He duped FBI agents and small-town cops, students and child advocates, volunteer firefighters and war veterans into thinking he was a retired colonel in Army special operations who had fought terrorists and insurgents from Kabul to Bogota.
William G. Hillar packed rooms and pocketed speaking fees in big cities and tiny towns from Maryland to California, spending a dozen years spinning tall tales about the mujahedin, drug lords and his own daughter being kidnapped, sold into sex slavery and killed.
The 66-year-old teacher who grew up in Oregon and now lives in Millersville pleaded guilty in March to a single count of mail fraud. On Tuesday, he confessed to living a lie and apologized before a federal judge sentenced him to 21 months in prison.
It was not as much as prosecutors requested, but more than his attorney said he deserved.
Assistant Maryland U.S. Attorney Leo J. Wise called Hillar's lies "sociopathic" and said he exploited the suffering of others for profit. He said the lies were made even more egregious during wartime because he was teaching tactics to police and firefighters who relied on his advice to protect their citizens in post-9/11 America.
"They thought they were getting 'Black Hawk Down,' " Wise said during the hearing in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. "Instead, they got 'Rambo.' They got fiction."
Hillar got caught when a real member of the Army Special Forces saw one of his presentations and posted a question about the speaker's credentials on an Internet bulletin board run by a Green Beret support group called Professional Soldiers.
That group investigated and exposed him. Part of Hillar's undoing was that he stretched his credentials, claiming to be a member of too small a club. During the time of his deception, there were only three or four commanders with the rank of colonel in Army Special Forces.
Nobody in that part of the service had ever heard of Hillar.
"We find his conduct to be reprehensible," said Jeffrey D. Hinton, a retired Army special operations sergeant with 20 years' experience, who testified Tuesday. "We have had men killed in training attempting to obtain the rank that Mr. Hillar assigned to himself. He dishonored and disrespected those who have died."
Of the training Hillar offered, Hinton said: "It's worthless."
Speaking publicly for the first time since he was arrested in January, Hillar's purportedly eloquent speaking style and ability to mesmerize audiences for hours evaporated, replaced with a brief, contrite and halting apology.
"I take full responsibility for what I did," Hillar told U.S. Judge William D. Quarles Jr. "I apologize to those I have hurt and demeaned. I never intended to hurt anybody. I am sorry."
Hillar attributed his exuberance to his passion and said his deception started innocently when students assumed from his lectures that he had been in the military. "I never denied it," he told the court. "After a while, I adopted it."
His attorney, federal public defender Gary W. Christopher, admitted that what his client did was wrong. "He is a person who lied about who he was," the lawyer told Quarles.
But Christopher insisted Hillar did not do it for money. The $171,000 he collected in speaking fees and a small university salary was a total spread over 12 years, and he said Hillar emptied a trust fund to repay two dozen institutions, police and fire departments.
Hillar does have a real resume. He graduated from the University of Oregon in the 1960s with a bachelor's degree in psychology. He earned a master's degree in special education, but did not complete his doctorate, as he had claimed.
Instead of being a colonel in the army, he spent eight years in the Coast Guard, rising no higher than petty officer, third class. He retired not as a counter-terrorism commando, but as a radar man.
He has a daughter, alive and well in Oregon, but not a daughter who he said was kidnapped by sex traffickers from a train between Bangkok and Singapore in 1988. He claimed his experience to be the basis for the 2008 movie "Taken" starring Liam Neeson.
Christopher described his client as more a huckster who got caught up in visions of self-grandeur, a victim of his own "flawed ego" who "couldn't resist being a hero. … He was not a hero. So he faked it."
The attorney said the FBI and other groups had to have seen value in Hillar's presentations because they kept inviting him back.
"They didn't hire him because of his made-up celebrity," the lawyer said. "They hired him because he packed the house. … At the end of the day, his stories had value."
That prompted Quarles to ask whether defense counsel was asking the court to consider Hillar's lies "parables."
Christopher also said that his client did not profit from the false stories about his daughter's kidnapping.
The prosecutor said he did think Hillar profited from his tall tales and that the institutions he duped, many of them tiny police and fire departments, can't afford to lose money on meaningless training. He also displaced qualified instructors.
Federal sentencing guidelines call for 21 to 27 months in prison, and the prosecutor asked Quarles to lean toward the higher end of the range.
Quarles sentenced Hillar to the low end of the guidelines, and added 500 hours of community service and three years' supervised probation. Prosecutors said Hillar will perform his service at veterans cemeteries.
At the conclusion of his speech, Hillar told the court that every week he goes to BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport to welcome home returning troops.
"Believe it or not," he said. "I'm a patriot."