Federal agents arrested a 66-year-old Maryland man Tuesday, claiming that his life was a lie.
William G. Hillar of Millersville said he is an Army Special Forces retired colonel who's traveled the world fighting terrorism and advising foreign military organizations. He claims to have a bachelor's degree in psychology, a master's in education and a doctorate in health education.
And he frequently speaks out against human trafficking, claiming in marketing materials that his only daughter was kidnapped, forced into the sex industry and killed — a story that became the basis, he has said, for the 2008 film "Taken," starring Liam Neeson.
But authorities say they can find no evidence of a military background, other than a relatively tame stint with the Coast Guard in the 1960s, according to an FBI affidavit filed in Maryland U.S. District Court. The University of Oregon says it never awarded him a post-secondary degree, either, and others question the story about his daughter.
"This is someone that we still really don't know who he is," Maryland Assistant U.S. Attorney Leo Wise said during Hillar's initial appearance in court Tuesday afternoon.
The federal case is the second one filed this month claiming that a Maryland man has lied about military credentials. On Jan. 13, a separate criminal complaint was filed against 25-year-old Joseph Lawler for falsely claiming to have earned a U.S. military medal. Lawler is scheduled to appear in Greenbelt U.S. District Court next month.
Hillar is charged in a Jan. 21 criminal information, unsealed Tuesday, with mail fraud in connection with the scheme to lie, which he allegedly perpetrated to get teaching work.
"He was never a colonel, never served in the U.S. Army, never was deployed to exotic locales and never received training in counter-terrorism and psychological warfare while in the armed forces," Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said in a statement.
Former members of the Special Forces brought the alleged fraud to the FBI's attention, Special Agent in Charge Richard A. McFeely said in the statement.
A Google search of "William G. Hillar" brings up a mixed bag of results on the first page, with half the hits decrying him as a fraud, and the other half describing him as a hero for speaking to audiences about his daughter's supposed kidnapping in Southeast Asia, subsequent enslavement and later death.
"He was a magnetic speaker who ruled the room," one woman wrote online after viewing his performance.
Elon University in North Carolina honored him last year as a "hometown hero" after a freshman nominated him. The university's newspaper, The Pendulum, printed a report last week, saying Hillar was under investigation for fraud.
"I nominated Mr. Hillar to speak at Elon after he had spoken at a church in my town last year," the nominating student told The Pendulum. "I did not know about any of the accusations."
According to an FBI affidavit, Hillar rents a home on the 400 block of Old Orchard Circle in Millersville and runs a business called "Bill Hiller Training," through which he claims to have advanced education degrees and significant military training.
Last year, he was paid thousands of dollars by multiple organizations for speaking and teaching engagements, including FBI divisions in Salt Lake City and Chicago, the Illinois State Police and the College of Southern Maryland.
The Monterey Institute for International Studies hired Hillar as a workshop teacher in 2005, based on his experience claims, and has paid him $32,500 through mailed checks, which are the basis for the mail fraud charge, according to the FBI affidavit. Federal agents can't find the money, however.
"Significant sums" are unaccounted for, prosecutor Wise said in court. Hillar has about $180,000 in a stock portfolio, but little else in cash.
Hillar was in Belize earlier this month and told an individual there that he owns property in Costa Rica. He has an extensive gun collection and has been married several times, telling each new wife that the "predecessor wives" were dead, Wise said, adding that Hillar has no community ties.
"We don't know what he's been doing for most of his adult life," said Wise, who plans to present the case to a federal grand jury Thursday.
He asked that Hillar be detained before his trial, but U.S. Magistrate Judge Mildred Methvin agreed to release him on $50,000 bond once certain conditions are met, including finding a third-party custodian willing to take responsibility for him.
Hillar said he plans to return to teaching once released.