In 1985, DeLeo Barner was desperate to reenlist in the Army.
After having been dismissed from the service in 1984 for minor misconduct, Barner returned to his native St. Louis and became terrified of succumbing to violence there, his lawyers said. In his first three weeks back in the city, two of his friends died from gun violence.
But because of a less-than-stellar initial enlistment — court filings say he was disciplined for small infractions, including “missing a readiness alert” — he couldn’t escape St. Louis by rejoining the Army.
So Barner took another route. In a choice that wouldn’t catch up with him for nearly four decades, he obtained the name and identity of another St. Louis resident, Joel Sanders, and became a soldier again.
Now 60, Barner was sentenced Tuesday by a Missouri federal judge to 100 hours of community service and time served for the week he has already spent in jail, plus three years of supervised release. He had lived under Sanders’ name for decades.
Court documents indicate that Barner obtained the identity of Sanders without his permission or knowledge at the St. Louis city hall in the spring of 1985, but offer no details about how the scheme unfolded. Barner’s public defenders said in a court filing that he had acted on the advice of his military recruiter.
Barner initially tried to reenlist legitimately but was denied, public defender Melissa Goymerac said in a statement to Army Times.
“The mid-’80s were a difficult time to be a Black man in the service,” Goymerac said. “Mr. Barner acknowledges disciplinary issues in the latter part of his time in the Army, but felt that he was not treated fairly in his discharge and indefinite bar from reenlistment.”
The second time around, Barner served in the Army for more than three years and was stationed in Berlin for much of that time. According to Goymerac, he earned several decorations, including a Good Conduct Medal.
Still living as Sanders, Barner settled down in Berlin after leaving the Army. He found a German partner and had six children, according to court documents. He started a security business. And he didn’t return to the United States.
But in June 2018, the real Joel Sanders tried to secure health insurance. He was told that, as a veteran, he had to get it through the Department of Veterans Affairs. Sanders, who never served in the military, notified VA police.
In the course of an investigation by the VA Office of Inspector General and the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service, Barner admitted in July 2019 to using Sanders’ identity to obtain passports and VA benefits. He was indicted in March 2020 and surrendered himself to officials in August 2021, according to a Justice Department news release.
Barner pleaded guilty in May to fraudulently obtaining a passport. As part of the plea deal, Missouri federal prosecutors dropped a charge of identity theft. Barner had faced up to 10 years in federal prison.
“The Diplomatic Security Service is firmly committed to working with the U.S. Attorney’s Office to investigate allegations of crimes related to passport and visa fraud, and protecting the integrity of U.S. passports and visas, the most sought after travel documents in the world,” said Gregory Batman, chief of the DSS’s Criminal Investigations Division, in the Justice Department release.
“Mr. Barner is extremely remorseful and humbled by this experience, and is grateful for the ongoing support of his family and the outcome of the case,” Goymerac said in her statement to Army Times.
Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.