Impostor's Dream Now a Nightmare for Texas High School
ODESSA, Texas -- A few things are constants in this bustling West Texas town of roughly 100,000: the raucous anticipation of Friday night football, rattlesnakes and a place waiting to open its arms to the next hard-luck story to venture its way.
Guerdwich Montimere -- or Jerry Joseph, as those who encountered him here came to know him -- may have taken advantage of the latter. He's the 22-year-old Haitian-born naturalized citizen who last month posed as a 16-year-old basketball player at Odessa Permian, the high school that was the subject of the hit book and movie "Friday Night Lights."
Certainly, Montimere wouldn't be the first person to use falsified documents and offer a heart-wrenching story in order to worm his way into somewhere he shouldn't be. What perhaps makes his story so unusual is how he captured the town's soul and brought out the best in people here.
What's even more remarkable is that even as more details of his deception come pouring out, and even as Montimere sits behind bars on a second-degree felony sexual assault charge because of an improper relationship he is alleged to have had with a 15-year-old girl last summer, he still has his supporters, even in a town littered with rattlesnake warning signs.
"He's a good guy," said basketball teammate Tevan Loud, who stands to have his senior season forfeited because of Montimere's deception. "He just had a dream, I feel like, and really just wanted to achieve that dream and got caught."
There are others who support Montimere, despite the sexual assault charge that sits on top of the false identification charges that saw him arrested three times in the span of four days.
"I'm just not sure that he did anything wrong," said retired Permian teacher Pat Rogers, who admits she never laid eyes on Montimere much less knew him. "What they should do is let that kid out and let him go on back home. That's what they need to do, just let him go because don't nobody know really what happened."
Increasingly, however, the evidence points to Montimere as a pathological liar, a troubled man who conned everyone he met during his year and a half in Odessa. His con might have snared Permian principal Roy Garcia and Panthers basketball coach Danny Wright, whom Montimere lived with for much of the last 12 months until his story began to unravel.
What they know now is that Montimere spent most of his formative years in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He was one of the star players at Dillard High School (pictured, right), a perennial basketball power, before graduating in 2007 and then briefly spending time at Highland Community College in Freeport, Ill. He and his twin brother Guerdwin were raised in a single-parent household, and their mother, Manikissee Montimere, still lives in Tamarac, Fla.
Yet that is not close to the story Guerdwich Montimere told when he arrived in Odessa in 2009, posing as the half-brother of a University of Texas-Permian Basin player named Jabari Caldwell, who had also played high school ball for Dillard.
Montimere told people his mother was deceased and that he arrived in the United States in 2008. Caldwell was his only known relative, and once Caldwell left school after the 2008-09 season, Montimere was homeless with only a birth certificate that said he was Jerry Joseph, born Jan. 1, 1994.
With that information, Montimere was allowed to enroll as a ninth grader at Nimitz Junior High School as Joseph, before moving on to 10th grade at Permian this academic year.
There are so many questions about "Jerry Joseph" that should have been asked and so many holes in his story should have exposed the con. Perhaps looking deeper into the family background of Caldwell could have revealed some inconsistencies.
That didn't happen.
Instead, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service agency and the Ector County School System took "Jerry Joseph" at his word, accepting his falsified birth certificate at face value. Because it did, the Permian basketball program forfeited the 16 games it won this past season, and Wright could face a reprimand and even the loss of his job once the investigation into how Montimere's con unfolded is completed.
But even bigger than a job lost or forfeited games is the light this con has shed on Odessa -- a trusting, perhaps gullible town whose kindness -- or perhaps naivete -- has led national media to ascend on it and raise questions about its way of life.
Surprisingly, neither Wright nor Garcia are apologetic about the entire affair. Insisting on being interviewed together, Wright and Garcia say they were following the law and were only trying to help and educate a teenager they thought was homeless.
"I understand that some parts of the country is going to see us like a bunch of country bumpkins," Garcia said. "But you know what, we can't change who we are."
He said Odessa is a community that is about helping boys and girls, and he vowed to not let one incident -- significant as it is – change how this community and the schools treat kids, no matter what outsiders might think.
"I want a kid in a school where the principal cares about him that much, where the coach cares about him that much, where kids really matter," Garcia said. "But the care for him also extended beyond Permian High School. We weren't short on help, and we have to remember that in the midst of everybody laughing at us."
Maybe more than laughing, people are just wondering how this happened.
Where did its system of checks and balances break down?
Blame is widespread, beginning with immigration officials. They had ample opportunity to poke holes in this story before giving the Ector County School system the approval to enroll "Jerry Joseph" last year. Under state law, the school system is bound to enroll the homeless as long as a boy (or girl) can provide proof of age and prove he is homeless.
Montimere had both.
As it turned out, Montimere also had more telling information about who he is had the Wright family dug into the belongings of the virtual stranger who moved into their home and lived among them last year. When law enforcement officials and Wright's wife searched those belongings two weeks ago, they did indeed find evidence that the teenager they knew as "Jerry Joseph" had a passport that identified him as Guerdwich Montimere.
"There was absolutely no indication whatsoever that this kid was anything other than a 16-year-old," Wright (pictured to right) told FanHouse. "There was nothing."
To listen to those who had reason to know Montimere best, he left no hints of his deception. He played the role of a precocious teen like an actor. Montimere won over people in the town with his infectious smile, easy-going manner and ability to come across as immaturely as a typical 16-year-old. One teacher told Garcia that she saw Montimere skipping down the hallway one afternoon when he thought no one was looking.
Those qualities made those around him overlook his mature-beyond-his-years physique – defined muscles that filled out his 6-foot-5 frame.
"When you talked to him, he just acted like a sophomore," Garcia said. "I've been around kids for a long time and sophomores have a certain way of behaving and he had some of those characteristics."
Montimere displayed many of those teenager's immaturities on the basketball court. He pouted when calls didn't go his way; he cried after heart-wrenching losses, Wright said.
The coach disputed the suggestion that the young man who had been a star at Dillard was running a con on the basketball court, as well.
"I'm a 50-year-old man who played the game all his life," Wright said. "I can almost look in kids' eyes and tell you whether or not that kid is competing, whether or not that kid is being real. This kid, a lot of time, played the point position for me. There were turnovers made in crucial situations. I just don't see that as being possible at all."
What finally gave Montimere up was a critical mistake last month when he joined an elite AAU team for a tournament in Arkansas. At the tournament, a couple of AAU coaches from Florida, Louise Vives and Cedric Smith, spotted Montimere and confronted him. He denied he was the player who had made the All-Broward County Second Team in 2007.
But Montimere's denial wasn't good enough for Vives and Smith; they knew what they knew. They contacted both Fort Lauderdale and Odessa school officials, and they alerted the newspapers in the respective cities. An investigation began with photographs of Montimere as a player in Fort Lauderdale making their way to Odessa and vice-versa.
Surprisingly, Montimere continued to deny he was the same player, and he had more than a few people in Odessa who wanted to believe him.
Then reality set in.
"When I first saw the pictures," Wright said, "I don't want to sound like a monster, but I will say I wasn't very happy. Still, feeling like he was my son, I was feeling like doing what I would do if my son had lied to me. "
Much of the blame for allowing this to happen falls on Wrights' shoulders. After all, he had the most opportunities to uncover the truth with Montimere living under his roof. He also had the most to gain, taking in a 6-5 athlete who claimed he had never played organized basketball.
In what Wright thought was the teenager's first year of organized ball, he started Montimere, a sophomore who helped lead the Panthers to a 16-13 record and a spot in the 2-5A playoffs. Averaging 14.1 points and six rebounds, he was named 2-5A District Newcomer of the Year after averaging more than 20 points in district play.
Wright, however, took exception to the frequent contention that, at some point, he should have had an inkling "Jerry Joseph" was pulling a con.
"I brought the kid into my home," said Wright, who has been the head coach at Permian for three years. "I'm certainly not going to knowingly bring a 21- or 22-year-old kid in my home when I have a 2-year old, I have a wife, I have a daughter. I have minor kids of my own."
He said he treated Montimere as if he were his son. He disciplined him, got after him when he didn't do his homework. On the court, Wright saw in Montimere the same immaturity that he would expect to see in a sophomore.
"He sat out a number of halves and periods of basketball games because of immaturity, being hard-headed," Wright said. "Things that you don't expect from someone that's a grown man."
Because Wright didn't suspect anything, he has some even bigger issues to confront, including a house divided. He and his family grew close to Montimere, but Wright has distanced himself from the young man who he looked at like a son, not going to visit him since he was locked up in connection with the con. Most of that distance may have to do with the difficult position Wright finds himself in -- with the community and with his job.
"I have a family that, right now, doesn't see eye to eye with me," Wright said. "They fell in love with [Montimere]. He's a brother. In their eyes, they have a brother in jail; in my wife's eyes, she has a son in jail."
When pressed about his feeling for Montimere, Wright finally said, "I care about him like a son. I was deceived. I was mad."
What emotions Montimere is feeling is anyone's guess. He hasn't talked to anyone, refusing all visitors and all interview request while locked up at Ector County Detention Center, including FanHouse's attempt this week. Montimere has also declined to have an attorney and, therefore, has no one working on his behalf as he faces up to 20 years in prison.
While his silence could be to protect himself or someone else, it has left many to speculate why he chose to go back to high school instead of advancing in college. One train of thought is he did so to improve his college stock from possibly a Division II or NAIA prospect to a major college player in a couple of years.
"I think he wanted to come back and play and see if he could get a better college [offer]," said senior Felix Nebrh, a football player who got to know Montimere at Permian. "But he went about it the wrong way to me. He didn't have to do all that."
Aside from speculation, Wright has just one reason that might explain the depth of this con: Montimere believed he was the person he made up.
"I believe that he truly believes he is 'Jerry Joseph,' 16 years old," Wright said. "I don't believe he feels he's lying to someone. I never had any indication whatsoever that this kid was a con artist."
Wright seems to be searching for reasons, though. He can remember that Montimere did yard work and wasn't trying to get money out of anyone. Nor was he a bully. Wright had no indications how the con was benefiting Guerdwich Montimere, a 22-year-old Haitian-born naturalized citizen who shared the Wright family's home.
"He slept in the same room with my other 16-year-old kid," Wright said. "He had curfew, couldn't go out and he didn't have a driver's license, so he had to ride the bike or run to the store if he needed to go to the store.
"I think the kid loved the game of basketball. I don't think we truly know why yet."