Undercover Lovers

Undercover Lovers

A true crime love story, with a twist

During the pandemic, Donna Metrejean realized she had lost her self-esteem. At fifty-one she had raised three children and enjoyed a career as a substitute teacher, but now her life seemed to be in a downward spiral. She was miserable in her job scrubbing office buildings in Pierre Part, a small Louisiana town, and each night she returned home to an unhappy marriage. “It felt like I was walking through a minefield,” she says. To make herself feel better, she liked to dye her hair blue, purple, or silver. At night she scrolled through social media, hoping to connect with people from happier chapters in her life. One night she looked up an old girlfriend’s younger brother, Robert Golden.  

They had met back in 2006. Donna had just stepped out of a friend’s truck wearing a white shirt and cowboy boots. When Robert laid eyes on her, he thought she was the very image of the American dream. He recalls that, three years earlier, he had returned from a tour in Somalia with the U.S. Army’s 75th Rangers Division, and was ready to settle down. He thought he’d found his future wife.

“She walked up on the porch and the first thing I told her, I said, ‘I love you,’” he says.  

Donna thought he must be joking. Then Robert asked her to marry him. 

“Hell no!” she replied, and marched into the house.  

Donna said she was already taken. Robert was crestfallen. 

“I was a dish. I was handsome,” he says. His body was toned from his job as a certified tree climber, working in the fourth deadliest industry in the United States. He wore his copper-colored hair in a military cut; he was spontaneous; a romantic. Her rejection stung. “I thought I was all sexy and stuff, and just wasn’t good enough,” he recalls. “But I knew I loved her instantly.” 

Donna friendzoned Robert, and over the years, she neglected to follow his journey, knowing only that he was a man of mystery with multiple Facebook accounts. Occasionally they flirted online, but the smoldering embers of a romance often fizzled out. Sometimes, Donna had a hard time finding Robert when she needed excitement or comfort. In October of 2020, as her marriage unraveled, she saw he was living in Portland, Oregon. “I need you to get in touch with me, it’s important,” she typed. 

“Why don’t you come up here? Just as friends,” Robert replied. Her heart leapt. She needed an escape. “I can get you away from all that,” he wrote. “Let me take care of you for a minute. I’m just getting into something that I’ve always wanted to do. It’s in the Justice Department.”

Donna was intrigued. She had told Robert about her obsession with television cop shows, how she had watched endless hours of “Kojak” and “Jake and the Fatman,” with her father as a teenager. She loved to chat with her relatives in law enforcement, and had even toyed with the idea of joining the police herself, perhaps as a probation officer or counselor. “Back home in Louisiana, there were just so many drug overdoses,” she says. “I was just the type of person…I wanted to see if I can make a difference…I have a good heart. That’s what I’ve been told.”  

Donna knew so little about Robert, or what he had become, and leaving behind her entire life to hook up with a man ten years her junior seemed insane. But at the end of January, she packed up her life, and a dog named Harley, and drove two and a half thousand miles across the country. As her car rumbled along the freeway, from beneath a canopy of mist and towering pines, emerged the skyscrapers of Portland, the city of roses. Robert was waiting for her at a truck stop in Troutdale. She felt a flutter of excitement in her stomach.  

“She was supposed to just be my friend when she showed up,” Robert recalls. “When she got out of the car and came around the corner, we put our arms around each other. I kissed her for the first time. First time in seventeen years, I actually got a kiss.” 

“I wasn’t expecting it,” Donna admits. But she was thrilled. 

Robert led her up to his fifth-floor apartment not far from Portland’s Art Museum. They had so much to discuss. Robert said he hadn’t been able to tell her for security reasons, but he had just taken a new job as a Special Agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration, tasked with tackling the drug epidemic. Portland was awash with fentanyl: one hundred times stronger than morphine and fifty times stronger than heroin, pressed into pills designed to look like OxyContin. Between 2019 and 2021, unintentional fentanyl overdose deaths in Oregon had jumped by 617 percent.

Donna settled into Robert’s apartment and her new life in a chilly new city. Portland was two hundred times more populous than her small hometown, and overwhelmed by people living on the streets. She was nervous around strangers, even the pumpjackers who filled her car (Oregon law prohibits people from pumping their own gas). Robert was her savior. When he drove Donna through the city he pointed out the dangerous spots where drug deals go down. He wore regular clothes, but his silver Dodge Charger had blue and red lights concealed in the grilles. When traffic snarled in Old Town, he gave his siren a whup, and the sea of cars magically parted. Robert was a gentleman who always held open the car door, the polar opposite of her husband. His gold D.E.A. badge glistened on his hip, like the detectives Donna watched on TV. Soon, she was falling in love. 

Donna wanted to start a new life, and a new career. One day in March, Robert casually asked Donna if she wanted to join him in law enforcement. He encouraged her to start a degree in criminal science at the Colorado Technical University, an online school, with a view to applying for a position at the D.E.A.’s Portland field office. Though he was still a new hire, Robert said he could help land her a job in which she could make a difference. He even promised to give her a head start with some informal training.

On his days off, Robert drove Donna into the forests outside Portland for target practice. He slipped on a bullet-proof vest and taught her how to shoot a 9mm Beretta on full auto, and a Glock 9mm. Donna had never even fired a gun at a range, Robert recalls, and she was a nervous shooter. “She didn’t know how to shoot tactically, shoot from a car,” he says. When she told Robert how men intimidated her, he taught her hand-to-hand combat.

“I loved it,” Donna says. She learned how to use a car door as a shield, and fired hundreds of rounds into the forest at invisible enemies, while Robert rattled off police code into his radio—checking in with the guys at work. Donna’s aim improved. One day, Robert set up two Red Bull cans and filmed Donna taking aim with the Glock. “The bullet actually ricocheted and it split the two cans,” she says. Robert looked up from his phone, astonished. “She was incredible,” he says.  

He was completely smitten.

Robert, who said his D.E.A. career began as a confidential informant, or “C.I.,” educated Donna on the war on drugs. It was all about information, he told her. “C.I. work is, basically, they pay you to inform on other people. Any big deals, anything that you hear on the ground, anything that comes through the grapevine.” Drug addicts, he said, were the first to know when big shipments of narcotics or “weight” hit the streets. “Prices go up, prices go down,” he explained. “A dopehead always wants to know if the price is going down.” 

Desperate to spend every minute together, Robert invited Donna to join him on “ride-alongs” in his tricked-out Charger. In the afternoon, when the traffic thinned and the drug dealers hit the streets, he pointed out suspects as they slipped drugs to customers with subtle handshakes. Donna had a knack for spotting this odd behavior in the street. “She even saw some things that I didn’t catch,” Robert told me. He had to watch his dash cam footage to see exactly what had happened.

Photo credit: Robert Golden, handout

Even when Robert was off duty, he was always fighting the war on drugs. “We had a bunch of drug dealers in our apartment building. We had a bunch of people doing drugs in front of a bunch of kids,” he recalls. One time he saw someone shooting heroin in a grocery store’s parking lot. He flashed his D.E.A. badge and handcuffs. “You have two choices,” he barked. “You can go to fucking jail or you can get the fuck off and go somewhere else and do your shit.” The addict broke down his rig and scampered away. 

Donna felt safe with Robert around. He took care of her just like her father had, and his mere presence seemed to fend off troublemakers. His Charger, even without the flashing lights, conveyed authority. “People love to slow down because they think you’re gonna pull them up. It was a pain in the ass to get where you’re going,” he admits.  

At home, Robert eagerly helped Donna with her studies. He knew his criminal law, chapter and verse. In return, Donna soothed him when he complained about office politics, and the dangers he faced on the streets. Still, he often told Donna, he’d found his true calling. “I love wearing my suit. I love wearing a badge,” he said. “I’m good at being a cop. I’m good at putting those sons of bitches away that need to be.”  

Then how to account for the odd things Donna witnessed, the strange quirks in Robert’s behavior? Sometimes he appeared to be “wired” while playing “Call of Duty” for hours on end without a break. He lit his cigarettes with the kind of industrial butane lighter normally used by addicts to light up glass pipes. “I didn’t know how to confront him about it,” she says. 

Each night, as darkness descended, Robert gave Donna a tender kiss goodbye, and headed off to work. He preferred to work undercover than behind a desk, he said, embedding himself among the homeless community in downtown Portland. He didn’t mind the night shifts, he said. He liked to move among the broken men and women who called the streets their home. He knew how to become one of them. 

“I’d rub dirt on my face, put on raggedy clothes, I’d have a regular shirt on that kind of smells a little bit,” he explains. “If you’re too raggedy, they won’t talk to you. You just gotta act homeless. Look homeless.” Robert knew the language of street dealers and junkies. He’d ask users if they knew where to find “that clear”—methamphetamine, or “that P.T.”—amphetamine, “brown”— heroin, or “snowflake”—cocaine.

Robert says he was so believable as a homeless person that other street people introduced him to their dealers. “I’d give ‘em thirty bucks, [and say] ‘let’s go take a walk.’ And they would say, ‘man y’all got anything.’ And whatever they would buy, they buy with my money. But they get to keep it. I just needed to know who had it.” He says he quickly built up a network of informants, including “Cuz,” an African American dealer, and “L,” a sketchy addict-dealer.  

“I recruited them. Paid them,” Robert explains. “They kept me informed about big weight coming through and so forth. She also kept her eye on them.” During the day, Donna hid in the Charger with Robert and scribbled notes about drug buyers and their dealers, to assist Robert with his night work. “What’s funny is that she gave me their weight, size, height. What they were wearing, everything down to a T,” he says. Detective work had given Donna’s life meaning. She felt alive with Robert, like they were making a difference. Life was fantastic, because Robert and Donna were head over heels in love. “Have you ever seen her shoot a gun?” Robert says. “It’s hot. She’s hot!”  

Under Robert’s tutelage, Donna became an unlikely law enforcement machine, and a master of self-defense. She learned to twist a suspect’s arm to the point of breaking, and how to bring a man to his knees, Robert says proudly. Every night was like an episode of “COPS.” Robert told Donna she had all the skills needed to be a law enforcement agent. “She will catch you in a lie in a heartbeat,” he says. He promised that if Donna continued with her studies, he would fast-track her to a job with the D.E.A., and that she’d soon be training with his colleagues, Special Agents Anderson, Luis and Garcia.  

Robert was always evasive when Donna asked to meet his colleagues, and in her mind, questions began to form: Why was he undercover one minute, then the next parading around town in full combat uniform with an embroidered D.E.A. badge that read: “GOLDEN”?  But her suspicions vanished when she discovered his pay stubs from the D.E.A. She saw that he was drawing a handsome salary, enough to support them both while she studied at home. 

Meanwhile, Robert had become a de facto lawman for their apartment building. He recalls: “I’ve had people knock on my door at three in the morning. My boyfriend’s beat me up. I mean, literally three in the morning, we’ll hear a knock on my apartment door. Hey, I got this guy over here. He’s got a knife.” 

“I felt responsible for my community,” he says. As word spread about the gung-ho cops living on the fifth floor, drug dealers stopped selling pills in the lobby. Homeless people crossed the street to avoid walking past the building, in case they got popped. But other people had suspicions about Robert too. One night he intervened in a dispute between two residents.  

“I’m D.E.A.!” Robert yelled. 

“Oh yeah?” the man shot back. “And I’m a Supreme Court justice.” 

In October, Robert surprised Donna by paying for her loved ones to fly in from Louisiana. “They were very impressed…I remember when I pulled up to pick them up. I hit my lights to stop traffic so I could put them in the car.” Robert had been excited all day, like he had been planning something. They drove out to the coast in convoy, and pulled onto the beach just as the sun was setting. One of Donna’s children slipped on Robert’s D.E.A. sweatshirt for warmth, and when Robert started making an emotional speech, her daughter, Amanda, called the rest of the family on FaceTime. 

“I’ve been waiting for this moment for seventeen and a half years,” Robert told Donna, as he dropped to one knee in the sand and fished out an engagement ring. “I want you to be my partner, not just in marriage, but my partner,” he said. The children cheered. 

Then he handed Donna a D.E.A. badge. He had done it, he said. He had got her into the D.E.A. She felt on top of the world—she had finally achieved her dream of joining the police. “I’m gonna be somebody,” she recalls thinking. As they roared off into the sunset, Donna felt more confident in herself than she had ever before. Then Robert flipped on red and blue emergency lights he had installed on her car. She was now officially his partner in crime fighting.  

But it was all a lie.

Photo credit: Robert Golden, Handout

Robert Edward Golden was not a Special Agent with the D.E.A. He was an ex- con who had served time in a Texas prison for drug possession. In 2016, he had been arrested again, in Kilgore, Texas, for possession of a small amount of narcotics, and decided to skip town instead of going to jail. He fled to Portland, hoping to get into the legal marijuana industry, but quickly ran out of money. All those times Donna couldn’t reach him, Robert was either in jail, flipping Whoppers at Burger King, or sleeping rough in a flatbed truck.  

Sometimes he used hard drugs to escape the pain of life on the streets, and reached his rock bottom at a Portland rescue mission, where he vowed to do anything to get back on his feet. “The only way you’re going to do anything in life is to get off your ass and do it,” Robert says. He went back to tree climbing, and worked odd jobs for cash. He lived in a tent, then a hotel room, then a Honda Odyssey, and finally scraped together enough to rent an apartment. He got a real job at an Amazon warehouse. Then the pandemic hit. 

“I filed for unemployment during the Covid crisis. Well, they didn’t give me nothing for almost two years,” Robert says. “And then all of a sudden, they approved my case.” He says he got a benefits check for over $9,000. That was around the time Donna arrived back in his life, and Robert hatched a plan to win her over for good. 

“Since she told me no, seventeen and a half years ago, I was worried about her saying no again,” he says. Robert insists that he really had once been a confidential informant for the D.E.A., and had the idea to tell Donna he had been “promoted” to a Special Agent. Though applicants need a college degree and a clean criminal record to join, Robert had told Donna, correctly, that the agency hires informants from all backgrounds, often under secretive circumstances.  

“There was an element of deception. I deceived her…I didn’t want her to think she was coming up here for just a tree climber. I wanted to give her a better life than that,” he explains. What had started as a casual lie on Facebook quickly grew into a massive web of deceit. “I knew in the moment that she kissed me that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. I just didn’t want her to think, what’s this man bringing to the table? That’s one reason why I kept doing what I was doing. And not just to impress her, but so she could say that she had a good, hard-working man.” 

As well as seeking validation, adoration, and sympathy, people who pretend to be figures of authority experience a need to feel special, says Dr. Scott Musgrove, a forensic psychologist specializing in law enforcement. “Particularly in the cases of stolen valor, that drive is very strong. We use a term in psychology called counter conformity. It’s an overwhelming need to be unique and stand out. The idea of being an average Joe is really anathema to them,” he says. Dr. Musgrove added that imposters are often inspired by current events: “In the weeks after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, Google search results for ‘Navy SEAL imposter’ went through the roof.”  

In the middle of Portland’s fentanyl epidemic, Robert found himself searching the internet for replica D.E.A. equipment. “I bought a bulletproof vest…the identifications I got from Australia. It was an Army friend of mine. Got it from him.” He bought his used Charger for $6,500 and installed the police lights himself. He bought them on Amazon along with the D.E.A. patches for his bulletproof vest. He invented colleagues and even a demanding boss. The cop codes he barked into his radio were mumbo-jumbo. No one was listening. And his D.E.A. payslips? Forgeries.  

Every day he lived in fear of Donna finding out the truth about his fake career. “I didn’t want to give it up,” he says. “And I ended up spending $16,000 on not giving it up.” Soon he had spent his entire unemployment and his life savings on impressing Donna. He was also spending a lot of money on methamphetamine.   

“Nobody knew about it, not Donna, or her kids. It was hard not to tell her everything,” Robert says. “Especially about the drug use.” He says he bought meth from a family member and never smoked it. He silently swallowed pills in the bathroom, used it to focus on video games and escape his lies. “I never scored drugs from anybody on the streets,” he insists. “Some people thought I was a crooked cop willing to make deals on the side and make a living,” he says, adding that those rumors were false. 

The more Donna excelled at her “training” the harder it was to tell her the truth. “I didn’t want to break her heart,” he says, “because I knew that she loved doing what she did. Getting out there investigating things. Writing down information, taking facts. Making a difference in your community.”

Photo credit: Robert Golden, handout

I was onto one of the biggest shipments of fentanyl in Portland,” Robert says, and it was all thanks to Donna. “You know, big time, she has the nose of a bloodhound,” he says. But the streets were a dangerous place. 

One night, Robert and Donna were cruising past a needle exchange in downtown Portland when a figure waved down their car. An injured woman jumped out from the shadows, screaming that a man was following her. “He’s trying to walk towards her aggressively,” Robert recalls. “I got in between them. And I didn’t draw my weapon. I said, ‘You need to stop right there.’” Suddenly they were surrounded. “Well, they had about fifteen homeless people with knives and shivs,” he recalls.  

The scene reminded Robert of his time in the Army, he says. “The Somalians come at you with like fifty thousand of them,” he recalls. Donna jumped out of the car, ready to grab her gun, and ordered everyone to freeze. People scrambled for cover.  

“They were about to stab this guy to death,” Robert says. “They had their knives out, baseball bats and everything.” He says he threw the suspect against the car. “I put him in handcuffs…we put him in the back of the car. And we took him down to the Portland police department.” Donna adds: “We took him away because we didn’t want him to get beaten up.” 

As they raced through the city, Robert explained to Donna that the D.E.A. didn’t have jurisdiction for stuff like this, and when they arrived at the Justice Center, he took off the handcuffs and threw the suspect out into the street. “I threatened his life,” Robert adds. Then they screeched away. 

Donna was buzzing. She had regained her self-esteem. “That’s what was taken away from me back in Louisiana, by my ex-husband,” she says. “I’m in my fifties. I never thought this would happen to me. Where I could do these things…I finally broke away from what I was coming from. And I started to become my own person. I mean, getting to shoot guns and stuff. I’m loving it because it’s like, alright, this is cool.” 

Robert’s ruse was expensive and he was burning through cash fast. He was struggling to pay the rent while spending all his time keeping up appearances as a D.E.A. agent instead of getting a job. He devised a plan: “I thought if I could do a major bust...just inform the police right at the last minute. Tell them what’s going on. Tell them I got all this information. We’ve got a video. This is what you need, do you want to be a part of it? I thought that they would let me into the fold.” 

One night, Donna fell ill, and told Robert she needed to go to the hospital. “I feel like I’m gonna pass out,” she moaned. He helped her into the car, and flashed the red and blue lights to cut through the traffic. They burst into the emergency room at Portland’s Providence Medical Center. Robert pushed Donna in a wheelchair, wearing his badge and holster. A passing nurse looked at him, and said: “Inmate?” 

“What? No, I’m his fiancée!” Donna cried.  

Donna learned that she had kidney stones, and as she waited for treatment, a hospital security guard, Nick Meli, found Robert outside smoking a cigarette. He asked him about his occupation. “Basically, we catch bad guys. Bad drug dealers. That’s what the D.E.A. does,” Robert explained. “Anything that goes across state lines is D.E.A.”

“I was like, this dude is 100 percent fake,” Meli later told the Oregonian, adding that lots of patients claim to be undercover F.B.I., C.I.A., or other federal agents. “But this guy was the only one to go full-blown everything. Badge, handcuffs, I.D. tag...the whole nine yards,” he told a reporter. Hospital security officials contacted the F.B.I. and the D.E.A., and finally the cops, but no one turned up. 

In December, Robert and Donna exchanged gifts under a Christmas tree in their apartment. He posted a photo of himself with Donna’s sons to his Facebook, writing: “I love my family.” He even wore his D.E.A. badge on Christmas Day. “It was the perfect Christmas,” he recalls. 

Not long after that, Robert arrived home one evening wearing a full tactical outfit to find two Portland cops in the lobby. This, he feared, was the end of his ruse: surely, they had come to arrest him for impersonating a police officer, and he would lose everything. He says the cop asked if he was on duty.  

“I’m on personal,” Robert replied. 

“And the cop says, ‘Can you do me a favor? My partner is going upstairs to grab this person. Can you stay right here just in case he tries to come down?’”  

“Sure,” said Robert, snapping into his role. 

“What radio channel are you on?” the cop asked.  

“Channel four,” he replied.  

The officers elevatored to the sixth floor. Robert’s radio crackled with real police work for the first time.  

“We have him,” said a voice. “He’s in custody.” 

It was a lucky escape, and Robert decided he needed a faster way out of his lie. “I decided I was going to ‘retire,’” he says. “I was going to tell her, ‘let’s go into the private sector.’” He complained that he was sick of kissing ass at work. Sick of Anderson and Luis. “There’s a bunch of politics in any federal work,” he told Donna, and anyway, money was better if you go solo. Robert planned to set up their own detective agency. But he wouldn’t have a chance. 

When Donna woke up on February 2, 2022, she had a sense that something wasn’t right. She went downstairs, and as she left the building, she found a police officer pointing a gun at Robert’s head. “He was shaking,” she says. Portland police Sergeant Matt Jacobsen had been driving through downtown when he spotted a silver Charger with its trunk open. He saw a tactical vest inside with a D.E.A. patch, and, on a hunch, he asked the man standing beside the car if he was a narcotics agent. 

Donna flashed the sergeant the D.E.A. identification Robert had given her, assuming it was a mistake. She’d seen enough cop shows to know about the conflict between local cops and the feds, but she had started to realize something was wrong. “I was kind of freaking out a little bit,” she recalls. More cops arrived and handcuffed her. “The officer said ‘I don’t want to do this. It’s just a procedure,’” she recalls. Another officer asked what music she wanted to listen to in the squad car. Donna chose Christian rock. “I’ve never been in the back of a police car,” she said. 

Officers searching the Charger discovered police lights, firearm holsters, two armor plate carriers, including one that had a D.E.A. POLICE patch, a tactical vest with a D.E.A. patch, handcuffs, badges, credentials and what looked like an AR-15 style rifle that turned out to be a BB gun. 

Eventually a real D.E.A. Special Agent showed up, Robert recalls. “He came up to me and he goes, ‘I can’t find you in our records.’ And I said, ‘I know you can’t.’ And then they put the handcuffs on.” 

Back at the station, Donna recognized the interrogation scene from television. “Good cop, bad cop, I’m thinking, because there were two guys,” she recalls. They asked why she was studying criminal justice.  

“Because I’m interested in that type of field,” she told them. “I want to be somebody. I want to do something.”  

“Have you been coerced?” the officer asked, carefully.  

“No!” she said. Coerced?  

“And so the other one—the good cop—was like, ‘So tell me about your family? You have many mental issues?’” When police called Donna’s family they heard that she had fallen in love with a D.E.A. agent, and figured out that she had been duped. When they told her Robert was an imposter, she was stunned. 

“It was almost like a ‘Criminal Minds’ type situation,” she says. “You know how they sit there and they analyze, analyze, analyze?” Soon, Robert’s strange behavior became clear in her head. “It didn’t take me too long. I was looking around, like, Am I in a movie or something?” 

Donna missed the red flags due to love-blindness, she explains. “You’re trusting the person that you love. I really had no reason not to trust him.” She recalls a similar experience with an ex. She had invited a girl into their home. Treated her like a daughter. “And all this time under my nose they were having an affair,” she says. “And that’s the same thing with this.” She didn’t think she had to check that her boyfriend wasn’t a make-believe cop. 

After agents dropped her at home, they asked Donna to surrender her D.E.A. badge, the one Robert had given her during his proposal. It was junk, they said. “They told me to go back to Louisiana because he’s nothing but bad news,” she recalls.   

Agents were less kind to Robert. Some peered into his interview room with genuine intrigue. One guy flipped him off, he says. “What’s funny is when they brought my vest and stuff, one guy said, ‘Damn, he’s got better gear than we do.’” In a criminal complaint, the D.E.A.’s Portland office wrote that it “does not have any Special Agents in employment” named Donna Metrejean and Robert Golden, and added that the D.E.A. does not provide ‘ride-alongs.’” They also confirmed that agents Anderson, Luis, and Garcia were figments of Robert’s imagination. 

News of the arrest spread from Portland newspapers around the world, making headlines in London and even in Jordan. “Good Morning America” called, Robert says, adding that he was in no mood for television appearances: He read in the press that he faced a maximum fine of $250,000 and up to three years in prison. He would almost certainly lose the most precious thing in his life—Donna. 

The Assistant U.S. Attorney offered Robert a pre-trial release, allowing him to avoid jail if he agreed to find a real job, not leave Oregon, take a mental health evaluation, and take care of a pending warrant in Texas. He also had to submit to regular drug testing. “That was when Donna found out about my drug use,” he says. He started treatment straight away and vowed to stay clean.  

After a night in the cells, Robert arrived home just in time to see his Charger towed away by cops. Inside, Donna demanded a talk. Her daughter, Amanda, had begged her to stop seeing Robert. “She’s like, ‘Mama, he’s not real,’” Donna says. But real or not, no one had ever gone to the lengths Robert had to win her heart. And after all, who hasn’t told a fib on their resume?  

Incredibly, she agreed to give him a second chance, if only he would tell her the truth. “No more lies,” she demanded. “I’m fifty-two years old, and I have been through a lot of stuff…I’ve been through marriages, I have been through this rodeo before and I’m not going through it again.”  

It took Robert three days to tell her all of it. When he told her about his real past, she was blown away. She heard about his homelessness, how he pulled himself up by the bootstraps, how he worked his way from sleeping under a bridge to the day he got the keys to his apartment. That was her definition of a real man, she said, as they held each other tightly.  

“You didn’t have to impress me from the get-go,” Donna told Robert. He didn’t need a police badge or a gun, she said. “You didn’t need any of that…you could have been a pumpjacker.” And anyway, Robert still treated her like a princess, held open the car door, and listened to her problems. “Sometimes you have to go through a couple of bad things just to get to your right thing,” she explains, adding that their fake cop caper had somehow given her back her self-esteem. “I can hold my head high, I don’t have to hold my head down. I actually have a backbone,” she says. It was all because of Robert. “I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him. I accepted him for who he was.” 

As they talked, Donna nervously fiddled with tiny pieces of pretzel on the kitchen table. When Robert looked down he noticed that she had arranged them into words: “Will you marry me?” 

Robert said yes, but they decided to wait until after his sentencing, in February 2022. In court he offered to produce receipts for the $16,228.95 he spent on police equipment to prove he had not stolen anything. When the judge heard that Robert did it all to impress a woman, she asked why he didn’t just buy her a diamond ring. Donna recalls the judge telling Robert: “Make sure you marry that woman and make sure she doesn’t get away.”  

Robert was sentenced in federal court to time served (less than a month), and agreed to undergo drug treatment with Volunteers of America. “He was away for months. Ninety days seemed like forever,” Donna recalls. As for his light sentence, the court determined he had not posed a risk to anyone or stolen any property. People in law enforcement have a saying for this type of imposter: 

“Not worth the gunpowder.” 

Robert admits that a year was a long time to deceive anyone, but he insists they did some good—that they really “made a difference.” He says that he identified Portland’s major street dealers of fentanyl, and captured hundreds of hours of dash cam footage showing drugs and money changing hands near the city’s docks. “I know for a fact that my dash cam got seized, all my video, they seized some of our notes that was in the car.” Those suspects, Robert says, were rounded up and arrested shortly after he was caught.

Photo credit: Robert Golden, handout

When I met Mr. and Mrs. Robert Golden in Portland in January of 2023, Donna had dyed her hair the bright blue color of police emergency lights. Robert is much more convincing as a down-and-out than a cop, I thought. He and Donna are adorably inseparable. By day they work together for a delivery app. He slings packages around the warehouse; Donna is a driver. The couple are not giving up on their dream of becoming a law enforcement duo, and making a difference. Donna faced no charges and is still working on her criminal science studies. In a year she’ll have her bachelor’s degree and still hopes to work in law enforcement. At night they play “Call of Duty,” running together into digital battlefields, shooting at enemies.  

Their apartment building is like a warzone again. In the shadows, men battle invisible demons; others stagger in the street like marionettes missing strings; every five minutes or so, a woman lets out a primal scream. As I walked with Robert one night past a burned-out church, an old man pushing a busted shopping cart noticed Robert, and said: “Thank you for everything.”  

I watched him swell with pride, and asked if he missed being a cop. “Actually, the rumor that’s going around is that we were crooked cops, and we got caught,” Robert told me, shooting me a conspiratorial look. Earlier, he had hinted that he had actually worked for the D.E.A., and that they made him “disappear.” When he showed me his dog tags from his time with one of the Army’s most elite regiments, I wondered if he had bought them online. I started to look into his credentials, but I realized it wouldn’t matter to Donna.  

Sometimes, when trouble breaks out, Donna has to remind him: “We’re not cops! We’re not cops!” But I had come to believe that in his mind, Robert is still undercover. Deeper undercover for now, but always ready to save the world and get the girl, just like the cops Donna loves to watch on TV. Then, just before he melted away into the cold Portland night, Robert pulled me aside, flipped open his wallet, and flashed an I.D. card that said: “D.E.A.”

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Jamie Larson