The Atlantic

The Perfect Man Who Wasn't

For years he used fake identities to charm women out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Then his victims banded together to take him down.
Source: WG600; Ariel Zambelich; KARE-TV Minneapolis; Fort Worth Police Department; Ramsey County Sheriff's Office; Sacramento County Sheriff's Office

By the spring of 2016, Missi Brandt had emerged from a rough few years with a new sense of solidity. At 45, she was three years sober and on the leeward side of a stormy divorce. She was living with her preteen daughters in the suburbs of St. Paul, Minnesota, and working as a flight attendant. Missi felt ready for a serious relationship again, so she made a profile on OurTime.com, a dating site for people in middle age.

Among all the duds—the desperate and depressed and not-quite-divorced—a 45-year-old man named Richie Peterson stood out. He was a career naval officer, an Afghanistan veteran who was finishing his doctorate in political science at the University of Minnesota. When Missi “liked” his profile, he sent her a message right away and called her that afternoon. They talked about their kids (he had two; she had three), their divorces, their sobriety. Richie told her he was on vacation in Hawaii, but they planned to meet up as soon as he got back.

A few days later, when he was supposed to pick her up for their first date, Richie was nowhere to be found, and he wasn’t responding to her texts, either. Missi sat in her living room, alternately furious at him (for letting her down) and at herself (for getting her hopes up enough to be let down). “I’m thinking, What a dumbass I am. He’s probably at home, hanging out with his wife and kids,” she says.

At 10 p.m., she sent him a final message: This is completely unacceptable. A few minutes later, she got a reply from Richie’s friend Chris, who said Richie had been in a car accident. He was okay, thank God, but the doctors wanted to do some extra testing, since he’d suffered head trauma while in Afghanistan. Chris sent Missi a picture of Richie in a hospital bed, looking a little banged up but grinning gamely for the camera. Missi felt a wave of relief, both that Richie was okay and that her suspicions were unwarranted.

When she finally did meet him in person, her relief was even more profound. Richie was tall and charming, a good talker and a good listener who seemed eager for a relationship. He could be a little awkward, but Missi chalked that up to his inexperience—he told her he hadn’t been with a woman in eight years. Plus, dating him was fun. Richie had a taste for nice things—expensive restaurants, four-star hotels—and he always insisted on paying. He kept a motorboat docked at a nearby marina, and he’d take Missi and her daughters out for afternoons on the water. The girls liked him, and so did the dog. Richie mentioned that his cousin Vicki worked for the same airline as Missi. The two women didn’t work together regularly, but they knew each other. Missi thought it was a fun coincidence. “Don’t mention us to her,” Richie said. “One day we’ll show up together to some family event and surprise her; it’ll be great.”

A few months into their relationship, she missed a shift at work and got fired. Richie leaped into provider mode. He told her that he’d take care of her bills for the next four months, that she should relax and take stock of her life and spend time with the kids. Maybe he could put her and the girls on his university insurance. Maybe, he told her, with the benevolent confidence of a wealthy man, she wouldn’t have to work. The offer wasn’t all that appealing to Missi—“I didn’t want to be a stay-at-home mom again,” she says—but she took it as a sign that things were getting serious.

The longer they kept dating, though, the more problems cropped up. Richie liked to say he didn’t “do drama,” but drama seemed to follow him nonetheless. It got to feel as if every text from him was an announcement—some new tragedy would happen (his mother died; he was in a motorcycle accident), and she’d be roped back in.

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