Joel Sanders kept the secret through four years in the US Army, most of it spent in Berlin at the height of the Cold War.
After his honorable discharge, he kept the secret from his German wife and, after a divorce, his German partner. He kept the secret from his six children. He kept the secret from the clients of the security company he founded there. And he tried to keep the secret from the US government, every time he renewed his passport, and for 33 years he pulled it off.
But a twitch in the hand of fate in 2018, when he was 56 years old, took the former soldier’s life on a very different path and forced him to finally spill the truth to federal agents and to his family in Germany.
“Joel Sanders” was never his real name. It’s DeLeo Antonio Barner.
Today, Barner is a 60-year-old delivery driver for a St. Louis restaurant supply company, but in 1985 he was a young man standing in an Army recruiting office, and he had a problem.
On May 23, 1984, DeLeo Barner had been booted from the US Army with a general discharge under honorable conditions. He wasn’t convicted by a court-martial, but his administrative removal noted his “very poor” service, a contention he disputed.
Back in St. Louis, over the next three weeks he noted two funerals for friends gunned down in a wave of street violence sweeping the city. He realized that if he didn’t get out of Missouri, he’d end up in prison or a coffin, too.
He wanted to get back into the Army, but he was barred indefinitely by his administrative discharge. But the military recruiter had a solution. Last month, Barner told a federal judge the unnamed NCO cooked up a scheme that landed him back in the Army.
Barner went down to City Hall in St. Louis, rifled through the public records, and jotted down the Social Security number, date of birth, and other personal information of a guy named Joel Sanders so he could enlist under his name.
It’s a crime that would be hard to commit today, investigators concede, but it worked in 1985. Barner’s federal defense attorney, Melissa Goymerac, told Coffee or Die Magazine that he “did nothing malicious” with the information that would hurt the real Sanders, such as racking up debt. He just used it to reenter the Army.
When he was discharged the first time, commanders concluded Barner “clearly had no potential for useful service,” and they determined any further efforts to rehabilitate him were pointless “based on conduct and attitude of the servicemember having an adverse effect on military discipline, good order and morale.”
Reborn as Joel Sanders, however, Barner vowed to become a great soldier on this second enlistment. And according to his Army records, he did. Instead of picking up nonjudicial punishment and bad fitness marks, he wore a Good Conduct Medal. He might’ve made a career of the military, too.
But the Army botched a surgery that left Barner disabled. He was honorably discharged in late 1988 as Joel Sanders.
Instead of going home to Missouri, Barner stayed in Berlin. Over the decades, he also began drawing disability payments from the US Department of Veterans Affairs, eventually receiving roughly $70,000 total for his service-connected injury.
The problem was that there was the real Joel Sanders out there, somewhere in the US. And that Joel Sanders also had a problem.
In 2018, the real Joel Sanders tried to obtain health insurance and was told by the company a disabled veteran should go to the VA. But he’d never served a day of his life in uniform. He called VA Police.
The VA’s Office of Inspector General tracked Barner down in Berlin. At the US Embassy on July 12, 2019, he scribbled out a confession to agents with the US State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service, laying out the scheme that turned him into Joel Sanders. To perpetuate the lie, he wrote, he repeatedly renewed his passport with the other man’s name, the last time in 2018.
Passport fraud is a crime, and Barner faced up to 10 years behind bars and a $250,000 fine. Indicted in early 2020, he also was charged with aggravated identity theft. Barner surrendered to US authorities in Berlin on Aug. 27, 2021, and was flown back to the US to stand trial.
On May 13, 2022, Barner formalized his signed confession by inking a plea deal with federal prosecutors. Unlike the attorneys, he dated the agreement 13 May 2022, the way a German would format it.
Barner’s three decades in Germany weren’t without a few blemishes. A report prepared in early 2019 by the Kriminalhauptkommissar’s office of the Landeskriminalamt state police in Berlin revealed he’d been investigated for bodily harm, resisting law enforcement officers, failing to pay child support, and insulting someone, but they never amounted to what in the US would be considered felonies.
Barner didn’t return a call seeking comment from Coffee or Die, but court records show that he became a model defendant while awaiting sentencing. He worked his job and stayed out of trouble.
His plea deal triggered prosecutors to toss the aggravated identity theft charge, so Barner asked the court for leniency on the sole remaining count of passport fraud.
On Tuesday, Sept. 6, in St. Louis, US District Judge Sarah E. Pitlyk granted it. She sentenced Barner to the week he spent in jail after his flight from Germany, plus three years of supervised release and 100 hours of community service.
The feds considered it a legal victory.
“The Diplomatic Security Service is firmly committed to working with the US Attorney’s Office to investigate allegations of crimes related to passport and visa fraud, and protecting the integrity of US passports and visas, the most sought-after travel documents in the world,” said Gregory Batman, chief of the State Department’s Criminal Investigations Division, in a prepared statement released after Tuesday’s hearing. “DSS’ global presence was instrumental in facilitating the return of this individual from Germany.”
According to federal defender Goymerac, because Barner’s service was honorable and his service-connected injury legit, the VA also never sought restitution for the disability payments.
But that doesn’t mean there’s a happy ending for everyone.
“The repercussions of his terrible choice will reverberate through his life and the life of his family forever,” wrote Goymerac in a sentencing memorandum before Tuesday’s hearing. “It is unclear whether he will ever be able to travel back to the country where his wife and four of his children remain.”
Goymerac told Coffee or Die by email on Wednesday that Barner is seeking help from an immigration attorney, “but it remains uncertain at this time.”