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Why would a U.S. citizen who seemed to have a clean record steal the identity of a dead child?

This was the question that plagued Special Agent Brian Palmero as he investigated a passport renewal application that the Bureau of Consular Affairs’ passport fraud program manager suspected may have been falsified. The Diplomatic Security Service (DSS), the law enforcement branch of the U.S. Department of State, is tasked with investigating passport, visa, and document fraud. Palmero had determined that the passport applicant – Christina White, later identified as Cynthia Knox Lyerla – was using a false identity. But why?

Special Agent Palmero requested permission from the DSS Houston Field Office (HFO) to dig further into the case. Getting the green light, he recruited DSS Special Agent Alex Stechschulte to help investigate.

“I requested Alex’s help because he has a reputation as an extremely persistent and thorough investigator,” said Palmero. “HFO leadership gave us the time and resources to pursue a complicated investigation that stretched well beyond the typical passport or visa fraud case. The trust that HFO placed in the discretion of we junior agents allowed this case to grow legs.”

After scouring dozens of databases, chasing several investigative leads, and searching Google, Palmero and Stechschulte stumbled onto a 1988 news story about the homicide of Harold Lyerla in California. The agents suspected that their passport applicant Christina White might be the deceased’s wife, Cynthia Knox Lyerla. They also suspected she was connected to a civil case in which she was sued for the wrongful death of her child, Katja Lyerla.

Palmero and Stechschulte reached out to the police department that had conducted the murder investigation and sent the applicant’s passport photo to the lead detective of the case, who confirmed the agents’ suspicions: Christina White was really Cynthia Knox Lyerla.

The agents continued to investigate the case. Lyerla’s passport application indicated she was a cruise ship captain.

“I deduced that Lyerla probably had some type of maritime license from the Coast Guard,” said Stechschulte. “I did a little research and confirmed that she had a merchant mariner’s license.”

Palmero and Stechschulte reached out to the Coast Guard Investigative Service (CGIS), which provided a copy of Lyerla’s fingerprints. They compared the prints to those taken by the California police during the Lyerla murder investigation. They had a match.

“When the fingerprints came back, we knew 100 percent that we had the right person and the true identity of the passport applicant,” recalled Stechschulte.

With her identity confirmed, and evidence of multiple instances of document and identity fraud, HFO worked with the USCGIS, the Social Security Administration Office of the Inspector General, and the cities of Lompoc, California, and League City, Texas, to build a case against Lyerla.

On July 12, 2017, Lyerla was sentenced to 36 months for aggravated identity theft and making false statements in a passport application. She also was ordered to pay a $15,000 fine.

“This investigation would not have been successful without the seamless coordination between DSS and USCGIS,” said Palmero. “It serves as a strong example of how DSS leverages relationships with dedicated investigators from a range of organizations to uncover complicated fraudulent identity schemes.

U.S. Department of State

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