Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mike DeBardeleben: Serial Sexual Sadist

The Trap

US Secret Service seal (AP)
US Secret Service seal (AP)

The Secret Service wanted him on charges of counterfeiting. Little did the agents assigned to him know what their investigation would ultimately uncover. The chameleonic James Mitchell ("Mike") DeBardeleben II knew how to elude authorities, and he had more reasons to do so than anyone ever thought. Once he was caught, the investigators became aware that they'd been looking for him for many other crimes, from bank robbery to murder, and had not even realized it.

Mentioned in books by sexual crimes expert Roy Hazelwood and once profiled by former FBI Special Agent John Douglas, DeBardeleben has been thoroughly documented by only one person, true crime author Stephen Michaud, in his book Lethal Shadow. Through Hazelwood, Michaud received an introduction to the treasury agents who worked the case and he tells the story mostly from their perspective. Hazelwood calls DeBardeleben "the best documented sexual sadist since the Marquis de Sade," and Michaud provides an inside look at him through a combination of interviews and DeBardeleben's own written records.

The Secret Service had been on his trail for several years. They called him the Mall Passer, because he was quite successful at passing counterfeit bills as the real thing in various suburban malls, and he printed them himself. In his second year, traveling through 38 states, he managed to pass about $30,000 in fake bills. He'd go from store to store, buying low-priced items he didn't need, like socks, dog collars and greeting cards, in order to get change back from fake twenties in real cash. The agents tracked him and lost him on several occasions, but eventually managed to accurately predict where he'd go next. They alerted the personnel in several potential malls to watch for money that didn't look quite right, and passed out a composite drawing.

According to Michaud, on April 25, 1983, DeBardeleben went into a targeted mall and bought a paperback at B. Dalton. He spent $4 and got $16 back in change. The clerk watched him go across to a toy store and make a purchase, and then the clerk alerted mall security and they tracked DeBardeleben through several stores and out to the parking lot, where they got his car make and license plate number. They also had him on videotape passing bad bills. He went from there to several other states, dropping bills as he went. Agents staked out the malls where they expected him to turn up and alerted relevant personnel.

James DeBardeleben (US Secret Service)
James DeBardeleben
(US Secret Service)

It was May 25, just one month later in Knoxville, Tennessee. The Mall Passer arrived in a car registered in two states with license plates stolen in Virginia. He went into several stores in a local mall and was recognized by store clerks, who reported him immediately. By the time he realized he was being followed, he was already caught.

A search of his car turned up guns, counterfeit bills, numerous license plates, prescription drugs, a police badge, nine fake driver's licenses, and a substantial stash of pornography. That was important evidence, but what they really needed to do was locate DeBardeleben's "plant," or the place where he kept his printing press. That way they could prove that he'd counterfeited the bills himself.

They went to an apartment registered in his name and a search there led to a storage space at a mini-warehouse. Using a bolt cutter to remove the padlock, they opened the door. Despite a stack of debris, it was clear at once that the printing press was not there. Yet rather than walk away in disappointment, they decided to look inside the two oversized footlockers. They soon realized they had evidence of crimes much more sinister than counterfeiting.


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