Entangled in a web of lies, a former Marine in Maricopa has found himself ensnared in the sticky grip of stolen valor accusations. Like a black widow spinning artificial silk, his own web has become his prison.
“This is f*cking r*tarded,” Billy Zinnerman told InMaricopa this morning.
For Zinnerman — who falsely purports to be a retired sergeant major of the U.S. Marine Corps decorated with the most portentous service medals — it’s time to pay the piper.
The Bronze Star dangling next to the brass buttons of his midnight-blue jacket? The American War Memorial Library says he never received one. Museum-quality Bronze Star replicas are plentiful on the online marketplace, where they can sell for just $10.
Zinnerman has been crafting and advancing his spurious saga since at least 2010, when, ironically, he pontificated about moral upstanding on PBS’ bygone Ethics NewsWeekly. In retrospect, it was a scintilla of credibility that metastasized into a whole new identity for Zinnerman.
Suddenly, he was no longer a low-ranking pawn with a lengthy criminal record, booted from the service amid accusations of repeated misconduct. He was a war hero and Maricopa City Council hopeful, and he intended to keep it that way.
Zinnerman’s guile empowered him to con his way to the top. He hoodwinked Maricopa’s American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts, the Marine Corps League of Arizona and eventually the Marine Corps itself. He even fooled InMaricopa and was featured on its cover last year.
In November 2022, Zinnerman appeared at the 247th Marine Corps Ball as its guest of honor. A few months later, in May, he was lauded by U.S. Congressmember Maxine Waters as he delivered the keynote speech at a commemoration in Inglewood, Calif., and accepted an award from the city’s mayor.
At the event, Zinnerman recounted fantastical tales of a helicopter crash in Afghanistan, surviving gunshots in Kuwait and rescuing his comrade from a burning car in Hawaii. He brazenly described a quarter-century of military service that culminated with an honorable discharge in 2002.
Zinnerman said he was a gunnery sergeant in Iraq in the years leading up to 9/11, leading a unit that identified targets for laser-guided missiles. Public records paint a different picture of Zinnerman at that time — one of a career criminal in Los Angeles.
By 2002, Zinnerman had been charged with nearly two dozen felony counts of burglary and theft, among other things. He was convicted at least four times, public records show.
The records also suggest that Zinnerman never left southern California between 1980 and his reputed retirement in 2002.
Fewer than 1% of those enlisted ever reach the rank of sergeant major, according to the Sonoma, Calif. nonprofit Wine Country Marines.
Sgt. Maj. Larry Leichty, one of the group’s board members, is one of the vanishing few. Liechty has had his own tangles with Maricopa’s infantry imposter in his home state of California.
“Zinnerman recently started defrauding some of our donors,” he said.
Wine Country Marines reported more than $700,000 in donations in its most recent filings with the IRS and last year received another donation worth $10 million from San Mateo County. Liechty didn’t disclose how much money he thinks Zinnerman was able to purloin.
Coupled with donations that Zinnerman solicited and other ill-gotten funds used to shuttle him from Maricopa to public events across the country to tout his counterfeit awards, it was a strong enough cocktail to turn heads at the FBI, Liechty said.
“There is a federal investigation going on for stolen valor,” Liechty said. “[Zinnerman] got himself into some really deep water. He might not realize how deep, but it’s deep.”
The FBI was mum on the issue, although multiple sources said they had spoken with investigators at the bureau about Zinnerman.
“We neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation into [Zinnerman] and have no comment,” FBI national spokesperson Tina Jagerson said.
The probe isn’t limited to lucre, Liechty claimed. Zinnerman could face additional federal charges for falsifying military personnel documents.
The DD Form 214 — a certificate of release from active duty that all veterans receive — that Zinnerman provided to InMaricopa appears to be phony. The word “medal” is repeatedly misspelled on the document, which is dated after Zinnerman’s supposed retirement.
By 2002, when Zinnerman claims he retired, these discharge forms were generated electronically. But the document Zinnerman provided was typed on a typewriter. And the form lists accolades like the Bronze Star and Purple Heart that Zinnerman never won, according to national databases.
The nail in the coffin for Zinnerman was the beefy list of accolades, promotions, certifications and deployments spanning the 1980s and 1990s. According to the National Personal Records Center, “There is no record of [Zinnerman’s] service after his discharge in 1980.”
Records show Zinnerman was not honorably discharged, nor did he serve close to a quarter-century.
He served just three years before he was accused of repeated misconduct and ousted from the Armed Forces. He was a first-class private when he was discharged — the second-lowest rank in the Marine Corps and seven ranks below sergeant major.
“His DD Form 214 is a forgery,” Wine Country Marines President James Brown told InMaricopa. “He forged a lot of documents. It’s a lot of felonies.”
In the devil doghouse
News that Zinnerman’s documents were forged spread like wildfire around the military community in Arizona. Zinnerman had attained membership in Maricopa’s VFW and American Legion posts as well as the Marine Corps League, a prestigious veterans’ organization chartered by the U.S. Congress.
Joe Uribe, a top officer in the local detachment of the Marine Corps League of Arizona, expressed remorse for accepting Zinnerman’s application to become a member some years ago.
“It pains me to say this,” Uribe said in a June 29 interview. “It’s clear and apparent to me that his document was 100% fraudulent.”
Yesterday, Frank Alger, a senior officer for the Marine Corps League’s Department of Arizona, told InMaricopa the organization had concluded its investigation into Zinnerman.
“He has been expelled from the Marine Corps League,” Alger said. “This guy is a stolen valor guy.”
Commander Thomas Kelley with Maricopa’s American Legion post also confirmed Yesterday that an investigation into Zinnerman was elevated to the district commander, where his membership is expected to be terminated.
When asked to defend himself against the claims of forgery, Zinnerman couldn’t offer an iota of evidence to support his own claims. He merely first referred InMaricopa to friends who could “verify who I am and what I did.”
He said he’d had a stroke earlier in the week and was partially paralyzed. He said he never wanted to be on the cover of InMaricopa last year and was forced into it. He said he was hopped up on prescription drugs during that interview.
Then, suddenly, he made an admission.
“You know what, I did have that one [other than honorable] discharge. I know what they’re talking about in 1980,” Zinnerman said. “I do remember that now. I’m just having a hard time with my memory.”
Awkward family photo
Photographs Zinnerman shared with InMaricopa last year, purporting to be images of himself as a drill sergeant in Iraq in 1990, were proven to be bogus, too.
Zinnerman lifted the images, which did not depict him, from the Marine Corps Times. The individual resembling Zinnerman in the photos is Gy. Sgt. Rashaud Drayton in 2018, according to Uribe and the Wine Country Marines.
Zinnerman had gone so far as to print and frame the stolen images and hang them inside his home. They were visible when InMaricopa first interviewed him last year.
When asked why the photos were hanging in his home, Zinnerman said Drayton was a family member. But he mispronounced Drayton’s name.
Son? Cousin? Nephew? Not quite.
“Rashaud is, uh, just a distant, uh, family,” Zinnerman said. He could not even articulate if Drayton was a relative on his mother’s or father’s side of the family.
‘Nail in the coffin’
In 2013, Congress passed the Stolen Valor Act.
It was breakthrough legislation that made it a federal crime for anyone to falsely take credit for military valor with the intention of profiting or otherwise enjoying the undeserved benefits those coveted awards entail.
Jason Metrick, assistant inspector general for investigations at the National Archives, said the coronavirus pandemic sparked an uptick in cases of stolen valor nationwide.
After a Pennsylvania man defrauded an American Legion post out of thousands of dollars in 2020, the prosecuting attorney called stolen valor “an affront to every veteran.”
“Masquerading as a combat veteran in order to infiltrate and steal funds from an American Legion post is breathtakingly brazen and unprecedented in my almost 30 years of practicing criminal law,” the attorney, Mark Powell, said in a statement at the time.
The imposter was sentenced to six to 12 years in jail. Zinnerman could face the same, or worse.
Those who violate the Stolen Valor Act are required to repay stolen money and can face a prison sentence of one year, according to the U.S. code. But sanctions can increase exponentially as related charges, like wire fraud and falsifying military documents, pile on.
As Zinnerman himself told InMaricopa this morning, “This is a clusterf*ck.”