Are you ready to fake your own death? both as a concept and as an act people attempt with surprising frequency — first occurred to me over dinner with a friend at a cheap Vietnamese restaurant. I had just enrolled in a graduate program, and had taken out a brand new batch of student loans to heap upon a hefty debt from college.
As I bitched about the financial mess I’d gotten myself into, and how I feared I might never get out of it, I fantasized about finding a sun-bleached country with a rickety government and no extradition policy and just slipping through the cracks, disappearing without a trace.
“Or you could fake your own death,” my friend offered.
That conversation sent me on a years-long quest tracking down people who have faked their own deaths and interviewing experts in the art of disappearance. Along the way I picked up a few Dos and Don’ts. Whatever your motive to fake your own death and wherever you plant your umbrella, here are some considerations for planning your untimely demise.
Don’t subscribe to conventional wisdom: The biggest challenge of faking your death is that teensy problem of your body. So fake a drowning, right? Wrong. “Death” by water immediately raises red flags. Investigator Steve Rambam, who consults for insurance companies says, “Ninety-nine percent of faked deaths are water accidents. In most drownings, the body is recovered. So why was this body not recovered?” According to Rambam, hiking is the way to go. “People disappear hiking all the time, legitimately. That’s a great way to disappear.”
Don’t get too creative: Wannabe death fraudsters who try to fake your own death, concoct ingenious ways to create the illusion of a corpse to fool—or befuddle– law enforcement. Mortuary worker Jean Crump collaborated with a few friends to defraud several insurance companies out of $1.2 million. They held a funeral for one Jim Davis, who never existed. They buried an empty casket. When insurance fraud investigators started nosing around, she realized she’d have to act fast. Exhuming the coffin, Crump and company filled it with a cow carcass and a mannequin, then had the casket cremated. Investigators quickly unraveled the clever ruse.
Don’t Google yourself: Bad enough he tried it by water, but the temptation was too much for Patrick McDermott, Australian singer Olivia Newton-John’s longtime boyfriend, who faked his death on a fishing trip in 2005 shortly after the couple had broken up. Having recently filed for bankruptcy, he chartered a boat and allegedly fell overboard at night. A group of private investigators hired by Dateline NBC located McDermott when they noticed a centralized cluster of IP addresses originating near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, all clicking onto a site dedicated to tracing his whereabouts.
Do change your light bulbs: Bennie Wint had been presumed dead since staging a drowning in Daytona Beach, Florida in 1989. He’d been involved in a narcotics ring and believed the cops were after him. After swimming a mile down the shore with $6,500 stuffed in his swim trunks, he hitched a ride with a trucker and spent the next twenty years selling NASCAR merchandise out of his home, under the name William James Sweet. During his tenure as Sweet, he shacked up with a common law wife and had a son, but never filed for an ID under his new alias. So when he was pulled over in North Carolina in 2009 for not having a $1.50 light bulb over the license plate of his car, he couldn’t produce a driver’s license and was booked in jail as John Doe before ultimately coming clean.
Don’t assume a fake identity: There’s no law on the books called “fake your own death.” If you don’t file a police report or death certificate, making it look like you are deceased violates no law except perhaps that of good taste. Promoting the idea that you have met an untimely end when in fact you are lazing beachside, paying for your daiquiris with a suitcase full of cash, is perfectly legal.
“In those narrow confines, it wouldn’t create any legal issue,” says Judge Daniel Procaccini, a Rhode Island Superior Court judge who dealt with the legendary disappearance case of Adam Emery. If you even try to rent a bike or apply for a library card with another identity, then you are committing fraud. But to make believe that you are dead poses no crime. “It’s surprising more people don’t do it,” the judge says.
Do keep near enough the truth: John Darwin, whose name is synonymous with “pseudocide” in the UK, staged a kayaking accident in 2002 to shirk heavy debt he’d acquired in shady real estate deals. With the help of his wife, he returned to live in an adjacent guesthouse next door to his own home while his two adult sons grieved. He managed to get a real UK passport in the name of John Jones, a person who was born the same year as him but died in infancy. He traveled to a dozen countries when he was “dead” before turning himself in at a London police station in 2008. Darwin told me the secret to his success: “Keep near enough the truth,” he says. “Use your first name. That’s a must. A disguise is vital. I grew a beard, I wore glasses. I never used to wear a hat, so I put on a hat. I wore a different sort of coat then I normally wear. Then I had a walking stick, a stoop, and a limp. If you can think logically, anything is easy.”
Do ask yourself: Can you bear to hold your own death certificate in your hands?: I tried my own hand at pseudocide in the Philippines, where I got my own death certificate and police report detailing my fatal car accident. When you are ready to fake your own death know that most successful death fraud is carried out with high quality authentic documents. I wanted to see how far I could get. I spent the day cracking up over jokes and Cokes with two delightful local fixers as we waited for a forger to construct my demise. But actually handling a piece of paper declaring me dead and a police report detailing my fatal car accident proved to be a more somber affair.
By Elizabeth Greenwood is the author of PLAYING DEAD: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud.
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