Ellsworth visits Cody, Wyo., named for American showman and bison hunter William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody. Photo courtesy of BYUtv.
When he was growing up in northern Virginia, Ellsworth said, he used to ride his bike up Henry House Hill, where Gen. Thomas Jackson reputedly earned his nickname.
Stonewall is still up there. Big and bronze and ripped like a superhero, imposingly seated astride his horse, and daring the Union Army to come knock him down—just like the stories say he was in the First Battle of Bull Run.
Turns out, though, there’s some dispute among historians as to where Jackson really got that nickname—and whether it was meant as a compliment or an insult. But like many stories of history that have been repeated so often, it’s gotten tough to tell truth from fiction.
And maybe that’s what Ellsworth thought would happen when he began telling stories about his past.
Bring together a biography strewn across news articles, marketing materials and interviews, and the tales told about Ellsworth are as herculean as that big old statue in Manassas.
Some of it is accurate. Lots of it is exaggerated. Much of it is fallacious.
A bio for a History Channel pilot in which Ellsworth once starred claims he served eight years in the U.S. Marine Corps and “fought for his country in the Middle East.” The Marines say that’s absolutely not true.
A post on BYUtv’s Facebook page asserts Ellsworth earned a doctorate from the University of Utah. The U says that didn’t happen.
Ellsworth has claimed on numerous occasions he played linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks and Detroit Lions. Team officials say it’s possible he attended a training camp or served on a practice squad, but they can’t find any record of him.
Ellsworth has also indicated he was a defensive coordinator at the University of Arizona and University of Pennsylvania. That’s not true either. He appears to have had some short stints as an assistant coach at lower division schools including Arizona Western College and Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. He is also listed as a graduate coaching assistant at the University of Utah in the mid-1980s; one former U. athletic staffer said Ellsworth’s oft-made claim to have been a defensive coordinator there was akin to a graduate teaching assistant claiming to be a professor.
Ellsworth told Salt Lake magazine he earned a teaching credential from Westminster College and taught history at Highland High School before getting fed up with the public education system. Records from those institutions show Ellsworth enrolled but didn’t complete any classes at Westminster, and that he was fired for cause from Highland; the district declined to reveal why it terminated him.
Ellsworth also told the magazine his wife was murdered in front of their children while he was away pursuing his football career. That, unfortunately, is mostly true: Police and media reports from the fall of 1996 show Lisa Ellsworth was stabbed to death while her kids played in an adjacent room. She was not, however, married to Stan Ellsworth at the time—they’d been divorced for more than two years. The presumed killer, who subsequently took his own life, was Lisa Ellsworth’s common-law husband.
Stan Ellsworth has repeatedly spoken of American Ride as a concept he created and unsuccessfully pitched to various production companies for eight years before BYUtv grabbed hold in 2010.
Filmmaker Peter Starr said that’s absolutely not true. Starr first met Ellsworth when the Utah-based actor—whose resume was then limited to a role as a basketball coach in the Disney movie The Luck of the Irish and as an extra in one episode of a USA Network show called Cover Me—auditioned for a role on a TV pilot called History Hogs. The History Channel, which had optioned the pilot, declined to greenlight the series, so Starr worked with Ellsworth to create a similarly themed show, which they called “American Ride.”
Starr, who was battling an illness at the time, said Ellsworth agreed to pitch the show to potential producers, but repeatedly told him that the program had failed to be picked up.
“One day he just stopped calling,” said Starr, who didn’t learn that Ellsworth had gone on to sell the show to BYUtv until he was contacted by Salt Lake magazine. “It would appear that I was just cut out altogether.”
Starr said he would be discussing the matter further with an attorney.
The terms of Ellsworth’s contract with BYUtv are private, but records from the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development show that Utah taxpayers have subsidized American Ride to the tune of $200,000. BYUtv managing director Derek Marquis declined to address any of Ellsworth’s apparent lies, instead referring calls to an East Coast public relations firm.
Confronted with a list of apparent fabrications, Ellsworth said he may have “combined some parts of my history for simplicity.”
Without accepting responsibility for any specific lie, Ellsworth acknowledged that “I should have been much more proactive in protecting the validity of who I am.”
But the grizzly voiced actor flatly denied any involvement in the story of his service in the Marines. He said he had “no idea where anyone would have gotten that from.”
Starr, though, said that’s just one more lie. “He talked about being in the military all the time,” he said. “And the sad thing of all of this is that I don’t think anyone would have cared. In the case of our show, he read for the part and he was dead-on right for it—that’s all we cared about. None of that other stuff mattered.”
Out of the Past
Ellsworth with a film crew at Refugio State Beach in California. Photo courtesy of BYUtv.
Ellsworth is an unquestionably captivating storyteller. And while the claims he has made about his personal history are interesting, it’s his personality that has driven the Emmy-winning show’s success. So why the exaggerations?
“It’s a good question,” Ellsworth said. “I’ve never sat back and evaluated it. I guess this is one of those Dr. Phil moments.”
It’s not clear when all the stories began, though many seem to be revisions of painful personal failures. Three divorces. A futile effort to play in the NFL. An aborted try for a graduate degree. A fruitless attempt to break more deeply into the NCAA coaching ranks. A messy termination from a job teaching history.
“To some degree, I think I haven’t wanted a whole lot of people to really know me,” Ellsworth said. “I suppose I’ve thought that a little bit of distance, however it is achieved, might be more comfortable.”
He stressed the community work he’s done since he began hosting American Ride.
“You know, I’ve been volunteering with the Boy Scouts, I try to visit schools, and I’m really trying to set a good example for people,” he said. “I’m getting better. I’m definitely not perfect. But if I live another 10 years, I think I’ll be all-pro.”
Not everyone thinks Ellsworth is so redeemable, though.
Utah real estate agent Amir Haskic said Ellsworth’s purported football experience was key when he invested $30,000 in a 2009 documentary on the University of Utah’s undefeated season and Sugar Bowl victory. The project was shepherded by Utah video producer Lance Huber, who had earlier worked with Ellsworth on a series of Comcast commercials.
“I honestly didn’t know very much about football, but I thought, here is a guy with all the credentials, a guy who played in the NFL,” Haskic said.
Huber’s wife, Leanna Huber, said her husband also figured Ellsworth’s purported football career would make him perfect to fundraise for the film. When Ellsworth reported back that he’d gotten money from multiple investors, it seemed Huber’s hunch was right.
But when it came time for Ellsworth to transfer the money, Leanna Huber said, the checks bounced. Lance Huber emptied savings and retirement accounts to pay the salaries of his documentary crew.
“Lance was very trusting,” Leanna Huber said. “He always thought Stan was a friend, and it was very painful for him to learn that wasn’t true.”
Huber killed himself on the evening of Sept. 2, 2009. Leanna Huber said Ellsworth’s betrayal wasn’t the only thing haunting her husband, “but it was one more thing, one more terrible thing, that he was carrying.”
To that point, police records show, investigators had considered Huber a key victim and witness in a developing fraud case against Ellsworth. After the suicide investigators removed Huber from the list of victims, having reluctantly concluded they’d lost their main witness to a key part of the case.
Still, on the basis of an apparent theft from two other investors who had kept good records of their dealings with Ellsworth, Salt Lake County prosecutors were able to charge Ellsworth with felony securities fraud.
In 2010 Ellsworth pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and, with as much as a year in jail hanging over him, agreed to pay back the victims in the case at a rate of $800 a month.
“And then nothing happened,” Haskic said.
The court later issued a garnishment order to Disney in hopes of recovering any residuals Ellsworth might receive for his work his work on The Luck of the Irish and High School Musical 3, in which Ellsworth had a small role in 2008.
Haskic said he’d pretty much given up on getting his money back. “I don’t really know why he’s not in jail,” he said.
Indeed, court records show that a warrant was issued for Ellsworth’s arrest after he failed to pay the ordered restitution—and the warrant remained active during much of the time Ellsworth was traveling across the country to film American Ride.
After a three-year delinquency, Ellsworth’s attorney, Fred Metos, finally paid the restitution, court records show. The payment came just weeks after Salt Lake magazine began its investigation into Ellsworth’s past.
With that, the warrant was rescinded and the guilty plea, which had been held in abeyance as is typical in fraud cases in which prosecutors are seeking to recover as much money as possible for victims, was dismissed.
Plans are now reportedly in order to take American Ride overseas for visits to World War I and II battlegrounds where tens of thousands of American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines were killed in the field of battle.
“So pretty much, he’s gotten away with it,” Leanna Huber said. “He never suffered. And in the eyes of so many people, he’s a big hero. But actually, he’s just a big fraud.”
Matthew D. LaPlante is an assistant professor of journalism at Utah State University. He loves history, rides a Harley Davidson Iron 883 and remains a fan of American Ride.