By Eric Francis
September 14, 1998 12:00 PM

As an inmate at various prisons, Joe Yandle was different, no question. For one thing, unlike so many cons, he never claimed he was innocent. He admitted he’d been the getaway driver during a 1972 liquor store holdup in Medford, Mass., that resulted in the killing of the manager and earned Yandle a life sentence. For another, he told harrowing stories of his experience as a Marine in Vietnam—especially of fighting for his life during the siege of Khe Sanh in 1968, when more than 250 U.S. troops died during the 77-day battle. He even had papers claiming a host of medals, including a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.

It was the memory of those days in hell, he said, that had led him to drugs and, later, to crime. Intrigued by his story, CBS’s 60 Minutes broadcast a moving profile of Yandle in 1994, depicting him as a former hero seeking redemption. By most accounts the segment was clearly a factor in then-Gov. William Weld’s decision to commute Yandle’s sentence to the 23 years he had already served. In October 1995, to the cheers of national veterans’ groups, Yandle, 49, walked out of prison and into the arms of his wife, Jan, whom he had wed in 1975 while behind bars.

But the apparent happy ending was just an illusion. On Aug. 26 authorities from Massachusetts arrived in Rutland, Vt., where Yandle was working as a caseworker at a drug treatment center and took him back into custody for violating a parole regulation. Belatedly, they had learned that although Yandle was honorably discharged from the Marines in 1969, the closest he ever got to Vietnam was Okinawa, where he worked as a supply clerk. The rest of his saga—the medals, the missions—was all a fabrication.

The deception came to light thanks to Texas stockbroker B.G. “Jug” Burkett, 54, a Vietnam veteran himself, who had made it his mission to investigate the histories of people purporting to be Vietnam-era war heroes, many of them criminals seeking leniency from the courts by claiming to be suffering from post-traumatic stress. The moment Burkett saw Yandle on 60 Minutes he suspected his story, mostly on a hunch. (He says that over the past 12 years he has investigated the backgrounds of some 2,000 people claiming to be Vietnam vets and has found that roughly 75 percent of them have lied about their records to one degree or another.) Burkett says he made several efforts to expose Yandle at that time without much success. The story broke publicly after he notified the ABC News program 20/20 of the fraud.

In Yandle’s case, Burkett hardly had to break a sweat to expose the hoax. “[His records] were so bad my 7-year-old could tell they were bogus,” snorts Burkett—who next month will publish Stolen Valor, a book on his findings, coauthored with writer Glenna Whitley. Yandle had even doctored one Pentagon report to say he had earned the Combat Infantry Badge, which is an Army medal not awarded to Marines.

Yandle grew up in a poor section of Boston, the oldest of four children of a longshoreman and his wife. He dropped out of high school and went to work in a warehouse. In 1966 he enlisted in the Marines and served a three-year hitch. Then, in 1972, he went on a holdup spree to feed a longstanding heroin habit.

In prison, he says, he initially cooked up his phony war record as a way to earn respect—and a measure of safety. Only later, he insists, did he reluctantly use it to obtain the freedom he felt he deserved. “I hoped that I would at least get someone to listen,” he said in a written statement issued shortly before his rearrest. “Unfortunately it snowballed into something I could no longer control.” But Burkett and Whitley don’t buy that. “He acquitted himself by comparing himself to people who fought bravely and died,” says Whitley with disgust.

The irony is that even without the phony war record Yandle might have been able to win a commutation anyway. After some initial disciplinary problems in prison (most related to his drug habit), he had become a model inmate. Not only did he finally kick his addiction, but he graduated as the valedictorian of the prison college program run by Boston University. He also started a Toys for Tots program and formed the state’s first prison chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America.

For the past three years, Yandle has been living in Rutland, near Jan, 45 (from whom he was separated), their 11-year-old son Justin (conceived during a conjugal visit) and her son Josh, 18. “He was very appreciative of his freedom, and he worked hard to give back to the community,” says Barbara Scott, who supervises parole officers in the Rutland area. But now all that is in jeopardy. Jan acknowledges that Yandle’s deception helped destroy their marriage, which recently ended in divorce. “He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke, he coaches Little League and gets up and goes to work,” says Jan. Still, given his admission, she explains, “I couldn’t look at him and wonder what was true anymore.”

If Acting Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci gets his way, Yandle will be back in prison for life, on the grounds that he lied to the state board that originally recommended his release. As he waits to learn if the current board agrees, or whether it considers his lie insufficient reason to keep him behind bars, all he can do is pray for understanding—once more. “I did an unconscionable thing. I told a lie,” he said. “I hope that somehow what I did and what I have done since my release can in some way be balanced.”

Eric Francis in Rutland