Up Close: The truth about faking one's own death
"There are more than a thousand fake deaths a year"
11:03 PM CST on Thursday, November 13, 2003
Death is inevitable, final, the end.
For some it seems it's just the beginning. Not because they are moving on to the afterlife, they may be just moving on.
People like James Harrison.
"It was about 6:00 in the evening and when I first arrived here," says Sgt. David Rogers with the Galveston Police Department. "There was a small pickup truck sitting right here."
It's not the truck left for days that had investigators interested. It was blood outside on the passenger side, inside too, on the windows, on the seat and on the door.
But something was strange.
"It wasn't right," says Rogers. "It didn't look like anything from a mortal wound. It looked like something that was placed random."
The blood was in lines, no pattern crime scene technicians had seen before. And there wasn't a body.
As for leads, "Dead ends, all of them were dead ends," says Rogers. "Every one of them a dead end."
Which left plenty of questions. Questions like wasn't James Harrison supposed to appear in court on a drug charge the day after his truck was found?
Still, "We really didn't have much to go on. Nothing developed," says Rogers. "The trail just stopped cold."
So the case file hit the shelf.
"It was almost four years to the day," says Lt. Matt Stanish. This past July Stanish got a phone call with information about James Harrison. A body had been found. "He was arrested in California by California authorities in Orange County."
James Harrison was back from the dead, alive and well.
And he's not alone.
"There are more than a thousand fake deaths a year," says James Quiggle with the Coalition against Insurance Fraud. "It probably runs in the range of $100 million to $200 million a year in fake claims."
And there are plenty of those in Texas.
On February 25, 2001 the Coast Guard got a report of a man overboard off a sailboat. It was in Galveston Bay just off Kemah. For 30 hours they scoured the area looking for Mark David Warren. Until they compared his picture to the man who made the missing persons report. It was one and the same.
Guadalupe Vondy was supposed to have died in a car crash in Mexico. Her husband, Harry Vondy, had a death certificate. He scattered his wife's ashes in the ocean. Four years later both were arrested on mail fraud charges. They'd faked the whole thing.
"As a rule? Greed, love and greed," says Quiggle. "It's greed about two thirds of the time."
Steven Rambam finds people, live ones, hiding ones, dead ones, too.
"She supposedly fell into a river outside of the capital city," he says. Earlier this year he was hired by a major insurance company to see if a bank executive was really dead.
The story seemed plausible enough. "She drowned and was buried. There was a grave and a death certificate," says Rambam. But it never happened. "In fact, she was alive and in Europe."
But these schemes aren't always as complicated as staging a death at sea or possibly putting together a big accident in a foreign country. It could be as simple as finding a busy place like the boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and just walking away.
Even in cases where insurance fraud is uncovered there are very few convictions.
"A lot of it is a budget issue," says Rambam. "And that, even in the United States, law enforcement doesn't see this as a big deal."
In fact there are no convictions ever for someone faking their death, because that in itself is not a crime.
So back in Galveston the James Harrison investigation is closed. "As strange as it may sound we have no criminal case pending against Mr. Harrison," says Lt. Matt Stanish. "You might say in a way this was a totally victimless crime."
Without much threat of prosecution people continue to try and die, only to live again.
"They think, 'who's gonna find me here'?" says Rambam. "They don't understand that there is always a trail, and there is always a mistake."
You don't have to tell that to James Harrison.
It may seem like a victimless crime. But the victim may end up being you. The Coalition against Insurance Fraud says few of these cases are followed up on because they're very complicated. It adds that the number of fake death cases each year is increasing, and that's expected to continue.
James Harrison pleaded guilty to the original drug charge he faced before he disappeared. He'll be sentenced next month.