04 January 2014

Fake Deaths By Drowning

Having got rid of a book chapter on financial crime, inc insurance fraud, I was amused to see reports of the reappearance of former US banker and 'dead person' Aubrey Lee Price, the latest in a long line of people who supposedly died in boating accidents, swimming accidents or by watery suicide. (The Sanchez fraud is noted here.)

British MP and former Aviation Minister John Stonehouse (1926-1988) shed his clothes and his identity in 1974, faking his own death by drowning off the beach in Miami as his business group collapsed and investigators were about to discover that a fund for Bangladeshi hurricane victims was missing £600,000.

Stonehouse disappeared to Australia on a false passport in the name of Joseph Markham, a dead constituent. He was discovered in Melbourne, happily living with his mistress and masquerading as Clive Mildoon, another dead constituent. In 1976 he was sentenced to seven years in prison for theft, forgery and conspiracy to commit insurance fraud. An account is provided in his autobiography Death of an Idealist (WH Allen, 1975) and My Trial (Star Books, 1976).

In 1981 former US state official Robert Granberg supposedly drowned after falling off a boat while on a fishing trip with friends. Although no body was recovered he was officially pronounced dead. His grieving widow sought payouts from several life insurers, one of which balked because Granberg had been "grossly overinsured" (for an aggregate US$6m on an annual income of around US$18,000). 

Investigation revealed that Granberg wasn't sleeping with the fishes; instead he was using several fake identities (including a fake passport, used to travel to London) and periodically meeting with the newly-wealthy merry widow. Granberg was convicted of fraud. His associates were convicted on other charges, including conspiracy and mail fraud.

Ivan Manson was more fortunate, disappearing on a fishing trip in New Zealand during 1975. He apparently fled to Australia, reportedly being identified from fingerprints as one of the victims in a 1995 car accident in Caboolture.

UK businessman Carl Hilderbrandt appears to have emulated Stonehouse in 1990. He skipped bail on fraud charges and faked his death by drowning. He assumed false identities by obtaining passports in the name of dead children - ie a 'rebirthing' scam - and moved to the US where he lived until detected in 1997.

US businessman Phil Champagne 'died' in a boating accident in 1982, his family's sorrow presumably assuaged by a US$700,000 insurance payout (on a US$1.5m policy).

A decade later Champagne was arrested for counterfeiting US currency in an Idaho shed. He had appropriated the persona of Harold Stegeman, an 8 year old who died in 1945. Champagne pleaded guilty to false statements in a bankruptcy hearing, loan application and passport application. His life after death is profiled in Man Overboard: The Counterfeit Resurrection of Phil Champagne (Northwest Publishing, 1995) by Burl Barer.

Bennie Wint supposedly drowned off Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1989. He was about to be married and reportedly feared prosecution in connection with illicit drug activity. His bride-to-be saw him go into the surf for a swim; he emerged unscathed and undetected from those treacherous waters, moved to a new life in Alabama under the name of William Sweet, found a new partner, fathered a son and was identified in 2009 after his fingerprints matched those of the 'dead' Mr Wint.

Florent Terrassin of Les Coteaux, Quebec supposedly downed while fishing in the St. Lawrence River, where he left his wallet, fishing kit and a shoe. His grieving widow Josette sought to collect C$300,000 insurance. The couple were charged with conspiracy and mischief after the dead man was found alive in his bed in the US after a phone call to his son.

Jenaro Jiménez Hernández of Cádiz supposedly died while spearfishing off Spain's Atlantic coast, leaving his BMW parked at Los Alemanes beach, a grieving and pregnant widow, and some uncomfortable debt. A four-day search by air-sea was unavailing, apart from discovery of a flipper by a police diver. Moroccan authorities were contacted in case the body washed up on their shores. He appears to have cycled to Gibraltar, then flown to South America on a false passport, along with a large sum in cash with him. On his return from Paraguay he was reportedly charged with fraud, unlawful appropriation and using false documents.

Anthony Angell also swam away from his inconvenient old identity and pressing debts, supposedly drowning off Beachy Head and being reborn as Anthony John Allen. In that guise he murdered his new wife Patricia and her two children, who disappeared (apparently dumped at sea). Angell/Allen was convicted of the murder over 25 years later. The incident is discussed in Presumed Dead: The True Story of an Unsolved Mystery (Time Warner, 1992) by Eunice Chapman, Allen's sometime partner.

Beachy Head was also the site for the supposed demise of Fiona Mont in 2000, of interest to the UK police over alleged involvement in a £300,000 computer fraud in 1999. She skipped bail, according to some newspaper reports faked her own death at the popular suicide spot and allegedly left Britain the next day in a light aircraft piloted by her boyfriend, a convicted drug smuggler. She was identified in Spain and extradition began a year later, with critics claiming that the two-day police helicopter and coastguard search at Beachy Head cost taxpayers over £30,000. (Mont and associates have contested particular claims; readers should undertake their own research before drawing any conclusions.)

Australian Harry Gordon faked his own death in a boating accident in 2000, with the expectation that his wife could benefit from his life insurance. Using a new identity he lived in Spain, the UK, South Africa and New Zealand and remarried. He explained discrepancies by claiming he was under witness protection. Gordon's deception was discovered in 2005; he went on to write The Harry Gordon story: how I faked my own death (New Holland, 2007).

John and Anne Darwin were jailed for six years in the UK in 2008 for fraudulently claiming £250,000 in insurance payouts after faking John's death. She convinced insurers, the police, the coroner and her own sons that John had drowned through a canoeing accident in 2002. He was discovered five years later, reportedly claiming that he had no memory of the intervening years. He had been in close contact with his wife during that time and apparently fraudulently obtained a passport, using the name of a dead child.

One of his sons commented
Dad told one nasty lie and disappeared and said he was dead but she lied for six years. She was the face of the lies and she kept lying, even when the evidence was so overwhelmingly against her. She dragged us through hell by forcing a court case.
The same year saw conviction in New Zealand of Bruce Dale, who staged his drowning at Port Waikato (abandoning a wife and three children) in 2002, moved to Christchurch with a new identity as Michael Francis Peach, acquired a house and business, and found a new partner under the Peach identity. His first family claimed NZ$1.12 million in insurance in 2007. Dale's reinvention was discovered when he applied for a passport in his real name. He pleaded guilty to four charges of fraud.

Price allegedly embezzled several million dollars from his bank before leaving a suicide note in June 2012 indicating that he was going to jump off a ferry from Key West to Fort Myers, Florida. He was found alive and well in Georgia after being stopped for driving 'suspiciously slowly' in a pickup with tinted windows - gold tinted windows in some reports.

In 2008 Minnesota IT entrepreneur Travis Scott collected US$11.5m after his Prairie supercomputer business was struck by lightning. In September 2011, after pleading guilty to fraud, he left a suicide note indicating that he'd drowned in Lake Mille Lacs. In reality he'd flown to Manitoba, where he was eventually arrested for trying to pass forged prescriptions at a Winnipeg pharmacy.

In 2008 hedge fund manager Samuel Israel III - accused of a US$450m fraud - supposedly leapt off a Hudson River bridge, leaving his SUV with the words “suicide is painless” written in the dust on the hood. A month later he turned himself in, apparently having spent the time at a Massachusetts campground. His fraud is discussed in 'Portraits of five hedge fund fraud cases' by Majed Muhtaseb and Chun Yang in (2008) 15(2) Journal of Financial Crime 179-213 and in Octopus: Sam Israel, the Secret Market, and Wall Street's Wildest Con (Broadway Books, 2012) by Guy Lawson.

Fake death by drowning being a cultural meme - and more convenient than being supposedly devoured by lions, crocodiles, wild pigs or bears - Price's supposed demise had precedents elsewhere in Florida.

Tampa restaurateur H.E. 'Gene' Holloway - deeply in debt and with a US$16m insurance policy - for example supposedly came to a watery end by falling overboard from a yacht at night near Key West. Associates claimed they had unavailingly thrown life jackets. He was discovered in Toronto during a drug bust two months later - perhaps the fishes threw him back - with a new girlfriend and cosmetic surgery.

Kerry Scheele sought to evade child support and collect a US$1m insurance policy by drowning during a lobster diving trip near Big Pine Key. Scheele swam ashore, hid his rented diving kit in the mangroves and then travelled to his girlfriend in Wisconsin.

Further afield Louisiana resident Milton Harris disappeared off a ferry in South Australia, being sprung when an intrepid 70-year-old dived in to save him only to discover Harris sitting on the seabed breathing from an oxygen tank. In 1985 Harris vanished off a Cook Strait ferry in New Zealand. Prudential Insurance and Lloyds made payments to his family on the assumption that Harris was dead, with Lloyd’s stopping payment on two NZ$2.9m life insurance polices after discovering that Harris had previously jumped. He was found four years later, living in New Zealand with a new wife on some US$60,000 of Prudential's insurance money generously provided by his first wife. Harris was extradited to the US and Prudential took action against his first wife and son for fraud. Three years after release from prison, Harris was missing again.