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Son of WWII vet who stole dead 8-year-old boy's identity always wished his father had found peace

Posted at 12:14 AM, Jun 23, 2018

Joseph Newton Chandler III died in a car crash in 1945. He was 8 years old.

Joseph Newton Chandler III killed himself in 2002. He was 75. 

An investigation into the contradictory dates led United States Marshals first to the revelation that the elder Chandler had stolen the younger's identity and then to the doorstep of Philip Nichols, whose quiet, reclusive father lived 24 years with a dead boy's name.

Nichols knew none of it. His father, born Robert Ivan Nichols, left his family behind in 1964. Even before that, Philip said, the man had been difficult to read and more difficult to reach. 

"He didn't interact with us kids," he said.

What Philip knew of his father he knew largely from observation. Robert was a World War II veteran and Purple Heart recipient who sometimes exhibited "unusual behavior" his son believed was connected to his wartime experiences. He worked at General Electric before his abrupt departure, and Philip said he was an inventive builder who created a handmade kayak and, at one point, a home-brew machine gun.

Robert Ivan Nichols gave his wife and children two days' notice before packing up and leaving. Philip never saw him again.

"I've always thought it had to do with child support," he said of his father's disappearance. "We hold no animosity toward him for what took place."

What he and his siblings have instead are questions. The 'how' of Robert Ivan Nichols' transformation into Joseph Newton Chandler III is simple enough, Philip said. In 1978, when he assumed the dead boy's identity, Social Security offices didn't ask many questions about people who came in for replacement card.

"He had a number written down on a piece of paper; he handed it to the clerk," Philip said. "He said, 'I lost my card -- can I get another one?' They printed him another one.

"He paid the $3, and now he's another person."

The 'where' and 'why' are more difficult. Marshals know he spent time in Michigan and to Northern California before settling in Ohio, where he remained largely asocial until his suicide in 2002.

That wasn't the ending for which Philip Nichols had hoped.

"My brothers and I had always wished he had found peace," he said. "That he had found a happy life someplace."

Maybe he did, for a while. Large portions of Robert Ivan Nichols' life remain unmapped. 

Amateur investigators have slotted a wide variety of theories into the blank space, including one pinning him as the Zodiac Killer who terrorized Northern California for 11 months in the late '60s.

"I don't think it was him, but it's been so many years ago," Philip Nichols said. "No telling what transpired. My gut feeling? No, I don't put the two of them together."