This page considers fake deaths and other perspectives
on identity crime.
It covers -
supplements the discussion of anonymity,
privacy and surveillance
elsewhere on this site.
People sometimes fake their own deaths, whether to escape
onerous obligations, to profit through insurance fraud,
to gain publicity or merely to indulge a desire to read
their own obituaries.
Scepticism after a string of fake deaths has correspondingly
led some observers to suspect the worst and claim that
disappearances, such as that of US celebrity Steve Fossett,
were not genuine.
British MP and former Aviation Minister John Stonehouse
(1926-1988) simply shed his clothes and his identity in
1974, faking his own death by drowning 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
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 (London: WH Allen 1975) and My
Trial (London: 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. Greenberg 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.
Captain Henry Cecil Dudgeon D'arcy (1850-1881?), a New
Zealander decorated with the Victoria Cross in 1879 for
heroism in the Zulu War, is variously considered to have
committed suicide, died of exposure or faked his own death
and going on to under an assumed name in Natal until 1925.
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
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.
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. 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 (London:
Time Warner 1992) by Eunice Chapman, Allen's sometime
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 from
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 (Chatswood: New Holland 2007).
Owen Bruce Taylor of Auckland left behind a family, a
suicide note and NZ$3m debts for a new life in to Queenstown
as John Bowland. He gained work at a timber yard and even
became a director of the firm, before being uncovered
by a private investigator
acting on behalf of creditors.
Hong Kong resident Steven Chin Leung
was arrested in the US in 2002 after pretending that he
had died in the September 11 World Trade Centre attacks,
supposedly as an employee of Cantor Fitzgerald. He was
detected trying to obtain his own death certificate, posing
as his (non-existent) brother. The 'death' was an attempt
to evade prosecution in Hawaii for passport fraud.
Hackett of the UK pretended that he died in the 1999 Paddington
rail disaster, being exposed by his cousin and given a
suspended prison sentence in 2000. He had spent 20 years
prior to 1999 using another identity (as Lee Simm) after
a sex offence conviction.
In 2008 Singapore man Gandaruban Subramaniam was jailed
for three years after he faking his own death. He had
reportedly fled Singapore over 20 years previously amid
demands by creditors and illegal money lenders over failure
of his car rental business. After a stint in the UK he
settled in Sri Lanka, where he obtained a death certificate
- supposedly as a victim of the island's civil war - that
allowed his family to obtain US$243,600 insurance.
He returned to Singapore several times using a fake Sri
Lankan passport. Subramaniam also remarried his wife in
Sri Lanka in 1994, fathering a son (their fourth child)
two years later. He was arrested in Singapore in 2007;
his wife and brother were briefly imprisoned for their
part in the fraud.
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
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.
Controversial US hedge fund manager Samuel Israel III
triggered a four-week nationwide manhunt in 2008 after
faking his death - signalled by the message "suicide
is painless" - to avoid a 20 year federal prison
sentence after conviction for cheating investors out of
UK driver Shafkat Munir more bizarrely pretended that
he was dead to avoid paying £180 speeding fines.
In the guise of a friend he provided authorities with
a false death certificate, having supposedly died in Pakistan.
Inconsistencies in the certificate - perhaps he was using
a novelty docs mill -
were detected and after questioning Munir admitted perverting
the course of justice. In 2008 he was jailed for 12 months
and banned from driving for 18 months.
Bonnie McCaslin bought 78 life insurance policies on her
ex-husband Timothy, who knew nothing about the policies,
before seeking to collect US$11 million from over 20 insurers
by claiming he died in a Mexican earthquake. Her claims were unpersuasive,
rewarded with a two year prison sentence in Nebraska.
She is reported to have charmingly blamed Timothy: "He's
such a jerk. If it weren't for him, I wouldn't be in here".
Poseur Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) coopted major poet
Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) for his fake suicide, leaving
a suicide note at the Portuguese rock formation Boco
do Inferno (Mouth of Hell) in 1930 before slithering
off to Spain to savour accounts of his death. Pessoa dutifully
told reporters that he had seen Crowley's ghost the day
after the supposed death.
'Pseudocide' has fuelled fan literature, with enthusiasts
speculating that heroes and anti-heroes faked their own
deaths in order to live happily every after.
The Truth About Jesse James (Scotts Valley: CreateSpace
2008) by Betty Duke for example claims that Jesse James
off one of the biggest hoaxes in American history by
getting away with his own murder, assuming the alias
of James Courtney, and hightailing it to Texas where
he died of old age.
premises are questioned in 'Tales from the Crypt: Scientific,
Ethical, and Legal Considerations for Biohistorical Analysis
of Deceased Historical Figures' by Jordan Paradise &
Lori Andrews in 26 Temple Journal of Science, Technology
& Environmental Law (2007) 223-299.
Wyatt Evans' The Legend of John Wilkes Booth: Myth,
Memory, and a Mummy (Lawrence: Uni Press of Kansas
2004) examines the belief that Lincoln assassin John Wilkes
Booth escaped and lived until 1903 using the assumed identity
of David George.
Enrique Lardé's The Crown Prince Rudolf: His
Mysterious Life After Mayerling (Pittsburgh: Dorrance
1994) claims that Austro-Hungarian crown prince Rudolf
did not commit suicide at Mayerling in 1889 together with
lover Baroness Marie Vetsera. Rudolf was supposedly smuggled
out of Europe with a different identity. (Vetsera was
merely confined for life in a Carmelite convent.) Rudolf's
ship sank in a storm, with everyone except Rudolf (aka
Don Justo Armas) coming to a watery end. Where would we
be without storm-tossed seas?
Other writers have claimed sweet hereafters for people
as diverse as Adolf Hitler, Martin Bormann, Princess Diana,
Emperor Zhu Yunwen, Arthur Cravan, Grace Kelly, Jim Morrison
and of course Elvis Presley.
Deliriously whacko theories about the latter are highlighted
in 'Sex and Drugs and Rock'n'Roll: Urban Legends and Popular
Music' by Ian Inglis in 30(5) Popular Music and Society
A preceding page argued that in some contexts you are
who (or what) your papers say you are. Removing the papers
can equal removing an individual's identity or a group's
identity, illustrated by the Slovene Republic's 'un-birthing'
of members of some ethnic groups in 1992, who were simply
erased from state records in a form of ethnic cleansing.
Discussion of passports elsewhere on this sites notes
instances were people were stripped of passports or nationality
Unbirthing can be undertaken by private entities. Contemporary
practice in India has attracted attention, with the Uttar
Pradesh Mritak Sangh (Association of the Dead) in northern
India agitating on behalf of people who have been fraudulently
declared dead so that the scammer can receive the 'dead'
person's land. That declaration and transfer typically
involves official corruption, which inhibits efforts by
victims to gain justice. It is difficult for a peasant
to prove his or her identity when the government decides
who is dead or alive and generates most identity documentation.
'Raiding' (reiderstvo) in Russia and other parts of the
former Soviet Union has seen criminals - often working
for or allied with state officials - seize businesses
and real estate, strip assets and magic away pension entitlements
or other obligations to current/past employees by simply
seizing or destroying employment records and other documentation.
The state may concede that the victims exist but on occasion
proves reluctant to accept that they had rights to an
apartment or other real estate or were owed entitlements
from a particular employer, a particular issue if the
employer is gutted by a reiderstvo gang while the victim
seeks justice. Reiderstvo is the mirror image of some
'dead souls' identity scams discussed later
in this guide.
Some people on the run from the law have simply adopted
a new persona rather than faking their own death in an
effort to escape from justice.
Controversial Serbian politician Radovan
Karadzic for example evaded prosecution
for genocide by growing a beard and 'hiding in plain sight'
in Belgrade as medical practitioner Dr Dragan David Dabic.
Perhaps emboldened by support from sympathisers within
the government, 'Dr Dabic' made presentations at conferences,
was interviewed by the media and had a website.
War criminals have unsurprisingly used false identities
(sometimes with the knowledge or even direct complicity
of religious and other bodies). Examples include Klaus
Barbie, who lived in Bolivia as Klaus Altmann for thirty
years before he was arrested and returned to France for
trial, Adolf Eichmann,
Studies include Ernst Klee' Persilscheine und falsche
Pässe. Wie die Kirchen den Nazis halfen (Frankfurt:
Fischer 1991), Uki Goñi's The Real Odessa:
How Perón Brought the Nazi War Criminals to Argentina
(London: Granta 2002), Mark Aarons & John Loftus'
Ratlines (London: Heinemann 1991).
next page (true lies)