Air Force impostor to plead guilty

A Meredith College student got free tuition by pretending to be a war hero

Staff WriterSeptember 15, 2005 

An Apex woman who duped Meredith College officials by impersonating a U.S. Air Force captain plans to plead guilty later this month to federal charges that she fraudulently received more than $42,000 worth of free tuition.

Lisa Jane Phillips, 34, is scheduled to be in court Sept. 26 in Raleigh before U.S. District Judge Terrence W. Boyle.

Raleigh lawyer Woody Webb Jr. said Phillips will plead guilty to four charges: impersonating a military officer to obtain money, lying to federal agents, wire fraud and misuse of military medals. A plea agreement has been signed by Phillips, Webb and the prosecutor.

"She's very sorry that this whole situation got out of control the way that it did," Webb said.

Phillips will repay the college as part of her sentence, Webb said.

Starting in March 2002, Phillips showed up at the West Raleigh college wearing her captain's uniforms and various medals, which investigators say she bought via the Internet and at military surplus stores. One medal that Phillips wore was only given to those who served from Dec. 7, 1941 -- the day Pearl Harbor was attacked -- until Nov. 8, 1945. Others included the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star and a Meritorious Service Medal.

During the next three years, Phillips charmed and convinced classmates, teachers and administrators with her heroic tales of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq and of suffering a shrapnel wound to her back when shots were fired at her plane, investigators and students say. Phillips told them that she had broken an arm during a mission and recovered from another injury at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, investigators say.

Phillips even spoke to her fellow psychology students about her boot camp experience, recalled Tiffany Adams, a Meredith graduate now studying at the University of Virginia. Phillips was asked to speak on a panel about the war in Iraq during a forum before the entire student body, Adams said.

In the end, Meredith officials waived $42,178 of tuition because of Phillips' military service.

"Everybody at Meredith went out of their way to help this girl, and all along she was lying to everybody," Adams said. "It looks really bad on the school. How did such an oversight happen in the first place? Didn't she have to verify her military service before they waived the tuition?"

Adams' questions were echoed in letters to the editor that ran in the college's student newspaper, the Meredith Herald, after Phillips' arrest in April.

So far, Meredith officials, citing student privacy laws, have offered no public explanation for what happened.

Meredith College is the largest private women's college in the Southeast.

Phillips' deceptions were uncovered after Meredith College Police Chief Frank Strickland became suspicious and contacted federal investigators. Strickland served as an Army pilot during the Vietnam War.

It's unclear what motivated Phillips to carry out such an elaborate hoax.

In court records, federal officials have indicated Phillips has been struggling with an addiction to prescription narcotics since 2001.

"She has had a drug addiction problem, but it in no way is an excuse for what occurred," Webb said Wednesday.

Staff writer Andrea Weigl can be reached at 829-4848 or aweigl@newsobserver.com.

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