Print ESPN.com: OTL: Guerdwich Montimere, the kid who wasn't there

OTL: Guerdwich Montimere, the kid who wasn't there

arrive in Odessa, Texas, flying low over black pump jacks, chasing the sort of weird, true crime story that often gets reporters on airplanes: A 16-year-old named Jerry Joseph, a basketball player at Permian High School of "Friday Night Lights" fame, has been found out as an impostor. Joseph isn't really a Haitian orphan, and the tales he has spun for an eager town are lies; he's really a 22-year-old from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., named Guerdwich Montimere. I check into a hotel on the outskirts of town and begin to search.

Eighteen months will pass. A year and a half of lies and mysteries and brain twisters about the fragility of identity, both to the person whose identity is in question and to those observing that person. A year and a half searching for a man named Guerdwich, and, at the end, not being sure whether he ever existed at all. But that's for later. In the beginning, there is an impostor.

"My name is Jerry Joseph," Guerdwich Montimere tells me.

AP Photo/Odessa American/Joshua Scheide

This Nov. 19, 2009, photo shows Guerdwich Montimere, who called himself Jerry Joseph, at Permian High in Odessa, Texas.

"I truly don't think he thinks he's Guerdwich Montimere," Permian coach Danny Wright says. "I don't know if he's Jerry Joseph or Guerdwich," says his attorney's private investigator, Randall Shafer. "Jerry Joseph better damn well be Montimere or this judiciary is gonna be in a heap load of s--- because they've got a 16-year-old kid in there."

"He's tried to con a lot of people," says Odessa District Attorney Bobby Bland. "Gurt is not mentally well," says Marty Seidlin, his mentor and former coach in Fort Lauderdale. "To put this kid in jail is a sin."

"Something went wrong," says Takeah, a friend from Florida. "I think he was brainwashed," says Vivi Penate, who knew him in Florida, too. "Haitians are into Voodoo, you know." "He's going back to the scene of his greatest love and triumph," says John Doxey, a middle school teacher. "He was longing for a second chance to be Guerdwich Montimere, basketball star." "It's the old JFK movie," says Michael Johnette, a junior college coach who recruited Guerdwich. "It's not the who and the where. It's the why." "I don't think you'll ever get a why," Wright says. "I think it's Voodoo," Penate says.

It seemed straightforward from the air, but each day on the ground brings more faxes and emails from Florida, forming a picture of the life Guerdwich left behind. So far, at the little taco shop off campus, and in the smoky pool hall with Dos Equis on draft, all the speculation has been simple: glory days, Peter Pan, wanted to play ball again, wanted to chase high school girls. The documents introduce another plausible motive. Was Guerdwich Montimere running?

ESPN the Magazine

When Jerry Joseph joined his new high school basketball team, he was just 15 and an orphan. So the coach's wife offered him a mother love. For all his lies, she didn't take it back. Read Wright Thompson's story, "Solace for an Impostor," in ESPN The Magazine.

Two of the few certainties about Guerdwich Montimere are that he has a twin brother and that they are nothing alike. Guerdwich is tall. The twin is short. They could never be mistaken for each other, even at the beginning. The boys were born in 1988 in the mountains of Haiti, which is where they lived until their mother, Manikisse Montimere, moved them to Florida when they were 5. Each of their journeys since then informs the struggle of the other. The twin brother, named Guerdouin, was outgoing as a child, with bright eyes and a quick smile. Guerdwich was withdrawn, even around his family. He believed his mother loved his brother more than she loved him. That never made sense to him. He was the good child, who'd grow to 6-foot-5, becoming a star athlete and successful student. The twin brother lacked Guerdwich's handsome looks. And, as Guerdwich thrived, the twin unraveled.

His mother said people in their apartment complex made the twin try drugs and when she noticed his outgoing behavior replaced by sullen anger, she went to the cops. They recommended she get her son tested; she said she did, and that he failed. She said he heard voices, and she didn't know if the drugs caused the mental problems or if they were a feeble attempt at self-medication. She only knew that she lost her son. On a Monday morning in March 2003, he broke out a window in their apartment. She called the sheriff's department; when the deputy arrived, Guerdwich was holding his brother down. There would be other fights, assaults on police officers, unsubstantiated allegations -- probably untrue -- that Manikisse tied up her children, but this was the first time the family secret found its way into the light. When cops dragged the twin to a hospital, he yelled at his mother and Guerdwich, "When I die, I am coming back to get all of you!"

I stand outside the jail one hot afternoon, on the edge of a prairie town, waiting for Jerry to be bailed out. This will be his last taste of freedom for the next few years. He'll return in a day or two on more identity tampering charges and, very soon, they'll find out about the girl, which will lead to more serious charges involving sex with a minor.

I want to see what he looks like. A crowd of local reporters waits, too. The doors swing open and out he comes, wearing blue jeans with no belt and a wifebeater. A bail bondsman named Judy leads him by the arm. A T-shirt covers his face. The effect is startling -- an aggressive crowd firing a salvo of questions at a man with no head. "Why'd you do it?" "Was it just to get a basketball scholarship?" "Did you think you were gonna get away with it?" "Does it bother you that everyone thinks you're a fraud?"

By the time Guerdwich reached high school, whether by design or not, he'd taken on many of the traits his family once praised in his brother. Teachers described him as a "spark" and a "candle." They remember "perfect posture" and "perfectly dressed" and "in complete control of himself." Classmates called him, not at all unkindly, a "comedian" and a "clown." His coach said he was "extremely trustworthy."

Few people got close. Friends, such as Jabari Caldwell, would park in front of his house and honk. Nobody went in. They never met his family. They never knew Guerdwich longed to see his mom in the stands; by all accounts, she never attended one of his games.

Not many of Guerdwich's friends ever saw his twin brother. Two of those who did would yell at him, and the twin wouldn't respond or make eye contact, ambling past as if they weren't there. They never mentioned it to Guerdwich, who didn't want to talk about his family. When a conversation neared the subject, he steered it away. "He's very secretive," his friend Vivi Penate says.

There were signs of what lurked beneath. On the court, the boy "in complete control" would often lose it. Whoever Guerdwich Montimere really was, the closest people came to seeing him was when he played basketball. He trash-talked: "D-I moves." He'd scream at officials and coaches, rip off his jersey and storm out of gyms. And there's something else everyone remembered -- how much he sweated. Buckets of sweat. Rivers. He'd wring out shirts and shorts after games. Slaps on the back landed with a sloppy thud. Sweat poured out of him as if he were working twice as hard as everyone on the court, which, in hindsight, he probably was.

Danny Wright, the coach at Permian and Joseph's guardian, meets me in the Permian office. He's built like a point guard, and uses the word "coach" like other people use commas. Danny's been taking in foster kids for decades; there is no harrowing truth or outlandish lie he hasn't heard. I lay out what I've found so far. "The kid was very dark," Danny says. "Very secretive. He told me once before there was a cousin trying to kill him. He said, 'My own family. This cousin of mine.' He said he was walking, and there was a lot of trees in Haiti, and all of a sudden he sees his cousin and he starts shooting at him. He said he was ducking behind trees. "'Why, Jerry?' "'Well, Coach, I don't know. He didn't like me.' "'Well, that doesn't add up.'"

AP Photo/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/Joe Cavaretta

In this Feb. 28, 2007, photo, Dillard's Guerdwich Montimere goes up to the basket during a state semifinal basketball game against Lake Howell in Lakeland, Fla.

Only snapshots of his hidden life remain, and only from people with an emotional reason for the kid to be seen in the best possible light. Marty Seidlin, a balding South Florida basketball camp impresario whose voice still sounds like New York, mentored Guerdwich for years, giving him a job, letting him use a car. Marty tried to give the sort of advice that sons get from fathers. Things like: "If you lie, you'll be caught at the worst possible time." And, always, a warning about the end of all athletic glory: "The ball stops bouncing."

Only coaches and a few girls he trusted knew about his life. About the dread in that house, about Guerdwich's security guard stepfather who Marty says kept a gun on a table in plain sight, about seeing Gurt knock on the door at night for 15 minutes before someone let him in. "He had a temper," Marty says, "but you could see that something was wrong. He didn't know how to express himself when we first saw him. We'd talk about it. It was pent-up anger. Pent-up frustration." Guerdwich broke his silence a few times to complain about his brother, whom he loved but also envied. Why did his mother pay more attention to the twin? Why did he do everything right and get ignored? Once, he cried in the car with Marty. It was his birthday and his mother never called. One birthday, Vivi was the only one who remembered. His Dillard High coach, Darryl Burrows, describes him as "looking for love" and says "basketball became his family." "It's really hard to understand his struggle," Vivi says. "He wouldn't really open up to anybody. This started from when he was little. As he grew older, his feelings became stronger. He was always so angry, and I would talk to him to calm him down." There were so many things he wanted: love, a home, a mom. He wanted a family who would sit in the stands and cheer when he led all scorers with 22. He wanted someone to remember his birthday.

Jimmie Wright, the Permian coach's wife, spends hours on the Internet looking for details. More than anyone, she is disturbed by the revelations. Shaking a pillar as fundamental as identity has the effect of shaking all the pillars around it. She tries to find comfort in ideas she knows and can understand. Everyone does. The DA finds comfort in the justice system; Guerdwich is a predator. The local reporters find comfort in their past experience with petty corruption; Guerdwich was brought in by Danny to win a state title. The documentary filmmaker finds comfort in literary inspiration; Guerdwich is Gatsby. Jimmie looks for her comfort in the wheres and whens of biography, sure that she can prove Jerry is not Guerdwich or, should that fail, prove that something horrible caused these lies.

In Fort Lauderdale, she locates Guerdwich Montimere's mother, who doesn't seem concerned. Jimmie finds the twin's MySpace page, all bright green with pictures of Hummers, and she wonders if they are actually related. They talk on the phone. She is confused by the twin's lack of emotion. Nothing makes sense. She describes sitting with Jerry, who read aloud the news stories about his deception but refused to speak the words "Guerdwich" or "Montimere." He'd be going along, then say "his name," then continue. He insists he is a Haitian orphan. His name, he swears, is Jerry Joseph. I wonder if they are, in fact, two different people. Even with all the evidence, his fervor is convincing, especially to those who want to believe. "I'm a nurse," Jimmie says. "I'm not sure he hasn't split his personality." There's another strange possibility. As Jerry waited on his arrest, I'm told, he talked about Haiti and evil spells cast on him and how he had to cover himself in the word of God for protection. His room was full of Bibles, which are full of notes, the work of a man keeping something at bay. He told of a woman who rescued him from a Voodoo priest and gave him the birth certificate he used to get into Permian. He grabbed his head. "What if I'm him?"

Nothing helped the twin. The treatment center in Ocala, Fla., didn't work. Tough love didn't work, nor did doting. Manikisse decided that a doctor in Haiti might be able to help the twin with his problem. She asked the judge for permission to travel to the island for a month. Once there, she took her son to a specialist.

I hire an investigator in Haiti to go find the family. He visits several houses, speaks to the twins' aunts and at least one cousin. After I wire him his payment, I ask for his gut opinion on what happened to the twin. His replies: "In Haiti, there's this tradition where twins usually have a mystical connection. But since the twins grew up in the States, their families didn't get to make some kind of prayer for them, and this caused one of them to go wrong and the other one right. It seems to me that there's a bad spirit in Guerdouin. I think when Guerdouin came to Cap Haitian, Haiti, it was because they wanted to clear the bad spirit away, so they probably took him to a Voodoo priest doctor. Also, when I asked the aunt, living in Cap Haitian, did Manikisse have two boys or twins, she replied twins, this is what brought me to my reasons. Because of the way she answered my question when I asked her if Manikisse had two boys or twins and because the twins are not really close, my instincts tell me that they probably brought Guerdouin to Haiti to see a Voodoo priest. Maybe to help him become like his other brother or to keep him from becoming jealous. I'm not too sure they would want to tell you because, if they wouldn't want to tell me, a Haitian like them, I don't think they would take chances on others, unless you're in the family. Again, that's what my instincts tell me."

ESPN Radio

Thompson and editor Chris Buckle discuss the story of Guerdwich Montimere and Jerry Joseph. Listen

Guerdwich's career at Highlands Junior College in Freeport, Ill., was short and unmemorable, except for the time he accidentally flooded his apartment. Teammates in Illinois remember Guerdwich in practice as a timid player, looking to pass. A common question was: "Is he gonna play me?" A Dillard teammate who'd come with him to Freeport never got into school and went back to Florida. Guerdwich was alone, in a little town near the Wisconsin border. Should he stay? Should he go? There was an ankle injury that didn't bother him on good days but was debilitating on bad ones. "He used that as an excuse," Highlands coach Pete Norman says. "I think the ankle injury was more of a cop-out than an actual injury. Kids don't want to admit it, but maybe deep down he realized he wasn't good enough." In November, as best as teammates and coaches remember, Guerdwich quit. He never played in a game. A teammate, Anthony Simpson, remembers Gurt packing his things, "lost, nervous about home." The ball had stopped bouncing. Guerdwich slipped out of his apartment, headed back to a life he thought he'd left behind.

For months, in person and over the phone, I check in with Jimmie Wright. She keeps searching for answers, surrounded by her home's motif: lighthouses. Dozens of them, statues of all sizes and colors, framed prints. "They're safe," Jimmie explains. What strange thing is happening to this boy she has come to love? Voodoo? Mental illness? A con? She sees something called Five Star Generals on the twin's MySpace page, and the MySpace pages of some of Guerdwich's Dillard teammates. Is that a gang? Is that why he refused to admit his identity? She clings to anything or, more accurately, swings a bright light around the dark sea, trying to bring her lost son to shore. I ask again about the lighthouses. There are 17 of them in one corner alone. She tells me the story. She got pregnant at 15. Her dad was dying of cancer. Her mom didn't want anything to do with her. She ended up in a home for unwed mothers in San Antonio. A homeless man became her guardian angel, looking out for her on the streets. He pushed a shopping cart with the contents alphabetized, struggling to maintain order.. When Jimmie was seven months pregnant, two guys tried to pull her behind a theater. The shopping-cart man appeared and led her back to the home. He reached into the L section of his cart and found a tiny lighthouse. He told her she could always find a safe harbor, even if she had to build it herself. Now she lives in a house filled with lighthouses, and she will not give up on her son, no matter his name.

AP Photo/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/Joe Cavaretta

Montimere holds his leg during a state semifinal game against Lake Howell in Lakeland, Fla.

Guerdwich parked his borrowed truck at the end of a short dead-end street, 34th Terrace, near the murky industrial canal that wound east toward the ocean. He and his friend Takeah hung out, talking about his fading basketball career and her enlistment in the Army. She never sensed that anything was wrong. His days lost focus. In the halls of Dillard, people said, he tried to tell former teachers and teammates he'd left college because of an injury. He didn't look injured when he played pickup ball, so they whispered behind his back. One day, a friend, Robert Burger, said he started making fun of Guerdwich, telling him he wasn't any good and that's why he never went Division I. Instead of laughing or cracking back, the words wounded Guerdwich. He began listing all the offers he had for the next year. Nobody believed him. Just as few things are as exhilarating as being a high school star headed out to conquer the world, few things are as crushing as returning home a failure. "It's a lot of pressure," Burger says. "Everywhere you go in town, you got people asking you. When you tell them why, it's kind of embarrassing. I can see why he'd be embarrassed." Guerdwich lived with his uncle. Basketballs sat in the garage. Wilner Montimere, a truck driver, noticed his nephew spending more and more time around the house. He thought Guerdwich should get a job. It was time to grow up. But "he wasn't really wanting to go out," Wilner says, "because he said he didn't want nobody to see him."

A South Florida paper runs a timeline of key dates in Guerdwich/Jerry's life. Darryl Burrows, the long-tenured coach at Dillard with a wide belly and close-cropped hair, looks at it. Like me, he focuses on the white space between late 2007 and early 2009. "That's a big gap," he says. The gap will shrink but never close. Six months remain a mystery. Where was Guerdwich Montimere between September 2008 and February 2009?

Guerdwich got another chance. Iowa Western, a junior college that recruited him out of high school, needed a lot of players. They coaches felt as if he'd be hungry, and that he'd play "mega-minutes" at the post. Two or so weeks before school, he called the coaches in Iowa with news: He had been given a trip to Haiti by his family and wanted to go and visit relatives. They told him to return on time. "At that moment," assistant coach Michael Johnette says, "the kid basically fell off the planet."

I talk to a source who's seen Montimere's passport. The man tells me he doesn't remember seeing stamps; when I went to Haiti for a different story two years ago, an immigration officer stamped my passport upon arrival. Every family member interviewed in Haiti says Guerdwich never visited Haiti after he left as a child. His father, Briere Duval, says via text message that Guerdwich never came to the island.

There's no definitive proof Guerdwich went to Haiti. There's no definitive proof he didn't.

There was an active hurricane season that year. Right as classes started in Iowa, a tropical storm and three hurricanes battered Haiti, one after another. The coaches watched the Weather Channel and the calendar. If Guerdwich didn't arrive 15 days after classes started, he couldn't play basketball. The deadline passed. "We got an email from him saying he was stuck in Haiti," assistant coach James Bankhead says. "After that, we didn't hear anything else from him." Burrows says he got a call in which Guerdwich said he was going to stay in Haiti. "I'm happy," Guerdwich told Burrows.

Burrows says he couldn't remember the young man ever saying that before.

There is something else, Another person says he heard from Guerdwich in Haiti. Marty Seidlin, his mentor and father figure, says he got a series of psychotic voice mails. There is no way to document whether these calls actually took place. According to Marty, Guerdwich rambled. He breathed heavily into the phone, panting. Couldn't catch his breath. Said people were chasing him and he wanted to die. He claimed there was a Voodoo spell on him. They were after him. They're gonna kill me. They're sticking needles in me. They've tortured me. They've changed me. They've made me what I'm not.

Five years of family violence climaxed in one week, according to allegations in a series of police reports and court documents. On Dec. 14, the twin broke out a window at the family home. Three days after that, he smashed the windows of a car parked in the driveway. Two days later, he set the front door of the house on fire before escaping into the darkness. Police dogs gave chase but didn't catch him. Nobody really knows what happened to the Montimere brothers, whether the seeds of their undoing were in their minds or in the house where they lived, but each responded in opposite ways. Every crime committed by the twin was an attack on the physical home. He didn't show violence in other ways or against other places. He responded to his surroundings with fight. Guerdwich responded with flight. They were both about to respond. The next day, the twin returned to the house and threatened to break out even more windows and set the place on fire. Guerdwich felt afraid. Someone called the cops, and the twin jumped the fence, headed into the park behind the house. He wore a black shirt and dark-blue jean shorts. The cops found him walking west on NW 21st Street. An officer pulled her Taser and ordered the twin to the ground. He sank into the quicksand of status hearings and psych evals. Soon, because of a misspelling of his name, he'd literally be lost in the system. The responding police officer was also the last person known to have seen Guerdwich before he was reborn as Jerry Joseph in Odessa. The twins disappeared on the same day.

Vivi Penate is the last person I can find who talked to Guerdwich Montimere. She says it was in February 2009. He sounded secretive, as usual. He was playing basketball again, he told her. This time, he was a point guard. "I just know he was playing in Texas," she tells me. "How do you know?" "I don't really want to say it," she says. "I know it for sure." "You know for sure he was in Texas?" "Yes." I ask for details. Did he leave a number? Did he tell her what high school? "I was like, 'Where?'" she says. "He wouldn't tell me where. He wouldn't tell me for who. I think he wanted to tell me, but he knew, if this gets out, it would be something serious. He kept telling me, 'If I tell you, would you tell anybody?' I was like, 'What are you talking about, Gurt? Tell me.' He didn't want his name to be on the phone, either. He was like, 'Stop saying my name.' I said, 'Why?' 'If you do, I'm gonna hang up.' I was like, 'What are you talking about?' He was just like, 'Don't say my name.'"

The new kid sat by himself at lunch. He towered above the other students, who gawked at the tattoos on the inside of each arm. One said: Can't Stop. The other said: Won't Stop. "I'm Jerry," he told a classmate in history. Everyone learned the story. His stepbrother, a basketball star from Fort Lauderdale named Jabari Caldwell, played at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. Jerry didn't know his dad, who was now dead. His mother was dead, too. All he had was a birth certificate written in Creole, which he and Jabari brought to Permian High the first time he tried to register. It was February. Roy Garcia, the school principal, saw them sitting in the office. "Can I help you guys?" he asked. They explained that one of them wanted to enroll. Garcia turned to Jabari, the smaller of the two. "How old are you?" he asked. "I'm in college," Jabari said, pointing at 6-5 Jerry. "We're talking about him." With no transcript, Joseph was sent by Garcia to Permian's feeder junior high school, Nimitz. A month after enrolling, Jerry printed off a stack of instructions from a government website: How do I apply for resettlement in the United States as a refugee? Can't stop. Won't stop.

So much doesn't make sense. There are long interviews where I leave thinking every word was a lie. I make judgments about who is and isn't credible. I am about to board a flight to Florida to interview Marty when he backs out. He promises to call, then vanishes. I search for proof that Jerry and Guerdwich are different people. I hear that the twins had a brother who died as an infant. Did he actually survive? Nothing is off the table. Has Guerdwich lost his mind? All these questions coalesce into one -- crazy or con? -- and in that reduction I finally understand that the most important thing Guerdwich Montimere and Jerry Joseph have in common is the reaction they inspire. People see what they want to see, maybe even what they need to see, and the longer they spend thinking about it, the more the focus turns inward. What does a name and a number mean? Do we really ever know anybody?

After the school year ended, Caldwell returned to Florida, leaving Jerry alone. There was little doubt where he'd go. For much of his adult life, Danny Wright had reacted the same way when confronted with a homeless kid: He always opened his doors, so Jerry Joseph was just the latest to find sanctuary with the coach.

AP Photo/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/Josh Ritchie

In this photo Feb. 4, 2006, Boyd Anderson's Martavious Irving, left, drives against Dillard's Guerdwich Montimere during a basketball game at Fort Lauderdale High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Danny invited Jerry to move into his ranch home a few miles from the school. Jimmie readied the house for a teenage boy, cleaning out a closet. Jerry arrived with just three or so pairs of pants, four or five shirts, a few pairs of shoes and a small bag with some books and a few other things. He was skinny. When Danny cooked supper, Jerry marveled aloud at the luxury of meat and a vegetable and a potato. At first, he was timid in the kitchen, but as he got comfortable, he started raiding the fridge. They scolded him about eating old leftovers that should be thrown out. He drank protein shakes. He poured hot sauce on everything. Jimmie started buying the large bottles. More details emerged. Once, Jimmie was watching a television news report on Haiti, and she called Jerry in as the cameras showed an urban battleground. Jerry told her he wasn't from that part of Haiti. He'd been born in the mountains. He said he'd been living with an uncle who didn't feed him and made him work. Mostly, he avoided his past. He made sure to mention the dead parents right at the top. "'Feel sorry for me, feel sorry for me enough where you don't have to ask me any questions,'" Danny says, "'and if we can get past that, then I can go be this kid again. I can be this happy-go-lucky [kid], singing while I'm washing the dishes, jovial, joking, finding the less fortunate athlete and picking that athlete up.' The kid that couldn't play very well, Jerry was always gonna be that kid's friend. Always searching out for the underdog." Jerry filled out. He settled into a routine. Danny and Jimmie would watch Jerry doing his homework on the couch, his face full of joy as he paused to play with his new baby sister. Spring turned to summer, which soon neared its end. He didn't need to shave. Jimmie remembered him going up a shoe size. None of them knew about the secrets buried in the bag he brought into their house.

Here is a partial list of the things that were in Jerry Joseph's room. Near the bed, a stack of books that included "Talent is Never Enough," "God's Game Plan" and "Frankenstein." The books sat on a table by the bed. Jerry didn't use the bed. He slept curled up on the floor in fetal position. Across the room, in a black box at the bottom of a bag at the bottom of the closet: A letter from a girl in Florida. A photograph of a girl named Vivi. And, like a loaded gun, Guerdwich Montimere's passport and Social Security card.

Just before school started, as best as folks can remember, Jerry invited the Wrights to his new church on the edge of town. Mission Dorado sat bland and corrugated, like a tractor showroom. Some of his teammates went there, and he'd become a regular, calling around to get rides, showing up two and three times a week. He soaked up the new experience, and that summer, he asked the Rev. Phil Skelton about baptism. They went to a Golden Corral steakhouse and the pastor explained the details. Jerry would be born again in Christ. So Jerry stood in front of his new family and went into the water. He emerged forgiven. He felt his old self wash away.

At the same time, his brother was trying to wash away his past, too. On the eve of another court date, a mental health expert finished a report on the fragile reality of the twin, who'd been in jail since he allegedly tried to light the family house on fire. The twin was diagnosed with two catch-all mental problems, mood disorder NOS (not otherwise specified) and psychotic disorder NOS. The first is used when the patient has bipolar traits but doesn't fit the standard definition. The latter involves delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech and, at times, catatonic behavior. People with this disorder often hear voices. The court date arrived. Judge Geoffrey Cohen read the report, and everyone agreed that the twin didn't need to be in jail; he needed help. First, the state needed to find a place with room to take him. "You mean to say he will remain in custody until bed space is available?" Judge Cohen asked. "What I'm going to try and do," said public defender Christi Storelli, "is contact some of his family members to see if there will be a place he can go in the meantime." "I'll approve the conditional release report," the judge said, "and if you're able to find some family member to accept him, bring that to my attention." The state of Florida no longer wanted the twin. Did anyone else?

Permian basketball practice became much more intense. Jerry screamed at teammates, urging them to work harder. He knew just where to be on the court at all times. The old point guard became the backup. Jerry took over the team. The season began. Letters from colleges began piling up in his locker. As he felt more confident, some teammates said, he got cocky. Trash-talking. D-I moves. But despite his newfound confidence in practice, he often fell apart in games when things didn't go his way. He'd lose control, yell at officials, get hit with technicals, even yell at Danny on the bench as the other players stood stunned. Seniors tried to give him advice, telling him to be humble. "He didn't listen to anything you said," his former teammate Warren Clark says. "He wouldn't listen. He knew it all."

I find people who whispered, even then. Several said they figured he was at least 19. One day after practice, a teammate finally asked: "You really 16?" Everyone got quiet. Jerry looked at the guy. He didn't smile. "Yeah," he said.

In the last days of 2009, Jerry Joseph felt happy in a life he'd created. A church loved him, making him feel safe. He was the starting point guard, and the gym roared when he threw down tomahawk dunks. Everyone in the halls liked him, no matter what they'd say later. With the Wrights, he'd found a home, the first real one he'd ever known. He did chores. He laughed with his baby sister. Now, he was part of a loving family. They packed the stands when he played. On Christmas, he cried when they gave him his gifts.

"I get presents, too?" he said. A week later, after making a miracle shot in a tournament to send the Panthers -- the same mascot as Dillard, people would smirk later -- into overtime, Jerry returned home to find another celebration. A birthday party, for him. They bought him a cake, and more gifts, basketball clothes and shoes. He cried then, too, and in the pictures they took, as people sang "Happy Birthday," he looks overwhelmed. It was a miracle, really. He had been welcomed into a family that remembered his birthday.

I've got a newspaper feature from The Odessa American in front of me. It makes me shudder because this is every reporter's worst nightmare. The writer, inspired by the earthquake that hit Haiti 12 days after Jerry's birthday party, told a moving tale that turned out to be fiction. There's an old newspaper joke: We don't write the truth; we write what people tell us. Almost always, those are the same thing. Sometimes, as the reporter at the American learned, they are not. This mystery isn't about the lives of Guerdwich Montimere and Jerry Joseph; it is about how other people perceive those lives. It's the tree falling in the woods thing. What does it mean to exist? Is identity based on how you feel or how other people see you? Is the story Jerry told the newspaper a lie? What if the facts are false but the emotions are real? Would that make it partially true? Fiction written about combat is often more real than any journalism, so which has a greater connection to the truth: fact or emotion? I reread the story. The writer deftly gave a far-off disaster a local face. Jerry provided the details. A lot of his family had died, cutting off his remaining ties to anywhere but West Texas. Odessa was now his only home. Jerry even described his escape from Haiti. In August 2008, three hurricanes and a tropical storm flooded Haiti. Jerry said he left the island to escape the storms.

The state of Florida lost the twin. Six months passed. No bed opened at a facility. No family members picked him up, offering yet another window on why Guerdwich ran. He left behind a family who abandoned his brother. The twin's attorney, Christie Storelli, checked the system, and the records showed that the twin was not incarcerated. She figured he'd been released, until she finally realized his name had been misspelled and he'd been sitting in jail all along, in need of treatment, possibly hearing voices, unwanted. She and her passive client went back to court. The judge was incredulous. "You've never been released from custody?" he asked the twin. "I signed this order Sept. 23." "Right," Storelli interjected. "And, your honor, I just spoke with him again. He says there are no family members. I've tried to contact his mom on a couple of occasions." "Where's the mother live?" Cohen asked. "She lives locally," Storelli said. "She's a little difficult to communicate with." "Well," Cohen said, "if there is no place to release him …" "I know, your honor," Storelli said, "but he can't live in jail forever." By the next hearing three weeks later, the court had found the twin a bed in a mental health facility. Judge Cohen bid him farewell with a hopeful, "Good luck, Mr. Montimere." One brother's life was beginning to turn around. And the other?

After the season, Jerry Joseph joined up with the New Mexico Force AAU team, and the team went on the road. The inevitable happened in April, while Jerry ran up and down the court in Little Rock, Ark., rising high above the rim. These were the last moments of the new life he'd built, and it's easy to imagine how happy he must have felt. A van carrying a South Florida team parked outside, and, as usual, team comedian Fred Landers ran ahead of everyone, the first to get to the gym. Fred played at Dillard, worked at Marty Seidlin's camps, and, when he was younger, sat in the stands and studied Guerdwich's game: the way he shot, the way he ran. Fred walked into the gym, looked out on the court and saw the vanished Guerdwich Montimere. "He was shocked to see me," Fred says. "When I walked in, he tried to duck his head, like, 'Oh, my god, there goes Fred.'"

AP Photo/Odessa American/Kevin Buehler

In this photo made Jan. 26, 2010, an Odessa Permian high school basketball player, who identified himself as Jerry Joseph, right, drives against Midland High's Paul Merchant (No. 21) during a basketball game at the Permian Fieldhouse in Odessa, Texas.

Fred exploded from the gym. He was laughing so hard it was a struggle to get out the words. "Guess who's on the court?" he said. "Guerdwich!" "No way," coach Lou Vives said. "Is he reffing? Coaching?" "No," Fred cackled. "He's playing!" The team crowded along the side of the court, screaming at Jerry Joseph, "Yo, Gurt! I know you hear me! Don't act like you don't know me!" Jerry heard but didn't look. He took himself out of the game, then sat on the bench for a long stretch until the coach put him back in. The ball was passed to him in the paint; he had a clear path to the rim and a backboard-shaking dunk, but Jerry just laid it in softly. The game ended, and Jerry tried to slip away from the South Florida team. Lou confronted him. Jerry said he didn't know Lou and kept going. Lou saw something in his eyes. "When he looked at me," he says, "it was like, 'I'm busted. I'm busted.' And if he would have just said, 'Yo, Coach, meet me in the bathroom, I got to tell you something,' I would have been like, 'Gurt, you got to pack your s--- and leave and be Guerdwich again. This is real crazy right now.'"

After their game, a Florida coach checked the book for Guerdwich's name and, in its place, found someone named Jerry Joseph. Later, the teammates crowded around the hotel lobby's computer. They typed in Jerry Joseph and found The Odessa American story that had run after the earthquake, read about him being homeless, about the dead parents. Jerry Joseph started getting, and denying, Facebook friend requests from Florida. Word spread fast in Broward County. At the Odessa paper, the tech guys noticed that the old story suddenly rocketed into the top five most read.

The days fill with strange conspiracy theories. I talk to Voodoo priests and basketball coaches. Who knows what is true? I talk with an AAU coach in Texas. He says that, a month before Little Rock, he received an email from a Florida coach who'd seen the news story about Jerry Joseph being named conference newcomer of the year. The Florida coach told him he knew the kid. Eventually, I get the Florida coach on the phone. He doesn't want his name used; the Broward County hoops scene has circled its wagons around Guerdwich Montimere.

"I think that Guerdwich might be his alias, and Jerry Joseph might be his real name," he said. "I think everybody is accepting things as facts that aren't necessarily facts. When he came over here the first time, I really think that Jerry Joseph was his real name. I think when he came here and went to Dillard as Gurt, that was a completely made-up identity." He paints a picture of South Florida hallways full of kids from Haiti, from Cuba, from the Caribbean and Central America, people with no past and no paperwork. Communities don't care if someone is too old; a few years seems like a silly reason not to get an education. Entire neighborhoods become a haze of facts and dates. People learn to differentiate between the real you and the you that is constructed to make it through the world. Identities are fluid. "The lady you talking to probably ain't even his mom," the coach says. "That's the way this s--- works."

Phones began ringing in Texas. An anonymous person called the newspaper. The newspaper called the school. Word spread through the halls: Jerry had been pulled out of class. School officials brought him into Roy Garcia's office, with the chairs and the love seat. Danny sat on the love seat. They spread out the pictures of Guerdwich. "That's not me," Jerry said, mustering all the confidence he could. "You mean to tell me you never played at Dillard?" Greg Nelson, the assistant principal pressed.

"That's not me," Jerry repeated. After a few moments of stunned silence, Danny finally asked, "Those pictures look like you?" "Yes, sir," Jerry said. "But that's not you?" "No, sir." Danny called Jimmie, told her that their son's name was Guerdwich Montimere and that she should go through his stuff. She found the box in the bag in the closet with the Social Security card and the passport and called Danny back, in tears. The administration questioned Jerry. The school district police interrogated him. Immigration officials arrived and sat him down. They showed him pictures. They showed him the passport. He never changed his story. His name was Jerry Joseph. The immigration police handcuffed him and put a coat over the cuffs. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers fingerprinted him, and while they waited for the results, they told him his choices were jail or deportation to Haiti. Finally, the results came back. Jerry Joseph was not Guerdwich Montimere.

"Did he sweat a lot?" I ask. "Hell, yes," says Permian teammate Warren Clark. "I'd notice it before the game even started. Warm-ups, he would sweat up a lake. We would be, like, 'Dang, bro, you sweat too much.' If we were to pat him on the butt for a good job during practice, our hand would be, like, completely wet."

Jerry came back home.

Danny Wright didn't believe ICE about the fingerprints. He struggled not to confront Jerry.

On Mother's Day, Jerry Joseph went to church. Skelton saw him sitting out in the crowd and could feel the weight on him. Jerry hung on to his new family, texting Jimmie: Happy Mother's Day. Tension spread in the home. Jimmie wanted to support their son. Danny felt deceived, and Jerry's lies were calling Danny's own carefully protected integrity into question. It jeopardized future kids he might otherwise be able to save. Soon, people would be calling for Danny's job. The week passed in a strange Kabuki. Jerry grew more and more childlike, as if to burrow further into the family, while Danny struggled not to confront him. Jimmie saw a son. Danny saw a fraud. Jerry created new MySpace and Facebook pages. His name on them was J.J. Wright. The immigration police kept searching, and by the second week of May, they said they had found it: a hard copy of a passport application. This time, the prints confirmed that Jerry Joseph and Guerdwich Montimere were the same. On a Tuesday, Danny drove Jerry to school, like he always did. Garcia saw Jerry that day, standing in the hall, watching students come and go. What he'd remember is how happy Jerry seemed, and how much all the kids liked him, a typical chaotic high school scene, him towering above his new friends. Jerry and Danny had sixth period together, and when class ended, Jerry stopped by Danny's desk and tried to talk basketball. "After all this stuff clears up," he said, "I'm gonna be a monster." The next period, the cops took him away.

I arrive soon afterward, as a year of lies unravel. Danny meets me at the school. Jimmie sits in her living room surrounded by lighthouses, searching for answers. I hear of Permian teachers hanging photos of Guerdwich, of a T-shirt someone made that says, "Got Jerry?" All the while, Jimmie refuses to give up on her son. She speaks to Vivi in Florida, who tells her that Guerdwich always wanted a family. After a girl comes forward and accuses him of sexual assault, with him now facing as many as 60 years in jail, Jimmie shows me the girl's MySpace page, with the status "jailbait." She shows me texts to and from Jerry before he went to jail.

Jimmie: First: no matter what anyone says or writes, I want you to know I love you. You will always be my son. Please trust me. Jerry: I do. You're the only mom I know and I love you. Thank you for never giving up on me.

She struggles with the ambiguity, as we all do. This should be simple. Either you are someone or you're not. Either you're mentally ill or a con man. There should be no gray. We are who we are. Jimmie goes over all the things she doesn't understand, including the new tattoo Jerry got before disappearing into a judicial quicksand of his own. There are now big letters etched into his chest: I am my brother's keeper.

The Montimere story After graduating from high school in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Guerdwich Montimere vanished and reappeared in Odessa, Texas, under the name Jerry Joseph.

Manikisse Montimere sits in her parked car outside a Broward County strip mall. She talks through an open window, tapping her key furiously on the steering wheel. "I don't remember anything," she says, staring out the windshield at the cars flying past on West Commercial Boulevard. "We never had a close relationship. Guerdouin would come to me, talk to me, tell me everything. That's why sometimes Guerdwich gets jealous and said I love Guerdouin more than Guerdwich."

Something is off. Her voice is flat she discusses the last time she saw him. They fought -- she says he was aimless, not showing up for days on end, which she didn't like -- and he disappeared. "He told me certain things which hurt me," she says. "After that, he apologized. He called. He wrote me a letter. He said he's sorry. He said he was needing money. I give it to him." A Creole translator visits her house and reports back more detail. The family might have performed the Voodoo ceremony for twins when they were young, but she said she did not take Guerdouin to a priest to have an evil spirit removed. She's a devout Baptist, and in between her two jobs, she stops at an all-night church. She writes a prayer for Guerdwich on a slip of paper and puts it into the plate. Then she returns to her home in a quiet neighborhood. It's in perfect order, even if she displays no photos of her children. There is a big arrangement of flowers on a table in the small entrance hall. Framed prints hang on either side of the flowers: "Where there is great love, there are always miracles." And: "Faith makes all things possible."

AP Photo/Ector County Sheriff

This booking photo, provided Wednesday, May 12, 2010, by the Ector, Texas, County Sheriff, shows Guerdwich Montimere.

Jerry writes a lot of letters from the Ector County Jail. He calls Jimmie almost daily, and when she can't pick up, he calls over and over again in a panic. He learns to play hearts. He cries in the shower. He eats biscuits, grits, eggs and sausage patties. He watches NBA games. He keeps in contact with several reporters, making sure to be interested in them. His lawyer seems confident. Jerry asks people to call him Jerry. Except for his ID wristband, and having to sign "Guerdwich Montimere" at the commissary, he lives as Jerry Joseph. He visits with a preacher three times a week. He begins calling an elderly woman from Mission Dorado "Gee-Gee." That's what they call grandmas in West Texas, he explains. He calls multiple groups of people his family. He burrows and clings tight. He lies down at night in a room with a dozen or more people. The lights go out. He talks to a man named Max about life, about family, and God. Max eventually falls asleep, and Jerry slips to the shower, losing himself in the sound of running water, praying and thinking about his family. Do the Wrights still love him? Do his friends miss him? When will all this be over? He sings to himself. He holds tight to Bible verses. The days turn into one another. Months pass. He walks outside to exercise on Tuesdays, showing his wristband to the guards, who keep a list. One guard sizes him up and begins yelling. "What's your name?" the man screams. "What's your name?" "Do you want me to say the name on my wristband, sir?" Jerry asks.

I finally find the twin. I park outside a mental home, which sits squat and anonymous on a crackhead side street. A nurse listens to the story. "I didn't know he had a brother," she says. The twin isn't there, so I wait. A strange thought will percolate later: Guerdwich moved in with a normal family and, it seems, is getting worse; the twin moved into an asylum and, it seems, is getting better. I watch the broken parts. A guy inches past with a walker, moving through moldy light. Two people sit compliantly in wheelchairs. A woman walks funny, a pharmaceutical grin on her face. Her nice clothes hint at a family that ran out of patience rather than out of money. This is the end of the line. In the dining room, a woman talks to herself. Her toes are twisted, the big one bent over the one next to it, and she speaks softly. "I love her, but …," she says, trailing off. She eats bread while muttering, fluffy shrapnel flying out of her mouth. The nurse yells at her: "Shoes!? Where are your shoes?" The woman coughs bread. A nurse moves through this circus looking for the twin. He isn't there. He's at school. "He's going to school for criminal justice," she says with a laugh. Finally, he shows up and quickly turns to leave again. He's together enough to realize talking to a reporter probably isn't a good idea. "I gotta go right now," he says. He smiles and heads down the street, first standing at one bus stop, then moving to another one, on Oakland Park Boulevard. Rain begins to fall, and he joins other passengers next to a building, waiting patiently beneath the eaves.

He waited on his trial. A year passed. He began meeting with his lawyer, discussing strategy. He never broke. He got more and more into the Bible. A new obsession took hold near the end. He read Acts 2:38, in which Peter says that, by repenting and being baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, you will receive the Holy Spirit. Jerry fixated on "in the name of Jesus Christ." He couldn't remember if Pastor Phil said those exact words when he was down in the water. He kept replaying the moment. First thing when he got out, he planned, he would be re-baptized. "I have to make sure I take care of that," he thought. Maybe he wasn't saved. Maybe another baptism would bring that brand-new feeling again.

Christie Storelli, the twin's public defender, calls me with an update. Not long ago, he had another hearing. She found him well-dressed, coherent. He was pleasant to be around. He remembered her. He could function. When she looked over his record, she found no new arrests or incidents. The twin hasn't committed a crime since his brother disappeared. The next step, she says, is to get the case dismissed. One more hearing, probably, then the twin will have the charges dropped. There are solid reasons for this, why everything isn't as it appears, but she "can't get into that." Guerdouin Montimere seems to have put his life back together. Guerdwich's life seems to have fallen apart. Guerdouin is free. And Guerdwich …

Five days before the trial, he breaks. Jabari Caldwell has pleaded guilty to helping him start a new life and is set to testify. The district attorney has given Jerry one last chance to make a deal. Jerry pleads guilty to three counts of tampering with records and two counts of sexual assault. He admits lying and building a new life. The judge sentences him to three years, with credit for time served. He'll always have to register as a sex offender. He'll be eligible for parole by the middle of 2012. It's all over now for Jerry Joseph. "Are you Guerdwich Montimere?" the judge asks. "Yes," he says. "Yes, sir, I am." Jimmie Wright sits in the courtroom. She never abandoned her son. The anguish shows on her face as he admits each charge. "I feel like he was trying to survive the only way he knew how," she will tell a reporter afterward. "In court, he's still just trying to survive. He's called Jerry, he still goes by Jerry, and he'll always go by Jerry." A few formalities remain. A court officer lays out the legal papers to be signed. Guerdwich Montimere picks up the pen and, on the appropriate line, writes his name. He signs it Jerry Joseph.

AP Photo/Odessa American/Heather Leiphart

Guerdwich Montimere leaves the Ector County Courthouse in Odessa, Texas, on Wednesday, July 27, 2011.

There's an idea I've struggled to articulate since I first landed in Odessa. If Guerdwich Montimere and Jerry Joseph are the same person, then nothing Jerry told people in Texas was a complete lie. Exaggerations, yes, even horrible ones, but everything had a seed of truth. He certainly felt like an orphan. His father was dead … to him. His mother was dead … to him. He felt alone in the world. He was homeless, in the most literal definition of the word, because he'd never really had a home. Jabari Caldwell was his brother, at least more of one than his actual brother. Jerry's past is just an extreme version of Guerdwich's. Taking that a step further, Jerry Joseph might be a completely accurate rendering of how Guerdwich felt inside. The logic turns back on itself. If Guerdwich exists only as a collection of other people's observations of an exterior, and Jerry exists as a personal reflection of an interior, then doesn't that make Jerry more real than Guerdwich? I write Jerry one last letter. I explain that I need to talk to Guerdwich because he is the only one who knows what happened, who can tell whether he really went to Haiti, whether he got stuck there because of hurricanes or something more sinister. Is he a con man? Is he crazy? Is he cursed? How did one person vanish and another return in his place? A week or so passes and it arrives, the last piece of correspondence from Jerry Joseph. He says that he doesn't want to tell his story without getting paid and that I can contact his parents, Jimmie and Danny Wright, for details. Danny tells me that, unlike his wife, he doesn't want anything to do with Jerry. Jimmie goes silent. My journey is over. For Jerry, it continues. He's written a new name on the envelope: "Jerry J.W." Jerry Joseph Wright. The letter sits on my desk, and while I pick it up from time to time, I never respond. I don't know which name I'd use. I don't know who would open it on the other end.

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com.

Follow him on Twitter at @wrightthompson.

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