I'm with the Steelers
Impersonator borrows the black and gold unis to wreak havoc in Pittsburgh
This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's May 7, 2007, issue. Subscribe today!
SHE COULD TELL. But she couldn't bring herself to believe believe it, even though the pictures she examined led to very simple observations: that the man in the photo had a head that wasn't as square, for instance, and a nose that was longer and not bowed slightly to the right. And that his neck was stout but his jaw too strong. And she noticed that the face wasn't framed by an almost horizontal hairline, like the one on the man she knew, the hair thinning and brown instead of a black flattop, thick and gelled back. This is what she thought, at first, that something was off, until he explained that pictures lie. Until he said the photographs of Steelers tight end Jerame Tuman that she found online were taken several years ago, when he arrived at training camp as a rookie with the features of a young man. Weathering those seasons had changed him, he said, and he was insulted, even a bit embarrassed, that she doubted him.
The story behind the story
Brian Jackson never talked to me while I was in Pittsburgh, and I was there 10 days reporting this story. He wouldn't talk to me despite repeated requests to his lawyers. He wouldn't talk to me when I called the number listed in the court documents. He wouldn't talk to me after I rang his doorbell and he stepped briefly outside. "Are you Brian Jackson?" I'd asked, introducing myself. "No," he said sheepishly, "I'm his brother." He wouldn't look me in the eye. Then he closed the door.
He was lying, of course -- Jackson has no twin. But it didn't matter; I was going to have to rely on others to tell the story of what he'd done. "I'm With the Steelers" recounts Jackson's vainglorious escapades through the women he'd duped as he pretended to be different Pittsburgh Steelers, including Big Ben Roethlisberger. He lied and the women believed him, until they had been bilked out of a lot of money and, to a certain extent, publicly shamed. To get these women to talk, I left letters with a business card propped in their front doors. I also sat down with the district attorney and investigator on the case. So in the end, I knew a whole lot about Brian without ever speaking more than those few words to him.
Jackson's lawyers called me only after I'd finished the story, two days before the piece was scheduled to close. Their client finally wanted to spill the beans. With no time to rework the piece, we made space to attach the interview at the end. What persuaded him to talk? Well, the magazine's photographer did show up at his court date and chased him through the courthouse, trying to get a shot. Maybe that was when Brian Jackson realized what had happened was real and he needed to own up. -- Justin Heckert
Kristin* didn't have much to go on but the pictures. The Jerame Tuman she knew had a rounded stomach that fell below his waist, and arms and legs that weren't trim. But he was tall, so she slowly convinced herself that if he said he was an NFL tight end, then this is what an NFL tight end must look like. He had shown her a cell phone full of numbers, after all -- Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward, Ike Taylor -- and bragged about "his boys."
In the beginning, Kristin actually got a thrill from hanging out with him in the leather passenger seat of his white Denali, looking out the tinted windows as he navigated the nighttime traffic on the south side of the city, feeling the rap thrum from his extravagant speakers as he bounced in the driver's seat while speeding through red lights, saying, "Nobody in Pittsburgh is gonna arrest me, I'm a Steeler" -- because, well, she was with a Steeler. And when he began to phone her twice a day to wish her good morning or to talk about the upcoming divorce from his wife, Molly, or the custody battle over his son, or to recount the sad story about his mother and his sickly uncle who raised him, she believed. And when he explained that he was changing his cell number every couple of weeks because he was "tired of dating this other girl on the side who only likes me for what I am, not who I am," she believed then, too. Because she thought he was confiding in her, because he was one of her best friends, and because he was sweet. He once called a 7-year-old family friend to wish him a happy birthday; "How's my little buddy doing?" he asked. He couldn't wait to show her his Super Bowl ring, and promised her season tickets, neither of which he followed through on. And she trusted him because while he was at times vapid, he wasn't above revealing weakness. He once rang her at 4 a.m. to say, "I'm not married anymore. I'm 30. What am I doing with myself?"
Kristin was a good and interested friend; she often bought him lunch and made him dinner, though he always canceled and gave her excuses about being held up by appointments. She overlooked it when he invited her and her girlfriends out on the town, saying he and Hines would take care of the bill, but never showed. She gave him keys to her apartment, though he didn't let her see his. When he told her he didn't have time to go to the mall to buy a new pair of shoes, she went for him and picked out a pair with a metallic silver swoosh on the side. And when he told her he lost his wallet, she lent him money. In fact, when he needed help paying rent for his "place on the waterfront," she obliged, believing him when he said his bank accounts had been frozen in the divorce. When he needed quick cash to go on a trip with some teammates, she asked no questions. And when he told her he wanted rims for his SUV but couldn't use his credit card because he was about to start paying alimony, she covered him then, too. Over four months in 2006, she loaned him $3,200. And with each loan, he told her not to ask if he was good for the money, reminding her that he could get anyone else to help him if he wanted.
It is because of her generosity that Kristin has been blamed for being gullible, stupid, an outright imbecile even, in a very public way, in a town where you're not part of the conversation if you don't love the Steelers. And though it is easy to stare at the same photos and wonder what she was thinking, it's also impossible to blame her -- he was that good. It wasn't until after he had, in Kristin's words, "fallen off the face of the earth" for a month and a half that she got pissed and sent a Hallmark card to the Steelers' training facility, addressed to Tuman, asking for her money back as soon as possible; she'd given him her savings and was living paycheck to paycheck. Then, one day last August, Kristin, a tall, pretty woman with long, blond hair who majored in communications and anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh, was riding the bus home from work when she got a call from Steelers security director Jack Kearney. "I hate to break it to you," Kearney told her flatly. "But you've never met Jerame Tuman in your life."
CONSIDER HER surprise. Or humiliation. Consider her anger, if nothing else. If you don't live in Pittsburgh, the city at the confluence of steel-black rivers, a town that embodies its football team, you might empathize with Kristin. If you don't live where flags fly black and gold and the awnings of half the buildings bear the same industrial colors, where gift shops are stocked with candy and soda and Steelers commemorative hats, banners, shirts, baby clothes and not much else, you can probably understand, even as you find it hard to fathom. But if you're from Pittsburgh, there's a good chance you're aware that Kristin was one of three women over two years who were fooled by a man named Brian Jackson, a 32-year-old former car salesman who moonlighted as Steelers tight end Jerame Tuman, third-string quarterback Brian St. Pierre, and most curiously, Ben Roethlisberger. And you might deride Kristin, and have a good laugh over a cold Iron City at her expense. Even if you didn't know what Tuman looked like, you'd at least have been able to see that Jackson looked nothing like a football player. Pretty much, you'd have been smarter than she was.
"The Steelers are next to God here, so I don't see how someone impersonating one of them got away with it," says Anne Madarasz, director of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum.
"Oh god, the women were that gullible?" says a woman browsing Steelers towels at Mike Feinberg Co. store, "The Official Home of Steeler Nation."
"Everyone thinks it's funny," says Mike Katic, a bartender at the Buckhead Saloon at Station Square. "I guess as long as the guy had the build of a football player ... "
It wasn't so funny for Tara,* a 24-year-old part-time model who thought she'd met Ben Roethlisberger at a local pizza shop. Two years ago, a big guy wearing a backward Steelers hat and khaki shorts had strolled up to the table where she and a friend were sitting and announced confidently that he thought she "was hot," before explaining how famous he was and which famous friends he wanted her to meet. Tara and her friend ogled him over their slices, considering whether he was big or athletic enough to be a quarterback.
Though she didn't know it that day in July 2005, the guy she was staring at was really a middle-class man born and raised in Pittsburgh; a man who, Allegheny County courthouse records reveal, has a litany of traffic incidents, including one involving vehicular homicide, and who now has a July court date to face felony charges of identity theft and theft by deception for impersonating Tuman, and for stealing money from Kristin in the process.
Two days after Tara met him, she spent a few very awkward, if memorable, hours on a date with "Big Ben"; hours she'd like to undo. Their activities included traveling to the Steelers' training facility, where the security guard who never stops anyone waved at the faux quarterback, letting him through to attend to "some business" while Tara sat in the car; signing a Steelers jersey for Tara's giddy neighbor and posing for a photo; telling her about his dog, Zeus, over a dinner she ended up paying for because he left his wallet somewhere; and an uncomfortable encounter in which he tried to touch her hand and lean in for a kiss, which freaked her out, because she wasn't attracted to him anyway.
Whispering recently from her bedroom because she's afraid her fiancÚ might hear, Tara says Jackson talked so much about himself as Roethlisberger that she barely got a word in. "He said he just got back from Miami, talked about his cars, about other players," she says. "He should be in prison, or in a mental hospital. I was leery, but hell, I didn't know. I didn't think he was telling the truth, but my friend thought I should give him a chance."
The day after the date, Tara's neighbor showed her a newspaper photo of Roethlisberger, and she quickly alerted the police and told Jackson never to call her again. But he persisted, demanding she return his calls and insisting on more dates. He had his friends call her, pretending to be Roethlisberger's friend or sister, to say Tara was breaking his heart. He sent her a signed football, which she has since "destroyed." Soon the story was out and she was the laughingstock of talk radio. "It was one of the worst parts of my life, and it wasn't even a full day," she says. "Being portrayed as an idiot, it was awful." Her neighbor asked the team for a replacement Roethlisberger jersey. He never got it.
"When I heard about it, I laughed," says the real Big Ben. "It was kind of flattering. Then again, feelings were hurt and that isn't funny. But I hear all the time that 'someone at a bar is trying to be you.' It's because all people talk about in Pittsburgh is the Steelers. Me, I don't really care. But it made Jerame uneasy. He's happily married with a family."
IT IS fair to say Brian Jackson thrived on the attention; that his escapades were born not only of malicious conjuring, but of his fantasy. He was Jerame Tuman when he wore his black-and-gold hat askew, sometimes pulled down to mask his eyes, and he was Ben Roethlisberger in his T-shirts and thick-legged sweats, and the official pair of football gloves he wore, sometimes while he drove, as though he'd just come from a long and successful practice. It is not supposition to say he felt comfortable when he dressed and acted the way he did, because his clothes and actions weren't part of a costume. His dreams had become his waking life. He was part of the team. It's what made him so convincing. He believed it was all real.
"He put almost incomprehensible thought into what he was doing," says prosecuting attorney Debra Barnisin-Lange. "He had an answer for any question that may have come up from the women. This type of scam is very embarrassing for the victims; several other women he did this to haven't come forward. It's the way all cons run. He said he was a Steeler, but in another instance someone might say, 'I won the lottery,' but they don't have a bank account to cash their check. Once you're in for a penny, you're in for a pound."
According to courthouse officials, he knew more than enough about the Steelers to work a room with tales of the team. Those familiar with the case say he had an encyclopedic, nearly obsessive knowledge of the men he said he was: he knew where they were born, where they went to school, what they drove, the names of parents and wives and children and pets. And he could recall a player's TV highlights as if living inside the moments of another man's life. He regarded a woman he was trying to impress the same way an athlete might regard a trophy. According to the women, he was funny, at times charming and caring. He trolled the Strip downtown near the practice facility on weekends in his Denali or black Impala or blue Mustang, and ate lunch at Nakama, the sushi place frequented by Steelers during the season.
Jackson put himself amid the passing drunks in Steelers jerseys and among the women who packed the sidewalks by Primanti Bros. and Cottage Jewelry and Sunny's Fashions, with the clothing racks out front and the black-and-gold Pittsburgh City Paper boxes at their waists. There were always more than enough fans around eager to celebrate in his presence. In the murk of a rowdy night, his sort-of-familiar face and confident stories -- Yeah, I'm waiting for Hines, he should be here any minute -- were truth enough.
"This city lives, eats, breathes Steelers," says detective Frances LaQuatra, a season ticket-holder. "They are always the news. The radio people get sick of talking about them all day, 12 months of the year. Working this case, I realized that when people hear something about the Steelers, they think, Why would someone lie about them?"
HE WAS Brian St. Pierre. And he wooed Annie* with stories about teammates and autographed footballs for kids in her neighborhood. When he suggested she look for him on the sideline, during a game, on TV, she took him up on the offer. But when the camera showed the real St. Pierre, their relationship took a sudden turn. After the game, she called him out as a liar and he called her "crazy" and, according to court documents, said she'd "be sorry" if she pressed charges. He even impersonated Roethlisberger in a phone call not long after, in which he vouched for himself as St. Pierre. Then he followed her home in different cars and materialized wherever she went, which, frankly, scared her to death. That was at the end of 2004, and she still won't speak of him. "She's moved on. I don't want her to relive it," says Annie's boyfriend. "She doesn't want to either."
Jackson didn't harass Kristin the way he did Annie or bother her the way he did Tara. No, one day he just went away. He stopped calling Kristin to say good morning or to ask for advice. He stopped picking her up at work so she could buy him fish sandwiches. When he changed cell phones, his old number was the last trace of a man who never existed.
She saved that number, and now it reminds her of that night in March 2006 when she was partying like everyone else on the south side and, after a few cocktails, had picked up her girlfriend's cell. She was interested and curious and -- football fan's curse -- attracted even though she'd never seen him. Like it would be with a lot of people, she says, her desire to talk to him took control. She wanted to find out what he might say, because, "Who doesn't want to talk to a Steeler?" She left him a message that went something like, "So, what's up? My girl tells me you're a Steeler, so ... "
But Kristin isn't stupid. Maybe just a little naive.
IS IT HIM? Well, yes, of course it's him, in a baggy gray hoodie and jeans that fall off his behind. He's been watching out the window of his redbrick house, the one with the unattached trailer in the front yard. He grudgingly opens the glass screen of his front door to greet the unwelcome company, and nearly slips when he steps on the porch.
He doesn't look so threatening as he clings awkwardly to the door frame. He looks like he hasn't slept, though, just as he looked when he turned himself in to Detective LaQuatra last year after Kristin came forward and his gig was up. He groveled to LaQuatra that day: "I can't help myself, I really can't." And he doesn't sound so cocksure now, as he didn't when he called Kristin right before she pressed charges, to offer this rambling admission: "I just idolize these guys and what they do, and the attention they get from women, and I just want that for myself, and I don't think I can do it on my own and I just want to be them." On this February morning, Brian Jackson just looks angry or nervous or both, like a man about to face felony charges who doesn't want to be bothered. As the sun hits his face, he stares off to the side, eyes bloodshot-red like kindling.
Are you Brian Jackson?
"No. I'm his brother," he says.
Well, is your brother home, then?
Do you think he'd want to talk about ...
"No, he wouldn't."
He's tall, all right, his head is square, his body sturdy. His voice is as heavy as lead, and standing in front of him, it is not only conceivable he could pass for a Steeler, but understandable, especially in a town that sanctifies the men who wear that uniform but are often unrecognizable without it. This morning, the Denali with tinted windows is docked in the drive, without the rims. Taking a step back, Jackson shuts the screen door. He's not wearing his Steelers hat. But he does have on a nice pair of sneakers, with a metallic swoosh on the side.
Justin Heckert was a former contributor to The Magazine. His work is featured in the new book "Next Wave: America's New Generation of Great Literary Journalists."