many jobs. But he kept the rose on his arm, and it betrayed him.

January 24, 1999|ANGIE WAGNER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

LAS VEGAS — The fugitive had many identities: He was an expert mechanic and steady boyfriend, later a drifter eating out of garbage cans, finally a murder suspect. He changed his name; he shifted his address from town to town, state to state.

But one thing remained the same: the rose tattoo on his shoulder with an arrow through the name "Phyllis."

In the end it gave him up.

*

This twisting tale begins in the town of Saginaw, Texas, where on Feb. 3, 1988, someone strangled 73-year-old John F. Dobbs with a telephone cord and a leather belt in his apartment. An anti-gay slur was scrawled on a bathroom mirror with hydrocortisone cream.

Saginaw Police Lt. Nancy Wright got the case, the third murder in 20 years in the town of 12,000 near Fort Worth.

She learned that someone using the name Terry Green had met Dobbs about a week before the murder. Dobbs, who was gay, let the man live with him in exchange for doing odd jobs. She collected fingerprints in the apartment, but they were incomplete.

"We finally came basically to a dead end," Wright said. "I always held out hope. I watched for anything that would help us out on it."

One bit of evidence she uncovered haunted her.

Someone remembered the man who had befriended Dobbs shortly before the murder had a distinct mark on his upper arm: a rose tattoo.

Good Samaritan's Identity Stolen

Louisiana concrete truck driver Michael Bertinot, 47, doesn't remember whether the drifter he helped out in 1986 had a rose tattoo. He can't remember much of anything about the man he knew as Walter, but their paths would cross again a year later.

Walter's car had broken down, and Bertinot offered to fix it. Nice fellow, down on his luck, Bertinot thought. He gave Walter some money and let him stay with him for four days.

The trouble started the following year.

Bertinot, of Maringouin, La., noticed on his tax return that he had income from California, Florida and Colorado. He couldn't figure out what was wrong and had to persuade the Internal Revenue Service that he hadn't worked in those states.

And yet for the next 11 years, the same thing happened. Bertinot's identity had been stolen by a man who worked his way from town to town and then moved on. Once, the man even filed for unemployment in California using Bertinot's name.

"I kept telling the IRS there's a reason why this man is doing this and just working three or four months here and there," Bertinot said. "He's trying to stay ahead of the law."

Last year, Bertinot had had enough. He contacted Louisiana state Sen. Tom Greene, who persuaded the IRS to assign an investigator to the case.

*

The drifter living under Bertinot's name, working in state after state as a mechanic, was 52-year-old Robert William Greer Jr.

Maybe Greer knew Texas authorities wanted to talk to him about the Saginaw murder, so he tried to stay on the move, never living in one place for more than a year. His attorneys say Greer, who had once been married to a woman named Phyllis, was simply a career drifter.

At a San Bernardino County bar in 1988, the same year Dobbs was murdered, he met Gladys Rehmert. Her husband had died five years earlier, and she was lonely and eager for companionship.

They dated for four years. He never mentioned the murder or his real name. Greer, who used Bertinot's name, seemed a caring man, and nice looking, with a hint of gray in his brown hair.

Her son remembers Greer as good with his children and an avid reader, but also a blowhard.

"A know-it-all," David Rehmert, 34, said. "He was just the type of person that if you've done something, he's done it and done it better."

The couple lived in Agua Dulce, Calif., where Greer managed an airport and would often drink beers on the couple's front porch with police officers. "Everybody liked him," said Gladys Rehmert, now 70.

From there, the couple moved to Wyoming, Mich., and back to California. Greer always told Gladys Rehmert there was a better job and they had to move. She never questioned his reasons.

*

Only once, she said, did Greer threaten violence. She was looking in his wallet for some money and he yelled, "Don't you ever do that again or I'll kill you."

It didn't scare her enough to leave.

In 1992, Gladys Rehmert suggested that they move to Gillette, Wyo., where her son lives. Greer agreed. He dropped Rehmert off at her son David's home, said he was going to get some belongings out of storage and never returned.

"Now I get the chill every time I think about him," Gladys Rehmert said. "I lived with him for four years and never knew anything about him. Nothing made me suspicious. . . . I'd just like to forget everything about him."

Meanwhile, the real Michael Bertinot had been trying to find out who was using his name. He tracked down Gladys Rehmert through an address on his tax return. She sent him a picture of Greer, and Bertinot passed it on to an IRS agent.

Martin Sears, special agent for the IRS in Wyoming, got the stolen identity case in September 1997.

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