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False Fugitive

The long arm of the law reaches for Jeffery McClain -- and grabs Johnetta Crosby.


Will the real Jeffery McClain please stand up? (That's - Johnetta Crosby on top.) - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Will the real Jeffery McClain please stand up? (That's Johnetta Crosby on top.)

When a cop approaches Johnetta Crosby's Honda Accord, she braces for the inevitable question, the one she hears every time she gets pulled over: "Ma'am, do you know you're wanted by the ATF and the FBI?"

Yes, she knows. She also knows that two more squad cars will soon show up, since the cop has probably already called for backup. He's also called a tow truck to haul Crosby's car away. On particularly bad days, he'll put her in the back of his cruiser for a ride to the station.

But it's not Johnetta Crosby the police are after. It's Jeffery McClain, a man she's never met. The only thing they have in common is a Social Security number.

That's all it takes to make Crosby feel like a fugitive. Over the last seven years, she has been stopped by police seven times. Each time they were looking for McClain.

He's not a guy you want to be confused with. Over the past 15 years, he's dabbled in arson, car theft, and crack, all the while holding down a gig as a drug dealer, according to police records. Crosby keeps none of these habits.

"It's humiliating," she says. "You're telling me that I'm a man, and I committed these crimes? I don't even know this guy."

Crosby's path probably first crossed McClain's in 1989, when the state issued an arrest warrant for McClain for armed robbery. The Social Security number on the warrant belonged to Crosby, whose number is just one digit different from McClain's.

No one knows whether McClain gave police a false number or an officer simply misprinted it. It hardly matters. The computer system installed in most police cruisers -- the Law Enforcement Automated Data System (LEADS) -- still lists both McClain's actual number and Crosby's.

"They leave that social on the system, like it's an alias," explains Lonnie Rudasill, an Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigations agent who works identity-theft cases. "For that reason, she gets flagged when somebody runs her plates."

LEADS also warns police about people who might be violent -- a category for which McClain qualifies. So when cops pull Crosby over, they call backup and approach her car with hands on revolvers.

"They have to treat it like a felony stop, for their own protection," says Cleveland Police Sergeant Donna Bell.

Erring on the side of caution would seem wise; McClain's record proves that he knows his way around both guns and drugs. And he doesn't appear to handle conflict well.

An indictment alleges that in March 2000, McClain protested his eviction from an East Side apartment by trying to burn it down -- while his landlord was inside. He fled the scene in a stolen Dodge Caravan and only surrendered after a police chase. Cops found more than 10 grams of crack in the minivan. McClain eventually pleaded guilty to charges of possessing drugs, driving a stolen car, failing to obey a police signal, and arson.

McClain's record shows six convictions for drug trafficking, two for burglary, and one for fraud, in connection with a scheme to sell a serial number from a stolen car.

His most recent arrest occurred last September. McClain crashed a 1987 Mercedes into a wall off I-77. Newburgh Heights Police found him staggering around "barefoot and in his underwear," according to the report. He told cops he was hot. He also swore a lot, admitted he didn't know where he was, and mumbled something about loving Angela. A search of the car turned up crack. In November, McClain pleaded guilty to drug possession. He has been in jail ever since.

All of which makes it strange that, on the streets of Greater Cleveland, the search for Jeffery McClain continues -- at considerable expense to Johnetta Crosby.

On the morning of May 6, Crosby found a pack of Cuyahoga County sheriff's deputies at her front door. They showed her a photograph -- presumably of McClain -- but wouldn't tell her who they were looking for. They also handed her the keys she keeps in her car's glove compartment. A key had been broken off in the door lock. The interior, says Crosby, has been "ransacked." Police told her that if she saw the man, she should call them.

On May 16, she was pulled over on Carnegie Avenue by Cleveland cops. Crosby admits to speeding, but the officer was more interested in quizzing her about Jeffery McClain.

Bratenahl has been the most avid pursuer. Its officers have stopped her twice on I-90. Both times they impounded her car, and once they brought her to the station for questioning.

"No, I don't know him," she told police. "No, I don't know where he lives. No, my brother, uncle, cousin don't know his name."

It cost Crosby nearly $800 to rescue her car from impound two years ago, after the second Bratenahl stop.

Bratenahl also pulled over a boyfriend, who happened to be driving her car. He had an even harder time convincing his interrogators that he didn't know Jeffery McClain. Police discovered that the boyfriend had a suspended license and threw him in jail.

Chief Paul Falzone says that he has given Crosby a letter to show any Bratenahl cop who busts her in the future. "We're trying to help her out," he says. "But we usually don't deal with this kind of theft."

Crosby says that she wasn't speeding when East Cleveland pulled her over. The cop's first remark was that she didn't look like someone named Jeffery McClain. He believed Crosby's story and expressed his sympathy. Then he handed her a speeding ticket.

"Where's the justice?" rages Crosby. "I feel like [McClain] should give me his Social Security number. He isn't using it."

She says that the identity confusion has cost her more than $1,000, most of it going to tow-truck operators. For a single mother who works in a cafeteria, the fees are crippling.

Worse is the paranoia -- "I drive around in fear" -- and the futility. Crosby has begged police departments to erase her Social Security number from McClain's record, but they refuse. They say the false number might still be useful, if McClain is ever on the loose again.

Nor has any police department updated LEADS so that it notes McClain's arrest. Crosby says local law enforcement simply refers her to federal agencies, which seem even less interested. The ATF deferred to the FBI, which deferred to the Federal Trade Commission, which deferred to Social Security.

"When I call people to help me, they point the finger at everybody else," says Crosby. "'There's nothing I can do.' That's all I hear."

Spokesmen for the ATF and FBI say their agencies are not actively searching for McClain. They say Crosby needs to deal with the FTC, the agency that handles identity-theft and fraud complaints. It received more than 380,000 such complaints last year, nearly three times the number recorded in 2000. But all the FTC did for Crosby was to send her an information packet on identity theft -- which advised her to consult local police.

Social Security told Crosby to bring proof of her identity to each police department, which can then issue her a letter indicating that she's not McClain. But most have blown her off. Cleveland directed Crosby to Cleveland Heights, where she lives. But Cleveland Heights can't make Cleveland correct its records on McClain.

"It sounds like she's being asked to do far more than most victims are," says Betsy Broder, assistant director in the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "I'm surprised there isn't a more centralized way to convey this information or share it electronically."

Crosby has spoken to lawyers, but they tell her there's no one to sue. Officials from Social Security told her she's not allowed to change her number -- at least not until the agency has finished a lengthy investigation into her claim. It seems that, for better or worse, she's stuck sharing her identity with a felon.

"I blame it all on Jeffery," says Crosby. "I feel haunted by this guy."

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