After eluding authorities for nearly 20 years, a man considered America's most wanted deadbeat dad is behind bars, thanks to a cherry pit and the investigative efforts of a Bearspaw, Alta., restaurateur.
Joseph Stroup, who had been living under the name Joop Cousteau, was detained by the Canada Border Services Agency and transported to the United States on Feb. 15. He is in custody and will stand trial on charges of violating child support.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website, Stroup owes more than $560,000 in child support.
In 1989, he was ordered to pay $100 a month for his four children, but told the court he was unemployed and medically unable to work, so the payments were reduced to $14 a month.
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But in 1996, the U.S. court learned Stroup had been operating a successful internet business, which he sold for more than $2 million US. The child support order was then modified, but he continued to fail to pay and an arrest warrant was issued in 1998.
He had been on the run ever since.
Living in the Calgary area, Stroup had become somewhat of a regular at the Bears Den — a now-closed restaurant just outside Calgary's city limits to the northwest in the community of Bearspaw — and was well liked by the staff.
"Just over the top charming," said Scott Winograd, the restaurant's former general manager and co-proprietor.
But that changed in November following an unusual request by Stroup.
"One day out of the blue, he ordered a Cherry Coke and he wanted eight maraschino cherries in it, which is just bizarre. That just doesn't happen," said Winograd.
But the customer always being right, staff put the drink together and served it to Stroup.
"About a minute later, he calls the server over and he's clutching his jaw and says, 'I bit into a pit and broke some dental work,' and he holds this pit up," said Winograd.
Staff at the restaurant became suspicious as maraschino cherries generally don't have pits.
"He held up this pit that looked like a regular cherry," said Winograd.
"Fair enough. My supervisor handled it and the next day, this gentleman comes in with forms from a dental office, and it looked sketchy because it was all handwritten forms… it didn't look official by any means, but he had his name on it, and his birthday."
Worried about being sued for damages, Winograd said he typed the name into Google, which led him to a Facebook page started by one of Stroup's sons.
"I started following some links and got to the Department of Justice [website], and sure enough, he was the No. 1 most wanted deadbeat dad, and the picture was him from 20 years ago, a spitting image. It was absolutely him," he said.
"Nothing had changed, just older, hair loss, glasses now, but I was sure it was him."
Winograd then telephoned Stroup under the guise of wanting to settle the dental complaint and invited him to come to the restaurant for dinner.
"Sure enough, he comes in a day or two later, and I talked to him," he said. "I wanted to be sure, I didn't want to say, 'this might be the guy, or it might not be.'"
Once he felt sure, Winograd took down the licence plate on Stroup's car and called RCMP the next day.
"They didn't think they could really do anything because they said he's not wanted here, he's wanted in the United States, and I was quite surprised by that," he said.
Contacted U.S. authorities
So Winograd contacted the inspector general's office in the United States.
"Within an hour I had the FBI, U.S. Marshals and the office of the inspector general calling, wanting more information, because they really wanted this guy," he said.
Stroup returned to the Bears Den a couple more times, and Winograd reported that to American authorities.
Stroup was arrested by the Canada Border Services Agency on Feb. 1 and returned to the U.S. last week.
"It was the right thing to do," said Winograd. "If I see something that's wrong, I'm going to stand up and say something, and that's what I did, and I hope most people would do the same thing."
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