On a July episode of the primetime competition show America's Got Talent, a compact, graying man in ripped jeans and a vest and tie took the stage.
Holding up a pack of cards, he announced: “I'm not real proud of this, but about ten years ago I found this pack of cards in a federal prison.”
He was a con man, he explained to the hosts, “all about fast cars and fancy clothes”—but the love of a good woman transformed him. “I met an amazing girl and I had some amazing friends and I walked into the U.S. Marshals' office and said 'I retire.' I turned myself in,” he said. “You can't look a woman in the eye, say 'I love you,' and lie about who you are.” His five-year incarceration, he told the audience, allowed him to reinvent himself as a legal kind of con man: a stage magician. “The day I got there,” he said, “I picked up a deck of cards, and I picked up a book about how to do card tricks, and I taught myself how to perform, and I've been doing magic ever since.”
That's Aiden Sinclair's shtick, the con man magician. “Aiden Sinclair is America's preeminent grifter turned professional magician,” boasts his website. “Rather than face a future as a recidivism statistic, Aiden chose to spend his time adapting the skills that served him so well as a confidence artist to a new calling.” The America's Got Talent crowd ate it right up. “You turned your life around, and now you're here to entertain and put smiles on people's faces rather than taking things away from people,” competition judge Howie Mandel enthused to Sinclair on the show.
It's a great story, an inspiring story. But many psychiatric professionals ascribe chronic fraudulent behaviors to serious personality disorders like psychopathy and narcissism—not the kind of thing that just goes away. Sinclair has made his “grifter magician” background part of his performance persona, but is it just a performance? Can con men really change?
I first heard about Aiden Sinclair at a post-wedding brunch in 2002—though he wasn't Aiden Sinclair then. A young man had approached the table where I was sitting with friends, and said that he was the restaurant's house magician and was going to perform some tricks for us. Before the cards could come out, a friend of the groom, Camilo Arbelaez, realized the magician looked familiar. “Hey,” he said, “did you used to hang out with a guy named Patrick Adams?” “Oh my god,” said the man, “yes! Did you hear the feds finally caught him?”
Over the course of brunch, I watched bizarre reminiscences ping-pong around the table. Patrick Adams, it turned out, was an old housemate of the folks we were sitting with, back in the mid-1990s. He was an Irish guy who had come to the U.S. after a stint in the French Foreign Legion, which he'd joined after leaving Belfast because the bar his father owned was attacked by the IRA. At least, that's what he told them.
“I had many conversations at the time regarding Patrick that came to the conclusion that the reality would be even more fantastic if he turned out to be making the whole thing up,” Camilo told me recently. “The job I remember him having in D.C. when I met him was as a bartender in Planet Hollywood,” he recalls. “He was very skilled at doing the Tom Cruise Cocktail-type stunt bartending. Lots of shakers tossed way up in the air and caught at the last possible moment.”
The man calling himself Patrick Adams claimed he had honed these skills working as a bartender on cruise ships. He also told people that he came to the U.S. from Europe on a cruise ship where he was employed. “Later he claimed that he had been hired based on his military background as a DEA agent working on local busts,” says Camilo. “Crack was still king in D.C. in 1995, so he would be out all night or disappear for days and then tell us drug bust stories. He showed other people in the house a service weapon and a badge, but I never saw them.”
Everyone saw through Patrick's tall tales, his old housemates told us at brunch – there was one in particular about running into Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams in a motorcade and being invited along to the White House that pinged their BS meters. They knew he wasn't a DEA agent; aside from working as a bartender, he performed tricks at a magic store downtown, and then opened a kiosk selling magic supplies in the mall. But they figured he was just a whimsical foreigner flaunting his gift of gab. We know a few things about him for sure, they'd tell each other. We know he pays his rent on time. He cleans up after himself. We know he's a decent amateur magician. And we know he's Irish.
But Patrick Adams was not Irish. He was New Jersey-born Richard Outhier, later to be known as Aiden Sinclair.
When I talked to Richard Outhier on the phone, I saved his number as “Patrick Adams,” but I called him Aiden Sinclair. That's only a taste of the confusion his shifting identities generate. He's been living as Sinclair for a while now, and that's how I'll refer to him hereafter, but his early adulthood was a patchwork of names, professions, and nationalities. Every time he felt himself in danger, he would throw out a new identity like a cloud of squid ink and disappear.
When I asked Sinclair about his current sobriquet, he told me that Aiden was his middle name, and that his other names were Sinjin Richard Sinclair. (He's gone by “Sinjin,” a variation on “St. John,” before.) What would you say, I asked, if I told you that's not what I heard? “That wouldn't surprise me,” he said, “because I was adopted.”
“Outhier,” he told me, was the name of the abusive man who adopted him; he no longer wants to be associated with it. This sounded flimsy—but not outside the realm of possibility. He wouldn't be the first adoptee to return to his birth name, either because of conflict with adoptive parents or just because it felt more authentic. I wondered if the story about the name sounded flimsy because it was actually made up, or because I knew about Sinclair's past and was already on my guard.
Sinclair faces this kind of skepticism from others—“I think some people will always want to believe the worst.” But he's had a positive reception from his neighbors in Cheyenne, Wyoming, since publicly revealing himself as a former fraud. He says people will come up and hug him on the street, saying “stay on the right path, don't go backwards.” Even contact with people from his past has been positive; after he appeared on America's Got Talent, “I ended up with a bunch of [Facebook] messages from people from various times in my life, and it was terrifying … but not one of those messages was 'I hate you.'”
Sinclair says that what helps keep him on the straight and narrow is the support and the love of his friends. “When you have people that matter to you in your life,” he says, “you aspire to do well. You want them to be proud of you.” He didn't have that kind of life as a child, he told me: “I think most people have the great benefit of good family structure … when you have problems in life you call mom and dad, you go 'hey, I'm in trouble.’ Without that structure you're left to your own devices.”
“That's not an excuse at all, but there's no direction and it's very easy to start making bad decisions. If you have the feeling that nobody really cares who you are or what you do, it's very easy for you not to care about what you are. And once you do one thing wrong, you fall into a self-image of going, 'well, I'm a villain, I'll just be a villain.'”
As Sinclair describes his childhood, he was adopted at five, abused until the age of 10, and then essentially neglected. His adoptive mother finally left her husband, he explained, but her Navy job kept her from tending to his needs. Nanette Outhier is indeed a Navy retiree, but was quoted on Madison.com as saying “I'm sorry I brought him into this world.” That doesn’t sound much like adoption.
Whatever the actual details, the way Sinclair describes his slide into criminal behavior does have elements that resonate. “When you're in an environment like that as a single child, I think it's natural to hide,” he told me. “The only place you have to hide in that kind of environment is your own imagination, so I think you're more apt to end up in that spot where you lie about who you are. Your friends all have moms and dads and Christmas trees, so you don't go to school and say the truth.”
He was also a smart kid, he says, and nobody was really paying attention to whether he went to class and did his homework, so he wound up developing other goals—and, he says, he honed them watching three-card monte players on his trips to New York and D.C. Accustomed to lying, skilled at deception, and aspiring to money instead of love, he was perfectly poised to become a con man.
Sinclair's career of fraud began in 1993, when he went AWOL from the Marines, where he had served aboard the U.S.S. Ogden. After being sentenced for desertion, he enrolled, bizarrely, in the U.S. Naval Academy. There, he pretended to be a Navy SEAL named Jonathan Vincent Valjean, perhaps on the assumption that naval officers didn't know their Victor Hugo.
Sinclair was caught and sentenced to two years' confinement and a dishonorable discharge, not only for desertion but for aggravated assault. The assault charge was because he had tied up an aspiring SEAL and thrown him into a swimming pool as part of a “drownproofing” exercise. (Drownproofing, to be clear, is a real thing, and tying people up and throwing them in a pool is exactly how you help them train.) Since “John Valjean” wasn't a real SEAL or drownproofing expert, the argument went, the incident qualified as assault even though the candidate made it out just fine and “Valjean” was “a capable swimmer and paramedic.” He pled guilty, but the decision was eventually overturned. That case is still used as a precedent for evaluating military assault cases.
Sinclair says that it was during his brig confinement that he learned to do card tricks. However, it's not entirely clear when he served that sentence, which was stayed temporarily due to an automatic appeal. (On America's Got Talent, he claimed he learned card tricks in federal prison “about ten years ago,” not in military prison in the early 1990s.) He also says that the military sentence was “kind of what set me off … I kind of saw myself as someone who was irreversibly bad—you've now been locked up, there's no coming back from that, you're just going to forever be a bad person.”
Of course, he had already started running away, changing identities, hiding. During the appeals process for his military case, he was extradited to Colorado, where he racked up an 18-month sanction in community corrections for check forgery. Then, according to Madison.com, he disappeared again, partway through serving his time in a residential prison-alternative system.
During this period he turned up in the D.C. area as Patrick Adams, his first Irish persona (though not his last). The brogue wasn't perfect; Camilo says he once nearly caught “Adams” by toasting him with “Sláinte!” and receiving a blank look in return. But after Sinclair's first arrest, he stayed Irish through at least three more identities, and refined his Gaelic vocabulary enough to fool even a Belfast native. (Sinclair told me that in prison, the accent “took probably about three months to lose.”)
In 1997, Patrick Adams opened a magic store in Orlando, Florida, with money lent to him by his girlfriend's parents. Authorities caught up with him there and arrested him for writing fraudulent checks in Florida and Virginia. In a 2008 article, an employee described a dramatic scene in Orlando: “All of a sudden there was a group of guys around him … The next thing I knew there was a big commotion and they're all holding him down and putting him in handcuffs and leg irons."
Sinclair's arrest in Florida led to a yearlong stint in federal prison. While on probation afterward, he vanished again, turning up in Chicago as Alvin Childress, an emergency room attendant. After serving another year for violating probation by moving out of state, he moved around for a while, then showed up in Dallas as Logan Devine, once again an ER attendant. once again an Irishman, and once again a magician. The ER persona allowed him to steal patients' identities and take out credit cards. After disappearing from Dallas, his next stop was Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where he solicited investments for a fake tourism business and stole more credit cards from patrons of the Jackson Hole Playhouse. There, he went by Declan McManus—Elvis Costello's real name.
After Wyoming, things get a little muddy. Sinclair later told a judge that he'd started to regret his lifestyle, and tried to do relief work overseas to atone, but had to return to the U.S. What he told me was that he went back to D.C. and ran a high-stakes private poker room for senators and diplomats who couldn't be seen at casinos. He got rich off this endeavor, he says, but suddenly all the material trappings lost their savor: “I walked into my closet and I probably had half a dozen $1,500 suits on the racks and I just didn't want to wear any of them … None of it had any value at all.” He says he walked out with the poker room's holdings, “and I got in my car and drove away and decided I wanted to do something better.”
But whatever crisis of conscience he may have experienced, when Sinclair reappeared, he still didn't do so under his real name. And this time, perhaps for the first time, he actually stole someone else's.
Unlike Sinclair's previous personas, his 2007 identity—Jonathan Derr, called “Sinjin,” an Irish bartender and EMT trainee in Madison, Wisconsin—belonged to a real person. The original Jonathan Derr was a young man in Boston who had Down syndrome. Sinclair bought his name and information from an identity broker, and then checked out his new identity by posing as a reporter and interviewing Derr's mother about her son. The choice to become an EMT, Sinclair told me, was part of his commitment to living a better life: “I'd done a lot of bad stuff in my life, and maybe if I rode on an ambulance every day it would make up for that.” But to live that dream, he was living a lie.
Sinclair says he eventually turned himself in to authorities in Wisconsin because he found good friends and a girlfriend in Madison, and wanted to come clean. He'd never hesitated to walk out on relationships before, if the law came after him, but “in Madison it was a little bit different. It kind of hit me that I can't really marry someone and lie about who I am anymore. I also started thinking about having a family,” he says. “The big thing was: what if I had kids, and how can I tell a kid to do right when my life is a lie, my name's not my name?”
This statement more or less tracks with what he said on America's Got Talent, and what he told a judge at the time. When he surrendered, in December 2007, a U.S. district attorney was already on his trail for stealing Derr's identity—but then, he'd wiggled out of that sort of thing before. This time, he didn't wiggle. He gave himself up, and was sentenced to four and a half years, which he served. “It just hit me I don't want to be a bad guy,” he says. “I never did.”
Now, Sinclair says, he's a completely reformed man. Not only has he given up grift for good, but he's paying restitution to banks he defrauded. (“I tried very hard not to justify anything illegal that I did,” he told me, “but it was always kind of meant to target larger industry.”) He also speaks at high schools and juvenile detention centers, trying to educate kids about making good decisions. The way he tells it, he's trying to reach the kids who, like him, were identified as bad seeds, believed it, and didn't know how to break out of that mind-set. “I always want to convey that you have choices, no matter how much trouble you get in in life, you can choose to get out of it,” he says. “It doesn't mean you have to be a bad person forever. It has to do with your own self-perception.”
“I'll be honest with you,” Sinclair tells me, “it's harder to be a normal person.” His speech is peppered with phrases like this, almost verbal tics declaring his sincerity: “I'll be honest with you,” “the reality of it is.” If he hadn't turned himself in, he claims, he would still be at liberty: “If you know how to disappear, it's not a hard thing to do.” And he had plenty of reasons not to go straight: “My life would be a hell of a lot easier if I chose to walk that path. I wouldn't have to report to probation officers, I wouldn't have to ask permission to cross a state line, my life would be free in that sense. But I would be living a lie, which is its own form of incarceration.”
But, he adds, sometimes the honest life can be simpler. You don't have to keep track of stories. You don't have to look over your shoulder. “The reality of it is, it's pretty easy to just tell the truth.”
Some of what Sinclair said in this interview is verifiably true. Some of it, like the adoption claim and his story about finding his conscience in a closet full of $1,500 suits, is probably embellished. But if the substance of his conversion is genuine—if he's been felony-free for nearly a decade, if he's telling at-risk young people that they don't have to think of themselves as villains, if he's paying back the banks he stole from—does it really matter?
A genuine 180 would not be unprecedented. Other con artists have turned their lives around, choosing to use their grifting skills for good. Sinclair isn't even the first con man to turn professional magician. British magician Simon Lovell is cagy about the exact details of his grifter past, but he's reinvented himself as a well-regarded magician and performer. He was even a con artistry consultant for the show "White Collar." But the best-known reformed con man is probably Frank Abagnale, the subject of the 2002 film Catch Me If You Can. Like Outhier, Abagnale started by writing worthless checks, but he had other clever ways of defrauding banks; he would doctor a bank's deposit slips so that everyone's deposits went into his account, or pose as a bank guard to collect night deposits and keep them. Most famously—and telegenically—he also posed as a doctor, lawyer, and pilot (so he could fly for free).
Now, though, Abagnale has reinvented himself as a fraud consultant. Instead of grifting people, he teaches businesses, banks, and government agencies how to avoid the exact kind of embezzlement and forgery he used to perpetrate. He's lectured for the FBI and been recognized by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, the National Cyber Security Alliance, and the AARP (which is particularly interested in fraud prevention, since elderly people are a frequent target of cons). He's even on the advisory board for World of Wings International, a philanthropic organization made up of former employees of Pan Am—the company Abagnale pretended to work for and cheated out of more than a million miles in free flights.
Conventional wisdom says that if you're capable of the manipulation and exploitation necessary to pull off a successful con, there must be something wrong with you—something more twisted than just wanting to lay the groundwork for a consulting career. But that's not always true, says Maria Konnikova, author of the forthcoming book The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For It...Every Time. “Many con artists exhibit what's called the dark triad of traits: psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism,” she says. That doesn’t mean that every huckster has the same psychological make-up, though. “Think of it like a Venn diagram, with dark triadists as one circle and con artists as another,” Konnikova says, “There an overlap, for sure, but being a con artist doesn't inherently make you a psychopath and vice versa.”
If you're a “dark triadist,” and especially if you're a psychopath, it's going to be difficult or impossible for you to change. “Those are the sorts of pervasive tendencies that tend to follow someone for life,” says Konnikova. But there's that other sliver of the Venn diagram, the con artists who don't have dark triad traits. You need both predisposition and opportunity to pull off a con, and sometimes, when the opportunity is gone, the predisposition turns out not to be that strong. Abagnale, she says, seems to fall into this category: “He appears to be someone who did it on a lark— he got a kick out of deceiving people and getting away with larger and larger stakes, but it wasn't a compulsion or way of life.”
Determining the strength and sticking power of a given reform, says Konnikova, can only really be done on a case-by-case basis. The only person who can answer that question is the person himself. It's clear what Sinclair will say; he talks a great game about his conversion. Is he going to walk the walk?
Well, right now he's walking it, or says he is. The restitution is getting paid. The probation officers aren't complaining. He's spreading awareness about how certain kinds of manipulation work, through his show “Grift” and his fake séance live event, “Illusions of the Passed.” (“It's funny to me,” he told me about the séance, “that I can go onstage and the first five minutes is disclaimer.”) He's telling young people that a criminal's life isn't glamorous, and it's not a path they have to go down. Unless this newfound honesty turns out to be cloaking a massive long-con fraud—and it'd take a lot of chutzpah to do that while regularly outing yourself as a former con artist on television and on stage, though certainly chutzpah is not in short supply among grifters—is it really so important that the stories he’s telling are entirely free of embroidery?
For what it’s worth, his former roommates seem to think he's going to be all right. “I never had a grudge against him, and I had always figured he was full of crap with regards to some of his tales anyway, you know?” says Mike Musgrove, who lived with Sinclair in D.C. “Believe me, we had worse housemates than 'Patrick Adams.'”
Part of the reason con artists make people so angry is that we want to trust them. That's where the name “confidence artist” comes from—they gain our confidence, our trust, and then betray it. Dark triadists make good con artists partly because they don't care, but you don't have to be a psychopath to play the game. You just have to be able to gain someone's trust, have a compelling reason why you should try, and be willing to use that trust to get what you need.
This makes talking to, or writing about, a reformed con man rather tricky. Aiden Sinclair is sincere, friendly, charming, and full of earnest statements about being honest and making good choices. I really, really want to trust him. Which will make it both painful and embarrassing if, later, it turns out he was pulling my leg.
Still: redemption is possible. It's happened before. Sinclair's got all the right lines, all the right moves. He sounds genuine. He acts genuine. He may not be telling the whole truth, but he seems to be living a genuine life.
Unless, of course, that's just what he wants us to think.