Every month since 2009, the U.S. Department of Education has taken between $80 and $290 of Vernon Williams' disability check to pay back student loans to Northern Illinois University.
One problem: Williams didn't attend NIU.
The retired Bailly Elementary School gym teacher went to college halfway across the country, at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Md.
“I'm being garnished for a university I didn't go to,” Williams said. “I've been suffering for the last four years because I'm on a fixed income and they've been constantly taking money from me.”
The Department of Education told Williams that, as of Aug. 1, he owed $6,815, both for Morgan State loans he thought he paid off in the 1980s -- and for the loans to NIU, the school he didn't attend.
He's not sure what the owed amount is now; the loans are still accruing interest.
The mysterious Vernon L.
Although he has all the transcripts, student loan forms and other documentation to prove he spent fall 1969 to December 1974 at Morgan State, he is still forced to pay for NIU loans taken out in the name of Vernon L. Williams.
Williams, the 60-year-old Gary native paying for Vernon L.'s education, has no middle name.
NIU spokesman Paul Palian said school records show a Vernon L. Williams who attended NIU from spring 1972 to spring 1974, but couldn't give more information due to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA.
Student loan documents in Williams' possession give a Rockford, Ill., address for Vernon L. The Vernon Williams getting the bill was born and reared in Gary, graduating in 1969 from Tolleston High School, where he played football.
He also played football for Morgan State, where he majored in physical education with a minor in health. Neither Morgan State's records office nor its athletics office returned phone calls for this story, but Williams' transcripts show he spent the early 1970s as a Morgan State Bear, not an NIU Huskie.
“I could not have been at two places at one time,” Williams said.
Strange signature, strange incidents
After college, Williams worked in the private sector for companies such as Nabisco and Eastman Kodak before becoming a PE teacher at Bailly Elementary School.
The former football star has been on disability since 2007 due to previous hip and back surgeries.
“After that was done, the Department of Education appeared,” Williams said.
Starting in March 2009, the department has been garnishing Williams' Social Security disability check, taking out $290 some months, $80 others, $198 others and so on.
“I've been investigating this on my own, since I can't afford a lawyer,” Williams said.
As he looked into the issue, Williams found strange incidents from his life explained -- the income tax form filed using his name and Social Security number in Illinois in 1974, the time in 1988 when he and his then-wife found the IRS kept an expected refund of about $4,000 for “Department of Education student loan defaults.”
The $4,000 would have roughly covered the amount he owed Morgan State, so Williams assumed that's where the money went and that his student loans were now settled up. He was wrong.
His research also found some problems with his Morgan State loans. Records show someone signed for two $500 loans he doesn't remember.
The last of those two loans was issued on Jan. 29, 1975. Williams' last day of class was in Dec. 4, 1974, although graduation wasn't until that spring. He also said the handwriting on that last loan signature is not his.
The Department of Education disagreed, telling Williams he would have to pay for an independent handwriting analyst if he wanted them to reconsider the signature.
Some good news
Williams recently got a few breaks. Sen. Dan Coats' office helped him get some needed information from the Department of Education. He's also making good headway working with Rep. Pete Visclosky's office, he said.
Also, he's gotten staff at NIU to believe him, he said. Citing FERPA, NIU's Palian could not confirm.
Although Williams would like to solve the mystery of Vernon L. and NIU, find out who got the two $500 loans and discover what the $4,000 from his 1988 taxes paid for, detective work isn't the first priority of the retired teacher on a fixed income.
“I want my money back,” he said.