In a high school in small-town Pennsylvania, Asher Potts is working hard at becoming a model student. A member of the National Honor Society, he dreams of attending a prestigious university and pursuing a career in engineering. But behind the scenes, Asher is far from what he seems.
In another life, Potts was Artur Samarin, a Ukrainian who grew up in the southern city of Nova Kakhovka. Always an excellent student, he felt trapped by the limitations of his post-Soviet home town. And while he excelled at his local university, he longed for the opportunities that he was sure would await him in another place.
Convinced that only America could provide him with the future that he craved, Samarin applied for an exchange program that would allow him to work temporarily in the United States. And even though his family were struggling to put food on the table, they gave everything they had to support him in his endeavors.
Despite his lack of English skills, Samarin succeeded in winning a place. For a couple of months, he would be allowed to live and work Harrisburg, a city in south central Pennsylvania. And even though the job would see him toiling away in the kitchen of a chain restaurant, he was excited to begin the next chapter of his life.
In 2012 Samarin arrived in the United States. However, he soon found that life in the land of opportunity was more difficult than he had anticipated. And even though he had hoped to save enough money to attend an American college, he quickly realized that the high tuition fees were far beyond his grasp.
With his visa due to expire that September, Samarin could see his American dream slipping away before it had even begun. But then, he befriended Stephayne McClure-Potts and her husband, Michael Potts. An older couple who had no children of their own, they took a liking to Samarin and the trio soon forged a close bond.
According to Samarin, it was Stephayne and Michael who first proposed a solution to his problem. Apparently, they informed him that if they adopted him, he would be able to extend his stay in the United States. However, he claims that they said he was officially too old – and that he would need to lie about his age.
Allegedly, Stephayne and Michael told Samarin that he would need to pretend to be 14 – shaving five years from his actual age. And in return for the adoption, they wanted him to become a high-school student, giving them access to financial benefits. Keen to pursue a future in America, Samarin readily agreed.
With the paperwork in place, Samarin remained in Pennsylvania after his visa expired. And that fall, he began attending the local Harrisburg High. Dressed to blend in with the other students, the young man attracted little attention. And when others questioned his thick accent, he told them that he had grown up in a nearby Russian-Jewish community.
Unbelievably, the ruse seemed to work. Now going by the name Asher Potts, Samarin soon settled into student life. In fact, he excelled – earning straight A grades, making plenty of friends and engaging in extra-curricular activities such as joining the Navy Junior Reserves Officers Training Corps.
Over the years, Samarin’s talents only grew more impressive. He went to Penn State University in the summers, brushing up on his math and science, while back at Harrisburg High he was given awards for his academic achievements and even took a role on the school board. At one point, the city’s mayor proclaimed an “Asher Potts Day.”
Soon Samarin began to attract the attention of universities, and the offers started to flood in. But as the young man’s academic dreams seemed to grow closer, life at home with the Potts was becoming more and more of a challenge. According to Samarin, they could be controlling and sometimes abusive, threatening to report him to immigration if he did not complete his chores.
Then, when Samarin was in his senior year, things came to a head. Frustrated with his treatment, he left the Potts’ home and moved in with a friend. However, this time Stephayne and Michael made good on their threats. Speaking to the authorities, they told them that they had not known their adopted son’s real age – and that his behavior had become impossible to control.
In February 2016 two police officers walked into Samarin’s class at Harrisburg High. Calling him by his real name, they led him out to their vehicle where he was handcuffed and driven away. The law had finally caught up with the hoaxer – but his story was far from over.
As Samarin languished in jail, the full extent of his deception soon became apparent. Not only had he outstayed the duration of his visa illegally, but he had also falsely acquired a funded education from the state. Moreover, investigators soon retrieved a passport application that he had made in the name of Asher Potts – making him guilty of document fraud.
However, the worst was still to come. While investigating Samarin, authorities discovered that he had been romantically involved with a 15-year-old girl while attending Harrisburg High. But rather than being an innocent 17-year-old, Samarin had actually been 22 at the time – making any sexual relationship a serious crime.
Eventually, Samarin was convicted of statutory sexual assault and sentenced to up to 23 months behind bars – along with two months for the charges of fraud. But after serving less than half of this time, he was deported back to the Ukraine. Meanwhile, both Stephayne and Michael were given probation for their role in the deception – with the previously convicted Stephayne also ordered to spend five months in a federal prison.
Over time, many different versions of Samarin’s story have emerged. And although he claims to have been mistreated by the Potts, Stephayne and Michael maintain that they loved him and treated him like a real son. However, they also told authorities that Samarin planned to launch an armed attack on Harrisburg High – but they could not back up that accusation.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this narrative of Samarin as a potentially dangerous foreign terrorist has dominated the media, turning many against the young man. But Samarin himself believes that he has been mistreated by the American authorities, and that he was only ever in the country to learn and to further his career.
Today, Samarin is living back in the Ukraine, where he is continuing his studies at Kherson State University. And even though his criminal record in the United States has closed some doors, he hopes to once again leave his home country and find opportunities in other parts of the world. “A coal doesn’t want to be a coal,” he explained in a 2018 interview with GQ, “it wants to be a diamond.”