Official government records suggest that Nathan Laskoski lived a full and interesting life.
He spent his late 20s working odd jobs and traveling through the South, with pit stops in Texas, Mississippi, and Tennessee. He settled in Montgomery County and built a career there as a nurse's aide. Along the way, he married, divorced, and married again, fathering twin daughters. Last year, he found Jesus at a Seventh-day Adventist church in Lansdale.
Yet one record, held in an archive hundreds of miles away, says Nathan Laskoski died less than three months after his birth in 1972.
That discrepancy, brought to light last year, unraveled a bizarre case of identity theft that on Thursday sent Jon Vincent — a man who spent the last two decades living as Laskoski while on the run from authorities — to federal prison for two years and three months.
In an emotional hearing before U.S. District Judge Jan E. DuBois, Vincent, 45, apologized to the parents of Nathan Laskoski for the first time since he stole their infant son's name off a gravestone in a Texas cemetery in 1996.
"As a father now, I understand how precious kids are," he said. "When I did this, I didn't have a clue. I never meant to harm anyone."
And although Vincent said he was young, stupid, and scared at the time of his crime, the law-abiding life he has led since then and the penitence he displayed Thursday elicited a range of reactions in the courtroom.
The mother of Vincent's long-deceased victim, who flew in from Texas for Thursday's hearing, was intent on reminding the court of her dead child's all-too-brief life.
"To claim that this crime tore open a wound long healed would most certainly be a lie, because we will always miss our son," Margaret Laskoski said. "That that stranger actually lingered over our child's grave – over our very sacred place – leaves an … unfathomable ache."
Her husband, Thomas, was troubled by the messiness of Vincent's crime.
"What will happen to all the wives and children who now have our last name?" he wondered.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Reinitz, meanwhile, remained resolute.
"This is not a case of a man who made mistakes in his youth," she said. "This is a man who committed identity theft nearly every day of his adult life."
And DuBois, the judge, called the unusual circumstances of the case before him "the stuff of which short stories – even perhaps longer stories – are written."
But by all accounts, Vincent is a far different man than he was when he cast his birth name aside and began living his double life 21 years ago.
The product of what his public defender, Felicia Sarner, called a "turbulent and challenging upbringing" with an often-absent truck-driver mother, Vincent was convicted in 1991 of indecency with a child and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
The details of that case were unavailable Thursday, but after five years of incarceration Vincent was released into a halfway house and absconded before finishing out his term.
It was Vincent's stepfather, said Sarner, who first suggested he create a new life by finding a gravestone with a birth date similar to his.
Vincent has said he settled on Nathan's marker and even called the dead child's parents, asking personal questions that led to information that enabled him to get a duplicate birth certificate and Social Security number under the stolen name.
Over the next 21 years, Vincent, living as Laskoski, rented apartments in four states, applied for dozens of jobs, obtained driver's licenses, opened bank accounts, and took out student and car loans.
He started a family, giving his children names based upon his lie.
And yet, as Vincent's roots as Nathan Laskoski grew deeper, the quiet nagging of his conscience grew louder, he told the court Thursday. Last year, he joined a church and began praying for the strength to address the lie at the center of his life.
Deliverance came two months later in the form of a random discovery on the genealogy website Ancestry.com.
Speaking Thursday, Margaret Laskoski said her sister found government records detailing Vincent's life under Nathan's name while browsing in December.
Although she didn't want to believe that someone had stolen her child's identity, the truth soon became too apparent to ignore. She did not say Thursday what caused Nathan's death.
"We knew our last name was not a common one," she said. By midnight that night, Margaret Laskoski recalled, she and her husband were reaching for the book in their Fort Worth home that held their mementos of Nathan's short life.
They paged through congratulation cards from his birth and condolence notes after his death, flipping past photos of Nathan's first smile, in search of the document they knew they would need to prove that the man living in Pennsylvania was a fraud – their child's death certificate.
When investigators with the Social Security Administration's Office of the Inspector General tracked Vincent down two months later, he immediately confessed.
"He believes that this was God speaking in his life," said Sarner, his lawyer. "He believes his arrest was an act of God in answer to his prayers."
After he completes his federal prison sentence on charges of Social Security fraud and identity theft, Vincent will be returned to Texas to finish the sentence he stole Nathan's name to avoid.
But for Margaret and Thomas Laskoski, no amount of prison time will erase the fact that the son they buried four decades ago will forever be linked to Vincent's sensational crime.
"The most important victim of this crime is not here today – Nathan Thomas Laskoski," Margaret Laskoski said, wiping away tears. "He smiled and cried and laughed. He was celebrated and held.