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Man who posed as high school athlete jailed on fraud charges

Thursday, May 13, 2010

ODESSA, Texas -- A lot of guys dream about going back to high school and recapturing their athletic glory days. A man who went by the name of Jerry Joseph did it, police say, and now he's in big trouble.

Authorities say the boyish-looking 22-year-old posed as a 16-year-old sophomore phenom to lead the Permian High School basketball team to the state playoffs. He was jailed on fraud charges, and the rabidly competitive West Texas high school that inspired the movie "Friday Night Lights" may have to forfeit its season.

"Everyone just thought he was a big guy," said Permian senior football player Steven Pipes. "He played the part good, skipping down the hallways acting goofy like a 16-year-old."

Pipes and some teammates approached the 6-foot-5 player they knew as Joseph soon after he enrolled last year, asking him if he wanted to play football. Pipes said Joseph, who was attending a junior high at the time, declined. He liked basketball instead, and he was good enough to average about 20 points per game over the final nine games heading into the playoffs, where Permian lost in the first round.

Joseph was a starter and played center and forward. But suspicions about the player's identity first arose when three Florida basketball coaches familiar with a former player named Guerdwich Montimere recognized him last month at an amateur tournament in Little Rock, Ark. Montimere, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Haiti, graduated from Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale in 2007.

School officials and immigration authorities initially believed Joseph when he denied the allegations and let him remain enrolled. But school police and immigration agents confirmed Montimere's identity Tuesday. When confronted, he confessed, said school district spokesman Mike Adkins.

Montimere was arrested and charged with failure to identify himself to a police officer. He posted $500 bond Wednesday, said Ector County sheriff's Sgt. Debbie Bruce.

If convicted of the misdemeanor, he could face a maximum of six months in jail and a $2,500 fine. Bruce said there was no record of an attorney for Montimere.

Montimere's mother, Manikisse Montimere of Tamarac, Fla., said she had not seen her son in about two years. She said basketball was important to him.

"I guess he doesn't want me in his life at all," she said. "I always pray to wish him the best."

A 37-year-old cousin, Tales Simeon of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was baffled.

"At 22 years old, if you're good, they still take you in the NBA or wherever you want to go. So why did he try to be something else, to change his age? What happened?" Simeon said. "I have no idea. I don't know what's going on. This is crazy."

Montimere presented himself as Joseph after moving to Odessa in February 2009 and enrolling as a ninth-grader at a junior high. He showed officials a Haitian birth certificate indicating he was 15 and claimed he lived with a half-brother in the dorm of a local university, Adkins said.

After admitting the person was a friend, not his half-brother, Montimere moved in with Permian boys basketball coach Danny Wright when the friend left the state last summer, Adkins said.

On Wednesday afternoon, some players practiced shooting in the Permian gym as Wright looked on. He declined to comment, citing a directive from school officials.

Moments later while speaking with a substitute teacher who had Joseph in classes this year, Wright said he felt compassion for the young man.

"I genuinely love that kid and wish him the best," he told the teacher, Liz Faught. He said he chose to take Joseph into his family and hoped their time together "showed him virtues."

Faught said later than Joseph was a "most respectable young man" and "was well mannered" when she taught him in class. And, she said, "he was totally dedicated to basketball."

Randy Lee, a former men's basketball coach at the University of Texas-Permian Basin, said he was introduced to a teenager known as Jerry Joseph last spring. Lee said the young man looked more physically developed than a lot of the basketball players he encountered, but he did not seem older than 15.

"Maybe I'm gullible, but he didn't look much different from a lot of city kids," Lee said.

Documents obtained by The Associated Press show that Permian officials obtained a waiver in October from the governing body of Texas public school sports allowing Jerry Joseph to play basketball as a 10th grader, even though he would be living with Wright and not a parent or legal guardian.

The application for the waiver submitted to the University Interscholastic League stated that the player's birth date was Jan. 1, 1994, that his mother and father were dead, and that he had never been in school before enrolling in ninth grade on March 3, 2009.

Under the heading "signature of student" is a neatly written "Jerry Joseph." Permian Principal Ray Garcia signed the document in the space designated for a school administrator.

Permian received the district's approval to seek the waiver in August, when Wright stated that Joseph was a student from Haiti who came from an "unstable family situation," according to minutes of a meeting where the issue was discussed.

Wright also told the group that the player was not a U.S. citizen but was working with immigration officials to become one.

The rules of the University Interscholastic League require forfeiture of any games involving an ineligible player. The league will wait to hear from local officials before determining if any other punishment is necessary, said Mark Cousins, the group's director of policy.

With nearly 1,300 member schools and more than 700,000 athletes, the group counts on schools to determine athletes' eligibility.

"We put a lot of faith in our administrators," Cousins said. "Ultimately, it's the school's responsibility."


Associated Press writers Linda Stewart Ball and Danny Robbins in Dallas, Jim Vertuno in Austin, and researcher Monika Mathur in New York contributed to this report.


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