WASHINGTON -- This is what Asher Potts was: great at mathematics, an honors student, a well-liked classmate at a Pennsylvania high school, and a member of a U.S. military training program called ROTC.
This is what he wasn’t: Asher Potts.
He was, in fact, a 23-year-old Ukrainian named Artur Samarin.
“He was amazing, and a wonderful person. His personality was too perfect,” Jacob McCaskill, who attended summer programs at a state university with Samarin, told RFE/RL in a message via Twitter.
“He was a goofball, but he made friends with everyone that was around him. He was very smart, and outgoing.... Everyone always suspect[ed him] to be from Russia, because of his accent.”
Students, teachers, community leaders, and many others in and around Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, are scratching their heads trying to figure out how a Ukrainian citizen on a temporary visa to the United States was able to pose as a high-school student for four years.
Police arrested Samarin on February 23, filing charges against him that include identity theft and tampering with public records. Court records show he did not post the $20,000 bail ordered by the court, and that he was remanded to a local jail pending a formal arraignment on March 7.
Records show that he declined the use of a public defender, but it was unclear whether he had retained another lawyer.
The case took an ominous turn on February 26, when new charges of statutory sexual assault and “corruption of minors” were filed against him in Magisterial District Court. Those charges suggest police may have turned up evidence that Samarin had sex with students who were under the age of 18. Court records also show bail was increased markedly, to $200,000.
Police have said Samarin enrolled at Harrisburg high school in 2012, using a driver’s license he allegedly obtained fraudulently using the name Asher Potts. News reports said he later obtained a Social Security Card and other official documents.
A Visa In Kyiv
As investigators dig into Samarin’s past, there are few clues about his background as a Ukrainian national. But several postings on the Russian-language social-networking site known as VKontakte appear linked to him.
On February 24, 2012, a person with the online handle Artur Samarin posted, in Russian, to a Vkontakte discussion about receiving work and travel visas to the United States: "I have to go to the embassy on the 1st. Such an unusual feeling inside. Hello sleepless nights."
Jacob McCaskill, who was friends with Samarin, took the photos and provided them to RFE/RL.
In a March 1 post, he indicated he was traveling to the Ukrainian capital from the southern region of Kherson, which borders Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia forcefully annexed in 2014.
"Coming to Kyiv from Kherson by train. Today is going be an unforgettable day in my life. Wish me luck,” Samarin wrote.
A few hours later, he wrote in transliterated English: "I’ve got the visa!"
The VKontakte account used to post the messages had been disabled as of February 26.
The Kyiv office for the company that appeared to have arranged the visa -- Work and Travel -- told RFE/RL it could not immediately confirm Samarin’s participation in their program.
A representative for the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, meanwhile, told RFE/RL that privacy laws forbid the release of information on visa applicants or recipients.
The surname Samarin didn't show up in online searches for the Kherson region.
'He Was Very Sociable'
By all accounts, Samarin thrived while at the Harrisburg high school. He became a member of a National Honor Society. He joined a military preparation program called Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corp.
Another photograph posted by Patty Kim, a Pennsylvania state representative, on her Twitter feed in May 2014 showed Samarin in a military uniform receiving a citation for becoming a member of the National Honor Society.
Last month, he participated in a public forum to discuss problems of illegal drugs and violence in the community. Video from the forum shows him dressed in a coat and tie, seated on a stage alongside several teenagers, though it was unclear what he said during the event, if anything.
News reports said a Harrisburg couple allegedly helped Samarin in getting his state driver’s license.
McCaskill said he knew Samarin through a summer program at Pennsylvania State University for high-achieving high school students in math and science. The name Asher Potts, from Harrisburg, appears on a 2015 program called Summer Experience in the Earth and Mineral Sciences.
McCaskill recalled that Samarin mentioned little about his family, except to say they moved around often.
“Yes, he was extremely talented when it came to math. You ever needed help in math, he was the person everyone will go to,” McCaskill told RFE/RL.
Another friend who asked to be identified as Mustafa Ysa told RFE/RL that he was a senior when Samarin attended his math classes as a freshman. Mustafa recalled Samarin saying that he was 14 years old, was from Ukraine, and dreamed of joining the U.S. Navy SEALs, a renowned special forces unit.
“He excelled in everything academically and was expected to graduate early because of that. Because he was new, I befriended him because I understand how difficult it may be to make friends,” Mustafa told RFE/RL in an e-mail.
“He wasn't a shy kid. He was very sociable. Flirted with a lot of females in our predominately black school, where he would more than often get rejected. Teachers liked him well. But I always knew something was strange about him,” he added.
Mustafa also said Samarin told him his real name when they first met.
“He went by his real name….[That’s the] reason why I thought it was weird when I heard his alias, ‘Asher Potts,’ in news articles, but I remember his face well,” he said. “He told me it was difficult to live where he was from, and that America is a place of opportunity and dreams.”
A message left with the Harrisburg School District superintendent’s office was not immediately returned.