This photo is purported to show Michael P. McManus, who is accused of wearing military awards he didn't earn. (Mudville Gazette)
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The goateed man was decked out in a formal Army uniform with a dozen medals pinned to his jacket and a Commander of the British Empire medallion hanging around his neck.
To blogger Mark Seavey, the "general" was an obvious fraud. Seavey's fellow bloggers at the conservative "This Ain't Hell" posted a photo of the alleged faker online, dead set on smoking him out.
"Wearing two Distinguished Service Crosses and a Combat Infantry Badge with two stars, is analogous to saying someone is a pitcher for the Red Sox and a quarterback for the Patriots," said Seavey. "If that person existed, you would know about them."
The blog post led to tips, angry comments, media attention and ultimately the Feb. 5 arrest of Michael P. McManus, a 44-year-old former Army private first class who served from 1984 to 1987.
It's not a first for Seavey and the blog's volunteer staff. Seavey said they have exposed about a dozen others who have claimed unearned medals or insignia, and publicized other cases.
Seavey and his fellow bloggers are among a cadre of self-appointed stolen-valor police. There's also Mary Schantag, co-founder of the P.O.W. Network.
Schantag and her husband, disabled Vietnam veteran Charles Schantag, founded the P.O.W. Network 20 years ago to record the biographies of prisoners of war online. The work's flip side became weeding out and exposing people who have lied about their military service.
The Web site, http://www.pownetwork.org/">www.pownetwork.org, maintained from their Missouri home, includes a "phonies index" of more than 3,000 alleged cases of stolen valor. The couple collects information and attempts to verify it through official channels and volunteer researchers. When they suspect fraud, they send the information to the FBI and post it online.
"We get 10 or 15 of these in a row sometimes," she said. "[McManus] is not unusual, not in claiming the rank. We have dozens we have turned over to the FBI and we're still waiting," said Schantag.
Fakers typically make complex or impossible claims and like to pose as elite troops, Schantag said.
"We see Marine-recon-sniper-Navy-SEALs. Now, come on," she said. "There are 300 reported fake SEALs for every real SEAL who has ever graduated [Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL] training. It crosses every boundary, every rank, every race, every job. We get preachers turned in, we get active-duty military turned in."
Schantag said the frauds are offensive because they cheapen real bravery and hard work. "[Service members] have earned it, and these guys have no clue what it takes to do that," she said.
Schantag learned of McManus when a friend's brother sent her photos he took of McManus at the Dec. 12 inauguration for Houston Mayor Annise Parker.
Schantag posted photos of the man to the P.O.W. Network site and sent them to This Ain't Hell, where the photo was posted at the center of a mock "wanted" poster.
Seavey's day job is new media manager for the American Legion, but he blogs about stolen-valor cases and other military topics in his spare time for This Ain't Hell.
For Seavey, whose blog dubbed McManus "Gen. Ballduster McSoulpatch," the first big break was an anonymous tip saying the man's name is Michael P. McManus. From there, readers pointed Seavey toward references to McManus across the Internet.
He found several online profiles of McManus, which contained conflicting information about McManus's rank, separation date and record.
"He claimed to do every job in the military that I could find, and the time frames sometimes covered each other up," said Seavey. "He retired at least twice at two different levels, according to his story. At one point he was out in 2004, and another he retired in February 2008."
Among the information online, McManus claimed that he was on Gen. Colin Powell's personal security detail, that he came out to Powell as a homosexual and that Powell retained him anyway. Separately, in the context of his opposition to "don't ask, don't tell," he claimed to have been discharged for being gay.
After Seavey got the information he needed about McManus, he contacted him directly.
"As soon I had everything that he had online, the very first thing I did was send him a message via Facebook that said, ‘I hope you enjoyed your time masquerading, now you're about to meet the big boys.' And then I said, ‘I hope you enjoy your interview with the FBI.' Well, he took it all down 20 minutes later."
Seavey said that he has started to see a trend in which fraudsters lie about their service records to further their personal or political agendas, either for or against the war, or targeting military policies.
After This Ain't Hell reported on McManus, the Houston press followed suit. That, in turn, prompted the local FBI to investigate and arrest McManus, according to a law enforcement official.
Seavey said he was gratified to see in the criminal complaint that McManus's attorney had claimed McManus destroyed the unauthorized uniform, medals and insignia — out of fear of "angry bloggers."
It emerged that McManus has been caught before making false claims about himself. In 2002, he faced federal charges for impersonating an air marshal and an Army major while trying to board a flight in New Orleans.
McManus faces five new accusations of violating federal law related to wearing the unauthorized military uniform, the military badges and insignia. If convicted, he faces up to three years in federal prison and $120,000 in fines.
McManus's attorney, James Fallon, did not return a call seeking comment.
On Feb. 9, a federal judge set McManus's bond at $25,000 and set special conditions for his release. McManus must continue "mental health treatment," submit to a drug screening every 45 days and refrain from the use of credentials and identification documents or wearing of any U.S. or international uniform.