On September 2, 2008, a shy, blonde transfer student strolled into Ashwaubenon High School in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The petite sophomore wore a pink hoodie and carried a new school bag decorated with hearts, eager to start the new term. But just 16 days later, she was standing in court wearing an orange prison jumpsuit and shackles, charged with identity theft. There, prosecutors revealed that Wendy Brown was not really 15, but a 33-year-old mother of two—who had stolen her teenage daughter’s identity in an attempt to relive her own high school days. In her weeks as a student, Brown had taken classes with students half her age. She had tried out for the Ashwaubenon High School cheerleading squad and even attended a pool party thrown by the cheer coach.
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Television crews surrounded the courthouse and besieged Brown’s family at their home in Nevada. “It was bad,” recalls her father, Joe. “Every show that’s on in the morning called. … Oprah didn’t call. She was the only one that didn’t call.”
A bespectacled Brown spoke like a teenager as she addressed the court: “I just wanted to say that I’m sorry for what I’ve done,” she said softly. “I feel bad about it. And I regret it. Um, I always have … I am not a bad person. I just made a mistake.”
Brown’s antics baffled the court. Searching for guidance, the judge rifled through his law books, as prosecutors unpacked her troubled past. Brown had served prison time in 2002 for burglary and again in 2004 for obstructing justice; she was also accused of writing a Dairy Queen a bad check for $13. “I can only guess if history repeats itself her motive has something to do with money,” Lieutenant Jody Crocker, Ashwaubenon’s captain of investigations, told reporters. If the allegations of identity theft were true, Brown would face up to six years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Yet her only crime while posing as a teenager was to bounce a $134.10 check for her cheerleader uniform.
Back in her home state of Illinois, Cass County state’s attorney John Dahlem recognized Brown on television and asked the question on everyone’s minds: “My first thought was, ‘why would you want to go through high school again?’” he told a local newspaper.
Ben Michaelis, a clinical psychologist, says: “Many people focus on choices they made—or chances they didn’t take—as a way of grappling with understanding their current circumstances.” For example, in 1986, a failed athlete named James Arthur Hogue, 26, posed as a 16-year-old boy and enrolled at Palo Alto High School, where he won one of the most prestigious high school cross-country races in the country. In 2009, Anthony Avalos, 22, faked a birth certificate on his computer so he could play basketball for Yuma Union High School, and aim for a college scholarship.
In January, Brown agreed to meet me in a noisy coffee shop just five miles from the school, in East Green Bay. In a quiet corner, she removed her chewing gum and rolled it in the plastic wrapping from her banana muffin. She is 41 now, though she looks much younger. She is mouse-like, her eyes magnified by thick lenses, her face hidden behind an unruly mop of blonde hair. When she speaks, it is from behind a hand that muffles her tiny voice.
This is the first time she has spoken publicly about her motivations. Brown says it wasn’t money that drove her to step back in time: “What was I gonna steal?” she asks. “Kids’ lunch boxes?” Instead, she says, it was to fulfill a dream that was crushed many years ago.
* * *
The only part of high school that Wendy Brown enjoyed, except for the final bell, was long-distance running. It was the summer of 1990. The Berlin Wall was being demolished, and New Kids on the Block topped the Hot 100. In southwest Chicago, Brown would dash through the leafy suburbia of Oak Lawn. For the 16-year-old track star, running was a means of escape.
Wendy had a speech impediment—she pronounced rabbit like “wabbit”—which led to bullying, and fights. Speech therapists uncovered deeper issues at home. “Brown has a long standing history of significant emotional problems,” a judge later concluded, after reviewing evidence. “They stem primarily from her relationship with her mother, which is very abusive.” Brown explains: “We fought all the time. … She put me down, said things about me, I got hit a lot.”
She says running helped to put valuable miles between her and home, and the bullies at Harold L. Richards High School. But one day as she was darting across the village, a wave of nausea washed over her. She stopped and threw up. That had been happening a lot recently.
She guessed it might have been the stress of being so unpopular. Though her brother was on the school’s football team, the Bulldogs, an invisible barrier seemed to separate her from the cool girls, the cheerleaders who waved black and gold pom-poms on game days. “I was always jealous of them,” Brown says. “It just seemed that they had a great life.” When Brown’s mother found out about her vomiting, she asked her straight up: “Are you pregnant?”
It was impossible, Brown thought. She was whippet-thin. And anyway, she thought the way she and her boyfriend did it was safe. “I didn’t know what made you pregnant,” she told me. “My mother never talked to me about things like that.” A home pregnancy test registered negative, but her mom and a doctor insisted on an ultrasound. “You’re pregnant,” he confirmed. “Four months.”
Brown’s boyfriend abandoned her instantly, but not before telling everyone at school. The kids threw paper at her, pushed her around. She could take the bullying no longer. “I wanted to get my high school diploma,” Brown says, “but there was just too much going on.” She quit, and on her 17th birthday, she gave birth to baby Joey, named after her father. Three months later she became pregnant again with a baby girl, Jaimi, this time by another boy.
In the meantime, she watched her younger sister, Jennifer, effortlessly rise through the school’s social ecosystem. “I hated her,” Brown says, “She got everything that I wanted. I was extremely jealous of her.” Seeing Jennifer wear the Bulldogs black and gold cheerleader’s uniform, she says, was enough to break her heart.
Drifting into her 20s, Brown held a series of short-term jobs at Kmart and Wal-Mart; she poured bad coffee at fast-food restaurants. Her longest period of employment, the court later heard, “was as a stripper.” It was a life spent on the move, transporting the kids from Texas, to Michigan, to Nevada, and back to Illinois, where she married a man in June of 2006.
Six months after their wedding day, she says the violence started. They moved to Cass County, Illinois, where the police chief, Tom Osmer, told the local paper that the police were frequently called to the couple’s home. A neighbor told the Galesburg Register-Mail in 2008, “[He] knocked all the windows out when he got mad at her.”
The couple moved to Green Bay in August of 2008 looking for a fresh start. Brown had an old friend there, and it was far enough from Illinois to leave their pasts behind. They rented a small apartment on Willard Drive, so close to the football fields of Ashwaubenon High School that you can hear the coach’s whistle at practice. Due to the violence and instability at home, Wendy says her two kids, by then teenagers, moved to Nevada to live with her parents, Joe and Judith. “I had a breakdown,” she admits. It was the lowest moment of her life.
And when she looked out her window she saw a high school, the place where it all went wrong.
* * *
When Brown posted photographs on Facebook, she says, friends would comment on her youthful looks, writing, “You look like a junior in high school!” Alone in her apartment one evening, Brown pulled off her baseball cap, and carefully snipped bangs into her hair. She flicked a little curl at the ends, the way the local girls did. And when she looked in the mirror, she thought, it was like looking at her daughter, Jaimi, then a sophomore in high school. (Jaimi was not available to comment on this story before publication.)
Brown says her husband took her to the mall to buy school clothes. (She says he was in on it, even encouraging her plan, but the judge later said that her husband had “no idea.”) She selected a fashionable Esprit shoulder bag. Then she flicked through racks of jeans and Levi’s clothing in the junior section. She weighed 103 pounds and wore a petite size. Brown tried on a pair of Nike shoes, the brand she always bought her own children. But the real trick was the voice. “I just did that little valley girl thing, the California thing,” Wendy says. In the coffee shop, she transforms her voice into an up-speaking teen’s. It is disquieting.
With that voice, she simply strolled into the school that August, and introduced herself to the school counselor, Kim Demeny, using her daughter’s first name and her own maiden name. She said she was a transfer student from Pahrump High School, Nevada—the same high school that her daughter was currently attending. Demeny declined to comment for this story, but told police that on Brown’s registration document, the student wrote that her mother was “difficult to reach at work,” and the school should “let her go home on her own if she felt sick.” Demeny said Brown “appeared older,” but that her demeanor was “consistent with that of a high-school girl.” Before their meeting ended, Brown asked Demeny when cheerleading tryouts were happening.
Ashwaubenon High School is a hamlet of red brick buildings with a brutalist concrete gym on its southern edge. More than 1,000 children study under its fluttering American flag, mainly from the surrounding suburban neighborhoods. Brown arrived feeling nervous and excited. Nearly 20 years ago at her high school in Illinois, cheerleading try-outs lasted three grueling weeks. Some schools require a tumbling certification, proving that aspiring cheerleaders can perform such maneuvers as the “standing back handspring” and “round-off back tuck.” Hazing is not uncommon for cheerleaders at other schools. New recruits can get smothered with food or drenched by a water hose.
In the last weeks of summer before the new semester began, the cheerleading team held tryouts at the Jaguars’ football stadium. It was the first season also for award-winning coach Mary Lee Boyd Johnson. Johnson (who did not respond to interview requests) has 21 years of cheer experience. She coached at rival De Pere High School from 1987 to 1992, taking the cheer team to first-place honors at both the Universal Cheerleading Association and the National Cheerleading Association camps. “I set my goals high,” Johnson told the Green Bay Press Gazette in 2012, “to make Ashwaubenon cheer a competitive program.” Her daughter, Bailee Wautlet, was captain.
Brown arrived at try-outs in a pair of workout shorts and a T-shirt. “I was talking to the girls, they said the tryouts were easy,” Brown says. But first, there were rules. The girls sat on the floor and waited for the coach to speak. “She said … we were supposed to represent the school, have respect for people, for each other, and for everybody else. We had to be nice, you know, watch our mouths, no chewing gum during practice because you’d get demerits for that.” Brown says the coach explained that the team also had an “honest system,” requiring the cheerleaders to be honest with one another.
At Ashwaubenon High, there was both a dance team and a cheer squad, and they were fierce rivals. The dance team required gymnastic maneuvers and strict dance training. Though both teams waved pom poms, the cheer squad was much less challenging. The established cheerleaders taught the new girls the official cheer of the Jaguars. The routines at try-outs were simple, which was a relief to Brown. “I couldn’t do cartwheels,” she says, “I couldn’t do flips. I couldn’t do any of that.”
It didn’t matter. There were no football players, and the bleachers were empty, but their chants filled the stadium. Brown fell into the hypnotic routine, with the handclaps and chanting. There was just one nagging feeling. Unlike the other girls, afterwards she would return home to her miserable apartment. “I was living two different lives,” she says, “two different people.” But for now, she had a new, intoxicating mantra: “Go! Go! Go! Fight! Fight! Fight! Win! Win! Win! Go! Fight! Win!”
* * *
On August 8, 2008, Johnson invited the cheerleaders to a pool party at her home. Brown was a ball of nerves. It had been 19 years since she was first a sophomore. Katy Perry now dominated the Hot 100. When she arrived, the cheerleaders were catching rays in tiny two-piece suits, enjoying the fading Wisconsin summer. Brown, anxious about the stretch marks from her pregnancies, wore a one-piece underneath a t-shirt, an outfit that she says puzzled the other girls.
“I told [them] the reason I had the T-shirt on, you know, was that I used to be really fat. I lost all the weight,” she says.
“She’s just shy, leave her alone,” Brown recalls a cheerleader saying.
Then she jumped in the pool. Brown tried her best to fit in, playing volleyball, and copying how the other girls nibbled at the cheese, pepperoni, and sausage pizzas.
“I just remember eating it how my daughter would eat it,” Brown says, “little bites.” Music thumped from a stereo. The games segued into cheer routines, and Brown began to enjoy herself. “We had the first home game to practice for,” says Brown, still hoping to be chosen for the squad. From the stereo the sound of fiddling violins soared across the backyard. The girls lined up and waited for the song to kick in:
If it hadn't been for Cotton-Eye Joe,
I'd been married a long time ago.
Where did you come from, where did you go?
Where did you come from, Cotton-Eye Joe?
Brown danced to “Cotton-Eye Joe”—the 1995 record by the novelty country band Rednex—more times than any 33-year-old woman should ever have to. The routine was a series of hops and twirls. “It wasn’t rocket science,” Brown says. But spinning around in circles for an hour made the girls dizzy. They collapsed with laughter. The way she tells it, Brown hadn’t been that happy in years.
Just days after the pool party, Brown was at home when her cell phone jingled. It was a local number. She answered: “Who is this?”
It was the coach, she says, asking for Jaimi.
“Yes, hold on a second,” Brown said.
She held the phone away from her mouth for a moment.
“Hello!” she said, adopting her teenaged-girl voice.
Brown listened for a minute, then let out a scream.
“Oh my god!” she squealed. “That’s amazing!”
Even today, Wendy Brown’s face lights up when she talks of making the cheer team. When she walked into her first day at Ashwaubenon High on September 2, she had a spring in her step. She was thrilled when she received her locker, number 19.
In homeroom, Brown remembers, the teacher had to call “Jaimi” three times before she remembered to say she was present.
“You’re daydreaming, huh?” Brown recalls the teacher saying. “That’s okay. It’s your first day? And you’re new here?”
Brown nodded. One of the cheerleaders from the pool party was in the same homeroom and greeted her enthusiastically. “She said, ‘Oh my god, we have the same schedule! Oh my god, we’re in the same classes!’”
During choir, Brown says she did not try to conceal her singing talents. She says the teacher told her that her voice was “very mature,’” to which Brown replied, “I’ve been singing a long time.” Brown was immediately drafted for the senior choir. Court documents also confirm Brown’s academic ambitions: She reportedly told Demeny that she had “already covered the material in the integrated science course and could be successful in a high level.”
At lunch time, Brown lined up with the rest of the students in the cafeteria. Brown says that she noticed some students making fun of a girl sitting on her own. “I just told her ‘just ignore them … they’re just jealous, you must have something that they don’t have.’” And then Brown says, she gave the girl a piece of advice: “Be who you are.”
That afternoon, Brown tried on her cheerleading uniform in the Jaguars locker room for the first time. It was deep green with white sleeves, accented with glistening gold piping. The pom poms were green in one hand, gold in the other. On her chest was the giant gold “A” for Ashwaubenon, and “JAGUARS” in a felt, athletic font. “Pretty cool,” she remembers thinking. “I was like, ‘Wow, I’m in a cheerleader uniform.’ … It was like a trophy or award, like, ‘This is mine?’”
On September 8, a week into the school year, Associate Principal Dirk Ribbens reviewed the first round of truancy reports. A stickler for attendance, Ribbens noticed that one student had not returned after her first day. He contacted Don Penza, the police liaison officer for the high school. Penza and Ribbens did not respond to interview requests, but according to the criminal complaint, Penza marched straight over to the student’s home address. When no one answered, Ribbens contacted the student’s previous high school in Nevada. What they told him was confusing: Jaimi was there, taking classes. When school officials called the student’s home, they spoke to Judith, Brown’s mother. Judith told Ribbens that her daughter “has a history of identity-theft type crimes.”
* * *
Wendy Brown had already become undone by another deception, according to court documents. At her apartment building, police alleged that Brown had posed as the building manager and relieved a potential tenant, Teryn Cox, 21, of a $765.00 deposit. Today, Brown insists this wasn’t her. Either way, records show that Brown was inside the county jail when school investigators caught up with her.
Under questioning, Brown admitted that she “wanted to get her high school degree and be a cheerleader because she had no childhood and was trying to regain a part of her life she missed.” News of her confession spread through the school at roughly 300 times the speed of regular high school gossip. “[I’m] still kinda like in shock,” wrote cheerleader Kelci Ashton on Facebook, on September 18, the day Wendy Brown first appeared in court. The press had a field day. “Pom-Pom Mom Goes To Extreme,” read a CBS headline. “Mom, that's my cheerleading outfit!” joked New York Daily News. Newspapers as far away as England ran with the story. “Everything was just done,” Brown says, tearfully. “It was devastating. I just wanted to get in a hole and die.” She would never cheer at a competitive game.
In court, the judge realized that Wendy Brown was not a master criminal, but suffering from a serious mental breakdown. A court-appointed psychiatrist who evaluated Brown, Dr. Ralph Baker, agreed, diagnosing her with bi-polar II disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and two personality disorders. According to an attorney in court, Baker concluded, “She really convinced herself that she could make all this better by enrolling in high school and starting her life over again as her 15-year-old daughter. … Her fantasy of finishing high school and becoming a cheerleader became a delusion.”
Court transcripts reveal an unusual courtroom exchange, in which the defense and prosecution team up to get Brown the help that she needed. “I think [a prison sentence] would be very, very detrimental to her,” conceded Deputy District Attorney John Luetscher. “Hopefully with treatment … she will be able to function in society without committing crimes.” Apart from the bounced check, no real harm was done, other than a deep embarrassment to the school that seems to last to this day; Ashwaubenon High School refused to comment for this story. Brown was found not guilty “by reason of mental disease or defect” to a charge of identity theft, and committed to the Winnebago mental health facility in Wisconsin for three years.
Wendy Brown became an urban legend at Ashwaubenon high school. “[The] buzz around school was just that it was hilarious that it even happened,” former student Hope Edelbeck tells me. She says a powderpuff football team named themselves “Wendy Brown,” and played in prison orange uniforms. But as that team of girls pretended to be Ashwaubenon High’s infamous jailbird, the real Wendy Brown sat in jail, waiting three months for her transfer to Winnebago.
“I started getting mad when I was in there,” Brown says. She decided to study for her GED course behind bars. This would be hard, said her tutor, without regular classes or teachers. Brown took the four-hour test six weeks after her arrest. Her tutor delivered her results to her jail cell. When Brown found out she passed, tears rolled down her cheeks.
While she was in the care of the mental institution, Brown was diagnosed with breast cancer. She went through chemotherapy under lock-up, alone. On December 27, 2010, records confirm she had two serious operations to keep her alive. Slowly she recovered. She went to daily group therapy, climbed rocks, and learned to make peace with her past. She separated from her husband (“he should have been locked up, not me”) and three years later, she walked free.
Today, Brown says she has come to terms with being an outcast. Away from the bustling coffee shop, she comes alive, speaking louder, laughing, and joking. She says she likes to wear a Vikings shirt around Green Bay, a city where bankers, bums, and babies all wear Packers shirts on game day. People still whisper when she is recognized, but the only ones she hides from are the former cheerleaders. Wistfully, Brown says that she has no relationship with her daughter, Jaimi, now 23. Brown says that about two years ago, Jaimi had a child too, making her a grandmother. She hopes for reconciliation, but feels that the ball is in her daughter’s court.
Coach Johnson and the cheer team went on to win first and second-place finishes in area cheer competitions, taking top honors in the 2009-10 Northern Regionals. Though Wendy passed her GED exam in jail in 2008, she had to wait to be released from the mental-health institute to pick up her certificate. In 2013, she walked across the stage at a college in Wisconsin, wearing a gown, hat and tassel. “It felt awesome,” she says.
Watching in the crowd, her father snapped photographs. At their celebration dinner, Joe Mueller gave her a graduation gift, a Keurig coffee maker. “It was just something that I always wanted to see happen. … It makes you feel good, right? Your kid finally made it.” He chuckles, and says: “It only took her thirty years.”