Andrew Thomas is in North Carolina on the trail of a new wave of fake US military veterans. He sent this report about his hunt for the college student who was treated like a hero, and even blagged free tuition with her bogus tales of warzone adventures.
"That's her". Those were the words I wanted to hear.
Nothing makes the US military, or its old soldiers madder than people passing themselves off as veterans of combat. For years, the problem was fake Vietnam vets. But new wars mean new fakes and now cases are popping up all over America of people pretending to be veterans of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. I'm in Raleigh, North Carolina trying to track one down.
Lisa Jane Phillips (that's right, a woman - gives the story a contemporary twist) spent two and a half years as Captain Phillips, fighter-pilot extraordinaire. Like some sort of comic-book superhero, fom 2002 to 2005 she apparently led a double life. By weekday she was a popular student at the exclusive and expensive Meredith private women's college. At weekends, and occasionally for fortnights at a time, she'd go off-campus and straight into war-zones - flying sorties, even getting shot down over Northern Iraq, transporting troops in Afghanistan, getting injured in road-side bombings near Baghdad.
When on campus Phillips - sporting a Purple Heart ribbon awarded, supposedly, for bravery - was hailed as an American hero: the college waived $42,000 worth of tuition fees, got her speaking at special seminars about 'what it's really like over there' and even gave her her own special parking space - in the US, there is no greater privilege.
The only one who wasn't convinced was Campus Police Chief Frank Strickland, himself a veteran of Vietnam. He noticed that alongside the Purple Heart was a ribbon awarded only to those who'd seen action in World War II. Phillips was 34, born 1971. Stickland called in the FBI and, last August, Phillips pleaded guilty to fraud and to impersonating an officer. She currently awaits her sentence.
My problem is that to tell this story on TV, I need people to talk and not many will. From London I reach a reporter on the local paper in Raleigh: she knows the story well and is happy to help me out. She gives me a number for Phillips' lawyer and for Chief Stickland at Meredith College. The reporter wishes me luck: she never got the latter to talk.
Phillips' lawyer - William 'Woody' Webb is full of fun and promise - 'the only battleground Phillips saw was downtown Raleigh' he excitedly reveals. He tells me he'll do an interview and will request one of Phillips too. Meanwhile, I call Chief Strickland: he's short and to the point but, crucially, agress to talk on camera. Full of hope, I book my flight.
Bad news comes the next day, and less than twenty-four hours before I'm due to fly. Webb calls back to say that not only will his client not do an interview but she's banned him from doing one too. Minus the protagonist, or even her spokesman, my story suddenly seems thin. I don't even have Phillips' picture - in TV terms, a crucial omission. Still, no going back; the ticket's booked.
Ten days ago, I'd never heard of Raleigh. Now - Saturday, late pm - I'm stepping off a plane I took direct from Gatwick. It's a warm evening and in town, I wander to its student-land, hoping that, by some fluke, I might meet someone who knew Phillips and is prepared to share some snaps. Strangely enough, I don't.
Sunday, and finding Phillips, or at leat an image of her, becomes my mission. I've got a local camera-man hired for Monday and I want to make every minute with him count. Whatever I can do alone and in advance will help enormously. I drive first to the satellite town of Apex to find an address that court papers suggest is where Phillips lives. I find the road - a beautiful, wooded drive of detached mansions, small forests dividing each from the next.
It doesn't feel like the sort of place a fake vet would live and proves to be a dead end - both literally and metaphorically. Phillips is supposed to live at number 5004. The road stops somewhere in the 4000s. I optimistically imagine there's been a minor typo and ring the bells of 4005, 4004, 3004 and 2004. None of their occupants have heard of Phllips. Most look incredulous to have been disturbed over Sunday lunch. I shuffle off, somewhat dejected.
In Apex I find an internet cafe and run a Yahoo 'people search' on 'Lisa Phillips' in North Carolina. It throws up a single address in Apex town centre; it's less than a mile away. I'm full, once more, of hope but find it shattered once again. No-one's at home. In fact, the place looks like it's vacant. A neighbour tells me that there's rarely anyone in and she doesn't think they're called Lisa anyway. My heart sinks further: as a piece of television, this is not looking good.
Back in Raleigh, I spend late afternoon strolling around Meredith College where the students are returning from their Spring Break. Some know the Phillips story but none have pictures and none will talk about her on camera. Tomorrow, I vow, I must do better.
Frank Strickland is a star: one of those interviewees to whom you can throw a single question and then just stand back and watch him go. Soundbite follows soundbite, anecdote after anecdote: with him, I've got the mechanics of the story told in a lively , energetic way.
"The college authorities won't like me talking to you" he confides off-camera. (I'd thought as much and had held off phoning them about Phillips' 'free fees' in case they put the cosh on him). For the first time this trip, I feel a degree of hope. The Strickland interview is now in the can and, like his Police Chief badge in the sunshine, he sparkled.
But Strickland doesn't have a photo. I cross campus to the psycology department where Phillips studied but, friendly though both tutors and students are, none has that all-important image. The clock ticking - and, with it, my time with the cameraman - I decide to go for broke and see the college's 'Communications Director'. She looks strangely petrified of me: being duped for so long and in such a remarkable way has obviously hit Meredith College hard. She promises to contact me later in the day with a statement and says she'll consider giving an interview or supplying a photo. I don't believe her but smile politely nonetheless. She then requests I leave campus. I do.
Back into town. En route I put in calls to the prosecutor's office, the police and the local FBI branch in Raleigh. Pre-sentencing, none will talk to me on camera, nor release mug-shots.
Andrea Weigl, the local paper reporter, does a decent, fun interview but is no help with a picture - "I've never seen one" she says, "very unusual". We pick up some useful shots of Raleigh's war memorials before heading off next to an army surplus store to show how easy it is in the States to buy military ribbons. "There's nothing illegal about buying a Purple Heart" the manager Joyce assures me with a gentle southern lilt, "Impersonating an officer - now that's the crime".
By now, it's late afternoon. Combined with interviews that my colleague Iain is picking up with a fake-vet hunter in Missouri and an interview I'm yet to do with an FBI chief in New York, I feel I've got enought to tell the story but I'm still disappointed by the lack of an encounter with Phillips and by the lack of her image. With two hours left before the cameraman runs into overtime, I decide to have a second shot at the apparently abandonned house in Apex. We hit rush hour traffic, but get up there just before 6.
Approaching the door followed by a cameraman, I feel a little dirty: something like the host on that awful TV show Cheaters. Remarkably the door is slightly ajar. I knock. After twenty nervous seconds it opens a fraction, just long enough for me - and the camera - to get a glimpse of the woman inside. "Are you Lisa Phillips?" I ask. She moves to slam the door on me; its thud almost muffles her answer. "No".
I fire a couple of questions through the shut door - 'how does she feel about deceiving her peers', 'why impersonate an officer' - but, in truth, I have a problem. Everything about the woman's behaviour suggests I've found Phillips but in the single word I got out of her, she denied that was who she was. An ITN lawyer won't let us braodcast an encounter which leads to possibility of libel through a case of mistaken identity. Without an image, I've no idea what Phillips looks like, no idea whether I've just met the right woman. Then Ray, the cameraman, makes a very obvious point. I might not know what Phillips looks like, but I know a man who does.
It only takes Chief Stickland a glance. "That's her". He shows it to his colleague: "Who's that?".
"Oh that?" she scrunches her eyes, "That's that Air Force girl. She looks just like she did on he ID card."
Her ID card? My ears prick.
"Frank - sorry - Chief. Do you have those ID details on computer?"
"Well, maybe, unless she's been deleted."
She hasn't: and there she appears on screen looking, but for the uniform, just as she did during our encounter. Strickland prints off a plastic ID card, then carefully cuts away everything bar the picture. "Security," he explains, "can't be too careful". This, after all, is a college that knows what it's like to be stung.