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In plain view 

Military imposter's local presence irks former allies

His grim-faced mug shot appeared in newspapers across the country next to words like "imposter," "fraud" and "fake." A chorus of military veterans and bloggers opined that his bogus tale about getting his brain rattled while serving in Iraq should win him prison time, if not a plane ride to the front lines and a chance to finally "walk the walk."

All of which makes it strange to see Rick Strandlof, once a prominent veterans' advocate known as Rick Duncan, calmly surfing the Internet at a downtown Colorado Springs Starbucks.

So I ask the obvious question: "What are you doing here?"

"Where else would I be?" the 32-year-old answers blithely.

I don't mention that Mexico first comes to mind, and then Louisiana. Or that in both scenarios, I imagine him with a fake beard.

Whatever you think of Strandlof and the months he masqueraded as a brain-injured veteran, the simple truth two months after his web of lies came apart is that public disgrace seems to have changed him little. As Duncan, he claimed to be a former Marine Corps captain who, after barely surviving Iraq, was inspired to help other veterans.

Now, Strandlof says he's a "mentally ill individual" who got carried away. He sees helping veterans as his "calling" but regrets that "bad things" he said — like the whopper that he was inside the Pentagon on Sept. 11 — hurt people.

"I'm gradually making apologies," says Strandlof, who claims he's now taking medications for bipolar disorder, depression and schizoaffective disorder, a mild form of schizophrenia.

One person not waiting for an apology is Hal Bidlack, the retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who frequently had Strandlof at his side last year as he campaigned against U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn.

"I think all I would say to that guy is, 'I have nothing to say to you,'" Bidlack says.

He expresses concern that Strandlof's ruse could be used against him or other Democrats, and he sounds surprised — if not mildly annoyed — that Strandlof has returned to places like Poor Richard's, a popular downtown hangout for progressives.

"I don't understand why he wouldn't go where he's unknown," Bidlack says.

Despite the attention and resentment his case attracted, Strandlof claims people "don't walk by and point." And he's not worried the FBI is about to arrest him, either for claiming false military heroics or embezzling donations to the Colorado Veterans Alliance, the now-defunct nonprofit he was trying to build.

"I haven't heard word in weeks," Strandlof says. (Special Agent Kathy Wright, an FBI spokeswoman in Denver, says the investigation is "ongoing.")

After being outed as a fraud in May, Strandlof spent three weeks in jail on a misdemeanor traffic charge, apparently unable to post bail. Now, somehow, he seems quite comfortable, using a new-looking computer and sipping a coffee drink. Strandlof refuses to say where he's getting money, but reiterates his claim that he never kept donations for himself.

Dan Warvi, who found holes in Strandlof's story while working on the Colorado Veterans Alliance, marvels that Strandlof, always destitute in the past, now seems to have at least moderate means as he hangs around in plain sight.

He sounds a note of caution in an e-mail: "I wouldn't believe anything he says on anything."

lane@csindy.com

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