A 20-year-old woman from Cass Lake, Minn., who claimed to have just returned from being wounded in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army but actually was in school in Cloquet, Minn., pleaded guilty on Monday to impersonating an officer.
Wearing combat fatigues, Elizabeth McKenzie had been feted in February in a special ceremony in Cass Lake in which the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Honor Guard gave her a blanket and eagle feather to honor her as a female warrior, even though she isn't a tribal member. The gathering included a tribal drum ceremony and a reception line.
Accepting the town's gratitude, the 2009 graduate of Cass Lake High School talked about the close calls she'd had and a war injury that brought her home. She led the march in the high school gym, carrying the American flag.
Police became suspicious after a college recruiter heard of her story and told police McKenzie had been attending classes in Cloquet during the period she claimed to have been deployed. In fact, McKenzie had never been injured, had never been to Afghanistan and had never even been in the Army.
McKenzie was scheduled to go on trial this week in Cass County before she entered her plea. Sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 21. She could not be reached for comment.
McKenzie said in an earlier interview that she wore the uniform of a relative during the ceremony to honor his service. She said at the time that she still hoped to join the military some day.
When it was revealed that McKenzie was an imposter, the little town felt duped.
"Overall, there was a lot of disappointment," said Pike Bay Township Police Chief Zeb Hemsworth, who charged McKenzie with impersonating an officer, a misdemeanor. "But basically, you can't blame anybody in the community for trusting somebody. The bottom line is that she lied and the community as a whole didn't question it -- and shouldn't have to question it."
Before a departure ceremony last year that was held at the town's American Legion hall, she posed in an Army battle dress uniform and told supporters she would be serving overseas with the Army's 302nd Battalion, 16th Regiment Military Police, an apparently fictional unit.
She said she'd done her basic training at Fort Leonard Wood and had 11 weeks of advanced training. She said she'd helped with flooding cleanup in Fargo, N.D., and after a tornado hit Wadena, Minn.
Hemsworth said on Monday that he was there for the welcome home ceremony and remembers feeling skeptical about her credentials. "There was a little something in the back of my head, but I didn't want to listen to it," he said.
During the homecoming ceremony, some veterans had also noticed that details of her uniform looked askew, though they'd kept their thoughts to themselves. The chevrons signifying her rank were different on her cap from her blouse, and neither was for the rank of private first class, which she claimed to hold.
Confronted by police about her military papers, she could not produce them. Hemsworth said there was no evidence that McKenzie used the scam to benefit herself, which could have elevated the charges against her. "It looks like she was just interested in some attention," he said.
Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434