Rumors, Allegations and Things Left Unsaid

It was the afternoon of October 17, 2006 and I walked into the American School of Dog Training in Aurora, Colorado. I was looking for work as a dog trainer. The owner, Bob, said: “I don’t care about qualifications, just go in the back and pick out a dog. Bring it out here and show me what you got.”

I did and got the job. Over the next twelve months or so I had leased the school, bought a home in the quiet Denver suburbs in a neighborhood with an HOA and community swimming pools, attended my kids football games and back to school nights. I thought I was on top of the world.

Little did I know that the past has a way of creeping up on you and slapping you in the face. The past decade or so since that day in October has been some the greatest days of my life but more than anything my nights have been fueled by nightmares so bad that I don’t like to go to sleep.

I have a story to tell. It is one that only some of my closest friends know. For others, it is a story that they may have heard that is fueled by Internet rumors.

The Past

In the late 1990’s I was a day trader in the stock market and an up-and-coming dog musher living in Northern Minnesota. I would run my sled dogs all night and be on the computer making stock trades by day. I would buy and sell some of the early-Internet’s hottest stocks, sometimes making thousands of dollars in a matter of minutes. It was very addicting and soon I was so caught up in the game that it became compulsive. It was the only thing I thought about and it consumed me. Before long I was losing way more than I was making and it cost me everything including near bankruptcy and a slew of civil complaints and even criminal charges. Even though I have been training dogs professionally since 1994, I let this new fascination with fast money and the thrill of the stock market take over my life. My dog training business quickly took a back seat when I started gambling with more money than I had. I no longer wanted to meet with my dog training clients.

About this same time, I met Michele and her three kids. They were going through a rough time; her husband had just died in a tragic motorcycle accident and I was running from my own demons from all the gambling I was doing in the market. Our relationship quickly became what I call a ‘rescue relationship’ because I truly believe we saved each other.

If Michele hadn’t come into my life at this very moment things could have turned out much differently. By 2000 my life was in a tail-spin. The charges were playing out in court and before you knew it I was pleading guilty for everything I had done. The last thing I wanted to do was to drag Michele and her family into my problems. I had moved to Colorado to be with them, unknowing what my future held for my mis-deeds. Michele’s family took me under their wing and gave me their full support. She and her family, became my rock. My in-laws became some of my strongest my advocates. I had only known these people for a short time but having them by my side would make a big difference in my life for years to come.

On the day the small town county sheriff came to the house Michele was down in the kennel taking care of our sled dogs and doing the morning chores. I was up at the house washing out the bowls. Our kitchen window looked over the property. When the deputy got out of the car I knew it was time. Nicole, who was just two at the time was upstairs in her room watching Disney movies. I walked up, sat her on my lap and told her that I loved her and will miss her but I won’t see her for awhile. She stared to cry. As they drove me away I looked back and saw Michele screaming and crying in the middle of our dirt road. The two boys were at school. The scene was so visceral. In that very moment lives would change forever. The kids have lost two father’s in a matter of a couple years. Michele was so broken that over the next few months she would have a nervous breakdown and loose fifty pounds.

In 2001, I pled guilty to a slew of charges and served some time in a minimum custody facility. I had almost the same charges as Martha Stewart, if you can remember, as well as a litany of bad check charges that were the result of my losses in the stock market.

Michele went on to raise the kids as a single mom and without more than a part-time job we had to place our sled dogs in new kennels. She went back to school and ended up moving back in with her parents. She got a degree as a paralegal to help me in court and eventually got a job in a big-time law firm in Denver. Over the next year and a half I went back and forth to court. Since I had bank and stock brokerage accounts in more than one state and I wrote checks that bounced in multiple jurisdictions I had a lot to answer too. Michele was at every court appearance, often sitting alone in a empty gallery.

Seeing Michele so defeated, so utterly destroyed like that day in the in the middle of the road I vowed that never would I put someone through something like that ever again. I, in turn did my best to turn my life around from the inside. I went back to school at the urging of the court (see below), I started a dog training program, and taught prisoners how to become dog trainers. I was even featured on a show on Animal Planet called Cell Dogs–I would later find out that being on that show probably did more to hurt my future than anything else.

In 2005, I submitted a motion for re-consideration of my sentence to a judge in Jefferson County, Colorado, my governing commitment. When he sentenced me told me if I were to go back to school and to pay off my restitution, well over forty-thousand dollars, he would lower my sentence and in turn be released from supervision. I did that, and true to his word he did what he said he would do.

On that October afternoon in 2006 I set out to prove the statistics wrong. I was going to do everything in my power to become a productive member of society. In my mind, I had paid my debt to society. Not only did I plead guilty to every charge and take responsibility for my actions but I paid off my restitution in full. I continued to attend Gambler’s Anonymous meetings in Denver and began speaking to groups in schools and churches about my past. Since that day I have not had so much as a traffic ticket.

In August 2010 we bought our house in Alaska. Dog mushing was something I had thought about every single day for almost a decade. We were doing well with our dog training business in Denver and we could afford to move. We sold our house in Denver and I moved north. Michele and the kids stayed behind for almost a year to finish up with clients.

Almost as soon as I arrived in Alaska the rumors and Internet postings started. I was working with a couple new friends in the neighborhood that had a sled dog kennel. Not a week went by before we sat down and had a long talk. They agreed to continue the relationship and we did so for two years. But almost everywhere I turned someone would bring up my past. Soon it was the gossip at the community meetings and on social media.

Who knows how many friends I have lost before a relationship ever developed. Who knows how many potential clients never called. On a few occasions people would reach out and say, do you know what people are saying about you?

Sadly, yes.

I know more than anyone that everything is just a Google search away. If you know me, you know I am very active on social media and do my best to share the good, bad and ugly. But let me ask you this, who walks up to a person—a new friend, an acquaintance at a bar, a potential new client and says, “Hi, I’m Robert. I am a felon. Nice to meet you.”

I know that most people despise people that have been involved in the criminal justice system. And for most, rightly so. But I didn’t physically hurt anyone. I have never been violent in my life and to those that know me would say I am a heck of a nice guy. Society today finds it easy to judge without the facts or at least the whole story and that is the reason for this post today.

Over the years I have told a few people this story and most have said the same thing, “I know who you are today.” But it’s not the friends that choose to stand by me because they know me, it’s the nightmares of the what if’s, or what is someone going to say next, that keep me up at night.

I thought my gambling and all the problems that it brought me were bad until I found out about the school I was enrolled in while I was gone.

Madison University

One of the most pervasive Internet rumors has been a degree I earned from Madison University. I know now I was duped into believing that this was a ‘real’ school. Back in 2002 when I enrolled, my family and I did our research. Remember, even then the Internet is not what it is today. I enrolled in a graduate degree program in good faith and started my studies. It was a Ph.D. program in Communications and had a bevy of course work to do before a student was required to write a dissertation. I worked my way through these courses. I took proctored exams and wrote countless papers.

It is important to note this was a school that promoted itself as an online university and was set up very much the same as Capella University is today. It allowed students to pay for courses in a manner that Capella calls its “Flex Path” where you could pay for a couple courses at a time and when you finished you enrolled in a couple more. I had no reason to believe that this was not the way other schools did things. I didn’t see anything wrong with it at the time.

I started working on my dissertation in 2003 and conducted my research using a variety of methods including surveys and interviews. I ended up writing a 306-page paper and when it came time to ‘defend’ the dissertation I did that too, almost two years later in 2005 while still at the minimum custody facility.

I was sent a fancy looking diploma, “official” transcripts and everything. I worked hard for almost three years. I thought I was going to a legitimate school. In fact, it was a condition of the court for me to finish this program!

In 2006, I was proud of my accomplishments and started using the title behind my name. With everything that had gone on in my life in the past decade I was making what I thought was the first step in building a successful career as a canine behaviorist with this education crediential, along with the countless other schooling over the past twenty years in dog training. Even though I had trained thousands of dogs over the years, I thought going to this graduate school and getting this degree would set me apart from other training schools in the area.

Today, this degree from Madison has caused me nothing but problems. It has become the basis for many allegations on the Internet about my qualifications as a dog trainer, and along with my gambling and associated convictions, it is the first thing that people mention.

I quit using the title behind my name as soon as I did my research about Madison University but it was too little too late. The damage was already done. I have done my best to scrub any article I wrote online using that title, but as they say once it’s on the Internet it’s there forever. I even enrolled at the University of Alaska Anchorage in a bachelor’s degree program, which I am proud to say I have worked very hard at over the past three years and will be graduating with honors next spring in 2018. Update 2020: I went so far to correct this wrong from the faulty education credential that I went on to earn a Masters of Sports Management from Liberty University which I completed in May 2020 and now enrolled in a Doctorate of Strategic Leadership program at Liberty as well. I choose to do this to correct one of the most glaring wrongs to my public persona. It will take years to finish my schooling and to finally have a terminal degree but it will be worth it.

What do I want from all of this? First, to set the record straight. To tell my side of the story. I don’t know how many potential friends and business I have lost over this. I just want it to be over and out in the open for everyone to see. Some will say that this is “brand suicide”. Maybe, but I am tired of being branded as a criminal. I have done my best to turn my life around and make a positive impact in my community.

Thinking about it, I am sure I will loose friends, aquaintances online, and maybe even business but I just can not take it anymore. Just last week the same person commented the same thing he does on every other article he can find with my name on it online. His comment is full of mis-leading information and is purely designed as a way to show people that I am a fraud. To the best of my knowledge I have never met this person. I have never done business with this person and my past transgressions never included any victims so I know he was not financially harmed by me, but as a close friend said to me just the other day, “He’s just some guy on the Internet.” Enough is enough and it is time for me to tell my side of the story, for better or for worse.

In closing, people can and do change. I think my actions since October 2006 have proven that. I am not asking for forgiveness. I am not asking for sympathy. I am just asking that before you pass judgement, get to know who I am, not some rumor on the Internet that is loosely based on facts.


Robert Forto

June 2017