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Maryland special forces impersonator gets 21 months

William Hillar

A Coast Guard reservist who got work as a counter-terrorism trainer by posing as a Special Forces veteran was sentenced Tuesday to 21 months in prison.

William Hillar, 66, of Millersville, also claimed to be the inspiration for a Hollywood movie centered on human trafficking.

Hillar pleaded guilty to wire fraud in March, admitting to a 12-year run of deception during which at least 24 organizations paid him more than $170,000 to teach based on fraudulent credentials.

Judge William D. Quarles Jr. ordered Hillar to make restitution to those organizations as part of his sentence in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

“He deserved it and more as far as I’m concerned,” said Jeffrey D. Hinton, a retired U.S. Army Green Beret who exposed Hillar’s fraud on his website, Professional Soldiers, in October.

Hinton said he hoped the sentence would help stem a rising tide of Special Forces impersonators.

“At any given moment we’re tracking like 20 of these guys,” he said.

On his website, billhillartraining.com, Hillar claimed to be a Green Beret who served as a colonel in the U.S. Army Special Forces for nearly 30 years in Asia, the Middle East and Central and South America.

According to court documents, an investigation by the Department of Defense’s Inspector General revealed that Hillar’s military service consisted of eight years in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve, during which he rose to the rank of Radarman, Petty Officer Third Class, and was never deployed overseas.

Between 1998 and 2010, Hillar’s clients included the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, Utah Valley State College, the U.S. Army at Aberdeen Proving Ground and the College of Southern Maryland.

According to court documents, he received the most money from the University of Oregon ($33,025), where he taught from 2002 to 2010. The runner-up was the Monterey Institute for International Studies, a California-based graduate division of Middlebury College of Vermont, which paid him $32,500 between 2005 to 2010.

During the sentencing hearing, prosecutor Leo Wise played a short audio recording of one of Hillar’s seminars. In it, Hillar tells the audience he is haunted by how he compromised his “morals and values” on Special Forces missions in Vietnam, Central America and Afghanistan.

“What Mr. Hillar wrapped himself in, in order to profit, is the sacrifices that Special Forces members have made,” Wise said.

Wise asked for a sentence of 27 months — the high end of the sentencing guidelines for wire fraud — in part to deter others who might try to profit by embellishing or fabricating military service.

‘Could not resist’

Hillar’s public defender, Gary Christopher, asked that Hillar be sentenced to community service and supervised release after paying restitution. Christopher characterized Hillar as a “person of substance and character” with a “flawed ego.”

“He just could not resist embroidering himself into those tales,” Christopher said. “He needed to be a hero, too, and he wasn’t, so he stole valor.”

“Is that a defense?” Quarles asked.

“No, it’s not a defense,” Christopher told the judge. “But we owe the court an explanation and I’m just trying to be straightforward.”

Hillar took full responsibility at sentencing and apologized to those he “hurt or demeaned.” He said he regularly visits veterans’ cemeteries and goes to the airport to welcome back soldiers returning from overseas.

“I didn’t do it for the money and, believe it or not, I am patriotic,” Hillar said.

In the later years of his seminars, Hillar branched out from teaching counter-terrorism and added human trafficking to his areas of expertise.

He told audiences that his daughter had been kidnapped and killed by human traffickers and that he was the inspiration for Liam Neeson’s character in the 2008 film “Taken,” which has a similar plot.

In his sentencing memo, Wise noted that Hillar’s real daughter is “alive and well and living in Oregon,” and said Hillar’s stories about her “show a truly dark and disturbing side to his character.”

Wise said Hillar told audiences that his daughter was kidnapped on a train from Bangkok to Singapore in 1988, sold into sex slavery and, when she tried to escape, was “raped, sodomized and tortured before being hacked to death with machetes and thrown into the sea as an example to the other girls.”

The story gained so much traction that a Monterey Institute professor, Peter Grothe, allowed the cash prize he had donated for a human trafficking essay contest to be given in memory of Hillar’s daughter in 2009.

“He fooled all of us that I would say are pretty hard to fool…,” Grothe said in a phone interview Monday afternoon. “He came across as very low-key and believable.”

But chatter about Hillar on Hinton’s online forum proved his undoing.

When Hinton realized none of the other Special Forces vets had heard of this supposedly high-ranking, long-serving colonel, he obtained Hillar’s military records through a Freedom of Information Act request and outed him online.

Hillar was arrested in January following an FBI investigation. In the wake of the arrest, the Monterey Institute announced it would begin requiring the same background checks and vetting process for “independent contractors” like Hillar as it does for regular employees in the classroom.

Hinton said the best way for a corporation or university to verify any claims of military service was to ask for a DD Form 214, the soldier’s discharge papers from the Department of Defense.

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