HONOLULU — A U.S. defense contractor and his wife who lived for decades under the identities of two dead Texas children have been charged with identity theft and conspiring against the government, according to federal court records unsealed in Honolulu.
Walter Glenn Primrose and Gwynn Darle Morrison, both in their 60s, who allegedly lived for decades under the names Bobby Edward Fort and Julie Lyn Montague, respectively, were arrested Friday in Kapolei on the island of Oahu.
Prosecutors are seeking to have the couple held without bail, which could indicate the case is about more than fraudulently obtaining drivers’ licenses, passports and Defense Department credentials.
Those documents helped Primrose get secret security clearance with the U.S. Coast Guard and as a defense contractor and old photos show the couple wearing uniforms of the KGB, the former Russian spy agency, Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Muehleck said in court papers. Faded Polaroids of each in uniform were included in the motion to have them held.
A “close associate” said Morrison lived in Romania while it was a Soviet bloc country, Muehleck said.
Morrison's attorney said her client never lived in Romania and that she and Primrose tried the same jacket on as a joke and posed for photos in it. Even if the couple used new identities, attorney Megan Kau told The Associated Press, they have lived law-abiding lives for three decades.
“She wants everyone to know she’s not a spy,” Kau said. “This has all been blown way out of proportion. It’s government overreaching.”
Prosecutors said there is a high risk the couple would flee if freed. They also suggested that Primrose, who was an avionics electrical technician in the Coast Guard, was highly skilled to communicate secretly if released.
The couple is also believed to have other aliases, Muehleck said.
A lawyer for Primrose declined comment. A bail hearing was scheduled for Thursday in U.S. District Court.
The secret clearance Primrose had provides access to information that is “enormously valuable to our enemies,” said Kevin O’Grady, a Honolulu defense attorney not involved in the case.
The Coast Guard works closely with the Army and Navy, helps with counterintelligence and serves as the country’s maritime border patrol, said O’Grady, an Army reservist and lieutenant colonel judge advocate.
“The Coast Guard has a unique perspective on our vulnerabilities,” he said, including how to infiltrate the country through water ports. Hawaii, a major military center, “is a prime target for a lot of espionage and such,” he said.
For one family whose deceased child's name was stolen, the news Wednesday came as a shock.
John Montague, who lost his daughter Julie in 1968 at 3 weeks of age, was stunned to learn someone had been living under her name for so long.
“I still can’t believe it happened,” Montague, 91, told AP. "The odds are like one-in-a-trillion that they found her and used her name. People stoop to do anything nowadays. Let kids rest in peace.”
Primrose and Morrison were born in 1955 and they attended high school together in Port Lavaca, Texas, and then went to Stephen F. Austin University, according to court records. They married in 1980.
There is no indication in court papers why the couple in 1987 assumed the identities of deceased children who would have been more than a decade younger than them. But an affidavit filed by Special Agent Dennis Thomas of the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service noted that the couple lost their home in Nacogdoches, Texas, to foreclosure that year.
They remarried under their assumed names in 1988, Thomas said.
Court records don't provide any information about what happened from the time they assumed their new identities until 1994, when Primrose, then about 39, enlisted in the Coast Guard as Fort, who would have been about 27.
If there was an obvious age discrepancy between what Primrose looked like and the birth certificate he presented, “that’s an abject failure,” O’Grady said.
“That’s something if they can figure it out now, they should have caught it then,” he said.
Montague said that “somebody's not doing their jobs.”
Primrose and Morrison applied for and received multiple passports under their assumed names, according to court records. But in 1999 Primrose also applied for and was issued a passport under his legal name while also holding a passport in Fort's name.
Primrose was in the service until 2016, when he began work for an unnamed defense contractor at the U.S. Coast Guard Air station at Barbers Point.
“While he held that secret clearance with the U.S. Coast Guard, defendant Primrose was required to report any foreign travel," prosecutors wrote. “Investigation has revealed that defendant Primrose did not report several trips to Canada while he did report other foreign travel.”
The couple lived in a Honolulu suburb in a modest two-bedroom bungalow beneath palm trees. They owned a neighboring house they rented to military personnel, said Mai Ly Schara, who lived next door.
She knew them as Bob and Lynn, with Morrison apparently Julie Lyn Montague's middle name.
Primrose did yard work for Schara for $50 a month, she said. Morrison took in, fed and spayed and neutered cats. She also had several rabbits and dedicated a room to the pets.
“They kept to themselves, but they were friendly,” Schara said. “They just kind of were, like, a little nerdy.”
Schara wasn’t sure what Primrose did for a living, but thought it was military related. Morrison once worked as a parking attendant at a Waikiki hotel but had been tutoring neighborhood children.
The FBI created a scene in the quiet neighborhood when they searched the house and took photos.
“It was just shocking, like, oh my gosh,” Schara said. “It was pretty crazy.”
The State Department declined to comment on the arrests.
The couple is charged with conspiracy to commit an offense against the U.S., false statement in passport application and aggravated identity theft.
Fort, who lived fewer than three months, died in October 1967 at the same hospital where Julie Montague passed away about three months later in January 1968. They are buried 14 miles (23 kilometers) apart.
When Tonda Ferguson learned from her father that Morrison had used her late sister's birth certificate to create an alias, she thought of her mother, who died in 2003, and how many years had gone by.
“For all the mothers who are living and have to know this happened to their babies, I can’t even begin to imagine," Ferguson said. "I’m glad my mama’s with the Lord. This would be so traumatic for her.”
Ferguson was in eighth grade when her sister died. She never got to see her little sister or hold her. She was buried in Burnet, Texas, the small town where they lived at the time outside of Austin.
“She came from a place of love, deep love,” Ferguson said. “For someone to turn around to steal her identity for evil, it’s tough. It’s hurtful. ... I hope they rot.”
Melley reported from Los Angeles. Caleb Jones in Kapolei, Hawaii, and Rhonda Shafner in New York City contributed to this report.