June 9, 2002,
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Police, reporters find holes in tales of ground-zero 'hero'
Ex-officer is accused of scams netting thousands of dollars
By MONICA YANT KINNEY AND PETER NICHOLAS Knight Ridder News Service
Sunday, June 9, 2002
Philadelphia -- To hear Bill Bresnahan tell it, he was a hero at ground zero.
When the jets plowed into the World Trade Center towers, the retired Philadelphia police officer sped from Chester County, near Philadelphia, to New York -- more than 120 miles -- in 55 minutes.
There, he pulled body parts from the rubble. He conferred with Father Mychal Judge, the beloved New York Fire Department chaplain. He roped himself to firefighters in a hunt for survivors.
Amid the chaos, Bresnahan saw a mob beating a Muslim hot dog vendor named Achmed. Bresnahan fended off the attackers, then converted the victim to Christianity, right there on the spot.
With tales such as these, Bresnahan has wowed audiences across the nation. Tearful churchgoers and students have opened their hearts -- and wallets.
Police in Illinois say that was the intention.
They say Bresnahan, 54, is no hero, but a man who went to "extreme lengths of deception" to wring emotion and money from his listeners.
In March, he was arrested in Decatur, Ill., and charged with theft by deception, a felony, after church appearances there netted him nearly $3,200. If convicted, Bresnahan would face up to three years in prison.
He was at ground zero
This much is true: Bresnahan was at ground zero. He is shown in photographs at the scene. He was treated at a hospital in Brooklyn, apparently for an injury suffered in the aftermath. And a $26.95 book he's hawking about his exploits, "9-11: Terror in America," has sold at least 7,800 copies so far.
Though Bresnahan wears a police badge in the disaster photos and at some presentations, he hasn't been an officer since 1976.
Since then, Bresnahan has said, he has invented a pair of fold-up cardboard binoculars, an ergonomic rocking chair and a pretzel- flavored hot dog.
His effort to market the binoculars and hot dog have spurred resentment and lawsuits among some backers.
And earlier this month, state officials charged Bresnahan with 94 violations of Pennsylvania's charity law.
In 1998, Bresnahan founded Rise and Shine Inc. in West Chester, Pa., as a Christian charity. A year later, he told the IRS it had ballooned to an operation donating $29 million worth of food, clothes and medical supplies around the world a year.
In January 2001, Bresnahan told a Chester County reporter that Rise and Shine had donated $5 million worth of medical supplies and toys to Albania and Montenegro. Two months later, in a deposition, he acknowledged that those goods had not been delivered.
Pennsylvania officials recently charged Bresnahan with violating state charity laws by using Rise and Shine to fuel for-profit enterprises. If convicted, he would face up to $94,000 in fines and an additional $3,000 for each month violations continued.
"These are very serious allegations," said Karl Emerson, director of the state's Bureau of Charitable Organizations.
The complaint says that Bresnahan in 1999 diverted $98,000 from the charity to one of his for-profit corporations.
Investigators allege Bresnahan took 18,000 pairs of shorts from the Pennsylvania United Medical Association, then transferred the clothes -- worth $270,000 -- to one of his for-profit corporations.
He also is accused of selling $88,000 worth of donated food, water, skin-care and other products, including some he received from the Newport Assembly of God in Western Pennsylvania.
That shocked Newport's pastor, Gary Bellis, who said in a statement that he'd found Bresnahan to be "a well-spoken and charismatic man."
Visited at home in West Chester, Bresnahan declined to be interviewed. His attorney did not return phone calls last week.
The Sept. 11 book, as well as a 2001 deposition and three hours of videotaped speaking engagements obtained by The Inquirer, offer a window to Bresnahan's activities.
He claims to be the second-most-decorated member of the Philadelphia Police Department's SWAT team, saying he retired after 10 years with disabilities suffered on the job from being run over by a truck and thrown out a seventh-story window.
Bresnahan was an officer for seven years, from 1969 to 1976, but there are no records that could confirm his commendations, a police spokesman said.
In his book and in promotional biographies, Bresnahan claims to have been awarded the "President's National Leadership Award" and says he was appointed by President George W. Bush to represent Pennsylvania on the "President's Advisory Council for Businesses."
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said that Bresnahan received neither honor.
The chapter in "9-11: Terror in America" devoted to Bill Bresnahan describes an encounter with Father Judge in which the priest told a Bible-carrying Bresnahan that they needed to "split up" so they could offer "encouragement and prayer" to the most people.
"There's just us here," Judge is quoted as saying.
The book says Bresnahan reached ground zero after the second tower fell at 10:28 a.m. Judge died before the towers collapsed, so Bresnahan could not have met him then.
The Decatur police also disputed Bresnahan's arrival-time claim. He would have had to have driven faster than 125 mph to get from West Chester to New York in the 55 minutes he claimed.
Freelance writer David Bresnahan, who wrote the book with Bill Bresnahan, said he learned of the discrepancy involving the chaplain after submitting a draft of the book. CNN, which was planning to interview Bill Bresnahan, found the hole in his story. (David Bresnahan says the men are not related; Bill Bresnahan and the book describe them as cousins.)
In a letter to Decatur police, David Bresnahan wrote that he was told by Dwight Wallington, owner of book publisher Windsor House: "We figured out how to handle this. Bill is just going to say he met an angel. He had a vision."
Wallington denied that contention. He said it was too late to change the book, which had been printed by that time. "I was so frustrated about that I didn't know what to do," Wallington said in an interview.