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Robert Bruening arrived in Washington in late September 2003. He was fit and handsome, just shy of 30, with a new job and a new lawyer boyfriend waiting for him. He’d moved from Provincetown, Mass., where he’d worked at a bed and breakfast, and planned to make a career in D.C.’s hospitality industry.
According to his boyfriend at the time, who asked to remain anonymous, Bruening’s plan didn’t exactly work out. Days after he got to D.C., Bruening arrived at his boyfriend’s door with sad news. His job at a Logan Circle bed and breakfast had fallen through. He’d lost not only his source of income, but his wallet had also been stolen, and he needed a place to stay.
“He had nowhere else to go,” says the boyfriend. “It wasn’t like we were moving in together.” But Bruening did move in. He even had his stuff shipped from Provincetown. When just two small boxes arrived in the mail, he said the others had been lost.
Bruening charmed his new boyfriend and his friends, often telling outlandish stories. “He said things that were kind of, like, far-fetched,” the boyfriend says. But Bruening’s details were specific and consistent.
He talked a lot about his uncle, Spencer Abraham, the former U.S. senator from Michigan and President Bush’s first secretary of energy. Bruening would answer phone calls from Abraham in front of friends, stopping to yak about family affairs. In 2003, after dogsitting for his boyfriend over the Thanksgiving holiday, Bruening cheerfully reported that the pup had romped with the little ones during a feast at the Abraham residence.
Bruening’s pedigree also relied on his status as scion of the Ball family. Ball as in Ball jars. According to several former friends and co-workers, Bruening said he stood to inherit millions from a fortune built on America’s fondness for canning. The only hitch, Bruening explained, was that he wouldn’t get a check until he turned 35.
Some of Bruening’s family stories were more believable than others. He was supposedly related to a Kaiser Bruening in Germany and claimed that his grandfather Ball had ended his own life with the help of Dr. Jack Kevorkian. The same grandfather, Bruening told friends, had once sent him the very first Ball jar.
As the weeks passed, Bruening’s new friends began to whisper about their doubts. Bruening always wore the same outfit: an off-white sweater vest and a yellow jacket. And he never had cash for the bill. The thieves who’d stolen his wallet, he told friends, had emptied his account by using the PIN he’d foolishly written on the paper sleeve of his debit card.
Hoping to help, Bruening’s boyfriend recommended him for a job at the Center, a gay and lesbian community organization in Dupont Circle. It was low-paying administrative work, he said, but it might be good for the short term. Bruening got the gig.
“We thought he was capable and charismatic,” says a former board member, who asked to remain anonymous. People at the Center wondered how he could afford to work for so little, often racking up unpaid overtime, but most reasoned he had a cushion of family wealth.
While his prospects were rosy at work, Bruening’s love life hit a rough spot. His boyfriend, increasingly annoyed and suspicious, called things off. In December 2003, Bruening, according to friends, moved in with another man, a successful management consultant.
In February 2005, longtime lesbian activist Geraldine Linder suffered a stroke and fell in her home, lying alone without food or water for about a day before a roommate discovered her, barely alive. She died Feb. 20 at Sibley Hospital. Linder, 83, was a 30-year veteran of National Geographic magazine. She had dozens of friends in the District’s gay and lesbian community but no living family anyone could find. Sibley refused to relinquish her body.
In this moment of frustration, Robert Bruening stepped forward with a solution. According to Mark Meinke of the Rainbow History Project, which had begun raising money for Linder’s burial, Bruening said he’d known the deceased since childhood, when his father would bring him to meet her for lunch near the offices of National Geographic. Bruening offered to file a petition with the register of wills at D.C. Superior Court to be the personal representative of Linder’s estate. Meinke welcomed the help.
In a March 22, 2005, affidavit he wrote that he’d known Linder for 20 years and in recent years saw her about once a week, often meeting for lunch. Linder had no brothers or sisters, he explained, and both of her parents were only children as well.
Perhaps without his knowledge, Bruening’s petition cranked up the machinery of the burgeoning genealogical industry. Soon, a Salt Lake City heir-hunting firm called the American Research Bureau found a living relative: Charles Montrose, a maternal first cousin living in Georgia.
The American Research Bureau, anticipating a cut of the estate, hired D.C. attorney Barbara Miller, who in turn contacted Bruening’s attorney. At first, Miller says, she was willing to give Bruening power over the estate as long as he could obtain a bond to cover her client’s claim on the money. But Bruening couldn’t get the bond, and Miller told him to abandon his petition. He refused.
“He obviously had it in mind right away that he was going to loot her estate,” she says.
Miller says Bruening also didn’t help her collect information. Meanwhile, he told Linder’s friends that a long-lost heir had been found in Georgia. A few months later, after clashing with the new head of the Center, Bruening got canned and stopped returning phone calls.
Nearly two years passed before Miller received Linder’s 2005 tax forms and figured out what happened. The forms showed income from three mutual funds, totaling $150,000, all cashed out after Linder’s death. Miller called D.C. police, who traced the money to an account in New Jersey. This November, federal prosecutors charged Bruening with wire fraud. Court documents accuse him of entering Linder’s residence, stealing financial information, and using it to transfer money into accounts for his own use.
Police tracked down Bruening in late October in Puerto Rico, where he was in the process of opening a restaurant with his boyfriend. He turned himself in that same month.
Bruening is expected to plead guilty at a hearing in February. According to sentencing guidelines, he will likely spend more than a year in prison.
Though he’s free for now, Bruening could not be reached for comment. According to public records databases, he was born in Michigan, which would have made the childhood lunch dates with Linder a little difficult. A member of the Ball family in Indiana e-mailed he’d never heard of Bruening; a spokesman for Spencer Abraham says Bruening is not a relative. And there were only three kaisers in the Second German Empire, none of them named Bruening.