A Cheektowaga man has been accused of impersonating a dead soldier on Facebook and online dating websites.
The arrest of Brandon Ashraf, 28, of Doat Street, followed an investigation into actions that occurred on the Internet in 2011 and 2012, according to Capt. Jim Speyer, a Cheektowaga Police Department spokesman. Ashraf was charged earlier this week with a misdemeanor count of criminal impersonation.
Ashraf is accused of impersonating Army Staff Sgt. Matthew A. Pucino of Maryland, a Green Beret who was killed in action in Afghanistan on Nov. 23, 2009. He was 34.
Speyer said that Pucino’s sister, Melissa, contacted town police after receiving information that a Cheektowaga resident was using her brother’s identity.
An investigation by Detective Joseph Crean revealed that Ashraf had set up various Internet accounts using Pucino’s identity, as well as photographs of him, Speyer said. Ashraf allegedly went so far as to set up a meeting with a woman in Florida with whom he had made contact over a dating site.
Another of Pucino’s sisters had told a Boston television reporter in December that the person using his identity claimed to be from Dallas. A photograph used to create an account on a dating website had come from the Matthew A. Pucino Memorial Foundation website, she said.
Little did Ashraf know, but when he sent an e-mail to the foundation about a month ago – leading to several more e-mail exchanges – he was in contact with one of Pucino’s sisters, Lisa Pucino Haglof.
On Friday evening, she said she was pleased that Ashraf had been arrested.
“We’re pretty disgusted with the whole thing,” Pucino Haglof said. “We’re really glad that this has come to a head and he has been charged. We didn’t give up.”
Noting that this type of thing happens often to military families, Pucino Haglof said her family has been deeply hurt by Ashraf’s alleged actions. “We’re hoping he changes his ways,” she said. “People don’t realize [the hurt]. Every day, we wake up and think of Matthew. People who do things like this, don’t realize how much it hurts.”
The family first suspected trouble about two years ago, when they were contacted by an alleged victim that Ashraf had been “cat fishing” through online dating, Pucino Haglof said. Then, another victim recently contacted the family.
Since that time, Ashraf, himself, contacted the foundation regarding the Facebook page. “He claims he has nothing to do with the Facebook page, and he may not have,” Pucino Haglof said.
Nonetheless, Ashraf’s contact with the foundation ultimately helped lead the family to him, and then, to police.
“He contacted the foundation, and I answered,” Pucino Haglof said. “I started researching some of what he was saying, and what victims were saying.”
From there, Pucino’s family compiled a timeline of events. “He [Ashraf] just helped,” Pucino Haglof said. “He did not realize we were connecting the dots.”
According to the memorial foundation website, Pucino was on combat patrol near Pashay Kala, in eastern Afghanistan, when the vehicle in which he was riding was struck with an improvised explosive device.
Pucino had grown up in Massachusetts, where his father, Albert, was a State Police captain. Matthew Pucino had earned a college degree in criminal justice but enlisted in the military in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Following arraignment before Town Justice Paul Piotrowski, Ashraf was released without bail pending further court action.
Pucino Haglof credited the efforts of Cheektowaga police. “My sister contacted them a few weeks ago, and they did a great job and verified what we had [given them],” she said.