DOJ: Veteran's Purple Heart lies cost government $752,000
The Washington Post | .
published: August 26, 2016
The rocket exploded under the Army Humvee and launched the vehicle into the air.
It was August 2005, two years into Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Darryl Lee Wright was on patrol with the Idaho National Guard in Kirkuk, a city in northern Iraq.
Wright recalled later that he was "violently thrown and knocked unconscious from the percussion of the rocket's impact."
The blast, he would say, was massive: "Rubble and debris from the impact showered the sky for scores of meters."
The attack left Wright with post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury, he told federal agencies. As a result, he would lie in the fetal position in his bed most days, unable to hold down a job, cook meals or button his shirt.
But the story, prosecutors say, was a lie.
Wright did serve in Iraq, court documents say, and he was patrolling in Kirkuk at the time of an August 2005 attack.
But the rocket aimed at his Humvee missed by more than 300 feet, according to an official Army report. No one was injured by the small explosion, the Army concluded.
The military's report included statements from Wright, who "made no mention of sustaining injury or otherwise suffering any effects from the explosion."
Prosecutors say Wright ramped up the drama in his retelling of the event to various federal agencies to get hundreds of thousands of dollars in disability payments.
To give his lie some heft, court documents say, Wright persuaded military officials to award him a Purple Heart and a Combat Action Badge.
In his application for the badge, he included a picture of a charred military vehicle that investigators later determined had nothing to do with the not-so-near-miss he was involved in.
The story helped Wright bilk the federal government out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in disability benefits — at one point receiving more than $10,000 a month.
Following an investigation that involved no fewer than 10 federal and state agencies, Wright was indicted in what the Justice Department described as an "extensive benefits fraud scheme." Federal prosecutors initially said Wright bilked the government out of $250,000; the government now says the figure is more than $750,000.
He pleaded guilty in February to two counts of wire fraud and is scheduled to be sentenced Thursday in federal court in Tacoma, Wash. The 49-year-old faces up to 20 years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000.
Wright's sister, Karen Bevens, who also pleaded guilty in the scheme, was paid to be his primary caretaker.
Court documents say the siblings crafted a fiction starring a mostly bedridden veteran who was unable to care for himself.
According to the indictment, Wright "represented that he was so severely disabled by PTSD symptoms that he spent two-to-five days a week in bed, in a fetal position; he had a caregiver, a house cleaner, and yard worker; he could not prepare his own meals; he could not take public transportation or be in crowds; he could walk only fifty meters; and his attention span was only five to ten seconds."
It continued: "In support of his continued receipt of disability payments, [Wright falsely reported] that Karen Bevens was his 'In Home Care Attendant' spending over 40 hours per week caring for him; he was unable to function without Bevens or someone else's assistance; he could not tie or fasten shoes/belts/buttons; he could not prepare meals; he rarely drove; he could walk only 20 yards; he could not pay attention; and he could not follow spoken instructions."
In fact, Wright led a very active life "unencumbered by any disability or infirmity," the indictment said.
He played in a recreational basketball league and coached a high school team. He was a member of an emergency response team that responded to fires and conducted searches and rescues in Snoqualmie, about 30 miles east of Seattle. He had a "sport" membership at a local country club. Wright was also a board member for a hospital foundation and ran unsuccessfully for political office.
A photo snapped outside his home by an investigator and included in his federal court file showed Wright pushing a lawn mower.
As it turned out, it wasn't just investigators who doubted Wright's injured-vet story.
Cristina Jackson, a Seattle-based administrative director with the U.S. Commerce Department's Economic Development Administration, grew suspicious of Wright when his job absences mounted, according to the Associated Press.
Wright worked at the agency from 2009 until 2012 and told his superiors that he was dealing with PTSD stemming from his service in Iraq. He later asked to convert missed work into paid leave for "emergency National Guard duty."
But the documents Wright produced were bogus.
According to a memo produced by a federal investigator, "Wright purposely falsified Washington Military Department orders to defraud his civilian employer . . . to receive benefit of pay and leave allowances."
The investigator recommended that Wright be disciplined and that his security clearance be suspended.
Wright went on the offensive, according to the indictment:
Wright, when confronted with apparent inconsistencies between his professed injuries and associated limitations and his active lifestyle choices, responded with threats, litigation, discrimination claims, and claims for failure to accommodate, all undertaken in an effort to discourage anyone from challenging or exposing his scheme.
Wright accused Jackson of violating the Privacy Act by informing the National Guard of his PTSD, according to the AP. The Commerce Department settled with Wright, allowing him to convert more than a month of missed time and requiring Jackson and others to take a training class about PTSD.
After Jackson learned of the settlement, the AP reported, "she filed a complaint with the Commerce Department's inspector general, who in 2011 recommended Wright be disciplined 'based on the gravity of his misconduct.' "
Shortly afterward, those findings made their way to federal prosecutors.
A federal grand jury eventually indicted Wright on multiple counts of wire fraud and mail fraud, and making false statements to the Army and others.
In a statement sent to the Snoqualmie Valley Record in March, after he pleaded guilty to two counts of wire fraud, Wright said that "the government will be dismissing all of the counts related to my military service, including the dismissal of all counts associated with my combat experience in Iraq."
But, he added: "I made several poor decisions that adversely affected my family. I have been a burden to them, but without their continued support and combined VA care, I would be much worse off. The plea agreement represents my accountability for two of the 14 counts filed against me, and reflects the poor decisions I made."