BALTIMORE – For years, William Hillar's tales about his exploits as an Army Green Beret and a puffed up resume helped him land jobs teaching counterterrorism and drug and human trafficking interdiction, but the scheme has now earned him 21 months in federal prison.
Hillar, 66, of Millersville, pleaded guilty to wire fraud earlier this year and was sentenced Tuesday in U.S. District Court. He must pay $170,000 in restitution to the law enforcement and first responder organizations and schools that hired him believing that he had spent 28 years in the U.S. Special Forces, reaching the rank of colonel. He must also perform 500 community service hours at Maryland's veteran cemeteries.
His scheme started to unravel when a skeptical veteran emailed members of the Special Forces community to see if anyone knew of Hillar, former Green Beret Jeff Hinton testified Tuesday. Hillar's story was suspicious because there were only a handful of colonels during the period Hillar claimed to have served, he said.
Hinton, whose "Professional Soldiers" social networking site for Special Forces members has become a clearinghouse for people checking on possible fraudsters, filed Freedom of Information requests. When he learned that U.S. Special Operations Command had not heard of Hillar, he decided to expose him and warn the organizations that had hired him, he said.
"The training he was giving them would most likely put people at risk," he said. "Basically it's worthless."
While Green Beret impostors are not uncommon, Hinton called Hillar the most prodigious fraud he has come across, noting that this case is the first he has seen result in jail time. Hillar's trading on a reputation that's "forged in blood" is reprehensible, dishonorable and disrespectful to those who have served and died, he said.
Hillar was paid more than $170,000 by state and local organizations across the country and the federal government — including the U.S. Army at Aberdeen Proving Ground, FBI Command College and various local divisions of the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs — to teach, lead seminars or speak since 1998, according to his plea agreement.
Prosecutor Leo Wise argued for a prison term on the higher end of the sentencing guidelines, as a deterrent to others: 27 months. Hillar not only endangered first responders with worthless information, he also displaced qualified trainers, Wise said.
Wise played a recording of Hillar's introduction at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in which Hillar tells the audience he was fortunate to be in the military for 28 years.
"I have been trained as a terrorist," he said, explaining that an American would consider him a freedom fighter, but to an enemy in the Balkans or elsewhere he would be a terrorist. He said he was an adviser in Laos during the Vietnam War, spent time in drug interdiction in central America, trained with U.S. Special Forces' British, German and Israeli counterparts and spent time training mujahedeen during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, becoming an "adrenaline junkie."
"I like the rush that you get, or at least that I get," he said. But he told the audience that his life came with a price: His morals were compromised and he ended up in counseling.
"The only thing true about this is that he compromised his value system and his morality. The victims in this thought they were getting 'Black Hawk Down,'" Wise said, referring to a book and movie depicting real-life experiences in the Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia. "Instead they got 'Rambo' — a fiction."
Hillar told the judge he takes full responsibility, apologized and said he has had to admit to himself that he is a fraud. He told the judge that people just assumed that he had a background with Special Forces.
"I never denied it and after years I actually adopted it," he said. "I know that was wrong and I apologize. I didn't do it for the money and believe it or not, I'm a patriot."
Hillar also portrayed himself as a human trafficking expert whose daughter was kidnapped and killed by sex traffickers. He said the movie "Taken" was based on his search for his daughter. Monterey even held an essay contest with cash prizes in memory of the daughter, whom prosecutors said was not kidnapped and is alive.
Public Defender Gary Christopher, who argued for a sentence of time served — Hillar spent six weeks in a maximum security prison — and probation, said Hillar was a teacher at heart and his teaching style involved storytelling.
"He just could not resist embroidering himself into those tales," Christopher said. "He needed to be the hero."