Stolen Valor: Top officials in Montford Point Marines charity caught faking their records, awards

Dan Noyes Image
Monday, July 10, 2023
Veterans charity officials caught faking their records, awards
There's been a shakeup at veterans nonprofit that honors Montford Point Marines - top officials were caught faking their military records and awards.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- There's been a major shakeup at the national nonprofit founded to honor the Montford Point Marines. Three top officials were caught exaggerating their own military records and awards.

I've reported on this issue before. Stolen valor is when a person pretends to be someone they're not, exaggerating military service, or wearing medals and ribbons they never earned. Sometimes it's people seeking respect or bragging rights. Other times, it's for money.

Wortham Fears, a 97-year-old Oakland resident, is the real deal. He's an original Montford Point Marine. They were the first African Americans to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps. Many fought valiantly during World War II.

Our America: Mission Montford Point | Watch the Full Episode

In commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the U.S. Marine Corps' first Black recruits, ABC Owned Television Stations presents Our America: Mission Montford Point, celebrating the history of the Montford Point Marines, the estimated 20,000 Black men who broke the color barrier of the last armed service to allow African Americans to join.

"And the officer said to me, 'Well then, you're not going to the Navy. You're going to the Marine Corps,'" Fears said.

He was among the first 20,000 African Americans to serve in the Marines, the last branch of the U.S. military to integrate. They trained at Montford Point, a swampy section of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. With the United States fully fighting a war in Europe and the South Pacific, the decision came down for the Montford Point Marines to be deployed overseas

An ABC Owned Television Stations documentary last year spotlighted the contributions of these men to civil rights and in World War II.

"And we served our country knowing that we would possibly make the ultimate sacrifice," Fears said. "And for those of us who lived through it, thank God, thank God for it."

Rev. Fears is proud of the single stripe he received as Private First Class, and wouldn't think to exaggerate his record or wear medals he did not earn.

"These ribbons, I can't pretend," he said. "One represents the American theater, the South Pacific, and there's the Victory Medal. Those are the ones I'm entitled to wear."

But the I-Team has learned that, for years, key figures in the Montford Point Marine Association have been lying about their records and awards.

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A Santa Clara County man has been able to convince many people that he is the second most decorated soldier from World War II. The problem is, none of it is true.

"I have served in some very harsh places, was there at the very end of Vietnam," said Montford Point's Western Region Vice President L.E. Michael Johnson.

He told stories of serving in Vietnam during appearances for the nonprofit.

"I was 19 years old around that particular time and frame of place," he said. "I saved a lot of people, I evacuated a lot of people aboard that ship. When I came home in Norfolk, Virginia, I was called a baby killer."

But I confronted Johnson with his official military records I obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, and he admitted he never served in Vietnam.

Johnson: "I misspoke. I was wrong for saying that, sir."

Noyes: "You understand that people who served and the families of those who actually served in Vietnam and died, this is a great insult to them? You get that, right?"

Johnson: "Yes, I do, sir."

But there's more.

Johnson was seen telling a group, "When I was 39 years old, I went to Desert Storm."

He also claimed to have served in the Gulf War and sometimes wore a Vietnam/Gulf War veteran's hat.

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"I commanded 18 year olds and 14,000 Marines out of California," Johnson said. "We went there and we accomplished, we came back and we survived."

He wore medals and ribbons reflecting he was "boots on the ground" in the Middle East, when he actually remained in California.

Noyes: "How did you get the ribbon actually? Did you purchase it online?"

Johnson: "The ribbons were done online. Yes, at a shop in San Diego."

Noyes: "Your unit gives you the ribbon for your service, correct? Isn't that the way it normally works? You don't buy it online. Your superiors give it to you at the end of your service."

Johnson: "That would be correct. So yes, I was wrong for that."

I began looking into the Montford Point Marine Association at the urging of James Brown, a veterans advocate out of San Carlos.

"You got these World War II Marines that are dying at 1,500 a day," Brown said. "And some of those are Montford Point Marines. And it took them years to have the country, you know, recognize their service and recognize their fight and their struggle. And now you get this guy, puts all of it at risk. That's why it's important."

RELATED: 80th anniversary of Montford Point: Honoring the first Black U.S. Marines

I watched as Brown confronted another official from the Montford Point Marine Association - Billy Ray Zinnerman, Western Region Public Relations Officer and Chairman of the Scholarship Committee.

In public appearances, including one in Inglewood on Memorial Day, Zinnerman claimed to have had a 25-year career in the Corps as a drill instructor and sergeant major, with a rack of medals he wore even while meeting the Commandant of the Marine Corps, including one for being injured in combat, another for valor in Desert Storm.

Brown: "So that's your Purple Heart there. What about the Bronze Star?"

Zinnerman: "The radio man got hit. I went back to get him. That's when I got hit. Even with that injury, got back to our LZ, call for the extraction, thereby saving my unit."

Even after Brown repeatedly pressed Zinnerman, he stuck to his story.

"So, all of my career, yep, it's verifiable," Zinnerman said. "So you need to go and do your research again."

Zinnerman provided military records to several veterans groups when he sought admission, a DD214 with red flags. The different type face on his name, so many awards apparently cut and pasted.

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A Marin County man investigated by the ABC7 News I-Team last year is now facing felony charges. Chuck Lyman is accused of using a fake military record to get money out of his close friends and neighbors.

Then I used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain his official transcript. It shows the Marines discharged Zinnerman after only three years because of "misconduct - frequent." He was a private first class, not a drill instructor or sergeant major, and did not earn any of those medals he wore.

"And the president has expelled him," said Joe Geeter with the Montford Point Marines. "So he's, he's gone."

After we asked questions, the National Office of the Montford Point Marine Association expelled Zinnerman and allowed L.E. Michael Johnson to resign.

Noyes: "Why is it important to expose these cases of stolen valor, do you think?"

Geeter: "Oh, it's important on many levels, Dan. One of the most important is for the people who actually earned those medals. Every time somebody perpetrates a fraud, it kind of diminishes or allows Americans to question when they see somebody else wearing medals, like, 'Oh, is this another fraud?'"

On Thursday, I learned Sergeant Major Charles Cook, president of Montford Point's Western Region, also wore medals he did not earn - three Presidential Unit Citations meant "for extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy," two Combat Action Ribbons, and a Vietnam Gallantry Medal.

Noyes: "Did you ever serve in combat actually?"

Cook: "No."

In an interview, Cook admitted he never saw combat and claimed it was a mistake by the company where he buys his medals, a mistake he didn't catch.

Cook: "I did, I made, it was a, it wasn't a mistake. I just didn't verify my ribbons when I got them in from the organization that put them together for me."

Noyes: "I don't think that people are going to buy that you didn't know what you're wearing on your chest."

Cook: "Oh, I didn't say I didn't know. I said that I didn't check it. And I concur with you."

I've learned the FBI has assigned two agents to investigate all of this, what could turn out to be a violation of the federal Stolen Valor Act. I'll bring you updates as they warrant.

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