We first met Ronnie Lee Durham in 2012, when two versions of a Washington Post online article with my byline turned up in a criminal investigation in Pennsylvania. I hadn’t written the article and The Post hadn’t published it, but it targeted the Fairfax County lawyer who opposed Durham in his divorce. All four sentences in it were completely false, which is a record even for me.
It turned out Durham, who had secretly changed his name to Ronnie Lee Johnson years earlier, was up to far worse hijinks than fraudulent bylines. He had terrorized his wife for years, falsely accusing her and causing her to be jailed 10 times in Fairfax. He wrote and distributed malicious things about her and her lawyer (including the alleged Jackman article). He severed her relationship with their adult son. And he stole the Social Security number of a Mississippi man and began getting jobs, and passports, in that man’s name. Last week, in federal court in Philadelphia, the former Mr. Durham pleaded guilty to five felony counts of Social Security fraud, and he is looking at a short federal prison stint after his sentencing in May.
He was charged in Philadelphia because after his divorce from the former Terri Durham was finalized, she sued her ex-husband for malicious prosecution and defamation, and in 2010 a Fairfax County judge imposed a $1.35 million judgment on Johnson. Apparently uninterested in meeting that legal obligation, Johnson moved to Pennsylvania with their son and began working for a company that gave him access to clients’ personal information, court records show. He admits he obtained two driver’s licenses, a passport, a bank account, a debit card and two jobs using the Mississippi Ronnie Johnson’s Social Security number, which enabled him to avoid being tracked.
This all fell apart rather dramatically in June 2012, when Johnson’s 22-year-old son called the Lower Southampton Township, Pa., police and handed over his father’s various driver’s licenses and passports, including an application for a third passport. Johnson was arrested and charged first in Bucks County with identity theft, and then to Social Security fraud and aggravated identity theft in federal court. He pleaded no contest in April 2013 to the two Bucks County charges and received probation. In federal court, prosecutors dropped the identity theft charges in exchange for the five fraud pleas. Federal sentencing guidelines call for a sentence of six to 12 months in jail, court records show.
Johnson and his son have moved back to the house he owns on Janelle Street in the Franconia area. I dropped by the other day to speak with him, but Johnson did not answer the door and did not respond to a polite note I left on my business card. His lawyer in Philadelphia, Michael Engle, declined to comment.
The convictions of her ex-husband are another step on a long road to recovery for Terri Harley, the former Mrs. Ronnie Durham. The details of their tortuous relationship are here. The low point was after her tenth arrest, when judges seeing her record (and not knowing the backstory) denied her bond and she spent 17 days in the Fairfax jail.
“I spent 17 days in jail, and I want him to serve at least twice that,” Harley said Thursday. “It boils down to the fact that he’s committed a lot of crimes over time, he’s just never been caught before. I’m deeply gratified and pleased that Detective [Eric] Landamia [of the Lower Southampton police] pursued this.” She said her ex-husband “is dangerous and he shouldn’t be out on the street.” And she said of her son, whom she hasn’t seen in years and who still lives with Johnson, “My desire is that Nathan eventually escapes the abuse.”