By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
Receiving bills in your own name is seen by many as a rite of passage. It’s confirmation that you have reached a certain age, can handle being on your own and now carry the responsibility of paying for the privilege.
Zuri K. Colbert wasn’t even into her 20s, living in the Bay Area at the time, and just coming into her own as an adult, when she started receiving bills. The problem was, they weren’t hers.
One could easily dismiss charges of a few dollars here and there and might even forget an expense or two. But thousands of dollars for a life-saving helicopter ride to the UC Davis Medical Center that you didn’t take? A little harder to discount and she wasn’t paying for that.
While the “It Wasn’t Me” defense doesn’t often sway bill collectors, in her case, it was true.
There was another Zuri Colbert out there somewhere. Somewhere ended up being Sacramento and both women eventually ended up living in the same city.
Zuri K. Colbert, who uses the French pronunciation of the last name, is now in her 40s. Today, she carries stacks of paperwork, receipts if you will, chronically the back and forth nature of literally trying to clear her name.
“It’s been a nightmare,” she said.
Colbert remained silent about what she’s gone through with the mistaken identity for a long time. Then the “mixup” started impacting her young daughter, Nafisah Timmons, and that’s when the sleeping bear was awakened.
“How dare you put my daughter on it. All of her stuff?” Colbert said.
The mixed up information includes allegations of abuse against a child that occurred before her own daughter was even born. A woman is listed in County records as Zuri K. Colbert’s mother, even though the woman’s birth date would mean she would have given birth to this Zuri when she was only 10 years old.
“It does not feel great to have my name tied to someone else — not because I’m any better or less (than her), but because I’m a human being and my life is different and her life is different,” said Colbert, who began using her middle initial to distance herself from the other person.
Despite having different social security numbers, different middle names and different ages, the two women with the same name keep getting their information intertwined.
“She’s had a bunch of CPS referrals,” shared local attorney Dale McKinney of the unknown woman. “I think she’d been to jail. None of these things has happened to my client, Zuri K. Colbert,” McKinney continued.
McKinney represented Zuri K. Colbert in a general negligence case against the County, which was settled for $3,500, he says. The County was supposed to straighten out the records and put a privacy flag on the records that were actually hers. Neither has happened, they say.
Colbert’s now adult daughter requested her own County records, just to see if the errors had, in fact, been removed. What she found instead were more inflammatory mistakes, the family says.
“She’s still being confused with this other Ms. Colbert,” McKinney said. “But their position is, ‘Look, we paid you and that’s all we can do. We said we were going to do something about it, we’ve tried, but you can’t bring it back to us and even though we haven’t lived up to what we said, there’s nothing else we can do for you.’”
McKinney says he understands mistaken identity. McKinney is still working to clear a 1970s conviction he says stemmed from being wrongly identified. Part of the infamous Oak Park 7 case, McKinney was convicted of conspiracy to commit the murder of a White, off-duty police officer. McKinney spent 15 years in prison, but to this day maintains his innocence and that his fate was sealed by the testimony of a woman who falsely identified him, but had her later admission of being coerced dismissed by a judge.
“The only reason I’m an attorney in the first place is because I kept getting arrested for things I didn’t do. Finally, they convicted me of something I didn’t do,” McKinney shared.
He became a lawyer, he said, to put himself in a better position to defend himself and help others facing similar circumstances.
Colbert has hired another attorney to try to enforce the erasure of the erroneous information from her County files.
“She’s up against the bureaucracy,” McKinney said. “The County is the County. They’re the ones mixing up the records.”
The County has its own counsel and going up against them could get expensive for Colbert.
“There’s no guarantee that it’ll get done like it’s supposed to be done,” he said. “And that’s what’s caused her this frustration, understandably so.”
Colbert estimated that pursuing this matter has already cost her plenty.
“I’d say in the thousands and for a single parent, that’s a lot,” she said. “And (in 2020), I missed about three to four weeks (of work), when the court stuff was happening.”
She’d have an actionable case against the County, McKinney says, if she can show that she was actually “injured” by the mix up — that she was arrested, charged, or that it impacted her ability to work.
A 25-year-old Black man in Las Vegas is currently suing Nevada police after he was jailed for nearly a week in 2020, when officers mistook him for a White man with the same name. Shane Lee Brown, who was 23 at the time, was arrested instead of 49-year-old Shane Neal Brown, who was wanted for being a felon in possession of a firearm. Shane Lee Brown spent six days in two Las Vegas jails, even though the warrant was for a White male with brown hair, blue eyes and a bushy white beard. Brown was twice Lee’s age and wanted for being a felon in possession of a fireman; the original crime committed before Lee was even born.
Colbert has been told that her name is linked to offers of prostitution online. Family court records show her accused of domestic violence against a man she’s never met. She’s had police show up randomly at her house after false accusations were made against “her.” She’s also been stopped by the police while driving with her daughter.
“I never had to worry about that because still to this day, I’ve never been arrested or had a criminal record. I may have some parking and traffic tickets. That’s it,” she said.
The other Zuri Colbert “has warrants and other stuff going on” from time to time, she’s learned.
“None of my business,” she says, “But the thing is, I have to be prepared.”
Colbert fears the mixed up records have the power to hurt her and her family personally and professionally. She works in mental health and runs a community based organization, Community Lead Advocacy Program (CLAP), that advocates for and provides resources to women and families experiencing homelessness. She has also opened her home as a foster parent. Colbert has had to have full background checks through the Department of Justice, which have come back clean. If these were her offenses, she says, they’d come up during these inquiries.
Colbert says she at one point went to the District 2 County supervisor who represents her area, leaving paperwork in hopes of getting some help. When she followed up, however, she says they didn’t have her documentation or any record of it. District 2 Supervisor Patrick Kennedy could not be reached by the OBSERVER for comment. Colbert’s paperwork notes repeated calls to and snubs from recordkeepers. She now believes she’s being maliciously targeted for calling out County inefficiency.
“This is an easy mistake or issue you could fix,” she said. “Unfortunately, when it continues on for one piece of this, we know 16 years, that’s not a mistake. There’s something going on.”
Colbert fears the mixed up records have the power to hurt her and her family personally and professionally. Although she’s been told it will be hard going, Colbert is determined to not let the matter go.
“No one wants to take on the City or the County,” she said. “This is atrocious and they get away with it. I’d like to see them have a system set up where this never happens again.”