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California man sent to prison for posing as an immigration officer

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents plan an early morning action on Monday March 26, 2012 at the Los Angeles Sheriff Station parking lot in Valencia, Calif. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Last year, Matthew Johnston logged on to his Facebook account to vent.

Going to be deleting a lot of people off of Facebook. Just realized how many fake people I have on here, he wrote.

But at the time Johnston might have been the biggest faker on his own Facebook page: a man posing as a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer until his arrest in October.

That’s when federal agents served a search warrant at his Fontana home. They took him into custody on suspicion of impersonating an ICE agent and also discovered a cache of weapons and explosive devices.

Investigators determined that Johnston had purchased a fake ICE badge from a vendor in China and created the credentials with the help of a friend.

Last week, Johnston was sentenced to two years in federal prison.

Why, of all the law enforcement officers, did Johnston pick an ICE agent? He told federal investigators that he wanted to impress people while choosing an agency he felt nobody knew about.

It was, on its face, an ironic statement, given the prominence of ICE and its front-line role in President Donald Trump’s battle against illegal immigration.

And yet, how many people really know what an ICE agent looks and dresses like?

Immigration officers have often been mistaken for police officers during enforcement actions. They have also impersonated occupational safety officials at work sites.

Immigration enforcement advocates say so-called sanctuary city policies have led federal agents to use such ploys.

The Department of Homeland Security has said such tactics are consistent with its authorities under federal law and in accordance with the Constitution.

Johnston told investigators that he didn’t pick a local law enforcement agency because that seemed riskier.

His family did not respond to multiple requests for comments.

ICE, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security, has more than 20,000 employees, according to the department’s website.

Joseph Macias, special agent in charge of ICE’s Homeland Security Initiative in Los Angeles, said Johnston simply picked a department that was in the limelight.

“I took it as him boasting about himself,” Macias said. “He wanted to show his bravado to his new girlfriend and be able to say ‘I’m an ICE agent.’ ”

Jeff Gilgallon, special agent in charge for ICE’s Los Angeles Office of Professional Responsibility, said there has been an uptick of such cases.

Shortly after Trump won the presidential election, Michael Ruiz impersonated an ICE officer and swindled immigrants in South Carolina out of roughly $70,000, authorities allege. This marks the second time he has faced these allegations. Ruiz was sent to prison in 2010 in a scam that took more than $200,000 from immigrants.

In April 2017, a former Washington Post employee was accused of impersonating an ICE officer. And earlier this year in Delaware, a woman and man were arrested and charged with impersonating ICE agents in an attempt to rob a woman.

Gilgallon said other cases involved telephone scams and insider schemes such as a person claiming to have access to a Homeland Security employee who could speed up immigration cases.

“When they impersonate the agent, it undermines the public’s confidence in law enforcement,” Gilgallon said. “We’re reaching out to police departments and educating them of the various schemes that are out there.”

Federal investigators began to unravel Johnston’s lies in October when a San Bernardino County Sheriff’s deputy pulled over a white 2017 Audi, according to federal prosecutors and a federal affidavit.

The driver was Johnston’s girlfriend, who had accidentally turned on the blue and red emergency lights on the vehicle’s dash.

The woman told the deputy that she was trying to plug in her phone and didn’t realize she had activated the lights. She told him the car belonged to Johnston and that he worked for Homeland Security.

The deputy asked the woman to call him. On the phone, Johnston identified himself as an ICE agent and said he had forgotten to take the lights off the dash. Johnston asked the deputy to have his girlfriend remove the lights. She did and was allowed to go.

The next day the deputy informed ICE of Johnston’s claim of being an ICE employee, triggering an investigation after Johnston’s name didn’t come up as a federal employee.

Over several days, investigators discovered social media accounts in which Johnston claimed to be a federal agent. There were photos too.

One image on a Facebook account “showed Johnston standing by (a) doorway wearing a dark blue polo shirt with insignia patches … on his right shoulder, body armor, tactical khakis, and a tactical dropdown holster, similar to that of an ICE agent,” the affidavit said.

On his Facebook accounts he said he was employed at Homeland Security and worked in “Fugitive Apprehension.”

Federal investigators interviewed Johnston’s girlfriend, who told them she learned of his employment after asking him. She showed them photos Johnston had sent her.

“The photo showed a handgun, a pair of black handcuffs, a Homeland Security ID badge with Johnston’s picture and the DHS seal, and gold ICE belt badge,” the affidavit said.

The girlfriend told investigators that Johnston had given her $1,500 to $2,000 every week for no reason.

Investigators don’t believe Johnston used his fake authority to shake immigrants down for money.

But Johnston had committed to the role.

Investigators said Johnston had taken a report from his girlfriend’s friend, who was having problems trying to remove a roommate from her apartment. The roommate was in the country illegally. In another instance, Johnston saw a hit-and-run and chased after a car with his red and blue lights on, causing the driver to crash.

Johnston was known to tell people at Deja Vu Showgirls in the City of Industry that he worked as a Homeland Security agent. The staff declined to comment.

Those who knew him there described him as a nice person who would show up at the club a few times a week. He wasn’t known to brag about his purported employment with Homeland Security, but people knew about it.

“We want to know the truth. Who was he?” one person said.

The federal affidavit shows that on several occasions Johnston tried to pull people over, including two women who worked at Deja Vu.

On Oct. 20, federal investigators served a search warrant at Johnston’s home in Fontana, where he lived with his parents. Federal agents found 32 firearms, including shotguns, rifles, pistols and revolvers; about 10,000 rounds of ammunition; two rocket launchers; and explosive materials and devices, according to the federal affidavit.

Agents also found a body armor plate carrier bearing an olive drab Homeland Security seal and an American flag, a polo shirt bearing the Homeland Security seal and marked “ICE” on the front and “Police ICE” on the back. They also found a phone used “to create fake telephone numbers so that he could send messages to himself to bolster his ICE identity,” the affidavit said.

Investigators also learned that Johnston had sold an AR-15 to a man for $700.

According to the affidavit, Johnston told investigators he was able to get a security guard job with Southern Executive Security because the company believed that he was an ICE agent.

But a company official disputed that claim.

“To my knowledge, he did not work for our office,” said Sal Hanna, vice president of operations for Southern Executive Security.

Investigators said they believe Johnston impersonated an immigration officer after his former wife insulted him in front of his daughter in 2016.

She “told his daughter that he had done nothing with his life,” the affidavit said.

Except Johnston had. Just nothing to brag about.

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© 2018 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.