William Rich has used a wheelchair since an IED blast in Iraq damaged his kidney and spinal cord in 2005, rendering him paraplegic.
At least, that’s what his medical records with the Department of Veterans Affairs said.
It took two years of surveillance and a deep dive in to the 41-year-old Army veteran’s social media accounts for special agents to learn the truth of his alleged ruse. Rich is now being accused of lying about his injuries to receive more than $1 million in disability benefits from the VA and Social Security Administration, even using grants for an adaptive vehicle to buy a two-door luxury BMW that he later totaled.
Federal prosecutors charged Rich, who is from Windsor Mill, Maryland, with theft of government property and wire fraud in a criminal complaint filed Oct. 13.
Rich could not be reached for comment, and a public defender representing him did not immediately respond to McClatchy News’ request for comment Wednesday.
Rich served in the U.S. Army from 1998 to 2007, at which point he started receiving 100% disability for injuries he sustained in August 2005 while stationed in Baqubah, Iraq, the government said.
Medical records show Rich largely recovered from those injuries by October that same year, according to a special agent’s affidavit filed in support of the charges. By 2006, doctors certified Rich could perform most daily tasks with “complete” or “modified” independence.
But after his discharge from the Army, Rich was reportedly examined by a different physician at the VA who never saw his earlier patient records. According to the doctor’s notes, Rich arrived at the appointment in a wheelchair and could not “stand or ambulate even with maximal assistance,” resulting in a determination that Rich was “paralyzed in both lower extremities.”
The doctor didn’t X-ray Rich at that time, saying he didn’t “feel that it was worth the trauma to him of manipulating him around,” the affidavit states.
Prosecutors said Rich was granted permanent disability from the VA after the exam.
It wasn’t until the VA’s Office of Inspector General conducted an audit more than a decade later that Rich’s claims began to raise red flags.
A special agent started observing him in March 2019. According to the affidavit, he witnessed Rich leave a VA appointment in his wheelchair, fold it up, put it in the back of his vehicle and drive away. The agents said he saw Rich standing up without help in a barber shop later that same day.
Investigators used covert electronic surveillance to record Rich from December 2019 to May 2020, which reportedly captured him “walking, ascending and descending stairs, entering and exiting vehicles, lifting, bending, and carrying items,” according to the affidavit.
Prosecutors said the only time Rich was ever seen using a wheelchair was on days he went in for medical appointments at the VA.
Between March 2019 and February 2021, the government said, Rich was seen loading the wheelchair into his trunk, using it during a VA appointment, rolling himself back to his car and then loading it up to leave on at least five separate occasions.
Investigators also looked at Rich’s Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages for further evidence. According to the affidavit, they saw several pictures of him standing up or otherwise upright “with no visible indication that he was bound to a wheelchair.”
One photograph from 2016 appeared to show Rich in the gym lifting weights. The caption read, “Lol lift or leave. The gym is now known as Gainsville aka LIFTUATION HQ.”
Rich’s house in Maryland ”likely” contains more evidence that he is “not disabled as he purports to be” — including an “an extensive gym, with exercise equipment that a person in Rich’s purported condition would not be capable of using,” the affidavit states.
Investigators said Rich was also given money from the VA to buy an adaptive vehicle for his wheelchair and was trained on how to use hand controls to drive it. Instead, he is accused of using that money to buy a 2004 BMW that likely couldn’t be adapted for someone who is paraplegic given its “limited dimensions.”
The BMW was reportedly totaled in an accident. According to the affidavit, Rich has since bought two more cars — a 2016 Chevrolet Suburban and a 2009 BMW 750 — neither of which appeared to be adapted for a person in a wheelchair.
Rich made his initial appearance before a judge on Oct. 13 and was released pending trial.
If he is convicted, prosecutors said, Rich faces up to 20 years in prison on the wire fraud charge and up to 10 years on the theft of government property charge.
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