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What is the biggest scam you’ve ever seen?

In 2004 a guy came forward who had been a janitor at the World Trade Center on 9/11. (I’ll call him The True Hero because that’s what his admirers called him.) He sued the President and claimed that his master key had enabled him to rescue hundreds of people who were otherwise trapped behind locked fire exit doors.

His claim about his “Key of Hope” was ridiculous. The people were not locked in. Death statistics show that of the approximately 15,000 civilians who were underneath the airplane impact zones on 9/11, about 14,900 evacuated successfully—with the Key of Hope or without it. Thus survival rates were no higher on the 40 floors where The Hero claimed to have rescued hundreds of people than they were on any of the other 120-something floors under the impact zone where The Hero never opened the doors.

This guy never brought forth any actual office worker, or any office worker’s spouse or parent or child, who was willing to go on TV and thank him. CNN had covered him in 2001 and 2002, but by 2004 his story had become embroidered, and it was mostly the alternative media that were covering him by then. Overseas, this fellow was received at face value as a genuine hero as he traveled the world delivering an inspirational talk and was photographed with heads of state and movie stars. He collected lots of money to support his “mission” to travel the world and tell his story and appear on TV and collect lots of money.

It turned out that he had stolen the true story of Pablo Ortiz, who rescued dozens of people on the 88th floor on 9/11. On that floor, the impact of the airplane a few floors above had jammed many of the doors. Mr. Ortiz broke the doors open with a crowbar and enabled the people to evacuate. It is said that after descending to a lower floor to help extricate people trapped in an elevator car, Mr. Ortiz was last seen climbing back upstairs intending to break through a bathroom wall to rescue people trapped in an elevator car between floors. He died when WTC1 fell on him.

The True Hero’s Key of Hope story was all hooey. His nonsense was promoted by members of the 9/11 Truth movement who should have known better—including me. Every fireman, police officer, security guard, janitor, and architect, lawyer, and journalist would see through his story in a minute. He made his supporters look very foolish as they tried to peddle his story to firefighters and journalists and lawyers. In 2007 he got 2 hours on C-Span to strut and brag. That was pretty much the end of C-Span’s hospitality to the 9/11 Truth Movement.

He was a demonstration of the power of confirmation bias and Group Think. He told the truthers what they wanted to hear, and we ate it up. I believed it myself. Hero Janitor Sues President—what a great story!

It was only after a 9/11 Truther friend asked me to write a review of the DVD of his 2006 Los Angeles performance on C-Span that I came to question his claims. I drafted a favorable review, saying the narrative was compelling, he seemed credible (who would lie about such a thing?) , and it was a good vehicle for newcomers to the many legitimate questions the truth movement was posing.

But because I was writing a review, I watched the DVD twice. And the second time I noticed—Wait a minute! Did he say the fire exit doors were locked so the people were locked in? I had never been a True Hero, but I had been a janitor, had studied architecture, had been a security guard, had been a document analyst for litigators, I fancied myself as something of an amateur journalist, and my bullshit detector went sky high.

I told my friend I could not write a favorable review, and I told her why. But I wimped out. I kept my misgivings to myself, and did not blow the whistle on him. How could anybody be so slimy as to steal his glory from the dead? The guy was much beloved in the truth movement. He was very personable—as con artists always are. What if I was wrong and all my fellow truthers were right?

At first I simply raised some technical questions to fact-check his story. He had claimed that after he had climbed 39 floors, opening locked doors and saving hundreds, he stopped climbing because floors 65 to 43 had collapsed above him—so the people on those 22 floors were dead. So I simply asked him for his basis for this opinion that 22 stories had collapsed. I knew that the tower could not survive an interior collapse of that magnitude. The Hero’s response to this question was quite unheroic. He threatened to cancel his upcoming appearance at a 600-seat hall nearby.

When I thought about it I realized why the 22-story collapse was a non-negotiable part of his tale. Without it, he did not have an acceptable explanation for why he turned back at the 39th floor, leaving hundreds on upper floors presumably waiting for him to come and rescue them, taking his allegedly-life-saving Key of Hope downstairs to help one disabled man down the stairs to the street. The True Hero needed the 22-story collapse to explain why he lived and 343 FDNY personnel (and Mr. Ortiz) died, and why the FDNY personnel responsible for evacuating the civilians allowed him to take his miraculous key with him out of the building.

At some point I stumbled onto the sociologist Max Weber’s formulation of the basis for “charismatic authority” and I recognized that The Hero’s story embodied all three legs of that theory: 1) sanctity (The Hero said he was not a believer until God helped him to save lives that day, and later he converted to Islam), 2) heroism (he climbed 39 floors in a burning building after seeing a man severely burned by an explosion), and 3) exceptional character (he raised money for the victims of 9/11 while living under a bridge himself, and turned down book deals and movie deals rather than change his story).

So I wondered if maybe this janitor had just a leetle bit of sophisticated help in writing his script. It also struck me as very strange that this movie-star-handsome character, obviously a gifted salesman with a hunger for the limelight, had ostensibly spent the years of the Clinton prosperity picking up cigarette butts and condom wrappers (and worse) in the emergency stairways of the World Trade Center when he could have been selling Rolexes or yachts or commercial real estate or expensive perfumes or clothes and handbags. Was he a student of Zen? Was he doing some kind of self-abnegating penance? It occurred to me that his janitor position might make an excellent cover for some kind of undercover security work. He could go away for long periods and nobody would know that his boss was punching his time card for him every day. ABM, the Hero’s janitorial employer, also provides Security (and presumably union-busting) services.

The Hero used tactics of intimidation and libel to try to counter my charges. He thought that by lying about me and inciting others to lie about me he could make me stop telling the truth about him. He threatened to bring a movie crew to California to ambush me with embarrassing questions. I was quite distressed when people I considered friends accused me of base motives, telling me I was trying to pull down the True Hero because I was jealous because he was a Somebody and I was a Nobody. I guess they didn’t know that I am a ground-up grassroots organizer, not a top-down organizer. I’m a Nobody because that’s what I want to be. I want to inspire the leaders of tomorrow from the ranks of my fellow Nobodies.

At one point I had the opportunity to confront one of his prominent Somebody supporters, a “former” operative for one of the intelligence services in Europe who had lent her fresh-faced beauty to promoting some of the looniest 9/11 theories that could be found. She lit up as I approached, expecting that I would praise her for her courage in speaking out. I said she was much too smart to believe The True Hero’s story for even a minute, and I was very disappointed in her. She took a long two seconds before she could muster a response. She said: “Well we all have to live with our disappointments, don’t we.” I left it at that.

It was many years before The Hero recognized that his hero career in the USA and in Europe was over. He still gets a hearing for his phony tale once in a while in South America and Mexico and Iran, but his websites have been shut down and even their wayback machine archives have been scrubbed. The Facebook pages where people I knew used to sing The Hero’s praises appear to be gone, and on His new (save-face-book) page he seems to have ZERO friends.

His most recent mainstream coverage outside of Latin America that I know about was in 2011 in the German news magazine, Der Spiegel. The article “9/11-Uberlebender: Superhelden-Epos eines Putzmannes” concluded that his schtick was a case of a street magician trying to pass a $1 bill off as a $20 bill, but then tempered that (libel laws are very strict in Europe) by saying that just maybe the scamster was crazy enough to believe his own nonsense.

The hypothesis that the “Super-Janitor” was mentally ill is very appealing. Then he bears no moral responsibility for traveling the world crowing about a heroism that he stole from the dead. He was very, very lucid, though, and his malice toward his critics was very organized.