Newly married but still out of work, Aaron Holmes Silverman set his eyes on a new career last year.
He applied to Erie Community College, got into its nursing program and even qualified for $6,000 in federal grants and loans.
For Silverman, a former member of the British Royal Air Force, it was a welcome helping hand.
And then came a knock on the door of his Cheektowaga home.
To hear investigators talk, Silverman is really Paul Keener, a Kansas con man who bought the Silverman identity on Craigslist for $300 and used it and other aliases to avoid arrest for more than two decades.
It’s a case that brings to mind “Catch Me If You Can,” the 2002 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Abagnale Jr., the real-life criminal who posed as a Pan Am pilot, teaching assistant, doctor and lawyer.
“The guy was on the lam for 20 years and knew how to work the system,” U.S. Marshal Charles F. Salina said of Keener.
Investigators say Keener’s attention to detail – he kept photos from his life as Aaron Silverman on the walls of his Cheektowaga home – allowed him to remain free long after his 1996 escape from a Colorado state prison where he was facing fraud charges.
Keener’s life as Silverman took him to Florida, back to Colorado and eventually to Cheektowaga, where he settled and married a woman from Ohio. Keener’s wife knew him only as Silverman and nothing of his real identity, investigators say.
And Aaron Silverman wasn’t his only alias.
Keener also used Paul Robison, Scott Walker and Antonio DeLuca as false identities, according to court papers, but often fell back on the Silverman alias.
The real Aaron Silverman ran away from his Virginia home in 1993 and was never seen again.
Even on the day of his arrest earlier this month, Keener spent 20 minutes arguing that he was, indeed, Aaron Silverman, investigators say. And when that didn’t work, they say, he acknowledged the false identity and claimed he was really Scott Walker.
And only then, after trotting out several other names, all of them aliases, did he admit his real identity, investigators say.
“He finally gave the name Paul Keener,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott S. Allen, the prosecutor on the case.
After two decades on the run, Keener faces a return to jail. The charges against him – aggravated identity theft and using a passport secured by a false statement – carry a maximum sentence of 12 years in federal prison.
At the core of the government’s case is the allegation that Keener used Silverman’s identity to register to vote, acquire a passport, cross over into Canada and apply for and receive college financial aid.
Investigators say Keener also used his false identities to acquire credit cards that he used to live on. On one occasion, after maxing out a card, he went so far as to use his false identity to file an identity theft report indicating the card had been compromised and asking for a new one.
“He’s a serial fraudster,” said one investigator.
Keener’s use of Aaron Silverman’s identity has periodically raised a red flag at the Center for Exploited Children, where the missing boy’s name is on record. Keener was always able to convince the police that he really was Silverman, investigators say.
Sometime between 2004 and 2006, he moved to Western New York and eventually settled in Cheektowaga. After marrying a woman from Ohio, he enrolled at ECC and applied for and received $6,000 in federal Pell grants and Stafford loans.
As part of his financial aid request, Keener is accused of creating a fake British Royal Air Force document. Investigators say Keener produced the document when he was asked why he had not registered for the Selective Service here.
About the same time, he applied for a passport renewal and again found himself answering questions about Aaron Silverman. And this time, the people asking questions were from the U.S. Marshals, the Social Security Office of the Inspector General and the Diplomatic Security Service, the law enforcement arm of the U.S. Department of State.
“Technology caught up with him,” Allen said of Keener’s arrest that day.
Keener, who still faces an outstanding warrant in Colorado, appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah J. McCarthy last month and was ordered held without bail.