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Stolen Me 

Adventures in identity theft

The letter that ruined my autumn came on a Wednesday in late September, hidden among credit card offers and utility bills. "YOU ARE HEREBY OFFICIALLY NOTIFIED," the letter began, "that your license and/or privilege to operate any motor vehicle in the State of Georgia is suspended as shown hereon."

"Hereon" was described further down as a DUI conviction 10 months earlier in Sarasota.

But I've never been to Sarasota, sober or drunk. A few phone calls and cursing fits later, the truth dawned on me: I'd become a victim of identity theft. Me.

Sure, I had read the nightmare stories of stolen credit card numbers and bogus driver's licenses. I knew that identity theft was the fastest-growing white-collar crime in America, and that Georgia ranks seventh in the number of identity thefts among states nationwide.

But these things are supposed to happen to the other guy -- not to me.

What lay ahead was a bizarre voyage of discovery, as I tracked the movements of a complete stranger who, it appeared, was passing himself off as me along Florida's Gulf Coast. I knew about the DUI, but what didn't I know?

The possibilities worried me. But I confess they also intrigued me. I found myself perversely fascinated with my devious doppelganger. Maybe he was the id that I'd sublimated long ago. Maybe he was a lovable rogue who hotwires BMWs and gets his suite comp'ed in Vegas. Of course, he could also be a no-job loser with cheap tastes, who shoplifts from grocery stores and opens a can of Mace on security guards.

Whatever the facts, one truth would become quickly evident: I was now in a strange netherworld of law enforcement, where the normal rules of American jurisprudence are suspended. I was presumed guilty and had to prove my innocence, while the real culprit -- the guy who's done this before, who could be tracked down and arrested in one afternoon of focused detective work -- is free to do it again.

On the evening of Dec. 7, 2001, a 38-year-old unemployed cook arrived in Sarasota on a Greyhound bus and went directly to the Hideaway bar. Dressed in jean shorts, a black T-shirt and black sneakers, he wasted no time striking up a conversation with a fellow patron, a dark-haired construction worker. The two began shooting pool. Although they played for hours, no names were ever exchanged; the cook, for his part, was content to nurse just one beer. At least that's the tale the cook would tell police later that night. His name was Brian Gregory Katacinski.

At some point, according to Katacinski's statement, the construction worker decided to lend him his car to drive to a nearby tavern called the Red Barn. There, Katacinski drank a "couple of beers" before he decided to return to the Hideaway. Outside, he got into a red 1995 Geo four-door sedan and headed east on Bee Ridge Road.

Sarasota was familiar territory for Katacinski. In fact, he had spent much of the past 10 years in central Florida, where he'd cut an impressive swath of forgery, credit card fraud and burglary. On the morning of Oct. 24, 1991, for example, the unemployed Katacinski used a pair of bolt cutters to break open a Realtor's key box at the Pinellas County home of Robert Weston. With the key, Katacinski entered the residence and stole jewelry and cash, as well as a Discover card that fueled a $5,000 shopping spree in stores such as Montgomery Ward and JCPenney.

When Katacinski was arrested that night in 1991, he was ultimately charged with three counts of burglary, six counts of credit card fraud, possession of burglary tools and two counts of grand theft that included stealing a gun. Each count was a felony. Four months later, he pleaded no contest and was sentenced to two years in prison, with a 109-day credit for time served.

Katacinski was released on April 28, 1992. Counting his pre-sentence incarceration, his total time behind bars was 178 days -- just under six months.

Back on the streets, Katacinski didn't deviate much from the m.o. that landed him in jail in the first place. Numerous arrests followed, mostly in Sarasota and Pinellas counties. Fraud. Unauthorized possession of a driver's license. Larceny. Forgery. But according to available records, only the rare case resulted in jail time. Whether by accident or design, Katacinski chooses crimes that, while not ignored by authorities, don't rise to the top of their priority list.

Which is probably why there's no record that he was arrested for allegedly pepper-spraying a Publix security guard who spotted him shoplifting in 1997. He drove off, leaving her disoriented and gasping in the parking lot, her eyes burning and her cell phone in pieces on the blacktop.

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