On Jan. 5, 28-year-old Hilton Lashawn Williams, wearing white jailhouse overalls and handcuffs, pleaded guilty to defrauding a Texas bank of $250 and was sentenced to 10 years in the Texas Department of Corrections.

Nothing about the brief judicial procedure -- or Williams' demeanor -- suggested anything unusual. If the sentence seemed harsh, a casual observer could still be forgiven for concluding that another petty criminal had met his due.

Appearances, however, can be deceiving. Indeed, this story is first and foremost about deceptive appearances. Until he was arrested last December in Washington, Williams, a burly black man with a pumpkin-shaped face, hair dyed reddish-orange and Size 10 feet, spent most of 1987 successfully passing himself off as rhythm-and-blues singer Shirley Murdock.

He dressed like her, talked like her and -- on a couple of occasions, at least -- sang in public like her. Under her name, he checked into lavish hotel rooms in nearly a dozen cities across the country, rented limousines, hired bodyguards and purchased expensive clothes.

At each stop, he magnanimously signed autographs. He also signed a blizzard of bogus checks, which Texas police estimate will probably amount to $20,000 by the time they all come home to roost.

Williams might still be at it, had it not been for a children's Christmas party, a church choir and a coincidental telephone call between old college friends. But that's getting way ahead of the tale. The fact is that hundreds of people -- from bank clerks to deejays to Mayor Marion Barry -- were fooled by the most outrageous flimflam since "Tootsie."

"People are real dumb," says Williams from behind the glass partition in the Walker County Jail in Huntsville, Tex., "They're so star-struck. It was just so easy! A lot of whites didn't know who Shirley Murdock was. So I'd tell them, 'I am Shirley Murdock, the singer, you know. You've heard of me, haven't you?' And they'd say, 'Oh yes, yes, of course.' And before I got up to the room, I had champagne, flowers and fruit baskets from the hotel. I'd go into stores to buy stuff, and when the clerks learned I was Shirley Murdock, they actually gave the stuff to me. They'd throw it into the bag.

"I expected the blacks to be more perceptive. But they'd hear the name Shirley Murdock, and they'd scream, 'As We Lay!' {Murdock's hit single} and start gettin' all excited. I could tell 'em, 'Oh, I've lost my credit card' or whatever, and they'd give me theirs to use. Hell, the blacks were as gullible as the whites."

Gullibility probably didn't have as much to do with it as the age-old allure of celebrity. In America, you can travel far on a little razzle-dazzle, and Williams did. In their thrill over rubbing elbows with a star -- even a heavily cologned, garishly attired star who had to explain who she was -- few people noticed the razor bumps under the heavy layer of Fashion Fair makeup or the thick ankles protruding from the white dress with the sparkly bugle beads.

Birth of a Notion

It didn't start out as a scam. Or at least Williams, who has four prior convictions for theft, says it didn't. In January 1987, he was paroled from the Texas penitentiary, having served not quite a year of a four-year sentence for writing bad checks. There he was back home in Picayune, Miss. -- lazing around and watching "Soul Train" -- when Shirley Murdock appeared on the television screen.

One of his friends said to him, jokingly, "Hey, Hilton, you look just like her." Williams thought he did, too. Or could, with a little help. He insists he has no transvestite impulses, but he is clearly a born actor and once studied music at Jackson State University. Both skills would serve him well.

Williams promptly went out and bought "Shirley Murdock!," the singer's first and so far only album, learned the songs by heart and, using the cover photo as his guide, set about remaking himself in her image. Those who would see him later were invariably struck by the extraordinary cornrowed hair, which swept forward over the right eye in a peekaboo style, reminiscent of both Veronica Lake and a wet spaniel.

Perhaps it was that very flamboyance, combined with the soft-spoken, ladylike airs Williams adopted, that threw people off the track. They thought "weird." They thought "wild." They rarely thought about gender.

"Back where I come from in North Carolina," says Natalie Holder, the Washington hotel clerk who helped bring Williams' reign to an end, "when you see an ugly woman, you figure it's an ugly woman. You don't think it's an ugly man."

It was a common assumption.

Initially, Williams appears to have viewed the charade as a kind of extravagant fantasy. He has a vivid imagination, and though he accuses others of being celebrity hounds, he is no less mesmerized by the blandishments of fame. Anonymity, as he sees it, is a state akin to purgatory.

"At first, I went around to some clubs in Louisiana to see if I could get by with it, you know," he says. "At this one radio station I went to in New Orleans, they had Shirley's picture on the wall. This deejay had actually met her once, and he couldn't tell that I wasn't the real Shirley Murdock. It amazed me. When it started going so good, I thought, 'Wow! If I could actually get some fake identification and stuff ...' "

Williams not only managed to procure a false ID, he had business cards printed up, attesting that Elektra Records (Murdock's label) was his employer. He also armed himself with stacks of blank "model employment contracts," which he dangled before the unsuspecting. An aspiring performer who signed with the fictitious Starlite Musical Co. came away thinking he would be appearing in a music video of the Murdock song "The One I Need."

Williams couldn't have been more generous. Contracts in his luggage at the time of his arrest show that he promised salaries as high as $4,500 for what would be one day of rehearsal and a three-day shoot. Between those who hungered for employment and those who were just happy to fraternize with a star, Williams discovered he could quickly assemble an entourage wherever he went. And he liked having an entourage.

When he wanted to make a big entrance, it helped to be accompanied by a bodyguard and a secretary. Usually, the bodyguard was a muscleman he'd rustled up at the local gym and hoodwinked with a role in the upcoming video. And the secretary, more often than not, was an unwitting chance acquaintance, bored with the 9-to-5. "Friends of mine," Williams calls them, although it is unlikely they remained friends after he skipped town.

By the end of last summer, the little masquerade was growing in size and ambition. In October, it would run smack up against the law. On the 5th of that month, Williams, dressed in skintight jeans and sporting high-gloss red nails, walked into the yellow-brick office of First National Bank, South, in Huntsville, Tex., deposited $100 in cash and opened a checking account in the name of Shirley Murdock. In return, he received 250 blank checks.

Imitation, in this case, was not the sincerest form of flattery. On one hand, Williams admires Murdock. "I like her music," he says. "She's a gospel singer, basically. You give Shirley a microphone and keyboards and you let her go. Not like Whitney Houston, for example. Whitney Houston is a made singer. She was tall and skinny and looked good, so they made her a singer. But you put her onstage with keyboards and a microphone and she couldn't do a thing.

"I met her once. I saw her show in Houston and went backstage and talked with her afterwards. Nasty attitude. Real nasty attitude. But Shirley and me, we come out of the same church organization. She has that naturally endowed gospel voice. It wasn't hard for me to get it right."

On the other hand, one reason he chose to impersonate Murdock -- as opposed to Tina Turner or Diana Ross or even Whitney Houston -- is that Murdock isn't so well known. The name doesn't conjure up a distinct face. Williams could get away with his own.

Stepping Out in Huntsville

Just why he chose Huntsville as his jumping-off point is less understandable. A community of 28,000 about 70 miles north of Houston, it is the hub of the Texas Department of Corrections. Looming over the dusty town square is The Walls, a massive red-brick structure where the state carries out its executions. Huntsville's other major institution, Sam Houston State University, boasts the largest criminal justice center in the nation; law enforcement personnel across the country regularly attend its courses and seminars on crime detection and related subjects.

Even a sign on a local clothing store, Bustin' Loose, reflects the principal source of the town's economy. "Ex-mates," it reads, "we cash your release checks free."

Far from being intimidated by the law's extensive presence, Williams blossomed. He told people in Huntsville he was escaping the pressures of his career and the demands of an exhausting promotional tour.

Shortly after his arrival, he swept into the sports department of Sam Houston State, "dressed to the hilt and wearing five times the normal amount of makeup and jewelry," according to Matt Fenley, assistant director for athletics. The university's football team, the Bearkats, was about to go up against Texas Southern University and the campus was awash in pregame excitement.

"I don't normally do this because my manager gets very upset," Williams told Fenley. "But I'd be more than happy if I could be allowed to go out and sing the national anthem before the game."

Taken in by the "heavyset Tina Turner with long fingernails, the whole bit," Fenley checked with band officials to see if the guest appearance could be arranged. But the officials decided it was too late to alter pre-game ceremonies. Williams professed to understand and -- in a display of noblesse oblige -- signed autographs for several admiring football players before leaving.

"It was very convincing," marveled Fenley.

Williams stayed at the University Motel and then wangled lodgings at the home of a local resident by insisting that he simply had to get away from the persistent phone calls of his manager.

On Oct. 14, Williams was back at the First National Bank, South. Appearing at the drive-in window, he presented the teller with a check for $1,008, made out to Shirley Murdock and drawn on the account of a certain H.L. Williams at a bank in Picayune, Miss. He requested $250 in cash and asked that the remainder be deposited in the phony Murdock account. Normally, the teller would have verified the check's authenticity, but the bank's computer system was down and a certain confusion reigned. Williams pocketed his $250.

The following day, the Huntsville bank learned that the check was worthless and contacted the police. Bobby Sanders, a 30-year-old detective who's lived in Huntsville most of his life, was assigned to the case. At this point, Williams' disguise seemed on the verge of unraveling. Williams' host, acting on a hunch, had gone through his guest's luggage and discovered that he was actually harboring a female impersonator.

Justice moves slowly, however, and Williams moved fast. By the time Sanders had learned of the impersonation, matched Shirley Murdock to Hilton Lashawn Williams, ex-con, processed the mandatory paper work and issued a warrant for Williams' arrest, Williams was on a bus to Dallas. He had two months of living high on the hog ahead of him. Sanders had two months of frustration.

The detective entered Williams' name into the computers of the Texas Crime Information Center and the National Crime Information Center. From then on, he could only reconstruct Williams' trail from the hot checks the impostor continued to write on the Huntsville account, long after it was closed on Oct. 23.

That, and field the phone calls of the duped.

"That man was so desperate to find me, he did everything he could. He wanted me back here bad," Williams crows. Desperation, however, hardly seems to be a component of Sanders' easygoing personality. In retrospect, the detective acknowledges that he found the case "a refreshing change" from his usual beat, which is investigating car robberies.

"I have to condemn what he did," Sanders says. "But I can admire the skill with which he did it. I told him that. I told him, 'You should use your talents some other way. Obviously, you can act. You acted the whole time.' "

The Ambitious Choirboy

Williams' natural propensity to embroider the facts of his life and the reluctance of the few who know him well to talk make it tricky to pin down his past. Before he was born on Oct. 15, 1960, in Picayune, his parents had separated. Williams' mother, who works in the cafeteria of a Picayune hospital, raised her only child alone.

"He was a nice kid," she says now, over the phone. "Sure was. He never got in trouble when he was growing up. He sang in the church choir -- the Church of God in Christ. He was the director of the junior choir."

Hesitantly, she explains that she hasn't heard from her son since August, and although articles about his arrest have appeared in the local paper, the Picayune Item, she does not appear to know the details.

"I thought I heard something about it," she says. When told Williams is in prison in Texas, she expresses little surprise. There is a long pause. Then she asks, plaintively, "Can you tell him to call sometime?"

The assistant vice principal of Picayune Memorial High School remembers Williams as "a very relaxed young man, sort of a religious person, an average student. People liked him. He was very outgoing." But nothing about him seemed out of the ordinary. "I guess," jokes the school official, "some people are just late bloomers."

After high school, Williams enrolled at Jackson State University as a music major. His mother thinks he went for two years. Williams says he graduated -- no university records support his claim -- and was then faced with the prospect of returning home to "maybe teach music or something."

The prospect bored him. Years later, he seems bored just talking about it. "I wanted to do something interesting. I thought about going into show business. But I wasn't getting that much work."

Nonetheless, in July 1981, Williams managed to convince a writer for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, Mississippi's largest paper, that he had been hired to appear in "Checking In," an upcoming CBS television series. The show, a spinoff of "The Jeffersons," was to star Marla Gibbs, and Williams said he would be playing Gibbs' 14-year-old son -- "a smart and witty character" -- at a weekly salary of $10,500.

The Clarion-Ledger headlined the article "Checking into the CBS lineup." In it, Williams was quoted as saying he owed his success to "my persistence and determination." His mother called it "a dream come true."

The truth later emerged in the Picayune Item. While indeed there had been a spinoff called "Checking In," it had flopped after a four-week tryout that spring. Williams had not been part of it.

But then again, he was just getting started. On occasion, he has pretended to be film actor Larry B. Scott, who appeared in such movies as "Revenge of the Nerds" and "Spacecamp." More than once, Scott's Hollywood agent, Helen Sugland, has been obliged to clear up the confusion. "If you want to see the real Larry B. Scott," she says, seizing the chance to get in a plug for her client, "you can catch him on PBS in 'The Bernhard Goetz Story' in February."

The more one delves into the past of Williams, the more one gets entangled in a mass of fabrications, demi-truths and false leads. Who the real Hilton Lashawn Williams is may just be immaterial. He displays no animation when talking about his true self. Questions about where he came from and how he was raised leave him indifferent. It is the imaginary self that fires his imagination. Long ago, he cast himself as the leading player in a drama of duplicity and greed. And in his own mind, at least, the drama is of epic proportions.

It is possible that Williams may have met Tina Turner in Nashville last November. They both were staying at the Stouffer Nashville Hotel at the same time and Williams' fictions usually grow from a kernel of fact. Here, however, is how he relates the encounter:

"One of the guys in the hotel told me Tina was there, so I called up her suite and talked to her personal assistant and arranged to meet her. Well, Tina even thought I was Shirley Murdock. She sat down and talked to me and said, 'Shirley, I wish I could sing like you! Girl, you are really remarkable! But you gotta lose some of that weight. You're too big. Now look at me. When people see me, they think sex. That's why I'm so marketable. But I'm tellin' you, you gotta lose some of that weight, girl.' "

Going First Class

The checks -- made out to hotels, airlines, record and department stores, specialty shops, Amtrak and limousine services -- invariably bounced. But they show that Williams did his best to live up to his vision of a star. The checks are only part of it. You have to consider, he insists with a point of pride, the gifts he received along the way -- the dinners, the flowers, the invitations to stay in private homes -- to appreciate the full measure of his scam. "People just take to me," he says. "It's automatic."

Once Williams got off the bus in Dallas, he apparently never got back on one. Airplanes were his preferred mode of travel, and he put up at the swankiest hotels -- careful to change lodgings every couple of days. He rarely remained in a given city more than two weeks. From Dallas, he moved on to Atlanta, then at the end of October headed south to Miami, where he settled into the posh Sheraton Bal Harbour.

To buttress the fiction that he was on a promotional tour and would be performing soon in the area, Williams kept himself supplied with copies of Murdock's album -- all told, he estimates he bought about 500 -- which he gave away, after dramatically autographing the jackets. Then, when night fell, he took to his rented limousine and made the rounds of the clubs and discos with his entourage of the moment.

At the Ocean Beach Cafe and Danceteria, a near-capacity crowd of 400 was in full swing the night Williams pulled in. "The guy was weird," remembers Hugo Elias, who spins the records for the popular Coconut Grove nightspot. "These braids covered his face. He really looked like a woman."

Williams gave Elias an album and said he'd like to sing for the crowd. Elias obliged by playing one of the numbers -- "it was kind of a ballad" -- and Williams stood up in the dimly lit booth and sang along dramatically. "He was all big talk. I guess that was kind of suspicious," Elias believes now. "What was this big-time star doing talking to a small-time deejay like me? But he had me fooled. My manager took the record for himself. I guess it's a collector's item."

After Williams settled one limousine bill in Miami with a fraudulent $917.20 check, a company official felt compelled to dash off an appreciative letter. Addressed to Shirley Murdock, it read, "Thank you for your business and look forward to seeing you on your return to Miami."

The letter was mailed to the post office box in Huntsville that Williams used as his home address. ("I have a ranch there," he'd explain to those who bothered to ask.) The letter arrived on Sanders' desk about the time Williams' check to the limo company, like so many others, was being stamped "Account Closed" at the First National Bank, South.

In Denver, where Williams jetted next, the police, alerted by a check-verifying firm, came within six hours of collaring him. But all they found in the empty hotel room was a stack of airline schedules, indicating that he had flown the costly coop. They had no way of deducing that it was to Nashville, a center for the music industry and a city, Williams figures, that should have been quicker on the draw.

Yet, while there, he made another of his "personal appearances" at the Heart Throb Cafe. "We get stars in here all the time," says the manager, who would rather remain anonymous, "so it was not all that uncommon. And this person sure looked like the picture on the albums she was giving out. The next night, she booked a party at the Stouffer Hotel and asked our deejay to play for her. He took all his own equipment over there -- not the club's -- and never got paid for his services. We kid about it all the time now. 'You kissed Shirley Murdock and Shirley Murdock was a man!' "

Then, while swinging through Charlotte, N.C., in mid-November, Williams decided to visit the nation's capital. It would turn out to be a bad decision.

Hobnobbing in Washington

For Williams, life in Washington would be the characteristic whirl. By day, he shopped, tried to rustle up another entourage, replenished his stock of Murdock records and, since his supply of checks was also running low, opened a new account in Murdock's name at the Georgetown branch of Riggs National Bank.

His plan was to use the checks in Seattle, his next stop. Who on the West Coast would suspect that Shirley Murdock did not live at 3050 M St. NW, the address printed on the checks?

The real Murdock, he noted from the blue-and-white posters around town, was scheduled to appear at the Washington Hilton on New Year's Eve on a bill with the Four Tops and the Dells. While he intended to be long gone by then, he promised several people that there would be free $50 tickets for them at the door. It was the kind of touch Williams relished. It lent authenticity to the masquerade.

Nights, he made the rounds of the clubs -- Dakota, Cities, Rumors, the Tombs and the recently opened River Club, where he met Mayor Barry and his wife Effi. Richard Miller, the manager of the River Club, recalls the encounter. A customer pointed Shirley Murdock out to him that night.

"She was very elegantly dressed," Miller recalls, and yes, she did stop by the mayor's table to chat. "Marion likes to be visible, he likes a lot of attention, so I always keep an eye on his table."

Did Miller realize Murdock was a man? There is a silence, then a peal of laughter. "Wow!" he says.

The management of the Grand Hyatt Hotel would be less disposed to laugh. Williams checked in on the morning of Nov. 16, paid a cash advance of $185.50 (the corporate rate for one night's lodging, plus $25 for incidentals) and indicated he would probably be staying for several days. Over the next 20 hours, mindful never to use the same cashier twice, he engaged the front desk in a series of complex, intentionally confusing transactions. He succeeded in saddling the hotel with a worthless check for $626.70.

Had he stayed a second night, he would have been caught. Instead, he presented himself at the desk just before 7 a.m. and abruptly checked out. Emory Calhoun, a 22-year-old baby-faced bellboy, went up to Room 609, loaded Williams' luggage onto a cart and brought it down to the lobby. Williams tipped him $5, climbed into a cab and rode away.

Going over accounts later that day, the hotel's credit manager spotted the fraud. She immediately called the Huntsville bank, which called Sanders, who called the hotel. The story was out in a matter of minutes. Again, it was too late. Calhoun, though, would remember the would-be Murdock, especially his luggage.

"I deal with luggage," he says. "It's my business. I could pretty much tell it was fake Louis Vuitton from the faded color and the broken latches."

Calhoun would seem to be an incidental figure in this saga. His memory, however, played a critical role in Williams' unmasking.

Williams spent the next two nights at the Hotel Washington, where he perpetrated another sting for $700. Was he sensing time was growing short? During his stay in Washington, he boldly telephoned the Huntsville police, pretending to be a female teller at a South Carolina bank. A certain Shirley Murdock, Williams said in a bewildered Baby Doll hush, was attempting to cash a large check. What did the police know about this person? Informed the customer was a man, he feigned astonishment. Well, he finally brought himself to ask, was there a warrant out for his arrest?

He was fishing for information -- and Sanders knew it.

Williams fled to New York for the Thanksgiving holidays, but returned to Washington in December. "My mistake," he says now. Although he couldn't have known it at the time, he made an even bigger mistake on Dec. 9 by checking into the Embassy Suites Hotel.

Natalie Holder was the desk clerk on duty. Pert and gregarious, she thought it curious -- but nothing more -- that this bizarre-looking woman with the cascading hair should have the same name as the singer.

"She told me she was tired and needed a quiet room to rest," Holder remembers. "We had just opened a couple of suites of the ninth floor, so I gave her the key to 906. It turned out she didn't know how to use it, so I had someone go up and open the door for her. She must have left the hotel later, because around 3 p.m., she phoned me at the desk to tell me that her manager would be coming by and to let him into the room. 'Natalie,' she said. 'Do you know who I am? I'm Shirley Murdock, the singer.'

"You hate to be dumb about famous people," Holder continues. "So I said, 'Oh, yeah,' and made a big deal out of it and asked if she'd give me her autograph before she left. She said sure, she would. She had albums and tapes she'd bring by and she also wanted to give me two tickets to her New Year's Eve concert at the Hilton, because I'd been so nice to her, even when I didn't know that she was Shirley Murdock, the famous singer."

Holder was excited when she went home that night. This was something to talk about. But first she had business to attend to. On Sunday, the Embassy Suites Hotel was throwing a Christmas party for children from area hospitals, and the sales manager, knowing that Holder belonged to her church choir, had asked if the group could come sing carols. It had a prior engagement, but Holder had promised to see if she couldn't round up another choir.

Her first thought was to call her best friend from her days at Howard University, the young man she'd come to look upon as her "little brother." Yes, she'd call Emory Calhoun. Maybe his church choir was free.

It wasn't.

"By the way," Holder said, changing topics. "Guess who's staying at the hotel? Shirley Murdock."

"Well, why don't you get her to sing at the party," joked Calhoun. "Just make sure it's the real Shirley Murdock." He went on to recount how a female impersonator had conned the Grand Hyatt three weeks before. Holder was amazed. Then, she took matters in her own hands. Hanging up quickly, she dialed security personnel at the Grand Hyatt to inform them that a Shirley Murdock -- maybe the very same one -- was currently at the Embassy Suites.

At 10 p.m., five District plainclothesmen knocked at Suite 906. Williams, wearing a flowered white robe, opened the door. Clothes lay on all the furniture and an odor of perfume, so thick as to make a person dizzy, hung in the air. A young blond man in the bedroom registered shock before the police let him go.

Williams draped himself in indignation. He was a singer. On tour. Furthermore, he'd never been to Texas in his life! But it was not his best performance. And when the police brought in a female officer and told Williams they would have to proceed with a strip search, it lost all conviction.

Williams gave himself up and was in the D.C. Jail that night. Less than a week later, he was extradited to Huntsville.

Memories and Moral

The crime to which Williams pleaded guilty, defrauding the Huntsville bank of $250, is a misdemeanor. Given his prior arrest record, however, he received the maximum 10-year sentence. He shrugs. Texas prisons are overcrowded these days, early release is common, and he expects to be out on parole in a couple of years. He figures he can weather the time behind bars. "It will be a little boring, that's all."

Meanwhile, he's got a whopper of a tale to tell and, like a fisherman describing the one that got away, he embellishes it with each retelling. Discos that hold 300 spectators have metamorphosed in his mind into palatial clubs, thronged with thousands of worshipful fans. Sometimes he can see an outlandish humor in his exploits, but the humor is secondary. If he were to draw a moral from this saga, it's only that there's a groupie born every minute, just waiting to hitch his wallet to a star.

"I knew all this exposure would come out one day and be to the real Shirley Murdock's advantage," he says. " 'Cause now, that's all you hear. I'm on the phone, making a call, and I say, 'My name is Hilton Williams,' and the operator says, 'You're the one who was doin' Shirley Murdock.' People who hadn't heard of Shirley Murdock before want to see her now. Her new record album is comin' out soon and her company expects it to be real big because of all the PR. So they ain't complaining. I should have been on her payroll."

According to Larry Troutman, Murdock's personal manager and the president of Troutman Enterprises, Murdock's second album (working titles: "Facts of Life" or "Woman's Point of View") should be released in March.

But Troutman is reluctant -- embarrassed, possibly -- to acknowledge Williams' con. He has been aware of the impersonation "for about six months," but he wants you to believe it caused no problems. Still, there's an edge to his voice.

Murdock settles for a succinct "no comment."

Next?

Weekly visiting hours are over at the Walker County jail, and a guard has summoned Williams back to his cell.

What, he is asked in parting, will he do when he gets out?

"Maybe," he says, cracking a sly grin, "I'll write a book."

The grin gets bigger. "I should probably go to work for a check guarantee company. I could give 'em a pointer or two about hot checks."

A smile is still dancing on his smoothly shaven face as he disappears behind the metal door.