In 2007, two years after William Rich was wounded by an explosion in Iraq, federal investigators say the U.S. Army veteran wheeled himself into an appointment with a Veterans Affairs physician for a checkup on his injuries. Rich, according to the doctor, was a paraplegic.
“Since his accident, he has been paralyzed in both lower extremities; has been confined to a wheelchair and has no control of bowel, or bladder,” the doctor allegedly wrote, adding that he did not order an X-ray because he “did not feel it was worth the trauma to him of manipulating him around.”
Based on that examination, Rich was granted permanent VA disability benefits.
Had the doctor ordered the X-ray and reviewed Rich’s medical history, which he told investigators he did not have access to, he would have seen that Rich was no longer paralyzed, Justice Department officials announced last week. Rich had recovered within six weeks of the blast, investigators found.
By the time federal agents built their case, the 41-year-old veteran had stolen more than $1 million in veteran disability and Social Security benefits, prosecutors allege. He now faces charges of wire fraud and theft of government property.
Rich’s lawyer did not immediately respond to The Washington Post’s request for comment late Tuesday.
Rich, of Windsor Mill, Md., enlisted in the Army in September 1998 and served on active duty until February 2007. While deployed to Baqubah, Iraq, in August 2005, Rich was hit by a blast from an improvised explosive device. The impact injured his kidney and left him paralyzed, according to court documents.
But six weeks later, doctors noted that he was making promising progress in regaining normal function of his legs. He was no longer paralyzed, according to an affidavit.
An August 2005 MRI exam showed “no [spinal] cord impingement” or “[spinal] cord abnormalities,” according to court documents. It also noted that Rich’s “paralysis has resolved somewhat and at present he is able to move his lower extremities” and that he was “continent of bowel and bladder.”
A medical report from December 2006 said that Rich was able to do normal daily activities, such as using the bathroom and driving a car, with “complete independence” or “modified independence.”
But the following year, in October 2007, a report from a physician stated that Rich’s legs were still paralyzed. Although the doctor noted he did not have access to Rich’s medical records or past medical claims showing contradictory reports, he asserted that Rich still relied on a wheelchair and had no control of his bowel and bladder.
The VA, which employs a rating system to determine whether tax-free benefits should be paid to veterans with disabilities due to disease or injury sustained while serving in the military, gave Rich a 100 percent rating. He was awarded full, indefinite disability compensation, the affidavit said.
In addition, he was given allowances for a caregiver, grants to buy a specially equipped car for someone with disabilities, and funds to adapt his home for a wheelchair, according to court documents. He also received Social Security disability benefits.
From 2007 to 2021, Rich fraudulently received more than $800,000 in VA benefits and more than $240,000 in Social Security benefits, prosecutors said.
The VA Office of Inspector General first noticed that Rich’s benefits claims did not match his early medical records in 2018 during a claims audit, according to the affidavit.
From March 2019 to February 2021, VA special agents investigated Rich, surveilling and following him. They saw him “walking, going up and down stairs, entering and exiting vehicles, lifting, bending, and carrying items – all without visible limitation or assistance of a medical device, including a wheelchair,” the Justice Department’s news release said.
Agents also saw him get into a wheelchair when he was going to VA medical appointments, including dental appointments in Baltimore, court documents state. The agents witnessed him place a wheelchair into his trunk before appointments. Rich would then wheel himself back to his car before standing and returning the chair to the trunk, court records add.
“Throughout the course of all of my surveillance, the only time I observed Rich use a wheelchair was in connection with VA-related medical visits,” an investigator wrote in the affidavit.
Special agents also found that Rich used the grants from VA meant to make his car wheelchair accessible to buy a BMW 645Ci luxury sports convertible, the records state.
In February 2021, Rich phoned VA’s national call center to follow up on a pending claim, court documents said. During the call, he allegedly noted that his disability was permanent.
“I have been in a wheelchair since 2005,” he said, according to the affidavit. The operator asked if he was able to “walk at all” or “carry anything,” to which Rich allegedly responded “no.”
Rich frequently posted images on his social media accounts that showed him standing, investigators wrote. There were posts of him at the gym, court records show, including one photo of him in front of a mirror and a few videos of him lifting weights.
Rich is not the first veteran to be accused of stealing hundreds of thousands from the government in the form of VA benefits. An Army veteran from Alexander, N.C., pleaded guilty in July to collecting nearly $1 million in VA benefits, according to court records. He fraudulently claimed he was legally blind from a service-related injury in the mid-1980s.
Rich initially appeared in federal court in Baltimore on Oct. 13 and was released pending trial. Rich, whose case was unsealed last Wednesday, faces a maximum of 20 years for wire fraud and a maximum of 10 years for theft of government property.