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   Cover Story


by Kevin Hoffman
Published January 9 - 15, 2002

If ever someone personified Winston Churchill’s famous phrase — "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma" — it must be David Dunn, the 28-year-old North Olmsted waiter who perpetrated what may be the most baffling hoax to emerge from the rubble of September 11. Even now, several months after he first fooled Cleveland’s daily newspaper and garnered worldwide attention, no one — perhaps not even he — can say for sure where the truth ends and the lies begin. His story has more skins than an onion and has produced just as many false tears.

Before one can even begin to comprehend what Dunn did, it’s first necessary to understand the fantasy world in which he lived. Dunn was an avid player of DragonRealms, an internet game similar to Dungeons & Dragons. Players read text describing their surroundings and type commands to interact with the fantasy environment. Thousands of players around the world adventure in the shared reality, dubbed "Elanthia," fighting monsters or conversing with each other in real time.

Games like DragonRealms — referred to in computer jargon as "massively multi-player games" — have grown into a huge business on the internet. In 1999, Simutronics Corp. — the maker of DragonRealms and a similar games — made Inc magazine’s list of the 500 fastest-growing companies in America, with a staggering 975 percent growth in just five years. The company has about 50,000 registered users who pay $9.95 or more per month. More than 1,000 people are simultaneously logged onto DragonRealms during peak hours.

The success of Simutronics is due in no small part to the rabidity of its fan base. It’s not uncommon for players to spend eight hours online in a given day — the amount of time most of us devote to a full-time job. During "quests" that cost extra money, players go on 20-hour-a-day online binges. Although it’s not the norm, wives have called Simutronics to beg the company to suspend their husbands’ accounts. Neil Harris, an executive vice-president at Simutronics, is unapologetic.

"Well, you know, they could be smoking crack," he says. "We’re certainly offering something a whole lot healthier."

There are benefits to these virtual worlds. One Simutronics manager takes obvious delight in telling the story of a man paralyzed from the neck down who was able to type his game commands using a computer interface that tracked the movement of his eyes. In the real world, the man was a prisoner of his own body, but in the game, he not only moved freely but had powers beyond that of mortal men.

Games like DragonRealms are also a haven for the painfully shy. Teresa Kuhl is a slight, 37-year-old with fair skin and a few freckles who describes herself as "on the pretty side of average." She lives in Virginia, and in a phone conversation, her replies are punctuated by long pauses, the effect of which is not unlike the awkward delays of a television news anchor speaking via videophone to a correspondent in Kabul. But as her DragonRealms character "Ryeka Wolfsdaughter" — an elf with silver eyes and amber hair who wears a bracelet inset with a jade weasel — Kuhl is quick and outgoing.

"In Elanthia, one has control over one’s destiny," she says, speaking through her character. "That would be attractive for many."

DragonRealms even lets players choose the cosmetic details of their characters, right down to their hairstyle and skin tone. Unsurprisingly, there are few characters in Elanthia that are grossly obese, with pasty skin and unwashed hair.

In-game relationships are so common that DragonRealms added wedding rings to the game and gave clerics the power to perform a ceremony enabling players to use "mushy verbs." Cybersex in public is tacitly discouraged — this is a family game, after all — but there are inns where players can fulfill their characters’ carnal desires.

One can see why some players would be tempted to supplant messy reality with tailor-made fantasy, which brings us back to David Dunn.

The events of Sept. 11 reverberated even in the fantasy world of DragonRealms.

The events of Sept. 11 reverberated even in the fantasy world of DragonRealms, especially when players learned that one of their own had died in the twin towers. About a week after the attack, the DragonRealms staff received an e-mail from someone claiming to be Adine Dunn — David Dunn’s wife — saying that David had been lost in the collapse of WTC 2. The message was promptly posted on a message board created to help players deal with their grief.

"I am just trying to keep the memory of my husband still alive, and crying and sharing funny things that he did in the DragonRealms game with these friends of his," the message said. "David has a good friend here in Ohio who I am giving his character information to. David will no longer be, as his friends call it ‘in-game,’ but because this game meant so much to him, I would like to keep his character alive and with his close friend. I think that is how David would have wanted it."

The message noted that David is the father of two boys — 2-year-old Preston and 6-month-old Parker — and appealed to readers to keep him in their hearts and prayers. "God Bless America," it said. "God Bless David."

It didn’t arouse much suspicion that a grieving widow with two fatherless children would be so concerned about a fantasy character named Bloodwrath when her real-life husband had just died in a national tragedy. Quite the contrary; tearstained condolences poured in from fellow DragonRealms players. A sailor in the U.S. Navy vowed that if he was sent overseas, he would write Bloodwrath’s name "on the first bomb loaded into one of our jets." Saddest of all was a message from a cleric named Erin. In DragonRealms, clerics have the power to raise characters from the dead, an irony that did not escape Erin’s notice.

"What I wouldn’t do to have that ability now," she wrote. "To be able to return him to you."

Amid the heartfelt tributes was a curious message suggesting Dunn might not be in need of a cleric after all. "I happen to be a pretty good friend of Bloodwrath’s in and outside of [DragonRealms]," wrote a player. "And he hasn’t been in the realms lately because he’s been working on a new website. I hope I don’t have him confused with anyone else. I know I remember speaking to him after the terrorist attacks."

As DragonRealms players well know, the internet allows you to be anyone you want to be. Men pretend to be women; ugly people pretend to be pretty. Couldn’t someone pretend to be Adine Dunn?

One player reportedly sold his in-game items for a whopping $35,000.

Elonka Dunin, a Simutronics general manager at the company’s Missouri office, has curly brown hair, sometimes wears glasses, and in her spare time practices cryptography. She has won several awards for breaking particularly difficult codes. Initially, she expressed confidence on the bulletin board that Adine Dunn was who she said she was, but soon began to see that the puzzle of David Dunn’s death wasn’t as simple as it first appeared.

If it turned out to be fraud, it wouldn’t be the first time that one player had tried to steal another’s online identity. Players devote years to advancing their characters and collecting rare and powerful items within the game. A thriving black market has developed on eBay among players willing to sell fantasy items for real money, then meet the buyer in-game to hand over the goods. A recent scan of eBay found an ancient elven defender cloak from Gemstone III, another Simutronics game, selling for $2,000. One veteran player reportedly sold his in-game items for a whopping $35,000.

With such big money at stake, it’s only natural that a few opportunists would try to make a buck through illegitimate means. It was quite possible, Elonka thought, that a person pretended to be David Dunn’s widow as a means of getting control of Bloodwrath, a powerful, high-level warrior that could be worth thousands of dollars. Elonka called the Cleveland police and the FBI to see if they’d be interested in the case.

"When I work with law enforcement about these kinds of things, I try not to go into the details of the game and the online world and virtual reality cause their eyes tend to just glaze over," Elonka says. "I’ll generally just say that I have a case of identity theft where someone is attempting to gain control of someone else’s internet assets and we believe it’s a false identity."

The Cleveland police expressed little interest in the case, she said — understandable, considering the wave of responsibilities they were tasked with in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Needing someone on the ground in Cleveland, Elonka turned to another information resource: the daily newspaper.

She called The Plain Dealer and, after some explaining, got transferred to reporter Damian Guevara. The newspaper might want to do a story on David, but more important, Elonka needed someone to find out whether David Dunn was dead or alive.

Guevara made some calls, Elonka says, and tracked down Dunn’s father-in-law, who was surprised to hear of David’s alleged passing. Guevera got access to David Dunn, who explained that the rumors of his demise were greatly exaggerated. Dunn told a story of internet intrigue that was published in The Plain Dealer under the headline "Imposter tries to Steal Net Game Superwarrior’s Identity."

"David Dunn has become such a powerful warrior in the Internet fantasy game DragonRealms that others would pay thousands of dollars to assume his character, Bloodwrath," the story read. "But shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a real-world impostor tried to kill him off and steal his online identity."

Dunn suggested the "impostor" was either an acquaintance from Ohio with whom he had been having problems online for years, or else a coalition of online enemies ganging up on him.

"I think it’s the most sickest thing in the entire world," Dunn told the paper. "And to use the whole World Trade Center disaster on top of that."

To hear Dunn tell it, someone had tried to hijack his character the same way the 19 terrorists had hijacked planes.

The story had legs — enough to take it across the Atlantic to London, where it appeared in abbreviated form in The Guardian. Several websites also picked up the story. It was a natural conversation piece, especially on the DragonRealms message board.

"All I can say is whomever did this needs to be dropped from a US bomber in Afghanistan," one player wrote under the subject line "Worse than the terrorists."

"I agree whole-heartedly," another player chimed in. "I also think that the real Bloodwrath needs to press criminal charges against the perpetrator of this hoax."

Criminal charges were in the works, according to Dunn. He told Elonka Dunin that he was in touch with a Cleveland police officer and a lawyer. He claimed the hoaxer must have broken into his home and used his computer. Sure enough, when Elonka checked the Internet Protocol address on the fake Adine Dunn messages, she discovered that they matched David Dunn’s computer.

But not everything added up so neatly. When Elonka called Cleveland police and asked for the officer to whom David Dunn claimed to have spoken, she was told there was no officer by that name. She confronted David Dunn with the information and he broke, confessing that he had faked his own death.

Elonka told David she thought he owed the DragonRealms community an apology, and he complied, posting a Nov. 13 message that professed to be the "whole truth" about the Bloodwrath hoax. In the post, he explained why he did it:

"Because I was extremely depressed September 18, a lot to do with WTC, and a lot to do with my unstable relationship with my wife," he wrote. "I suppose that I just wanted a little attention. … Truthfully, as soon as I sent the original message … I said, Oh my God, what did I just do? I wanted so badly to take it back, but it was too late. … I messed up, big time."

Damian Guevara wrote another article for The Plain Dealer exposing the hoax-within-a-hoax, but the truth — or the latest version of it, anyway — hasn’t nearly caught the lie.

On the message board, shocked players alternately slammed David Dunn and debated whether he should be allowed to continue playing DragonRealms. But some players, wary of being fooled again, weren’t sure if they could trust Bloodwrath’s mea culpa. Would the real David Dunn please stand up?

Elonka assured them that Simutronics had done everything possible — "aside from us personally flying to Cleveland and taking his fingerprints!" — to ensure that this was the real David Dunn. She had even enlisted a member of the Cleveland game community who goes by the name "Jester" to visit the restaurant where Dunn works.

But what Jester found was a surprise from his past that only deepened the David Dunn mystery.

"You wouldn’t believe this — I know the guy. He’s a scumbag. He ripped off my parents. He lies habitually."

The Phoenix Coffee shop on Pearl Road on Cleveland’s West Side has become the de facto hangout for the city’s gaming community. They stay late into the night, drinking root beer and chain-smoking cigarettes until the room turns blue. They mix with Hell’s Angels bikers and grumpy old men but are instantly recognizable by the array of games they lay out on the table.

Jesse "Jester" Bokman, a 23-year-old from Medina, sat in the corner on a recent Thursday playing chess with his girlfriend, Dipali Patel, a young Indian woman dressed in a Matrix-chic black leather jacket with matching dog collar. He wore a shiny silver raver shirt and had six piercings in his left ear and five in his right.

During a recent cross-country jaunt, Jester and Dipali visited Elonka and the Simutronics gang and went with them to see the opening of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. While waiting in the winding line, they happened to end up in the vicinity of David Whatley, CEO of Simutronics and co-creator of Gemstone III. Jester and Dipali are avid fans of the game and decided to express their gratitude to its creator. Jester tapped Whatley on the shoulder.

"You ruined our lives, you know," Jester said.

Jester recalls that Whatley chuckled and said, "Glad to hear it."

"I don’t know where I’d be right now if not for you," Dipali said.

Recalling the incident later, Jester added the punchline: "I’d probably be a fucking doctor!"

A few weeks earlier, Jester had been only too happy to oblige when Elonka called and asked a favor: Could you go to Weia Teia, the restaurant at the Great Northern Mall in North Olmsted where David Dunn works as a waiter, to see if he’s really alive?

But when Jester asked the restaurant hostess if "David Dunn" was there, he got a surprise: a man behind the bar turned around and asked, "Jester, is that you?"

Jester recognized the man, but he had never known him by the name David Dunn. They had met years earlier at the Phoenix coffeehouse, but at the time, Dunn had gone by the name "Ayre Nicodemus."

About five years ago, Jester and his friends were at the Phoenix when a tall, lanky young man walked in, looking dirty and disheveled. The man walked to the back of the room, Jester says, sat down at the piano and began to play a concerto. The music was so beautiful that Jester and his friends struck up a conversation with him. Introducing himself as "Ayre Nicodemus," the man explained that he was down on his luck and living out of the back of his car.

Jester left, but encountered the man not long afterward in the most unlikely of places, at Jester’s own parents’ house. As it turned out, Jester’s sister, who was also a gamer, had run into Ayre and was moved enough by his sob story to invite him to live there. The request wasn’t without precedent; at the time, their parents’ house was a veritable hotel of disaffected teenagers.

About six months later, Ayre disappeared. A week afterward, Jester’s mom discovered that her credit card had been stolen. She requested the receipts and found a name scrawled on one: "Ayre Nicodemus." Jester hadn’t seen Ayre since the incident, and here he was, going by the name David Dunn, begging him for help.

"He’s saying, ‘Jester, Jester, please, tell Elonka, put in a good word for me. Get my account back for me. That’s all I want. You know me. You know I’m a good guy.’"

Jester made no promises. When he got home, he called Elonka and said, "You wouldn’t believe this — I know the guy. He’s a scumbag. He ripped off my parents. He lies habitually."

Jester wasn’t the only one with a story about "Ayre Nicodemus" — aka David Dunn — lying and stealing. Mike Valen IV, a 31-year-old former Cleveland resident who recently moved to Texas, says he used to be friends with Ayre and got him a job working at an adult bookstore. Soon after, Valen says, he learned that Ayre had been stealing store merchandise.

It seemed that Ayre didn’t confine his "role playing" to computer games. "He had thousands of dollars worth of stuff, bondage stuff and whatnot," Valen says. "He had a whole room dedicated. He called it his ‘dungeon.’"

Valen confronted Ayre about the alleged stealing. "I said, ‘I got you this job and now you’re going to do this to me? If you get caught, it’s going to be on my head.’" The two had a falling-out and stopped speaking.

Bondage may not be the only fetish in which Dunn dabbles. A person who knows him says he runs a foot-fetish website at Sure enough, the domain is registered to a "David Dunn" of Cleveland. The Free Times left a message at the phone number listed in the domain registry, but the call was not returned.

The site’s come-on claims it features "cute young girls between the ages of 16-25" that will "sniff and lick their feet, spread their toes & pose their pretty little feet for you just for the fun of it. The younger the girls get, the more they will do with their feet. Amazing, eh? I think so, and I take full advantage of everything they’re willing to do for the camera."

Subscribers pay $9.95 per month — coincidentally, the same cost as DragonRealms — and can charge it to their credit cards.

Bondage may not be the only fetish in which Dunn dabbles.

While some intricacies of David Dunn’s hoax-within-a-hoax have been decoded, there are other aspects that remain stubbornly inscrutable. What did Dunn plan to do with the character had Simutronics agreed to transfer it to another account? Why would he try to "steal" something that rightfully belonged to him?

Those are questions only David Dunn can answer, but he doesn’t seem to want to talk. He didn’t respond to messages sent to several e-mail addresses listed as his. The Free Times made one last attempt to speak with him by following the same path that Jester took to the Great Northern Mall.

The mall was a labyrinth populated with all manner of strange-looking creatures. Down one of its halls was Cutter’s Corner, a store specializing in medieval weaponry, including suits of armor, broadswords and battle-axes. Located directly across from it was Weia Teia, an Asian-fusion restaurant staffed by an unusually tall host and hostess.

Dunn appeared, tall and lanky, with short dark hair and a look of confusion on his face about whom had come to visit. He introduced himself and offered his hand, which was almost as big as a baseball mitt. He had a pasty complexion and a prominent bone structure in his face. Asked if he would agree to an interview, he demurred.

"I’m totally through with Simutronics," he said, "and I’m totally through with the whole situation."

After meeting David Dunn, one is left with the abiding impression that he is a good, wholesome young man. It’s hard to imagine that he would try to capitalize on the worst terrorist attack in American history by concocting an elaborate death hoax. Or that he would steal a credit card from people who had opened their home to him in his time of need. Or that he would steal bondage equipment for a "dungeon," or run a website for foot fetishists.

One begins to wonder if it could be true that he is indeed the victim of an even more elaborate hoax — "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma" — whose denouement has yet to be revealed.

But then again, David Dunn has never been who he seemed to be.