HE WAS, HIS FRIENDS AGREED, ONE of the coolest kids in the class. Deandre Deangelo had transferred to Grant High School in Portland, Ore., from Beverly Hills High, where, he claimed, he had been a basketball star and an honors student. He said he was 17 and that he was a nephew of former Supremes star Diana Ross. He drove a snappy red 1999 Chevy Camaro and sang solos in the school choir. Because he was outspoken and articulate about serious subjects, his classmates elected him to student government. They had no way of knowing that he was a 31-year-old convicted felon.
Deangelo's real name is Michael Backman, and he is a talented con artist. He got away with his scam for more than three months last fall, until someone tipped off the police just before Christmas. In some ways Backman's story is a timeless one--the clever grifter, chasing the American dream of renewal and reinvention. Weary of life as a practiced check forger and car thief, Backman says he went back to high school--the same one from which he had graduated in 1986--because it was the one place where he had felt a measure of happiness and success. Now in jail, he spoke to NEWSWEEK and ABC News' ""20/20'' about his belief that he had been transformed by going back to high school. ""I liked the feeling of doing that work and getting that grade,'' he says. ""All I have to do is do it again.'' He seemed sincere, but some others who have known him longer, including his family, still wonder if he isn't running one more scam.
At one level, Backman has always been unsure of his identity. He is African-American; his adoptive parents are white. The Backmans were an idealistic working-class couple: they chose to live in a racially mixed neighborhood in Portland so Michael and his black adopted sister might feel more comfortable. When Michael was 9, his parents returned his little sister to the foster-care system. They explained that the girl had emotional problems requiring an expert's care, but young Michael feared that he might be sent back, too. At school, he says, he felt ""uncomfortable around black kids'' but ""didn't really know why.'' Other black kids would ask him, ""Where are your parents?'' Weary of explaining, he lied and told them his true mother was Diana Ross: ""A lot of them believed that,'' he says.
Sensing Michael's alienation, his parents tried to help, sending him to a high school for the performing arts. Michael failed to fit in with the other black students. ""I didn't talk the same way, I didn't dress the same way, I didn't have the same interests,'' he says. ""I was a laughingstock.'' He transferred to Grant High, a well-regarded public school. He found a niche, performing with the Royal Blues, a select school singing group, but his academic performance was indifferent. After graduation and a stint in the Army, Backman found his vocation--stealing cars. He learned that, with a confident manner, forged papers and a few hundred dollars for the down payment, he could drive a brand-new car off the lot. He delivered them to stolen-car rings in the Pacific Northwest and Canada. He was repeatedly caught, arrested (his parents turned him in the first time) and sent to jail.
But he never stopped dreaming of going to college. In 1994 he decided to apply to the U.S. Military Academy. Using a phony high-school transcript and a bogus basketball record, he persuaded Congressman Carlos Moorhead of California to nominate him to be a cadet. That January he spent four days at West Point interviewing and visiting classes. He so impressed the Army that he won admission and a certificate signed by President Clinton. That spring, however, he was arrested again and jailed on a bad-check charge. Out of jail two years later, Backman tried again, this time at Lewis & Clark College in Oregon. Arriving at the admissions office in a stretch limousine in November 1995, he conned the admissions director, Mike Sexton, into believing he was Adante Deangelo Ross (this time, Diana's nephew), 11th in his class and the cocaptain of the Beverly Hills High basketball team. (""He was very good . . . personable, eloquent,'' Sexton ruefully told NEWSWEEK.) But when Lewis & Clark checked, Beverly Hills High had never heard of Adante Deangelo Ross. In February Backman was arrested and later convicted on six more counts of check fraud.
Fresh from California state prison, Backman was wandering the hallways of Grant High in Portland last September, dropping off a student as a favor to a friend, when a teacher accosted him. ""Don't you have class right now?'' the teacher demanded. Why not? he thought. It didn't take him long to fake a transcript with a 3.94 GPA from Beverly Hills High, forging the school's seal ($100 at Kinko's). For his birth date he chose, with a wink, April 1, 1981.
At first, Backman says, he was ""terrified. Every time I went down the hallway, I was scared someone would see me and say, "Aren't you . . . ?' '' But none did. Instead, he shone, getting A's in every subject except advanced Spanish (he had never taken a Spanish course before). ""Some kids said, "Are you sure he's 17?' '' his choir teacher, Doree Jarboe, recalled. ""They just thought he was too good to be true.'' He gave her a signed photo of Diana Ross inscribed, ""To Doree and the a cappella choir. Thank you so much for being part of Deandre's life.''
Still, in his baggy pants and Old Navy T shirt, the keys to his Camaro dangling around his neck, Backman fit in well. ""He dressed like us, he walked like us, he talked like us,'' says Bill Phanthongphay, 17. Backman was an ardent advocate of students' rights. When a young English instructor played rap music to help illustrate a point, Backman strongly protested that the lyrics were too vulgar for teenagers. Backman was angry when he heard the news that Thomas Jefferson had sired a mixed-race child with a slave, Sally Hemmings. In class, Backman riveted students with a story about an old Southern plantation his family bought where slaves had been herded into a pit and scalded with boiling water (he apparently lifted the details from ""Mandingo'').
Impressed, his classmates elected him to student government. For the Christmas concert, he was chosen to sing ""O Holy Night.'' Two days later Portland police acted on an anonymous tip: Deangelo, said the caller, was an impostor. Confronted with cops holding his 1986 yearbook picture, Backman was led away from the school in handcuffs.
In January Backman pleaded guilty to forgery and theft in connection with the fraudulent purchase of a Ford Mustang, and he is likely to be charged with forging public documents to enroll in the high school. Backman now expresses regret about his life of crime (""it's been a huge waste'') and his deception of fellow students, and talks wistfully of going to college after he gets out of jail. That may be a couple of years. Senior Deputy District Attorney Patrick K. Callahan dismissed Backman's vow to straighten up as ""another round of the same b.s. he has given us all along.'' In an interview with ABC's Connie Chung, to be broadcast Feb. 15, his father, Bill Backman, was still hopeful that Michael was finally adopting a ""different attitude.'' Maybe this time round, Backman can change his attitude--instead of his identity.