Posing as An Astronaut Was Just One Small Step for Flimflam Man Robert Hunt
03/06/1989 at 01:00 AM EST
The flight buffs of the Experimental Aircraft Association of Boston were impressed. For two hours, they listened as Marine Captain Robert J. Hunt, the guest lecturer at their January 1989 meeting, told them wondrous things. The young man in the blue NASA jumpsuit described the exhilaration of catapulting off the aircraft carrier Coral Seam his F-18 jet fighter and going in fast and low to bomb Gaddafi's Libya. He spoke with pride about his ancestors, who had helped found the Corps. He told the hushed group about his flight into space on the shuttle Atlantis. And he passed around an official NASA helmet for their breathless examination.
One of the few who were unconvinced by Hunt was 22-year-old Joy Alexander. "He didn't sound intellectual enough to be an astronaut," she recalls, "and his attitude, which was rude, seemed all wrong to me." But when she voiced her misgivings to older members of the group, they told her she had no business questioning the behavior of a hero like Captain Hunt.
As it turned out, Alexander was right-Robert Hunt was the wrong stuff. He had never been an astronaut or a Marine Corps aviator. He had allegedly talked NASA into giving him the helmet for a supposed educational lecture tour. He doesn't have a pilot's license. According to police, he doesn't even have a driver's license. Weeks later, Robert Hunt, impostor extraordinaire, found himself in a Boston jail cell, unable to post $100,000 bail, awaiting trial on fraud and larceny charges that could take him out of orbit for 20 years.
If the members of the Experimental Aircraft Association were taken in by Hunt, they were not alone. Last October, he and his bride of two months, Ann Sweeney, flew to Dublin. There, Hunt was given honorary Dublin citizenship by Lord Mayor Benjamin Briscoe. The unfortunate Sweeney, and members of her family who allegedly gave money to Hunt, are now poorer by about $43,000. She, who loved her husband and believed his stories, is out of a job, and wondering how she could have been so blind.
Now 23, she met Hunt last May. He had come recommended by a friend who knew Hunt's father, Leo, a retired Marine Corps colonel who lived in Revere, Mass. A University of Rochester graduate and $30,900-a-year optical engineer at Polaroid, Sweeney fell hard for the dashing ex-Marine who was, he said, a police detective in Cambridge. In August, they married. "Within three weeks I thought I'd known him a lifetime," she says.
The couple settled into a condo in Medford. In an almost offhand way, Hunt went on telling Ann things about his past—the same stories that would mesmerize his aircraft association audience several months later. He had the paraphernalia to back up his claims—the Marine Corps uniform and swords, the NASA helmet with his name on it and photos taken from space. He took Sweeney to Annapolis where, Hunt said, he had graduated first in his class. They went to the Marine Corps Ball in Washington. They were flown to Montreal in a private jet chartered for $5,994. They visited the Bahamas, Florida and South Carolina and stayed in the best hotels. All the while, authorities have charged, their high living was financed by Sweeney's corporate American Express card, which Hunt was using without her knowledge.
The bottom fell out for Sweeney on Saturday, Jan. 28, less than six months into her marriage. When Hunt went to answer a knock at their door, he was confronted by Massachusetts state trooper Andrew Palombo and a Medford police detective. Both Hunt and Sweeney were arrested on charges of larceny and credit-card fraud. Authorities subsequently dropped all charges against the bewildered Sweeney.
Palombo had been trailing Hunt since the week before, when an acquaintance told him she thought her family had been conned. She said a Marine officer named Robert Hunt had promised to help get her son a choice assignment when he enlisted in the Navy. Her son signed up, but the assignment never came through. Hunt, she told Palombo, then swindled her out of $4,000 on the pretext that he could get her son out of the Navy—which never happened either. Her complaint is the basis for a larceny charge against Hunt.
When Palombo began checking Hunt out, he stated at a Feb. 8 bail hearing, he uncovered a trail of complaints and arrests. (To date, there is but one known conviction, involving bad-check charges in New Hampshire.) Palombo also found that Hunt's various friends knew him not only as an astronaut, a fighter pilot and a cop, but as a pro baseball player, a real-estate developer and a baby-powder manufacturer. And he had three wives before Sweeney. Pennsylvania authorities are investigating charges that Hunt had used the credit cards of wife No. 3 to finance a luxurious life-style. Police have calculated that $24,000 was fraudulently charged on Sweeney's card. They also discovered that Leo Hunt, Robert Hunt's father, wasn't the man he claimed to be either. He is not a retired colonel, and he never served in the Marines.
For Sweeney, the unmasking of her husband was brutally swift. "Twenty minutes after we got to the police station and the police explained everything they had found," she says, "I was really in a state of shock. It was almost like watching somebody die. Here was this person I thought I knew, and bit by bit, in the course of an hour, he just dissolved, just disappeared. I loved the person I thought he was but that person never really existed."
Although embittered and angry now, Sweeney remembers a man who was "a little hyper, but a lot of fun—incredibly considerate. He told me he was sick of groupies, women who went out with him because he was a pilot. If he was a Cambridge cop, I would have been just as interested." But he wasn't a cop either.
Although Sweeney has been cleared of criminal charges, her future is clouded. She no longer works for Polaroid and is still dealing with the $24,000 in American Express charges. "At this point," she says, "I'm staying with my parents. When this is all over, I'm going somewhere warmer, where there are palm trees and beaches. All I can do is get my feet back under me and keep hammering away."
Sweeney, who has filed for divorce, has not spoken with Hunt since his arrest, nor does she want to. But there is one thing she would like to know—something about herself and the other wives. "Did he ever love any one of us?" she wonders. "Or did he hate us?"
Even Robert Hunt, so gifted at finessing difficult questions, may not be equal to answering that one.
—Michael Neill, and William Sonzski in Boston