A transfer student, who allegedly forged his Yale application, is dismissed from the University, bypassing typical disciplinary proceedings. Then, he is arrested on charges of larceny and forgery.
It may sound like September 2007. But it could just as easily describe April 1995.
The arrest of a former Morse College junior for forgery and larceny last September — after the Yale College Dean’s Office discovered apparent fabrications in his application and rescinded his admission — is only the latest link in a chain of admissions-fraud cases at Yale, dating back at least to 1977.
The legacy features a fraudulent graduate student later convicted of attempted murder, a transfer student outed just months before graduation and a prankster who gave himself up after hoodwinking the University.
First forgery, then cocaine and attempted murder
Tonica Jenkins was accepted into Yale’s graduate program in biological and biomedical science in 1997, applying from Central State University and Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio. Her forged transcripts and recommendations slipped by until December of that year.
After her mysterious absence from several exams aroused her professors’ suspicion, a University investigation discovered that she never graduated from Cuyagoha and never attended Central State.
An attempt to escape arrest at the Hall of Graduate Studies failed, and she was expelled, arrested and charged with fraud and larceny for stealing more than $15,000 in Yale financial aid.
After she failed to show up to her July 1998 hearing in New Haven Superior Court, authorities found her in East Cleveland. She told them she could not attend the trial because she had been raped, abducted, held in the trunk of a car and driven to Philadelphia. But when her captor abandoned her, she claimed, she managed to kick her way out, find the keys still in the car and drive home to Ohio.
The New Haven judge did not believe her and sent her to jail. Before posting $150,000 bail, she reportedly assaulted two prison guards.
Jenkins eventually pleaded guilty, was sentenced to three years of probation in April 2000 and was ordered to undergo psychiatric therapy.
But she found herself in trouble again just months later, when she and her mother were arrested in Florida for cocaine trafficking. They claimed to be FBI informants, but the FBI said they had been dismissed months ago.
Her third arrest came in May 2001 in Cleveland. Out again on bail, Jenkins was charged with kidnapping and attempted murder. Police said she and her cousin abducted a woman who resembled Jenkins, scheming to alter her dental records — Jenkins allegedly sent her to a dentist wearing a Yale sweatshirt — then kill her and burn her body in order to fake Jenkins’ death.
The woman, after being bludgeoned with a brick, escaped from Jenkins’ parents’ basement and went to the police.
Jenkins was convicted in February 2003 and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
‘1995: “Yale’s O.J.” ’
Lon “L.T.” Grammer was a popular Davenport College senior who transferred in his junior year from Cuesta Community College in San Luis Obispo, Calif. His transcript boasted a 3.91 GPA.
It turned out to be 2.077.
Grammer’s forged application slipped by the admissions office, but he made one mistake. Just two months before he graduated, his former roommate overhead him bragging about his fraudulent admission and tipped off the Yale Police Department.
At 10 a.m. on a Thursday in April, two YPD detectives entered his dorm with a warrant for his arrest.
The University rescinded Grammer’s admission for forging his application, and he was charged with larceny for allegedly stealing $35,875 in Yale financial aid and $25,000 in federal grants and loans.
Yale was not his first target, according to police reports that surfaced in the following days. He had been indicted in 1993 on three counts of forgery and was wanted in California for check fraud.
The case that broke this week, too, has received a host of media attention, but Grammer actively sought it out.
“I am not a crook,” he told Sam Donaldson on ABC Prime Time Live. Grammer told The New York Times that whether or not he had lied to get in, he had earned his place at Yale with his high marks there.
But his academic record at Yale was not as stellar as he suggested, either. He actually earned C’s and D’s and was under investigation by the Department of Political Science for plagiarizing papers.
The plagiarized paper was so bad, the director of undergraduate studies said at the time, that he wondered how Grammer had ever gotten in to Yale.
Grammer, who, like the student arrested in September, was ejected from the University without an official disciplinary proceeding, announced days after his removal that he was considering suing Yale for readmission.
“The University violated its own internal rules by not giving him an Executive Committee meeting,” his lawyer said days after his arrest. “Normally, any accused student is supposed to have a notice and a hearing.”
But Yale General Counsel Dorothy Robinson said in 1995 that offenses in the admissions process are not governed by the undergraduate regulations.
The lawsuit was never filed.
As Grammer — popularly nicknamed “Yale’s O.J.” because of his similarly initialed name and his case’s concurrence with the O.J. Simpson trial — pleaded not guilty, YPD officers came to suspect him of several Davenport room thefts.
The administration then, as now, downplayed the incident’s significance.
“I don’t see this as a serious problem for the majority of Yale graduates,” University President Richard Levin said in 1995.
But students then, as now, wanted answers.
“The admissions office made a huge mistake,” one anonymous Davenport junior said at the time, “and it’s one that no one will ever forget.”
‘1977: “A manic genius” ’
Grammer, Jenkins and the student arrested last September all hoped their charades would land them Yale degrees. But for Patrick McDermit in 1977, the charade was the whole point.
McDermit’s final days at Yale were filled with congratulatory phone calls from strangers, kudos from professors on the street and a standing ovation at lunch in the Timothy Dwight College dining hall, the News reported on Feb. 8, 1977.
But it was really his alter-ego, multi-millionaire freshman Andreas Stephan Alrea, whom they were cheering.
The 21-year-old unemployed writer and Los Angeles home remodeler had spent the fall of 1976 reinvented as a larger-than-life, self-made man. The act had Yale’s admissions office — and everyone he met here — convinced.
“The sum of what I told them and what I sent them was so fantastic that they couldn’t fail to believe me,” he told the News after he left in the University.
McDermit’s true high-school career was “undistinguished,” the News reported, with a 3.3 GPA and none of the competitive courses expected of a Yale applicant of the time. After graduation, he made $15,000 refurbishing houses in his native Los Angeles — enough to finance his Yale caper.
He did not think he was on track for college, he told the News in 1977, but looking at college catalogues, he started dreaming of life at Yale.
“I had sort of a grudge against Yale because I had visited the L.A. recruiting office my senior year in high school, and the guy there told me I might as well forget it — I could probably never get in,” he said.
So he started pondering what it would take to prove the recruiting officer wrong, imagining a 20-year-old with “the most amazing record possible,” he said. He started composing a complete life story — and then stepped inside it.
He became Alrea, the son of a Cambridge-educated Shumash Indian who was a noted anthropologist and a Standford-educated Russian-Jewish anesthesiologist. But his time with his luminous parents ended tragically when he was 13. Their car turned over on a country road, leaving only Alrea and his 11-year-old brother to fend for themselves.
Fortunately for them, Alrea had already become an entrepreneur at age 10, making $60,000 — still a lot back then — in the silver trade. He augmented his fledgling fortune by starting a greeting-card press, collecting and selling precious stones and minerals in the desert, restoring cars and furniture and selling mice and lizards to pet shops.
All this while earning straight-A’s in high school — except for one forlorn B in typing. His time at Birmingham High School in Van Nuys, Calif. (McDermit’s actual alma mater), was highlighted by his penning a successful play, becoming class president and head of student government and entering an award-winning science-fair project for which he designed a prosthetic limb that earned him the epithet of “a young Thomas Edison” in the Los Angeles Times.
As co-editor of the student newspaper, Alrea exposed a huge scandal among the school’s administration and had to resign from his student-body and student-government presidencies. He had to leave the editorship, too, so he started his own paper.
After graduation, Alrea trekked off to visit a friend in Alaska, stopping in an unknown mining town on the way. Noticing a need for housing, he bought a dilapidated old hotel for $28,000, renovated it, opened a bar and cafe and charged $5 for an eight-hour stay in the posh guest rooms. He sold it off for millions four years later.
His next stop was Brazil, where he entered the overpriced market for heavy machinery. He rented a barge to float tractors up the Amazon River and sell them for a huge profit. After partnering with 74-year-old tycoon, his multinational corporation started using helicopters operated by Vietnam veterans. He built a ranch and opened a night club in Rio de Janeiro.
But remembering his own American Indian roots, Alrea turned to philanthropy, founding a school for Brazilian Indians. The government suspected him of training a guerilla army, so he liquidated his holdings — $30 million, reinvested in Luxembourgian gold — and applied to Yale.
Yale believed his epic life story, especially after a stunning interview performance.
“The interview just floored me,” his admissions officer told the News after the deception was revealed. “He looked and acted the part so well.”
Maybe it was Alrea’s $375 suit, $300 overcoat, diamond tie-tag, $3,500 gold watch and $300 briefcase that did the trick.
The officer said there had been past forgery attempts, but some inconsistency always gave it away. Not so with Alrea.
“I guess there was just not anything to lead me to believe that it was not true,” his admissions officer told the News. “I just assumed that he was telling the truth.”
He never even called Birmingham High School to check.
After his on-campus interview, McDermit returned to California to create his application, tackling the challenge of forgery in an age before Google and Photoshop.
He opened a remote PO box and used a Princeton University application as a model for the paperwork of an obscure college. He got his high school to send his real transcript to that fictitious school, whose address was his PO box. He then used those documents to fake Alrea’s transcripts and recommendations.
In a package that the News dubbed “the work of a manic genius,” Alrea let his recommendations sing his praises, each in a distinct tone and vocabulary.
“Despite being the hero of a modern success story, Andy remains approachable and unassuming,” one read. “Headstrong, spectacular, resourceful, something of a patrician, and an eccentric genius, he has complicated ambitions which are a compound of his devotion to his own notions of idealism, his unbounded curiosity, and his fear in the ultimate fate of human society.”
Perhaps not all so far from the truth, after all.
Once at Yale, Alrea had to keep up his image — routinely overspending on gifts or dialing a long string of numbers and babbling in Franco-Spanish gibberish, which he said was his indigenous Shumash tongue.
His classmates proved just as gullible as his admissions officer. Unlike the former Morse College junior arrested last year, whose ex-boyfriend was the first to discover his alleged deception, Alrea’s girlfriend found out about his secret double life in the newspaper.
But by the end of the semester, McDermit felt his conscience nagging.
“He felt hesitant about actually earning credits at Yale,” the News reported at the time. “He thought that then his joke would become an outright fraud.”
‘Then and now’
McDermit turned himself in and initially faced no consequences except banishment from Yale property. But his story sparked a national media obsession in newspapers and TV shows.
His classmates found the whole affair amusing if not a little awing, the News reported. Similarly, students this week reacted to the revelation of admissions fraud with a degree of wonder for anyone who could pull it off.
“If someone can get in that way and be successful,” Marissa Grunes ’10 joked, shrugging her shoulders, “he deserves to be here just as much as the next guy.”
The administration did not agree, rescinding the student’s admission, which is the penalty for lying on an application, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeff Brenzel said.
But his alleged forgery has not initiated any changes in admissions procedures, Brenzel said. Despite a decades-old colorful history, these forgeries remain rare, he said.
And while each instance temporarily steals the spotlight, it eventually passes and fades out of memory.
“You don’t want to, because of any one incident, arrive at drastic conclusions about a process which is fundamentally sound,” then-Director of Undergraduate Admissions Margit Dahl told the News in 1995.
Or, as the News predicted 18 years earlier, “Alrea’s joke, in the long run, will not affect admissions policy much, if at all.”