Grant impostor reflects on crime
Michael W. Backman has been telling tall tales most of his life, but he says he learned a lot the second time around in high school
Wednesday, January 13 1999
By Maxine Bernstein of The Oregonian staff
When Michael W. Backman was a boy, he'd make believe he was someone famous. He'd concoct outlandish stories, like telling grade school teachers he was Diana Ross' son, living with a Portland couple while the singer was on tour.
His parents thought he had a knack for acting and enrolled him in children's theater classes.
"He wanted to be the star, right there and then, and begin acting, but he didn't want to learn to act," his mother said.
After two sessions, he lost interest and stopped attending. But he never stopped performing.
In fact, he has spent most of his life putting on some sort of show, making up fictitious names, conning people about his careers and military exploits, and, most recently, posing as a Grant High School senior. He was actually a 31-year-old convicted felon wanted in three states.
During an interview this week at the Washington County Jail, Backman spoke openly about his past, offered apologies to those he has betrayed and acknowledged that he has misdirected his talents. He said he now recognizes that his life of fraud was foolhardy.
Yet police, prosecutors and even his friends and parents remain skeptical of his words and consider him a pathological liar.
"I don't even know who he is anymore," his mother said.
Just days before Portland Detective Sgt. Michael Hefley arrested him at Grant on Dec. 16, Backman had sung in the school's Christmas performance at The Grotto. In a soft tenor, he sang an a cappella solo, "Oh, Holy, Holy Night."
Those who considered him a gifted vocalist at Grant, where students knew him as Deandre Deangelo, still have trouble coming to terms with his criminal past.
"Choir boy?" they ask, or "Con man?"
"Well, probably a little of both," Backman said, his orange jail jumpsuit hanging on his thin frame as he sat behind Plexiglas in a jail visitor's room.
Adopted when he was 21 months old, Backman attended Trinity Lutheran Church School, Beaumont Middle School and Grant High School. He excelled in classes for the talented and gifted and displayed an extensive imagination. By age 12, he would disguise himself as a telephone operator and try to hook up with famous people, claiming he had collect calls holding for Peter Jennings or attempting to lure a pro golfer off the course to take his call, his parents said.
The practical jokes turned more serious as he grew older.
When Backman was not behind bars, he said, he looked for work. But either he couldn't get his foot in the door for a job tryout because of his criminal record, or he'd get fired once a boss learned of his prison past.
Ultimately, the only way to get ahead, he decided, was to go to college. And the only way he said he could afford college was a scholarship.
Using fake transcripts and phony recommendations and drawing on his childhood fantasy of being related to Diana Ross, Backman applied to Lewis & Clark College on Jan. 9, 1996. He claimed he was the singer's nephew, called himself Adante Ross and said he had been a point guard at Beverly Hills High School. He showed up on campus in a black limousine for his interview.
"The guy's got a very good rap -- the gift of gab," said Michael Sexton, Lewis & Clark's dean of admissions, who remembers the limo. Backman's college plans were thwarted when Lewis & Clark officials became suspicious of his Beverly Hills school material and because he never submitted a video of his prowess on the basketball court.
Return to "base line"
Backman praised his boot camp experience, where members of his platoon were directed to "return to the base line" when they fouled up -- meaning they were directed to go back to the last thing they did right.
A year later, he drew on that experience.
"In my mind, the last thing I think I did right was going to school. I thought, if I can go back and get the grades I should have the first time around, maybe I could get a (college) scholarship," Backman said. "If it meant doing high school all over again, I was going to do that."
Backman decided to redo his senior year at Grant High School after getting out of a California prison in August 1998. This time, he would focus on his studies. In 1986, he had graduated from Grant with a 2.5 grade-point average.
He returned to Northeast Portland last summer and moved in with friends. When a Grant High teacher admonished him for lingering in the hallway one day, he realized he might be able to pull off his scheme.
He sent away for a profile of Beverly Hills High and modeled a fake transcript after it. The transcript showed he finished his junior year at Beverly Hills High with a 3.94 GPA, ranked fifth in his class and was a star point guard. The only clue, which went unnoticed, was the April Fools' birthday: April 1, 1981, which cut 14 years off his age.
He signed up at Grant in September as a transfer student, taking a full schedule of courses, including advanced Spanish, despite that he could barely count to 10 in Spanish.
A familiar face
"When I saw him in the hallway, I looked at him and thought I knew this guy," said Simpson. "But I've been here so long that so many names and faces are similar."
The first week, Backman was nervous. "I was terrified that somebody's going to say, 'Hey, don't I know you from somewhere?' " he said.
But that wore off, and Backman became an outspoken student who got all A's, except for a B in Spanish, earning a place on the honor roll. And he was among several students who represented Grant at a Law Day symposium at Lewis & Clark on Oct. 29.
At Law Day, the students debated the proposed minimum mandatory sentencing guidelines for property crimes. Backman was a vocal opponent, saying they would unfairly punish African Americans and that extended sentences would not rehabilitate offenders.
John Bradley, first assistant to Multnomah County District Attorney Michael Schrunk, was impressed. He invited Backman to visit his office. Bradley did not realize whom he was talking to until this week when he was asked about the encounter.
"That's the guy?! Oh my," Bradley said. "Sure I remember him. He was articulate. He was up there saying his father was a DA."
Backman did not take Bradley's offer. After all, at least two district attorneys might have recognized him because they had prosecuted him.
Another close call came when Backman, sitting by a class window, saw a police car stop beside his 1998 red Chevy Camaro, parked in front of the school.
"I freaked out," he said, recalling how he ran out of school to call a friend who knew of his scheme.
It turned out he had parked the car in a 10-minute zone and received a ticket.
Backman lived with friends on North Fremont Street before moving into a Beaverton townhouse. He said he did not date any students or get any involved in criminal activity.
Portland police searched his Beaverton residence and seized several false ID cards, a fake U.S. Defense Department card, a laminator and a handful of other Grant High ID cards. They suspect he was working with others in a check-cashing scheme and are investigating how he was able to make his rent and car payments without a job.
When police ended his second stint in high school, Backman thought, "Once again, I failed."
"I never wanted to hurt anyone. The teachers and everyone there really accepted me with wide-open arms. It felt really good because I hadn't really experienced that," he said. "I really did not repay them very well."
Yet, he's not sorry he spent those four months in Grant's classrooms. He realized that he could achieve if he put his mind to it, he said.
"I could make any transcript in the world, but the reality is that that senior year, I did that work," he said. "When it came down to it, I was in that class, and I was earning those grades. This was something I was doing legitimately."
Sexton, the Lewis & Clark dean, recognized Backman's face after his arrest at Grant High.
"I guess this is all part of his education," Sexton said.
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