The Chameleon – A closer look at the shape-shifting imposter

Written by Naomi Nguyen, VPM Curatorial Assistant.

Identification; Chameleon; Forgery; 1977; 1970s; Overall; Front

Photo IDs for “Edward Meier”

Identification; Chameleon; Forgery; 1977; 1970s; Overall; Front

Photo IDs for “Joseph Bellmore”

The “Chameleon” was a beloved exhibit, on display at the Vancouver Police Museum since the 1980s. It was recently taken down to make room for our feature exhibit Bridging the Gap: Vancouver’s Youth & the Law, giving us an opportunity to give these artifacts a closer look.

This collection of artifacts opens up the world of an impostor’s tools of the trade. These artifacts are real evidence collected by the Vancouver Police Department in the conviction of two local men back in 1977 who were masters of identity theft. The assortment of ID cards, passports, driver’s licences, and passports highlight a time when paper, ink, an eye for detail, and an inclination for crime was all that was needed to create a mythical life.

One of the men, known as the “Chameleon” had fourteen names:

1. Kenneth Norman Bates
2. Reginald Edward Shaw
3. Barry Lyne Hanson
4. Paul Edward Moore
5. Robert William Barnes
6. Edward Lewis Allen
7. Robert Frank Allan
8. Edward John Wheeler
9. Fred Alfred Smolen
10. Donald James McQuade
11. David George Sprague
12. Edward Clarence Meier
13. Joseph Bellmore
14. William Brotherton

Identification; Chameleon; Forgery; 1977; 1970s; Overall

Photo IDs for “William Brotherton”

Identification; Chameleon; Forgery; 1977; 1970s; Overall; Front

Photo IDs for “Reginald Shaw”

Identification; Chameleon; Forgery; 1977; 1970s; Overall; Front

Photo IDs for “Kenneth Norman Bates”

His place of birth could have been Montreal, Regina, or Detroit, depending on what day you found him. He could have been an Australian, Canadian, or American
depending on the year. He also appears to have had many, many wives (but if they were fictional or real-life accomplices we don’t know!). The passports he used are filled with stamps from around the world with stops in the Bahamas, Jamaica, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Australia, the Philippines, and Portugal to name a few. Quite the globetrotter, he was also skilled at lock-picking and used this knowledge to add an extra level of luxury to his travels, helping himself to upgraded rooms and unattended safes.

Identification; Chameleon; Forgery; 1977; 1970s; Lock; Lock Pick; Overall; Front

The original lockpicks the imposters used to open doors and safes as needed for their particular characters

The identities he took over were all real, albeit deceased, persons – “once a birth certificate is obtained, by whatever means, the others are relatively easy to get.” stated the original exhibit label.

Identification; Chameleon; Forgery; 1977; 1970s; Overall; Front

Blank birth certificates from Saskatchewan – the police collected two stacks of blank birth certificates from the impostor’s briefcase.

Identification; Chameleon; Forgery; 1977; 1970s; Overall; Front

Blank birth certificate from Manitoba

Identification; Chameleon; Forgery; 1977; 1970s; Overall; Front

Blank birth certificate from Nova Scotia

Each of his personalities came with up to six pieces of tangible identification, the bulk of it often being government issued documents such as driver’s licences, birth certificates, passports, and social insurance cards. It is difficult to know which of these are authentic and which were created by him or for him, adding to its significance. In his briefcase he carried blank forms of birth certificates and driver’s licences from around the country, apparently always prepared to start a new life if need be.

Identification; Chameleon; Forgery; 1977; 1970s; Overall; Front

Blank forms collected from the impostor’s briefcase ready to be filled out with his new identities – Quebec Driver’s Licences, BC Temporary Driver’s Licence, Ontario Driver’s Licence

He often used similar addresses and repeated personal information such as birth dates and photo ID which says a lot about the system he was swindling at the time. It seems impossible in today’s day and age to imagine someone getting away with fourteen different identities, especially in such a short amount of time. Today everything is connected with online records and microchipped ID cards and electronic passports.

The “Chameleon” definitely lucked out with the old system. For a while at least.

To look through more of the museum’s collection that is stored out of sight, visit our online collection, and share your stories: vpmcollection.ca

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