In 1980, Walter Banks Beacham enlisted in the United States Navy. He was excited for the signing bonus of $4,000, a cool $12,000 when adjusted for inflation in 2018. In 1984, Mark Richard Gerardi joined the U.S. Army Reserve. In 1986, Cedrick L. Houston joined the Navy. The next year, Chris Villanueva joined the Army. Zachary Pitt joined the Navy in 1989. And, finally, in 1992, George Perez joined the Army.
The trouble was that these were all the same person.
Beacham assumed the identities of six different individuals he came across through his life in coastal California. The Oakland native even somehow managed to enlist as himself, social security number and all, twice. The Los Angeles Times reported that Beacham was able to do this because he looked like he could be any of a number of ethnicities and he was able to procure fake drivers’ licenses, social security cards, and other identifying paperwork to support his claims.
Keep in mind, this was during the height of the Cold War and military recruiters have quotas to make. They relied a lot on personal integrity to make sure they put good — and real — people into the U.S. military. And there was a time when young Walter Beacham really did want to serve his country, but he failed to adapt to military life when it counted, and the rest is history.
*Note: Beacham is not in any of the photos below. I used photos that give an idea of how much time passes.
1. Walter Banks Beacham
The first time he enlisted, Beacham was drawn in by the guaranteed signing bonus and he really wanted to defend his country. When the recruiter came to his home, he saw Beacham and a few of his friends sitting, smoking, and drinking. He was able to recruit them all.
But the Navy wasn’t really for him. After six weeks and a few AWOL incidents at boot camp near San Diego, he was done.
“I put away my uniform, I got my money, I took a cab out of the front gate and then a Greyhound to L.A.,” he told the Los Angeles Times.
What graduating from Army basic training looked like in 1980.
2. Walter Banks Beacham, Jr.
Maybe it wasn’t the military that was the problem — maybe he just wasn’t cut out for the Navy. Six months after leaving the Navy, he was on a bus, headed for Army basic training. This time, he simply threw a “Jr.” on the end of his name. When the Army asked if he’d ever served before, he said no, and that was that.
For about six months.
The Army eventually realized his Social Security Number matched that used during his previous, Navy life and he was promptly discharged from the U.S. Army.
What graduating from the Navy’s boot camp looked like in 1980.
3. Walter Banks Beacham
When he got back to his native Oakland, it was only three months before he decided to give the life of a sailor another chance. He dreamed of foreign lands and exotic ports and was ready to forego the sign-on bonus (if necessary). He again used his real name and was shipped back to San Diego. He made it through five weeks this time.
“I would have made it through but, five weeks into it, they found drugs in my urine and one of the company commanders was still there from the time before and he saw my name on a list,” Beacham said. “I went AWOL.”
A U.S. Army Korean DMZ patrol in 1984.
4. Mark Richard Gerardi
In 1984, he joined the Army again, this time using an alias of his high-school friend. Beacham borrowed his friend’s diploma and birth certificate and was off to Fort Dix, New Jersey, for basic training — which he completed.
He was sent back to California, attached to a unit in San Francisco, and eventually sent over to Korea for three weeks. It was all for naught when he got a girl pregnant and then left her. She threatened to turn him in to the Army. Beacham tried to play it cool, but eventually bolted. He never heard from them again.
“I guess they just cut you loose after awhile. I don’t know,” Beacham told the Los Angeles Times.
Navy boot camp graduates in San Diego, 1986.
5. Cedrick L. Houston
In 1986, Beacham used the name of someone he met in Hollywood who was trying to be a dancer. He told the aspiring dancer he would get him work if he could use his identification papers… to join the Navy.
He actually finished Navy basic training this time around and was sent to learn to be a submariner on the East Coast of the United States. Of course, it didn’t last. He used a racial slur during the course of his duties and the Navy ended up booting him out for it.
“I was selling doughnuts on the base there until classes started and I called this sailor a silly-ass cracker,” Beacham said.
“And they put me out of the Navy for that.”
6. Chris Villanueva
Back in California in 1987 and using the name Walter Banks Beacham again, he went down to Glendale, outside of Los Angeles, to join the Army as a truck driver, which is where he got his new name, Chris Villanueva. The real Villanueva was an unemployed truck driver Beacham ran into in the Valley one day. The born-again Villanueva (Beacham) was sent to basic training at Fort Sill, Okla. and was sent to Germany right after.
He survived another boot camp only to come under suspicion for some cocaine found in soldier’s duffel bags while in Germany. He was afraid he would get arrested for it, so he went AWOL again and headed for home.
7. Zachary Pitt
Beacham doesn’t even remember the real Zachary Pitt, but the new Zachary Pitt made it through Navy training in San Diego in 1989 and was inducted into the Navy as a Mess Management Specialist — better known as “a cook.” When his ship was set to leave for Japan, Zachary Pitt just walked out and disappeared.
“I met him in the Bay Area. I don’t even remember if he was white or Mexican,” Beacham said of the real Zachary Pitt.
Army basic training graduates in 1992.
8. George Perez
In his last enlistment in 1992, he left before he even received his signing bonus. Now George Perez, Beacham completed Army basic training at Fort Bliss in Texas and was back at Fort Sill for AIT, where he became an artillery unit’s forward observer. This time, he just couldn’t do it.
“Something happened,” he recalled later. “I couldn’t stick around. Time was choking up on me. I was in trouble for staying out late, and I was afraid I’d be busted right then.”
Eventually, he was caught by civilian police officers and turned over to the U.S. military, who court-martialed him on multiple counts of wrongful enlistment, AWOL charges, and desertion. At age 34, he pled guilty to all of them. The old U.S. military would have executed this guy. Luckily for Beacham, there was no war on and he spent just under eight months in an Army prison and was released with a dishonorable discharge.