After impersonating Walter W. Baker, heir to the Baker chocolate fortune, and bilking his Richmond fiancée’s mother out of $15,000 in 1928 (equal to $190,000 in 2011), Ticonderoga’s Bernard Frederick Champagne was sentenced to ten years in a Virginia prison. He was paroled after serving more than six years, but the gates had hardly closed behind him when Champagne was at it again.
Shortly after his release, the US Department of Justice was tracking him across the North Country. As he had done for years in the past, Bernard managed to move quickly and stay a step ahead of his pursuers.
In retrospect, it probably wasn’t the best idea to leave prison after conviction on charges of impersonation and then return home to pass himself off as a federal officer, but that’s exactly what Champagne did. He also left Ticonderoga for several weeks with a vehicle that didn’t belong to him, prompting the town police force to join the feds in seeking his arrest.
Initially, their search efforts covered from the Albany area to southern Quebec. It was then expanded statewide, and finally extended across the Northeast. Two weeks later, Champagne was in Elizabethtown’s Essex County jail, facing local and federal charges.
What had he done? After arriving home from the prison in Virginia, Bernard needed transportation to execute his latest scam. At the automobile dealership of Charles Moore in Ticonderoga, he tried out a large Oldsmobile and expressed an interest in purchasing it. Moore accepted his promise to return with the car and pay for it when some expected funds arrived.
Champagne then visited stores, restaurants, and bars across the region, presenting himself as a representative from Washington. Presenting his official federal credentials, including a badge, Bernard saved them money by accepting a smaller direct payment of the liquor tax, which relieved them of paying the regular rate to county alcohol officials.
When local liquor authorities made their normal rounds, they viewed the receipts left by Champagne and knew immediately that something was amiss. By that time, he had scammed businesses across the region and then vanished.
An investigation failed to locate Bernard, but certain savings accounts were discovered. No one knew for certain where the money came from, but in banks located in Burlington and Saratoga, Champagne had $56,000 ($890,000 in 2011).
He was traced as far as Maryland, and then officially listed as “whereabouts unknown.” A week later, Champagne was arrested in Hyattsville, Maryland (still driving the Oldsmobile), and was brought north to face charges.
Five months later (in October), an Essex County jury found him not guilty of stealing the car. Their reasoning was simple: he had promised to return it, and with no firm timeframe in place, he hadn’t actually reneged on that promise.
As he had done earlier in the Richmond case, Bernard presented no defense on the federal charges. He pled guilty in Albany to three counts of impersonation and was sentenced to one year and one day in the US Penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.
In December 1936, Champagne walked out of prison once again a free man, and immediately proved himself an incorrigible lawbreaker. Without hesitation, he returned to criminal activity, and for the next several years left few traces of his whereabouts. (It was very difficult tracking his story today through newspaper archives and public records. Gaps were unavoidable. After all, seven decades ago, the FBI chased him for seven years before achieving any success.)
Having already served two prison sentences, Champagne had proven catchable, but the third time wouldn’t be easy for his pursuers. He worked multiple scams at the same time in a particular city, but when the heat was on, he slipped away to a new location. And there’s no denying that Bernard Champagne was one slippery customer.
His exploits out West provide a fine example. After several impersonations in San Francisco, he was indicted there by a federal grand jury in May 1942. But Champagne was already long gone, posing as a secret service agent in Salt Lake City, where he found at least six more victims. He was particularly adept at securing small cash amounts, which tended to attract less attention.
To make the process profitable, he worked several targets simultaneously. They were nearly always women, and many of them were widows. In Salt Lake City, impersonating a secret service agent netted him $5,000 from six targets. As if to intentionally taunt his pursuers, in two of those cases Bernard also claimed to be a special agent with the FBI.
This especially annoyed Bureau Director J. Edgar Hoover, who was very protective of the agency’s image. He turned up the heat on Bernard, but despite the intensified effort, their quarry from the North Country remained elusive.
The charges at San Francisco were followed by several other federal indictments: in Salt Lake City, June and November 1942; Danville, Illinois, September 1942; New York City, January 1943; and Cleveland, April 1943. Complaints had also been filed against Bernard in Omaha, Nebraska; Kankakee, Illinois; Daytona Beach, Florida; and in Maine.
FBI agents described Champagne as “a prolific impersonator,” but the true extent of his success is unknown. Because so much of his fakery escaped detection, it’s unclear how many identities Bernard actually assumed. One agent said he had “at least 50 aliases,” and at one point, there were 34 names documented. It was the list of professions, however, that really impressed them.
Among his successful impersonations were: a graduate of Columbia University; a doctor employed by the US Public Health Service; a secret service agent; an FBI agent; a member of the US diplomatic corps; and the nephew of noted politician Hamilton Fish, a ruse that allowed him to pass $600 worth of bogus checks ($8,000 in 2011).
On a grander scale were his military personas: an army medical officer; aide to General Arnold, who was chief of the nation’s air forces; a member of military intelligence; a lieutenant colonel in the army (good for another $8,000 in 2011); a lieutenant commander in the US Navy; and a nephew of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was commanding the Allied forces in Europe.
At times he claimed to have lost three brothers in the Battle of the Coral Sea; that his brother-in-law was an admiral; and that his grandfather was a navy captain. Those lies, offered convincingly, gave him legitimacy in the eyes of an intended victim. It was an important factor leading up to the payoff scheme: ensuring that he could secure the release of relatives in Germany. By carefully selecting his marks (victims), Bernard achieved continued success.
An FBI memo from summer 1943 notes that Champagne’s proclivity for “victimizing women, especially widows” was featured in a radio broadcast by the legendary Walter Winchell. Hoover, passionate guardian of the FBI’s reputation, felt that publicly citing a longstanding, unsolved case made the Bureau look bad. It was his baby, and he felt the need to respond.
The same memo confirmed that increased attention was now focused on Bernard: “An identification order was issued on Champagne during the past week, and a very active fugitive investigation looking to his apprehension is in progress.”
Less than two months later, Hoover had his man. Bernard’s modus operandus was well known, and information detailing it was disseminated to scores of law enforcement agencies. Anything remotely resembling his style was looked at, and a case in Ohio proved his undoing.
In the small village of Dalton, Bernard had targeted a widow, Gladys Mohn, in a real estate scheme. Presenting himself as Allen Steven Klein, a navy surgeon, he convinced Mrs. Mohn to invest $4,312 ($55,000 in 2011) in some Florida property, land that he said the government was going to purchase for airport development. The return promised by Champagne on her investment was $22,000 ($277,000 in 2011).
A glitch developed when Mohn went to Florida with Champagne to look the site over. After several excuses “prevented” him from showing her the property, which of course didn’t exist, Bernard finally abandoned her and vanished.
Mohn’s subsequent complaint to authorities, with details on how her “partner” operated, suggested that Allen Steven Klein may well have been Bernard Frederick Champagne.
On April 10, a warrant was issued for his arrest, adding to the list of previous indictments, but also triggering an intensified FBI manhunt. And this time, Bernard’s luck finally ran out when several FBI agents from the Cleveland branch arrested him in Dalton. At his arraignment the next day in Canton, Ohio, Champagne did what he had always done in the past—pleaded guilty.
Hoover addressed the media, mentioning several of the personas Bernard had assumed, including that of FBI agent. The Director noted, “Champagne operated from coast to coast, leaving a trail of disillusioned women who gave him sums ranging up to $4000 [$50,000 in 2011].”
Though his documented crimes may have been the proverbial “tip of the iceberg,” an aura of mystery surrounded Champagne’s incarceration, much as it had his life of crime. After pleading guilty, he was held under $10,000 bond ($120,000 in 2011) at Cleveland for federal grand jury action. At that point, he seems to have vanished.
Perhaps the FBI avoided publicizing his story any further once he was captured. Champagne had defrauded hundreds of victims out of untold thousands of dollars—certainly the equivalent of millions of dollars today. To the embarrassment of lawmen, he had gotten away with most of it during the past seven years. Heavily redacted records limit our knowledge of his activities.
Despite the vast number of charges pending against Bernard in at least nine cities (for fraud and for impersonating federal officials), the Cleveland grand jury settled on a puzzling set of indictments: “Violation of the Mann Act, in transporting a waitress from Orrville [Ohio] to California via Winter Haven, Florida; violation of the Selective Service Act for not having his registration card with him; and posing as a lieutenant commander in the US Navy with intent to defraud.”
It appears that he served approximately 18 years in prison and was released in the early 1960s, returning to the North Country. Champagne passed away in 1977 at the age of 73.
Lawrence Gooley has authored ten books and dozens of articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. Expanding their services in 2008, they have produced 19 titles to date, and are now offering web design. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.