INDIANAPOLIS – A man masquerading as a down-on-his-luck soldier needing travel funds scammed good Samaritans out of nearly $500 before police caught up with him, a prosecutor said Friday.
James Schuder, 43, of Indianapolis, faces seven misdemeanor counts each of deception and panhandling. He was being held on $14,000 bond Friday at the Johnson County Jail in Franklin, about 20 miles south of Indianapolis. Seven counts carry maximum penalties of a year in jail and $5,000 fines. The others have penalties of 60 days and $500 fines.
"Somebody impersonating someone in uniform ... taking advantage of people like that, is just despicable," said 61-year-old Ken Bush, of Greenwood, one of Schuder's alleged victims.
The Johnson County Sheriff's Department said Schuder, with his hair cropped short and wearing Army combat fatigues, approached people to ask for money to buy plane tickets or cover other travel expenses, or to get free car rides to nearby towns.
There's no record of Schuder ever serving in the military, authorities said.
After he was arrested Aug. 24 and charged with scamming two people, five other victims came forward, said Joe Villanueva, chief deputy prosecutor for Johnson County. Schuder took the seven people for about $488 total, he said.
"The reason these people gave donations to Mr. Schuder is because they believed him to be a member of the U.S. military, based on his appearance and their conversations with him," Villanueva said.
Schuder declined a request for an interview.
Bush said he first saw Schuder dressed in fatigues along a road holding a fuel can, as if he had run out of gas, but that it was just a ruse to get motorists to stop. He said he normally wouldn't pick up a stranger, but that he and his wife support military causes and have a nephew deployed in Afghanistan.
Schuder told Bush he needed money to check his duffel for a flight to his parents' home in San Antonio after he returned from Afghanistan and found himself locked out of his home by his wife. Schuder told Bush his wife had a boyfriend who had fathered her newborn. Schuder also claimed to have not eaten in nearly a day.
Bush bought him a meal at a nearby restaurant, then gave him $100 and dropped him off at a service station convenience store to catch a shuttle to the airport.
When Bush's wife saw Schuder in fatigues at the same store a few days later, she alerted Johnson County sheriff's deputies. They found Schuder sitting in an SUV waiting for the driver to come out of the store. The driver approached Sgt. Matt Rhinehart to ask the deputy if he could help Schuder.
Schuder played on his victims' sense of patriotism and strong feelings of support for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said authorities in Indiana and Tennessee, where he was arrested for a similar scam last year.
"The good samaritan stated that he felt bad for the person who said he was almost out of money and would be until he got his V.A. check," Rhinehart wrote in an affidavit.
Schuder falsely told Rhinehart he was a Marine and a Medal of Honor winner, the affidavit said. He later acknowledged that police had stopped him earlier this year in Indianapolis and in Lebanon, about 20 miles northwest of Indianapolis.
He also was arrested on charges of fraud and criminal impersonation in Alcoa, Tenn., about 160 miles east of Nashville, in July 2009. Police there said a man gave Schuder $100 for a plane ticket and baggage fees after Schuder said he needed to travel to Boston so he could ship out for Afghanistan.
Marty Callaghan, a spokesman for the American Legion, said such scams playing on the patriotism and sympathies of veterans supporters are common "and detract from those who have actually served their country with honor."
Callaghan said about 12 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are unemployed, others remain wounded, and the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates more than 100,000 veterans are homeless on any given night.
"We have a lot of veterans who are real veterans who are suffering," Callaghan said.