Lifetime of lies leads swindler into trouble in Michigan
Holland — Tony Fortuna isn’t always Tony Fortuna. Sometimes he is a safety inspector at a factory, or a military hero injured in battle, or an FBI informant thwarting a plot to blow up a nuclear power plant.
He also impersonated a paramedic, injecting and administering medications, during a two-day ride-along with a Grand Rapids ambulance service in January, police said.
He served similar stints with paramedic services in Mount Pleasant; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and New York, he told The Detroit News last month in a series of interviews.
Fortuna, 42, of Grand Rapids, was arrested in February after a supervisor at American Medical Response in Grand Rapids became suspicious and learned he didn’t have a paramedic license.
His lifelong masquerade is now collapsing upon itself. He will soon finish a county jail sentence for the Grand Rapids incident and begin a stretch in federal prison for the phony nuclear plant plot.
“I’m always going 100 miles per hour,” he said at the Kent County Jail. “That’s a lot of the problem. I act before I think. If I just slowed down and thought before I acted.”
His life is littered with not just false identities but fraudulent schemes. He has been convicted of petty larceny, forging checks, credit card fraud, receiving stolen goods and falsely obtaining services, according to court records.
He is Walter Mitty re-imagined as a small-time swindler, according to interviews and hundreds of pages of police reports, court records and trial transcripts.
“(His) criminal history is remarkable not just for its longevity but its consistency,” said Hagen Frank, a federal prosecutor who handled the bomb hoax. “(He’s) older and apparently not one thought wiser.”
Fortuna’s list of offenses filled 10 pages, he said.
During the interviews at Kent County Jail, Fortuna said he was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, that he is one of five children, that his father was a New York City firefighter, that he is a former Marine.
He has tattoos of Semper Fi and a bulldog, the Marine mascot, on his left arm, according to prison records.
But Fortuna’s life is much more prosaic than he described.
He was born and raised in western New York in the working-class city of Olean, an only child whose father sold insurance, said his mother, Barb Brendle of Indiana, Pennsylvania. He was never in the Marines or any branch of the military.
“What has he done now?” Brendle asked when contacted by a reporter.
She said she has had little contact with Fortuna since she and his father divorced in 1988. Fortuna was 12 at the time and went to live with his dad.
Brendle’s husband, Bud, said they want nothing to do with him.
“That part of our life we want to erase,” he said. “He has impersonated Navy people, Army officers, you name it. He has been down that road before.”
A review of Fortuna’s life show that his various guises often made him appear heroic.
Several personas involved helping girlfriends, whom he had a hard time holding on to, according to interviews.
Fortuna was looking for respect, said associates.
“Some of these convictions seem to have been motivated simply to get attention,” said Sean Tilton, a federal public defender who represented Fortuna in the phony bomb plot.
It began with a prank
Fortuna’s misdeeds began with a prank that, seemingly trivial, would foreshadow the folly to follow.
At 18, he pulled a false fire alarm in 1994 in West Greenwich, Rhode Island, prosecutors said. He had moved there to live with his father after dropping out of high school in New York.
Three years later he began committing a series of small-time cons across the United States, according to court records.
One can follow his travels by reading his rap sheet: Virginia, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Mount Pleasant, Holland.
His encounters with the criminal justice system rarely varied.
He never tried to fight the charges, court records show. He just didn’t show up in court. A warrant would be issued for his arrest, but by that time he would have moved to a new state.
When he was arrested on new charges in a new state, the old state usually didn’t bother to come get him, the records show. During the few times he was sentenced, he would show remorse and admit the error of his ways, receiving probation or a light jail term.
“There is nothing in this history which would show that the defendant has learned anything from his prior criminal history,” U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney said during the 2013 sentencing in the fake bomb case.
In 2005 Fortuna was arrested in Mount Pleasant for having a police scanner.
His court hearing was delayed when a man claiming to be his father called the court to say Fortuna’s mother had died and Fortuna needed to attend her funeral, according to Isabella County court records. (Fortuna has admitted to pretending to be his father in other ruses, said police.)
The hearing was rescheduled and Fortuna failed to appear. A letter was sent to his home but returned. He no longer lived there.
His father, Ron, declined to comment for this story.
During Fortuna’s trek across the country, he called himself Mark Fortuna and Matt Lampack and Jim Gibson and John Stewart, according to court files. He gave his date of birth as 1967 and ’69 and ’72 and ’76. His Social Security number fluctuated as much as his odometer.
Misfortune in Michigan
Fortuna’s house of cards began to topple after he moved to western Michigan in 2009.
The following year, an auto-parts maker in Holland received a phone call from a man identifying himself as the director of the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The caller said his last name was Fortuna but, during subsequent calls, his first name changed from Don to Anthony to Ron, said police.
He said he had received numerous complaints about the Challenge Manufacturing plant and wanted to schedule an inspection.
The day before the visit, Anthony Fortuna called to say he couldn’t make it because his son-in-law had died in Iraq and his daughter tried to kill herself, according to a Holland police report.
Instead, a man calling himself John Stewart showed up the next morning and gave Challenge executives his business card, said the report. After meeting with management, he took a tour of the plant.
During the tour, manager Jeff Glover made eye contact with Stewart and realized he was Fortuna, a former employee of the plant.
When management confronted Fortuna, he acted like he was receiving a phone call and said he had to leave, said the report. He left the building and jumped into a black Mustang convertible but workers got his license plate.
Questioned by police, Fortuna said his girlfriend, who worked at the plant, had complained about dangerous conditions but was ignored by management.
“Fortuna stated he wanted to put the fear of God into the company,” Detective Tom Kazen wrote in the report. “He wanted to teach the company a lesson.”
Holland police already were investigating a second incident involving Fortuna.
In March 2010 he owed a car dealership $6,500 for replacing the engine and brakes of his car.
Barber Ford released the car to Fortuna after a man claiming to be Fortuna’s father called the dealership to say he would send a check the following day, according to a police report.
The man called back to say the payment would be delayed because Tony Fortuna and his wife had been killed in an accident in eastern Michigan, and the father would have to care for the couple’s three children.
Fortuna was later convicted of larceny in the case.
Before his 2011 sentencing for the car repair scam, Fortuna wrote a note to the judge to say he had a brain tumor and only 15 months to live, according to Ottawa County court records.
Fortuna had failed to mention that fact to his probation officer, who presumably would have tried to verify it.
Ottawa Circuit Judge Jon Hulsing, noting all of Fortuna’s fraud-related convictions, was dubious.
“Why should I believe what you’re saying?” he asked Fortuna.
“Lying to you or giving you some story just gets me in further trouble and just digs a deeper hole that I’m not going to be able to get myself out of and --,” Fortuna said before the judge cut him off.
He sentenced Fortuna to one to five years in prison.
Facing serious prison time for the first time, Fortuna tried a new gambit. He proposed a deal to the FBI. If they helped shorten his sentence, he would tell them about a plot to bomb the federal courthouse in Grand Rapids.
At the time, Scott Tucker, owner of H&M Demolition in Holland, where Fortuna once worked, was on trial for improperly handling asbestos during a project.
Fortuna told the FBI the trial would be disrupted by a bomb blast next to the courthouse. During the confusion, he was supposed to drive Tucker to the airport, where he would leave the country.
But the FBI said it was skeptical for several reasons, including the fact Fortuna, who was offered $5,000 to be the getaway driver, didn’t seem familiar with Grand Rapids roads.
When several months passed without a follow-up response from the FBI, Fortuna contacted them about a second plot — to blow up the Palisades Nuclear Generating Station in Covert Township.
That’s when the FBI charged him with two counts of making false statements to federal agents.
In 2013 he was sentenced to five years in prison. U.S. Magistrate Joe Scoville asked Fortuna how he came up with the details of the fake plots.
“A delusional state of mind. I just made them up,” said Fortuna.
Passing as paramedic
In federal prison, Fortuna said he looked at his life, his age, his 2-year-old child, and realized he needed to make changes in his life.
But in January, four months after his release from prison, he was up to his old tricks.
He received permission from a supervisor at the Grand Rapids ambulance service to ride with his girlfriend and a second paramedic, according to a Grand Rapids police report.
On the second day, the night-shift supervisor, who wasn’t aware of the ride-along, was surprised to find Fortuna in the ambulance, said the report. Fortuna, wearing a pullover with AMR patches on the shoulders, told him he was working for the firm in New York.
The supervisor checked company records and learned Fortuna had never worked there.
Fortuna’s girlfriend, Tracy Timlowski, later told police Fortuna claimed to be a former paramedic in Michigan and a Marine medic who served in Afghanistan.
She said they had met online in October, which would have been one month after his release from federal prison.
Timlowski and the ambulance service declined to comment for this story.
The other paramedic in the ambulance told police Fortuna wasn’t a very good paramedic. He messed up easy tasks, such as placing a blood pressure cuff on a patient’s arm inside out and a pulse oximeter on a patient’s finger upside down, said the paramedic, who wasn’t named in the police report.
“(The paramedic) went on to explain how it felt strange that Fortuna was fumbling on things that an experienced medic should be (able to do),” Grand Rapids Officer Gregg Arsenault wrote in the police report.
As for Fortuna’s claims of being a paramedic in other states and parts of Michigan, ambulance services in those places said they have no record of him working there.
In 1998 he was convicted of impersonating a uniformed officer in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
During his arrest, he wore a blue hat and T-shirt with the logos of the Albuquerque Fire Department on them, and carried a scanner tuned to the Fire Department frequency, according to an Albuquerque police report.
During his interviews with The News, Fortuna freely tossed around paramedic lingo. He said he learned it while hanging out with paramedics, including several former girlfriends.
“It’s always been a passion,” he said about being a paramedic. “It’s something I wanted to do for a long time.”
On his Facebook page, his profile photo is the symbol of emergency medical services. His Facebook likes include many paramedic services and first-responders across the country.
He said he obtained his paramedic outfits from uniform stores.
'I really can't explain that'
During the three interviews at Kent County Jail, Fortuna rarely made eye contact with a reporter.
He still has a casual relationship with the truth. He seems to lie about everything, even the most inconsequential matter.
He said he trained to be a paramedic at Mid Michigan Community College, but the school has no record of him. Despite being an only child, he said he remains in contact with siblings.
“I sit down (in jail) and write letters to my sisters,” he said. “We’re always trying to figure out how we can get stuff right. They never gave up on me.”
When confronted with his untruths, Fortuna just makes new ones.
Asked about his claims of being in the military, he said he served under a different name before admitting that, no, he had never been enlisted.
He said he doesn’t know why he poses as other people.
“I don’t know if I get bored and want something to do, if I want action or the thrill of it,” he said. “I really can’t explain that there.”
Fortuna said his dad has turned his back on him, that the paramedic scam was the last straw. More likely, his dad, along with other loved ones, gave up on him well before then, according to interviews.