YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

A Self-Made Man to the End

June 12, 2003

A lot of big news parades before our eyes and invades our consciousness these days -- war fallout, budget fallout, legal fallout, ethical fallout and sports fallout. (The last is probably the easiest to follow because each daily chapter contains clearly defined winners and losers.) Much of the news seems to center on alleged lying and cheating by the famous -- whether Martha Stewart told the truth on her stock deal, whether Sammy Sosa intended to cheat with a corked bat, whether intelligence reports on Iraq were intentionally distorted. Everyone has his or her opinion.

And then along comes an unknown liar who lives a long life under the name of someone else, then dies by his own hand, leaving a mound of money and deceits without opinions, just questions.

Most of us missed the mysterious small news, provided by Associated Press the other day, about the death -- and life -- of Joseph N. Chandler, if that's who he was. A man in his 60s was found in his Eastlake, Ohio, apartment July 31, an obvious suicide.

He had been a loner, like a surprising number of Americans. After an autopsy revealed that he would have died soon from colon cancer, the body was cremated. Authorities found an $82,000 savings account. Before the money went to the county, a judge appointed a guardian to find any heirs.

Relatives listed on Chandler's apartment application turned out to be fictitious. Neither the pistol nor apartment items carried fingerprints sufficiently clear to help identify the man. Investigators traced his Social Security card to Rapid City, S.D., where it had been issued in September 1978. The file showed Chandler was born in Buffalo, N.Y., on March 11, 1937, and listed his parents as Ellen Christina Kaaber Chandler and Joseph Newton Chandler Jr.

Investigators tracked down their relatives, only to learn that all three Chandlers -- mother, father and 8-year-old Joseph -- were killed in a car crash near Sherman, Texas, in 1945. That's 57 years before the suicide of the man who supposedly had been that Chandler child. As a last hope of identifying the deceased and finding the real relatives who have probably always wondered what happened to their son, brother or father, police tried the federal witness protection program. Nope, it hadn't assigned that false identity.

Chandler, or whatever his original name was, stole the real Chandler child's identity 33 years after the boy's death on a Texas highway and lived within it for nearly a quarter-century. But why? Who was he really? And what was he hiding from? Something real or something so powerfully imagined and enduring that he killed his own identity to assume the Chandler identity and then killed himself too in the end?

It's not big news, perhaps. But it's surely a new twist on old-fashioned lying.

Los Angeles Times Articles