A man posed for months as an ICE agent. A traffic stop led his girlfriend to unravel the truth.
Those who knew 26-year-old Matthew Johnston never questioned whether he was actually an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent.
Johnston, after all, wore a uniform. His tactical vest bore "ICE" and "Federal Agent" patches, and he carried an ICE Counter Terrorist Unit and Gang Task Force identification card. On Facebook, he described his job as "fugitive apprehension" for the Department of Homeland Security.
As part of his facade, which lasted throughout much of 2017, Johnston once flashed his car's blue-and-red emergency lights to chase another vehicle, which caused a collision, prosecutors said. On another occasion, he wore a uniform resembling that of an ICE agent when an individual reported a suspected undocumented immigrant. Johnston boasted about being an ICE agent to the employees and patrons of a nearby strip club, Deja Vu Showgirls, in Industry, California, prosecutors said.
But Johnston was not an ICE agent - and never was one, federal prosecutors say. Court documents describe the Fontana, California, resident's months-long impersonation, from its inception after an argument with his ex-wife to its unraveling following a traffic stop. On Monday, Johnston pleaded guilty to possessing multiple unregistered destructive devices.
On Oct. 11, Johnston's girlfriend was stopped after mistakenly activating the red-and-blue police lights in Johnston's white Audi, which she was driving without him. She told the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department detective who pulled her over that she didn't know the car had such lights and was just trying to plug in her phone charger. The car belonged to Johnston, who worked for the Department of Homeland Security, she said. To clear up the matter, she gave the detective Johnson's phone number.
When the detective called Johnston, he falsely stated that he worked for Homeland Security and said he had forgotten to remove the lights from the dash of the car. He then asked the detective to tell his girlfriend to remove the lights and place them under the seat. The detective did so and allowed the girlfriend to drive off, court records show.
But the incident left the detective suspicious, the court document recounted. The next day, he called the local ICE office and learned that no records indicated Johnston was ever employed by ICE or the Department of Homeland Security. ICE officials then began to poke around Johnston's social media accounts, looking for something that would confirm that he was an ICE agent.
That same day, the detective questioned Johnston's girlfriend at her home. She had known Johnston for two months, and he said he had worked for the Department of Homeland Security but was fired from the job around the time of his divorce, according to the court documents. She said Johnston told her that he had worked as a security guard and was then rehired recently by Homeland Security.
She then showed the detective a photograph Johnston had sent her of a handgun, handcuffs, an ID card with his photo and the Homeland Security seal, and a gold ICE belt badge, according to court records.
The girlfriend told the detective that Johnston would give her between $1,500 and $2,000 every week for no reason. Johnston would always "pull out a large wad of cash" and give it to her whenever she needed money, she told the detective, according to court records.
While speaking with the detective, the girlfriend remembered that Johnston had left his ID card in her car. It was in a plastic sleeve and read "Special Agent Matthew Johnston." It indicated he had "Clearance Level 2." She also gave the detective reason to believe Johnston possessed a rifle, according to court records.
Several days later officials conducted a firearms check and found that Johnston had handguns and shotguns registered to him, but not rifles. After obtaining a warrant, federal and local law enforcement officials on Oct. 23 searched Johnston's home and discovered 32 firearms - including shotguns, rifles, pistols and revolvers - large amounts of ammunition, cannon fuses, pipes, homemade rockets and other destructive accessories, court records show.
Federal agents eventually tracked down more weapons using geo-coordinates from Johnston's cellphone, which led them to open desert land where they found five unexploded or partially exploded improvised explosive devises, an expended smoke grenade, and what remained of an exploded pipe bomb, prosecutors said.
A grand jury in November charged him with possession of a fraudulently made government seal. In February, Johnston was charged with possession of an unregistered destructive device. Johnston pleaded guilty to the February charge.
The elaborate impersonation plan began after an insult.
Johnston admitted to officers that he pretended to be an ICE agent because his "ex-wife had insulted him in front of his daughter and told his daughter that he had done nothing with his life," according to court records. He had decided to masquerade as an ICE agent because "nobody knew who ICE was and he did not want to pick a local agency where people might know individuals who worked at the agency, because he feared being caught," according to court records.
This week, a judge sentenced him to two years in federal prison. An ICE spokesman could not be immediately reached for comment.
Author information: Marwa Eltagouri is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post.