In an instant Friday, Austin T. McDaniels went from con man to condemned man.
The 54-year-old Council Bluffs man, also known as Randall Rogers, was sentenced to 13 to 20 years in prison for posing as a defense attorney and extorting at least $140,000 from an Omaha woman.
Prosecutors called McDaniels one of the most conniving deceivers they've ever charged.
McDaniels' scheming was so twisted that he would wrap his head in a bandage and insert a 9-volt battery underneath — he described it as a shunt that was treating his terminal brain cancer.
So twisted that he would text friends saying he was having brain surgery — and those friends, even a pastor, would raise money for him.
So twisted that, after he was charged, he demanded that a judge provide him a sign-language interpreter — only to later admit that he doesn't understand sign language.
“He's the consummate con man,” said Brenda Beadle, chief deputy Douglas County attorney. “He's smart, he knows what's going on. But he won't ever face the truth. It's impossible for him.”
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The truth of McDaniels' life is almost impossible to discern.
A brief summary of what he told his friends, most of whom he met at Council Bluffs casinos:
He was divorced with eight children. He was a multimillionaire and his children were millionaires by way of early investments in Berkshire Hathaway.
He was nearly deaf. And he was near death.
Almost all of those claims were unverifiable.
His eight children? McDaniels told one casino dealer he had two sets of triplets and one set of twins. He told a close friend he had three sets of twins and an additional boy.
Friends never saw his children, never saw the pictures.
Nor did they see evidence of his purported millions.
Friends acknowledged they saw McDaniels gamble — lots. They also saw him with food stamps.
“That man would talk more than anyone I've ever met,” said Roxanne Tilford, who met McDaniels in 2011 at Horseshoe Casino in Council Bluffs. “The children, the millions — I never believed anything he told me.”
At his initial court hearing on his theft charges, McDaniels stopped the hearing. “I don't understand anything that's going on,” he said, pleading with the judge.
The judge delayed the hearing. An interpreter came in. She furiously signed every word for McDaniels. He was bound over for trial.
Fast-forward four months.
As he was going through a Lincoln Regional Center evaluation to determine his competency to stand trial, McDaniels answered questions from all of the professionals in the room. Even from those who weren't facing him.
“It was clear to our family physician that this man was not deaf as he had originally claimed,” wrote Dr. Klaus Hartmann, a psychiatrist who evaluated McDaniels. “It (also) became clear that he was capable of hearing as he responded to others who were talking but standing behind him.”
When the Regional Center provided a sign-language interpreter, McDaniels waved the interpreter away.
“Mr. McDaniels admitted he had no idea how to read sign language,” Hartmann wrote.
Throughout that evaluation, Hartmann wrote, McDaniels engaged in “bizarre and at times theatrical behaviors.”
He claimed to be paralyzed in his upper extremities, though “it is clear he can move all limbs.”
Asked to sit up, he did so, then threw “himself back, rolling his eyes up and pulling his legs up while mumbling, possibly to simulate a seizure.”
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Which brings us to the brain cancer.
For months, former friends say, McDaniels claimed to have a brain tumor. He wore a head wrap and eventually got around in a wheelchair. He had friends drive him to area hospitals, where he said he was undergoing various treatments. Those friends now believe he never left the first-floor bathroom.
In 2012, he sent texts to friends, alternately claiming to be on his deathbed and posing as “LPN Lindsey,” the nurse tending to him.
On May 10, 2012, “Lindsey” sent this text from McDaniels' phone: “I am sad to say that A (Austin) has shown some signs of fading & saying he's tired and wants to go home to his rightfull place with God!!!”
By May 11, 2012, a miracle. “A (Austin) made it thru the nite,” the update said. “Most of the problems have been resolved.”
Investigators subpoenaed medical records from area hospitals and found only a couple of brief hospital visits by McDaniels. Nothing corroborated the extensive brain surgery or chemotherapy he claimed, prosecutor Katie Benson said.
At one point, a friend said, McDaniels told her he was headed out of state for brain surgery. Concerned when she hadn't heard from him for days, she contacted mutual friends, asking about his surgery. “What do you mean?” the friends said. “He's right here with us.”
Their location: a Las Vegas casino.
Tilford said she was driving with McDaniels once when he asked that they stop off so he could get a new head wrap. Tilford offered to take off the dirty one and reached for his head. McDaniels recoiled, telling her not to touch it.
That's when she noticed: the “shunt” actually was a 9-volt battery.
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Prosecutors say McDaniels wasn't just impersonating a nurse and a brain cancer patient. He also was impersonating a lawyer.
The same phone that sent out texts from “LPN Lindsey” also sent dozens of texts to another friend — a woman he had conspired with to bilk the State of Nebraska out of reimbursements for devices for the hearing-impaired.
Several years ago, the woman, who was deaf and worked for the state, would provide McDaniels with vouchers for devices such as teletype machines. McDaniels would then pretend that friends or associates had purchased the devices, and the two would seek reimbursement.
Douglas County investigators believe that the two may have bilked the state 50 times — at $1,000 to $2,000 a time. Beadle said prosecutors have met with state administrators about bolstering the scrutiny of such transactions.
The woman was fired, but the scheme didn't come to light until the statute of limitations had run out on prosecuting the theft, Benson said.
That didn't stop McDaniels from seizing on the woman's fear that she would face criminal consequences.
Making a letterhead from the website of Fitzgerald, Schorr, Barmettler & Brennan — an Omaha firm that typically doesn't do criminal defense work — McDaniels contacted the woman, claiming to be attorney “Barry Minter.”
In dozens of texts and emails from 2009 to 2012, McDaniels convinced her that he was keeping prosecutors at bay but that he needed more money to do so.
In turn, the 63-year-old woman paid at least $140,000 — and perhaps as much as $200,000 — in cash to a purported law firm runner working for “Barry.”
The woman eventually contacted the actual law firm — and the firm contacted prosecutors.
“Everything he does is deceptive and manipulative,” Beadle said. “It just makes you angry that he was duping so many people and was getting away with it.”
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In his last public act for a while, McDaniels turned to his attorney after he was sentenced Friday by District Judge J. Michael Coffey.
“What was the sentence?” McDaniels asked, cupping his hand to his ear. “I don't even know.”
McDaniels had pleaded no contest to three counts of theft and one count of criminal impersonation. Under state sentencing guidelines, he will serve 6½ to 10 years in prison.
Bone thin, with a shock of salt-and-pepper Albert Einstein hair, he turned to the sheriff's deputies escorting him out of court.
“Where do I go now?” he asked. “The probation office?”
“The penitentiary,” a deputy said, cuffing McDaniels' hands behind his back.
McDaniels' jaw dropped. He looked around the courtroom.
“The penitentiary!” McDaniels protested loudly. “For what? I didn't do anything.”