Bill Hillar, a part-time instructor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, told students enrolled in his workshops on terrorism and human trafficking about what he described as his own dangerous exploits as a former colonel in the U.S. Army's Special Forces.
He also boasted, they recalled, that the 2008 action movie "Taken," starring Liam Neeson, was based on his life and his daughter's kidnapping by men who wanted to enslave her.
Such claims, along with incidents in which Hillar seemed to borrow material from other people's books, raised suspicions among some of his graduate students about Hillar's resume and background. "He didn't seem to act like a veteran or someone who served so highly in the military," recalled Brian Hubbs, a graduate student and Marine veteran.
So this fall, Hubbs and several other veterans attending the graduate institute began investigating Hillar's resume. And the school now says their suspicions had merit.
Monterey Institute officials said Hillar, who has taught workshops twice yearly at the school since 2005, had claimed to hold a doctorate from the University of Oregon, but a check showed that he had only attended classes there. The institute, which is well-regarded for its foreign language and international relations courses, has been unable to confirm the instructor's claims of military rank and service, officials said.
Hillar, who has also been an expert speaker on security and leadership at other colleges and police agencies across the country, did not respond to messages left Monday at the phone number and e-mail address listed on his class syllabus.
Monterey Institute spokesman Jason Warburg said Hillar has not responded to the school's requests for a meeting and documents to verify his background.
The 750-student institute, a graduate school of Middlebury College in Vermont, has issued a public apology that it did not check Hillar's resume more thoroughly before engaging him to teach his three-day workshops. It promised that it would extend to part-time workshop instructors the background check required of all other faculty. And the school's president, Sunder Ramaswamy, has praised Hubbs and the other students for "the integrity they have displayed."
The institute is offering students replacement workshops and a chance to erase Hillar's courses from their academic records. But that does not fully satisfy Hubbs, who contends the school treated Hillar "like a superstar" for years and that the institute and other schools and agencies that hired him should have vetted him earlier.
"One of the mysteries of the whole incident is how could a guy like this go on for years," Hubbs said in an interview Monday.
An early clue, Hubbs said, came when Hillar told an October workshop a story about how he had counseled a student about creativity. The story sounded familiar and students said they tracked it down, attributed to others, in the book "Chicken Soup for the College Soul: Inspiring and Humorous Stories About College."
The Monterey students then used the Internet to research other of the instructor's claims and contacted a national veterans' group for help.
In his promotional material as a speaker on leadership and ethics, Hillar said he had provided "training for high-risk occupations" and listed more than 30 local, state and federal agencies and schools as clients. Among them was the Federal Executive Board of Greater Los Angeles, which coordinates efficiency and emergency planning for federal agencies in California, Arizona and Nevada.
The board's executive director, Kathrene Hansen, confirmed Monday that Hillar had been a speaker for several of the group's annual meetings, most recently in July. "He was very well received, very inspirational," Hansen said in a telephone interview. She said she had never heard of anything problematic in Hillar's background.
The University of Portland hosted a conference on human trafficking this month, where Hillar was scheduled to be a keynote speaker. Advance material described him as a retired special forces colonel "whose personal story inspired the movie "Taken." A university spokesman said Monday that Hillar did not appear at the conference. The spokesman referred questions to the conference organizers, who did not return phone calls.
In "Taken," Neeson plays a former CIA operative who saves his teenage daughter from slave traders. In interviews at the time of its release, its director and writers did not mention Hillar.