IOWA CITY, Iowa — Before learning his friend was really Ronald Carnes, an armed robber who escaped from a North Carolina prison in 1973, Seattle businessman Carl Bryant knew him as Louie Vance, a trusted worker and confidant whom he had over for holidays and birthdays.
Although they "talked about life for hours on end," his friend kept his true identity a secret from Bryant and others around him. He managed to remain free for 41 years.
Now jailed in Iowa following an April arrest, Carnes is accused of eluding the authorities by stealing the identities of two boys who died in the 1940s. Despite Carnes' criminal past and the efforts he took to conceal it, Bryant still considers him a friend whose good works should also be remembered.
Bryant said they lost touch when Bill, the nickname Louie Vance went by, abruptly disappeared from Seattle in 2012. He was stunned to see a news report detailing how his friend was actually Carnes and had been arrested in Waterloo, Iowa, where he had been living. Bryant said he wants people to know that Carnes is an "extremely trustworthy, reliable" person who was clean for decades.
"There's a really good side to this man that wasn't being portrayed," said Bryant, who's traveling to Cedar Rapids this month to visit Carnes in jail.
When he escaped from prison, Carnes was three years into a 20-year term for robbing a convenience store clerk at gunpoint with an accomplice, prosecutors say. He now faces up to 34 years in prison on charges relating to Social Security benefits fraud, identity theft and gun possession, then the prospect of being returned to North Carolina for his earlier sentence. His trial is scheduled to begin next month.
Carnes was arrested after applying for Iowa driver's licenses for each identity, months apart. The Department of Transportation's facial recognition software flagged the pictures of Louie Vance and William Cox as being the same person. Agents arrested Carnes at his home, where they found a firearm, ammunition and documentation suggesting his true identity.
Prosecutors say Carnes adopted the fake personas in the 1970s and started collecting disability and retirement benefits under one name in 2005 and under both by 2009. Cox and Vance were five-year-old boys who were killed in accidents in the 1940s, investigators say.
Bryant emphasized that Carnes didn't steal their benefits. "The money he's drawing he paid in," Bryant said.
Bryant hired Bill in 2002 — through a nonprofit that connects the homeless and unemployed with jobs — for a startup he owned that processed rebates for OfficeMax. Bryant submitted the required federal form for Louie Vance to verify his identity and work authorization, and he passed.
Bill became one of Bryant's best workers, always on time and sober. He'd drive Bryant's beat-up Ford Aerostar Van to pick up the mail to be processed. After Bryant sold the company, he sold Bill the van he would later fix up and frequently drive across the country.
Bryant said he trusted Bill so much that he let him collect money at a parking lot he owned near Safeco Field. The books always balanced.
He said Bill had no close friends or family, but they became close. He said he invited Bill over for Christmas dinners and birthday parties and that when he bought a cabin, Bill helped him clean up the property. When Bill got engaged, the Bryants hosted an engagement party. The relationship didn't last, however.
Bryant said the two have exchanged letters since Carnes' arrest, and they spoke by phone last week. Carnes cleared up one of Bryant's biggest questions, explaining that he moved to Waterloo to be with a cousin who needed help.
No one else has been charged. Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Deegan wouldn't say whether investigators are looking into whether anyone harbored Carnes.
Bryant said the only time he saw Bill referred to as Ronald was on a greeting card he once spotted in his apartment. Asked about it, Bill explained that his sister had always called him that.
"It didn't go much further," Bryant said. "Now, it's way more memorable."
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