He Made a Life as a Career College Student. The Feds Weren't Having It 

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click to enlarge Malachi Duncan played a butler in a Jefferson College production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. - COURTESY OF JEFFERSON COLLEGE
  • Malachi Duncan played a butler in a Jefferson College production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Hillsboro seemed like a place where he could escape, at least for a while.

He and Brewster got an apartment together, using the money from student financial aid and whatever Duncan could make working to cover their bills. Duncan went to class and Brewster had a free place to live. Later, they repeated the process in Indiana. Duncan had been convicted in 2015 for writing a bad check in Illinois and sentenced to eighteen months behind bars. Instead of reporting to prison as ordered, he moved to Indianapolis where he rented a place in Brewster's name, worked as an Uber driver and enrolled in a trade school.

But in early 2016, Duncan was tipped off by a notice from Yahoo! that his email account records had been subpoenaed. He skipped town, and when federal agents knocked on the door in February, it was clear to Brewster the gig was up.

Fed up with his ex-roommate by then, Brewster says he had no problem telling the investigators what he knew. They left, and he figured that was it. But they returned the next day. "They threw me on the floor in my Walking Dead pajamas and slippers," he says.

Brewster was charged with being a co-conspirator in the identity fraud scheme. He pleaded guilty in June 2016 and was sentenced to seven months in prison and ordered to pay $14,159 in restitution. He says he prayed a lot in prison, and God has answered. He has a new life. He says he doesn't hang out in the streets anymore and doesn't even smoke marijuana.

"In the Bible it says the truth can set you free," he says. "That's why I'm free."

Today, Brewster is a 31-year-old minister-in-training at Shekinah Glory Church in Granite City. After he got out of prison in October 2016, he reconnected with a woman he had known since they were teens and got married. They had a son — DeMarcus Brewster, Jr. — in December. Everything is going well, and he wants nothing to do with Duncan anymore.

"I'm trying to get as far away from him as possible," he says.

That is difficult considering they were one person, at least on paper, for so long. "DeMarcus Brewster" got a driver's license from the DMV and set up bank accounts. He rented apartments in Hillsboro and Indianapolis. He worked for Uber and LongHorn Steakhouse and maybe a CarMax, judging by one of the letters that have continued to arrive. He even played Lacey several years ago in a college performance of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Brewster says Duncan's version of the story is a lie. He claims he never stole his stuff (though he concedes that someone did). And while he admits that he did let his former friend use his name and information, he says Duncan took it much further than he ever realized, signing him up for schools and applying for jobs he knew nothing about. A year before either of them went to Hillsboro, Duncan even enrolled at an online school called National American University and collected a $5,505 refund check after paying the tuition. Investigators say he didn't give any of that money to Brewster.

"Malachi — he lies," Brewster says. "He lies."

Beyond that, he says, Duncan wasn't just using the funds to go to college. He was feeding a gambling habit, he alleges, accompanying his biological mom to casinos around St. Louis.

Duncan acknowledges he did gamble, though he says it wasn't nearly as bad as authorities or his old roommate have alleged. Investigators found he spent $147,622 at three St. Louis-area casinos between 2012 and 2015, although Duncan correctly points out that figure includes money he won and pumped back into the machines. He also says he let other people play on his cards, although he does not say who.

Regardless, he says he made bad decisions. He knows his deal with Brewster was never going to work in the long run. You cannot be someone else forever. But Duncan says he was not thinking long-term.

"I've never done anything thinking I'm going to get away with it," he says. "I'm going to do what I can to get from one day to the next."

click to enlarge Duncan is serving a 45-month federal prison term. - COURTESY OF STE. GENEVIEVE COUNTRY SHERIFF
  • Duncan is serving a 45-month federal prison term.

Brewster had already served his time and was out of prison by the time law enforcement finally arrested Duncan in March 2017 in Memphis, where he was taking English classes under another name and working in a computer lab.

He pleaded guilty in July. The judge in his federal case took pity on him and arranged his sentence to run simultaneously to any punishment he might receive in a trio of pending state court cases in Missouri and Illinois. But he will still serve nearly four years in prison and owe more money than he can imagine ever paying back.

His attorney, Jason Korner, says it wasn't as if Duncan was just using the financial aid for an easy payday. After all, he went to class and got involved on campus. He was using the money to be a college student. His crime is that he lied about who he was in order to obtain it. "I'm no psychologist, but you could see he wanted an escape from his life," Korner says. "He's not knocking over banks. He's somebody who wants to be someone else."

If anyone understands that impulse, it's Duncan's oldest biological sister, Elizabeth Williams. Now 50, she was the only one of her twelve siblings then alive who survived the fire that consumed their home.

In many ways, their childhoods were quite different. "I was the product of twelve children, and then all of a sudden I was alone," she explains. "That's where we were divided."

Lately, though, they've been growing closer. Williams has been writing to Duncan every week while he's locked up. He pens his responses in careful, handwritten pages. In other jails, he has typically landed in protective custody as a result of being attacked by other inmates or on suicide watch. But he says he has worked to avoid that in Ste. Genevieve in order to keep his mail privileges.

His sister understands that Duncan is upset with their mother. She says she had a lot of anger and acted out on it for years, but she eventually got her GED, went to college and got a master's. She is now a social worker and has been writing a book about what she's experienced.

She has never really made peace with what happened, she says, but she realized she had to move forward. She's not sure Duncan is there yet.

"In his world, he probably feels like my mom is the reason for everything in his life," she says. "It's easy to blame her for our whole, entire life, but at some point as an adult, you have to take accountability for what you've done."

That does not mean it is easy, or that she feels any less of a connection to him. "We've both been through hell and high water, and we're still standing."

And Duncan, too, is writing a book. Unlike his sister's, though, his is fiction, a novel called Shogun Ninjas. It is about a superhero from a broken home who learns he has three brothers. The boys end up in foster care and briefly turn to a life of crime. The twist comes when they repent and learn to use their powers for good.

"They all get the chance to do better with their lives," he says.

Like all his favorite stories, it is a fantasy.

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