This is a little late to write about, and is related to life before the PU, but it’s not every day when as a reporter you know that your story directly betters someone’s life. So I thought I’d share.

Back during the winter and spring of 2008 when I was writing about entrepreneurs for The Dallas Morning News, I was working on a story about Ray Beasley, an ex-con who said he had invented a solution to help fight against identity theft. He said he had figured out how to beat the criminals at their own game because, during his 15 years in prison (for selling drugs), he had the scam artists teach him how they did it, so he could then work around their scams.

I know what you’re thinking. Me, too.

But it turned out that he had been in contact with very reputable and knowledgeable people at EDS and UTD, including someone who had been a longtime source of mine. They confirmed both the conversations they had had with him, and that they thought his idea had merit. They were willing to vouch for him as he looked for investors to make his idea a reality.

It was a great – and very unlikely – tale of an entrepreneur. And I had a hell of a time getting it into the paper.

Understandably, when I first told editors about the story, they had all the same questions I did. But I’m no rookie. I told them about the traps that I ran and what I had found. The page one editor had interest. And I was excited to work on it because what I had been wanting to do more of was narrative features, ones for which I could spend some time on the reporting and writing and grow as a journalist.

For a variety of reasons, many of which having to do with a completely useless editor, I spent just as much time fighting to work on the story as I did work on it. Much of it I did on my own time. I believed in the story. And colleagues whose work I respected encouraged my instincts.

I borrowed and read all of his prison diaries. I questioned him repeatedly in multiple interviews, his motives, his character – and that did prompt a touch of the persona that I think made him a successful drug dealer. He had a chip on his shoulder, and was arrogant not some of the time. I went to do a prison interview with one of his former “teachers” who was still serving a life sentence for murder. I had lunch at Bennigan’s in Plano with a former computer programmer who had served his time but while he was in prison taught Ray about software and computers. I drafted multiple versions. If DD ever got annoyed at my constant requests for feedback, he never said so (for which I’m grateful.)

In any case, not to go on and on. I do feel that there was some unnecessary nonsense in the way it was handled, but the story did eventually run on the business cover in May of that year. An excerpt:

In September 1991, Mr. Beasley saw the harder side of crime. He began his 99-year term at the red-brick, razor-wired Coffield unit in Tennessee Colony, about 70 miles southeast of Dallas.

Beneath the 40-foot-tall stained-glass window in the prison’s cavernous chapel, he and other inmates would pretend to listen to tapes of religious music. Instead, an inmate known as “Dorsett” would school Mr. Beasley in Identity Theft 101.

All you need are obituaries in the newspaper, Dorsett told him. They’d give you a birth date and place of birth as well as the mother’s maiden name – most of the ingredients needed to pose as someone else.

Identities in hand, “Reginald” explained that personal checks could then be made from scratch with stock paper from an office supply store and some software.

In 1994, Mr. Beasley picked up his abandoned college studies, enrolling in data processing classes, where he learned how to draw schematic diagrams.

Fellow inmates tutored him in subjects such as COBOL programming and MS-DOS. He got a transfer to the Ramsey One unit near Houston in 2001 to continue his studies.

If the prisoners at Coffield gave the inmate his undergraduate education in identity theft, Ramsey One was graduate school. Ramsey housed professionals: engineers, bankers and computer programmers.

“We didn’t talk scams; we talked systems capabilities,” Mr. Beasley says.

This is where he met Michael Miller, a fellow inmate who had been a computer programmer. They were an odd pair – the fiftysomething bespectacled Mr. Miller and Mr. Beasley, who weighed nearly 300 pounds by then. Mr. Miller offered technical advice, and Mr. Beasley could resurrect his drug dealer’s countenance when necessary, shielding Mr. Miller from prison violence.

“I was very skeptical,” says Mr. Miller, now released and living in the Dallas area. “In that environment, you always assume everybody but yourself is a scam artist.”

For three years, Mr. Beasley retraced the steps to Mr. Miller’s dorm, six rooms down. Pointing to a particular formula in Mr. Beasley’s hand-drawn schematic, Mr. Miller would ask: How would this stop someone from opening up an account in my name?

Over the 15 years he was in prison, Mr. Beasley talked with about 900 inmates, he believes. This think tank of cons shared their methods with him and poked holes in solutions he would propose within his computer program.

 

 

Back in August, SJ who now very capably writes about entrepreneurs for The DMN sent me a message that Ray had, in fact, found someone to invest in his company. Now, Ray still has a long way to go. But I know that without my work, the reporting and writing, he would not have been able to secure this funding. I’ll be watching from halfway around the world to see what happens next.

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