How a Nigerian (Eteng Ikpi Itam) Lived and Died alone under assumed name in US
Detective Jon Seeber, of the Onondaga County Sheriff's Office, was the lead detective on the case involving the dead Nigerian man who led a double life. The victim's American name was George Clark. His real name was Eteng Itam. Seeber is photographed in front of the burn out car that Itam died in . (Dennis Nett | firstname.lastname@example.org)
A man engulfed in flames hung out a car door as the vehicle sped down Old Liverpool Road the morning of Jan. 11 before smashing into a wall. The man was dead before firefighters arrived.
So began the final mysterious chapter of two lives lived by one man. The investigation into the fiery car crash would eventually tell the tale of a black man living under a white man's name, a Nigerian musician who became an unemployed American mechanic, and a secret revealed only by death.
Detective Jon Seeber and several other detectives from the Onondaga County Sheriff's Office began the tedious process that morning of piecing together what clues they could find. Their goal was to identify the man and notify his family.
The body was badly burned. The car's registration gave detectives a name: George Clark.
Fire investigators soon sifted through the wreckage. A New York driver's license in the man's wallet - which he had been sitting on - was spared from the flames. It also belonged to George Clark.
The driver's license listed an address at P.O. Box 26, at the Postal Service's South Salina Street office in Syracuse. As several detectives talked with witnesses to the crash, others searched for a street address to find a family member. That turned up an apartment on West Genesee Street in Syracuse.
In heaps of documents in the tiny apartment detectives found bills, junk mail, pay stubs, tax returns, a worn birth certificate, expired driver's licenses and a folded, tattered Social Security card. All said George Clark. It was affirmation that they had the right person but little help in notifying the family.
January car accident on Old Liverpool Road across from Ponderosa Plaza.Dick Blume/The Post Standard
Bank records showed he had less than $1,000 in his account. Staff at a temp agency where he worked said they often had trouble reaching him. His records there listed no family members or contacts. Authorities turned to database searches to find a relative.
An identity unravels
Detectives ran George Clark's name and Social Security number through a state and federal criminal history database and made an startling discovery: The number was tied to another George Clark.
That George Clark lived in North Carolina and had a criminal history. A mug shot and other records showed the George Clark in North Carolina was a heavyset white man in his 50s. The photo on the driver's license salvaged from the car crash showed a black man who was much older and thinner.
Jon Seeber and his fellow detectives were left scratching their heads.
Police in North Carolina confirmed for the sheriff's office that the George Clark there was alive. He told detectives he had problems with identity theft over the years, and that he had previously lived in New York City.
The name that just earlier that day authorities believed belonged to the man killed in the car crash was now all but meaningless.
The dead man had paid taxes and traffic tickets, bought car insurance and life insurance, received a physical from his doctor and gotten approved for a car loan, all using another man's identity.
Seeber went back to the man's apartment. It was a small efficiency with few amenities, but Seeber wanted to be sure they hadn't missed any clues.
In stacks of personal papers, detectives found a battered manila envelope wedged between several other envelopes in a drawer. Scrawled on its front: "Roots."
Inside was an old photo of the dead man playing guitar and about a dozen folded letters written on cheap paper.
The letters were addressed to Eteng Itam. They were from a son, brother and sister. The letters - from the 1990s and 2000s -- asked how Itam's life was in the United States, said how much he was missed and informed him that his father was sick and dying. They also thanked him for sending money orders to his son.
George Clark was really Eteng Ikpi Itam, a 63-year-old Nigerian.
Who was George Clark?
Friends and acquaintances told detectives they only knew the dead man as George Clark. He never once breathed a word about his true identity, though in hindsight, some said, there were hints.
"Basically he was a loner," said Venus Dennis. She met Clark in 2003 outside a bakery in Syracuse. They struck up a conversation and he asked for her phone number.
The pair began going to dinner and spending time together. He occasionally came over to Dennis' house. He mostly went to work and went home, she said.
Detectives found documents including a birth certificate, social security card, car title, messenger service ID and a social security statement. All said George Clark.Courtesy Onondaga County Sheriff's Office
He told her he worked as a mechanic at Sears for some time and later had a temp job at a plastic manufacturer that lasted two years. Dennis sometimes dropped him off for work there.
On the weekends, he preferred to stay in his apartment rather than socialize.
"If you invited him to a BBQ, he would bow out nicely," Dennis said.
Dennis said she invited him to movies many times, but he never accepted. Instead, he'd typically drive Dennis and her son to the theater and then pick them up later.
He did seem to like two things: cars and books. He read often and would hunt for books at bookstores and thrift shops.
Sherba Whitehurst, who met Clark around 2000, said he preferred books about cowboys and the Old West.
He also loved music, played an old acoustic guitar on occasion and frequented jazz festivals and events in Syracuse.
Although he apparently never revealed his true identity, he did drop hints, friends said.
Pictured is an apartment building at 1269 West Genesee Street, on the right, in Syracuse. Eteng Itam lived there for more than a decade.Dick Blume | email@example.com
"Sometimes he'd talk to you in riddles," she said. "He never said he was from Nigeria." He spoke English, but Whitehurst said she sometimes heard him talking on his cell phone in some other language.
He did tell Dennis that he was from Africa and had left because of a land dispute with his brother, but provided few other details.
He would often become depressed over money, Dennis said. More than once he told her he was behind on his rent and having trouble finding work with the temp agency. Dennis said Itam also showed her a hatchet he kept behind the seat of his car.
"I kind of distanced myself after that," she said.
Who was Eteng Itam?
The detectives slowly uncovered details of Eteng Itam's life in Nigeria. With help from the State Department, they contacted the Consulate General of Nigeria in New York City. The consulate eventually found Itam's family in Nigeria and notified them of his death. DNA kits sent to Africa and returned by the family to the Onondaga County Medical Examiner's Office positively confirmed months later that it was Itam's body in the January crash.
Detectives weren't able to talk directly with Itam's family. They, however, heard from a handful of his childhood friends who learned of his death through his family.
Those friends recalled a much different person than the quiet loner who lived in Syracuse, kept to himself and worked with his hands.
Eteng Ikpi Itam was born June 13, 1949, in Cross River, Nigeria. He came from a financially comfortable, educated and well-respected family, said Eteng Eno, whose father and family were close with Itam's father and family. Eno runs a chemical business in New Jersey.
Itam's father was a prominent government official, his sister a college professor and one brother a chief justice, Eno said.
Eteng ItamCourtesy Onondaga County Sheriff's Office
Growing up, Itam was an intelligent and polite young man, the friends said. In his younger years in Nigeria, Eno considered Itam something of a role model. He graduated from high school with honors. He was tall, handsome and well-dressed, Eno said, and he never wanted for a date.
He attended college and studied veterinary medicine, Eno said. His real passion, however, was music. He taught himself to play guitar and performed for school groups and church and holiday events.
Eno said he believes Itam studied veterinary medicine to satisfy his father, though he longed to be a musician.
"His father didn't want him to do music," said Sylvester Ikpi, a childhood friend who now lives in Maryland.
Itam came from a large family, Eno said, and his father had many children, several marriages and several divorces. Itam was the only child his father had with his mother.
"I suspect that he didn't see himself fitting in with a large family," Eno said.
At some point, Itam went in a different direction. Eno remembers overhearing his father and Itam's father discuss his son's lifestyle change. Itam, quit his job and moved. He began playing music professionally and toured with several groups, including one that eventually went to play in the United States in the 1970s.
When the band returned home, Itam stayed behind in New York City.
Ikpi came to the United States in 1977 and received letters from Itam's family asking him to look him up. They hadn't heard from him.
Ikpi and others were never able to find Itam, but he apparently sent a letter to family in Nigeria with his P.O. box as a return address. That is how he received the letters that led detectives to his real identity. When he rented the box in 1996 Itam listed the names George Clark and Eteng Itam. In 2009 he removed his real name.
According to Itam's death certificate, he obtained a visa good for four years but that expired. Detectives said birthday cards found in his apartment indicated he may have stayed in a homeless shelter in New York City. A check with the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement turned up Itam's date of birth, but his alien number has been reassigned and his file long since destroyed.
Little is known of Itam's time in New York City during the 1970s. An old, undated ID card found in his Syracuse apartment shows that he worked for East Side/West Side Messenger Service. He was using the name George Clark by then.
Seeber said detectives believe Itam stole the identity of George Clark Jr. while in New York City, but that they found no evidence that Itam committed any other crimes. The real George Clark was born in Brooklyn, but it's not apparent if the two men ever knew each other or met.
A phone message left for George Clark in North Carolina was returned by his mother, Joyce Clark, who said her son was out of town and unavailable to answer questions.
Asked about her son's identity being stolen, Joyce Clark said the identity theft "ruined his life," but that he has since gotten a fresh start.
She said she and her son never had anything to do with Eteng Itam.
"We never seen him before in our lives," she said. That happened years ago. We don't know a damn thing about him and I'm glad he's dead."
A meeting of two lives
Even after the mystery was solved, questions lingered about Itam's final resting place.
Grave of Eteng Ikpi Itam at Loomis Hill Cemetery, Syracuse. His identity was discovered after an accident on Old Liverpool Road.Dick Blume |firstname.lastname@example.org
According to Itam's death certificate, Geico refused to pay on his life insurance because of the identity theft. His family in Nigeria couldn't afford to have his remains shipped home.
The Onondaga County Department of Social Services paid most of the $3,450 cost of the Itam's burial in Loomis Hill Cemetery. Just a few people attended the March 22 service and burial: A few friends, several officials from the Nigerian consulate in New York City, a minister, the funeral director and Itam's landlord.
In the end, the man who lived quietly for decades as George Clark was buried in Syracuse under a modest grave marker that simply reads Eteng Ikpi Itam.