Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud by Elizabeth GreenwoodPlaying Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud by Elizabeth Greenwood

Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud

byElizabeth Greenwood

Paperback | August 15, 2017

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“A delightful read for anyone tantalized by the prospect of disappearing without a trace.” —Erik Larson, New York Times bestselling author of Dead Wake

“Delivers all the lo-fi spy shenanigans and caught-red-handed schadenfreude you’re hoping for.” —NPR

“A lively romp.” —The Boston Globe

“Grim fun.” —The New York Times

“Brilliant topic, absorbing book.” —The Seattle Times

“The most literally escapist summer read you could hope for.” —The Paris Review

Is it still possible to fake your own death in the twenty-first century? With six figures of student loan debt, Elizabeth Greenwood was tempted to find out. So off she sets on a darkly comic foray into the world of death fraud, where for $30,000 a consultant can make you disappear—but your suspicious insurance company might hire a private detective to dig up your coffin...only to find it filled with rocks.

Greenwood tracks down a British man who staged a kayaking accident and then returned to live in his own house while all his neighbors thought he was dead. She takes a call from Michael Jackson (no, he’s not dead—or so her new acquaintances would have her believe), stalks message boards for people contemplating pseudocide, and gathers intel on black market morgues in the Philippines, where she may or may not obtain some fraudulent goodies of her own. Along the way, she learns that love is a much less common motive than money, and that making your death look like a drowning virtually guarantees that you’ll be caught. (Disappearing while hiking, however, is a way great to go.)

Playing Dead is a charmingly bizarre investigation in the vein of Jon Ronson and Mary Roach into our all-too-human desire to escape from the lives we lead, and the men and women desperate enough to give up their lives—and their families—to start again.
Title:Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death FraudFormat:PaperbackProduct dimensions:272 pages, 8.38 X 5.5 X 0.8 inShipping dimensions:272 pages, 8.38 X 5.5 X 0.8 inPublished:August 15, 2017Publisher:Simon & SchusterLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:147673934X

ISBN - 13:9781476739342

Appropriate for ages: All ages

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Read from the Book

Playing Dead 1 HOW TO DISAPPEAR When Sam Israel III woke up on a hot Monday in June 2008, he had already decided it was a good day to die. He’d lost everything. He had lost his job as founder and CEO of the Bayou Hedge Fund Group, his reputation as a guy who could double your money, and his family in an ugly divorce. And more than $450 million of his investors’ dollars. That day, Sam was supposed to be reporting to Devens Prison in Massachusetts. At his sentencing hearing a few months earlier, he’d been handed twenty-two years for financial malfeasance and fraud—one of the harshest punishments a white-collar criminal had ever received. His Ponzi scheme was one of the largest to date, until Bernie Madoff’s crimes surfaced eight months later. Sam thought he’d do three to five, but the judge surprised him with seventeen more than he had expected. Something about Sam Israel rubbed people the wrong way. He always seemed to be smirking. He refused to mimic the narrative of regret and atonement so many scammers adopt, at least after they get busted. Even the feds in court that day were stunned by the severity of Judge Colleen McMahon’s decision. As he was being led out of the courtroom, an FBI agent leaned in and whispered to Sam, “I have two words for you: Costa Rica.” Going on the run hadn’t crossed Sam’s mind, but the agent’s words stuck with him. And since an officer of the court had presented him with the idea, though jokingly, he thought he’d been given the green light. By now, Sam understood that things were often not what they seemed. In his mind, his crime had not been typical Wall Street greed or a pyramid scheme. As he understood it, he’d been tapped by the Octopus, an international conglomerate that dictated all financial markets. He had entered a world where he believed that a shadow market secretly controlled the Federal Reserve and that he had survived attempts on his life. While others thought he’d been a pawn in a long con, Sam now saw the world’s power structures as deeply connected and profoundly duplicitous. Messages could be anywhere, and an FBI agent was not the most outlandish emissary. After his sentencing in April 2008, a limousine dropped off Sam with his mother and his girlfriend in the driveway of the house he’d been renting since his divorce. They were all in shock. Twenty-two years. He was forty-nine; he might as well have been handed a life sentence. Bright yellow pollen from budding trees blanketed the GMC Envoy truck that he rarely drove—it was simply one among his fleet of a half dozen cars. His mother asked Sam what he was going to do. In the neon scrim of pollen dust, he traced the message “suicide is painless” onto the hood. She told him the joke (which also happens to be the theme song from M*A*S*H), if it was one, was not in any way funny. Costa Rica. Of course! The country was a metaphor for escape. It meant save yourself; don’t go down without a fight. And he would heed the advice. But he wouldn’t defect south of the border. Inspired by the Robin Williams comedy RV that Sam happened to catch on late-night TV one night around the time of his sentencing, he realized that he’d already seen the world, but not much of his own country. Why not hide in plain sight, in a mobile home? In just a few short weeks between his sentencing and surrender date, he cobbled together an exit plan. Disguised in a hat and sunglasses, he bought a laptop at Best Buy in the Palisades Mall. He found an RV for sale on Craigslist, just like the one Williams commandeered in the film, and purchased it from an elderly Long Island couple for $55,000 cash. He told them he was a professional poker player. Sam tapped the former CIA and Mossad connections he had established through the Octopus. They helped him score IDs and a Social Security number in the name of David Klapp, an Iowa man who had died in 2001. He got a parking permit for all five boroughs of New York, a gun permit, a library card, and signed up as a night school student at a local community college. In three days, he had a new identity and the authenticating documents to prove it. He told a friend he had business to take care of at West Point, and needed a ride. He wanted to check out the Bear Mountain Bridge as a place to stage his suicide but knew he needed to avoid photos of his own car being taken at the tollbooth. Sam didn’t spot any cameras on the bridge itself, and he noticed that the southern lane was cordoned off, with construction nets hanging beneath. If he could swing it, he could step out over the ledge and fall into the net. He’d look like just another disgraced Wall Streeter who would as soon take his own life before paying his debt to society and his investors. No one would miss the man who had lost millions, whose constant smirk reporters’ cameras had plastered on the nightly news. On that Monday in June, Sam parked the RV at a truck stop off Route 684 in Brewster. He paid Hassan, the twentysomething nephew of one of his Mossad associates, a wad of hundreds to help him stage his death. Hassan would tail the convicted man’s truck and wait for him on the other side. Sam had several cars he could’ve driven that day, but he took the Envoy because the family rarely used it. It got such little mileage that he’d forgotten the prescient suicide note he’d written on the hood weeks prior. He parked the truck at a vista point overlooking the Hudson River and then got into Hassan’s Nissan. They drove back over the bridge at fifteen miles per hour to make sure that repairmen weren’t working on the construction site that day. Sam thought back to the FBI agent’s Costa Rica suggestion. He’d been given the green light, right? There would be sacrifices. He wouldn’t have contact with his family, and he’d have to go underground for a few years. The thought of not seeing his kids—a boy in junior high and a girl in high school—was distressing. Even in the throes of his divorce and legal troubles, they’d never spent more than a week apart. But anything was better than rotting in prison. When Hassan dropped him back off at the Envoy, Sam started to obsess over the things he’d be leaving behind for the cops to find. His own wallet, IDs, and credit cards were on the passenger seat. He considered writing a real suicide note but decided against it. That’d be too cute. Let them figure the fucking thing out, he thought. He opened up the back tailgate and smoked a cigarette. He walked over to Hassan’s car. They were both jumpy with nerves. “I have to be out of my mind,” Sam told Hassan. “Look, man,” Hassan said, “either way, you are dead. So at least now you’ll choose your own end. This is crazy, but you may live and be free. You know you’re crazy,” he added. “So just do the fucking thing!” In that loaded moment, Sam received Hassan’s wisdom—that he was fucking crazy and to just do the fucking thing—as from a divine oracle. He would do it. But he’d given Hassan’s uncle a contingency plan. Late the night before, they’d been drinking Scotch, and Sam said that if things went south—if he missed the narrow construction net and plummeted to the Hudson River below—Hassan should give $200,000 to Sam’s girlfriend and the rest to his son. Sell the RV, but wipe it of any evidence and fingerprints first. He paused, as if waiting for some act of God to intervene, something that would prevent him from slamming the truck door shut and doubling back across the bridge. But nothing happened. So Sam climbed in, alone, and turned on the engine. He reflected on his life as he drove. What had brought him to this point? How the fuck did it come to this, man? He’d believed he was a good person, but in the last few years, he’d gotten away from himself. He’d lied to his investors when he didn’t have to. He’d gotten divorced, and he had never considered himself the type to end a marriage. He’d joined an underworld where secrets ran deep. Nothing was what it seemed. But as he circled the rotary back across the bridge, he smiled. No matter what, he was free already. It didn’t matter how much work lay ahead of him, or if he lived another fifty years or fifteen minutes. The decision had been made. Today was a good day to die. He drove up and paid the toll. “HIS WHOLE ‘SUICIDE IS painless’ thing?” Frank Ahearn says. “What, did he think the feds were going to show up and say, ‘Hmmmm, he wrote a suicide note on his truck, he must have jumped off the bridge! All right, fellas, let’s go home!’ ” Frank shakes his head wearily. “He conforms to a category of a thief with no walk-away plan.” I’m talking to Frank Ahearn to get an expert opinion on faking death in general and on Sam Israel in particular. We are sitting in his garment district office in New York City: a converted factory ensconced between a modeling agency and a drag queen costumer. Frank is the coauthor of How to Disappear: Erase Your Digital Footprint, Leave False Trails, and Vanish Without a Trace, a manual for those who want to do just that, and he took a special interest in Sam’s case, one of the higher-profile instances of pseudocide in recent years. Sam is one of Frank’s favorite “morons and idiots.” He fits a certain death fraud trend that’s all too familiar. “None of these white-collar criminals plan their exit. They just keep going until it all falls down. If he’d thought about his exit plan as smartly as he’d thought about his crime, he’d be in a lovely locale right now, enjoying his money.” Frank knows all about planning the exit. Billing himself as a “privacy consultant,” Ahearn is the self-proclaimed “world’s top expert” on helping people dissolve their identities, physically and digitally. In other words, he helps people disappear—which, he instructed me, is a very different act than helping someone to fake his or her death. Frank is in his fifties and resembles a Hells Angel. The word Freedom is tattooed across his broad shoulders. His speech is prone to Bronx inflection, and he uses profanity in a way that borders on Zen poetry. (“Some days, life is a shitty piece of shit.”) He doesn’t buy politicians’ platitudes: “I think the government blows, in plain English. They’re a bunch of lying mothafahkas.” And he believes in the right to protect and conceal one’s privacy. Though he does not recommend pseudocide, and claims that he never helped any of his clients fake a death, he wrote a chapter in his book on the phenomenon. I sought out Frank because of his peculiar expertise. A question had been plaguing me, one I hadn’t yet been able to answer with any satisfaction: Is it possible to fake your death in the twenty-first century, and, if so, what does it really take? Here was someone who had made a business out of obscuring people, so the most dramatic kind of disappearance—pseudocide—must have crossed his desk. For someone who helps people disappear for a living, Frank works very much out in the open. He has lent his expertise to the New York Times and National Public Radio on famous missing persons cases such as the Boston gangster Whitey Bulger, who evaded capture for sixteen years, and fabled hijacker D. B. Cooper, who in 1971 parachuted out of a Boeing 727 with $200,000 in ransom money and has never been seen since. If Sam were a case study in how not to fake your own death, I hoped that Frank would be my Rosetta stone for how to pull it off. But obtaining an audience with the world-famous privacy consultant proved more difficult than finding him in the first place. I’d tried to meet with Frank for over six months before he finally relented. He would cancel at the last minute every time. He bailed on me while I was waiting for him at a Starbucks on a rainy March afternoon, and when I was downstairs from his office in a skuzzy roller-rink-smelling lobby that shares an address with Fabric Czar USA. He simply texted me “Sry Cant Today.” As with a bad boyfriend, the more Ahearn pushed me away, the more determined I became to win him over. If he was going to play hard to get, I would meet him with equal and opposing resolve. Each time I set out to meet Frank, my well-intentioned friends warned me to be careful. Why the heck would I need to be careful? This guy charges more for his services to disappear people than I make in a year, so I felt pretty confident he wouldn’t do me in for free. One steamy summer afternoon, I head out for yet another meeting, steeled for disappointment and prepared to reverse course back home when he cancels. But moments before our appointed time, my phone has yet to buzz and deliver bad news. Even the elevator ride up to meet him feels victorious. I have finally managed to move beyond the lobby. An unmarked white door swings open, and Frank, six foot four, with his hair scraped into a thin ponytail, extends a meaty hand, splotchy blue tattoos coiling up his forearms. “How ya doin’, hon?” he says before leading me through a honeycomb of offices separated by flimsy particleboard. After all his evasions, this is like getting an audience with the Pope. He is warm and engaging, a far cry from the slippery front he’d used to stonewall me. I ask him why he’d blown me off for so long, and he admits that he thought I was merely posing as a writer and was actually going to serve him papers. He takes precautions with nosy inquirers: “If you look me up, you’ll find an address in the Bronx for me, which is actually my brother, and if you ring the doorbell, he’ll stick a gun in your face.” And given the fuzzy area of the law his work occupies, he possesses a healthy skepticism about anyone who contacts him. “You’re a cop, a criminal, or crazy until proven otherwise,” he says. And he doesn’t help criminals. Frank is a god of high bullshit. Not the kind of bullshit that is necessarily lying, but the kind of storytelling that seduces anyone, anywhere. His infinite yarns—from growing up on the city’s mean streets to scoring criminal records from a pay phone—establish an immediate intimacy, as he inserts your name into the million hypothetical scenarios he constructs to illustrate his dark work. Frank tells his story like an origin myth, replete with American up-by-your-bootstraps redemption, self-made entrepreneurship, and the right to individual privacy. And a little bit of bullshit. To my dismay, it turned out that Frank frowns upon death fraud. But only out of pragmatism: he says it simply doesn’t work. “If your purpose is to defraud an insurance company, there are guys who are paid to check you out,” he explains. “Grave robbing—finding a kid who died at a young age—doesn’t work today. Twenty years ago, you could walk into the Social Security office and say, ‘I’ve never worked, but I just got a job, and I need a card,’ and they would give it to you if you had a fake birth certificate. Death records are now connected to Social Security records, but it didn’t used to be like that.” As Eileen Horan, Frank’s former employee, ex-fiancée, and coauthor of How to Disappear, would explain later, “There’s always one factor you can’t count on when you fake your death. You’re doubling your chances of getting caught.” Ahearn echoed her sentiments: “Think about any crime. Usually police don’t catch them in the act, they catch them for the broken headlight on their car.” Which is exactly what happened to Bennie Wint, who had been presumed dead since staging his drowning off the coast of Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1989. He’d been involved in a narcotics ring, and, swept up in paranoia, he believed the cops were onto him. He was vacationing at the beach with his fiancée, Patricia Hollingsworth. After swimming about a mile down the shore beyond the breakers and vanishing from view with $6,500 stuffed into his swim trunks, he emerged from the water, dried off, and bought a T-shirt at a nearby store. While Hollingsworth reported him missing to the beach patrol, he hitched a ride with a trucker to Ozark, Alabama, and ran a business selling NASCAR merchandise for twenty years, going by the name William James Sweet. During his tenure as Sweet, he shacked up with a common-law wife and had a son, whom he named after himself. But he never filed for an ID under his new alias. So twenty years later, when he was pulled over in North Carolina, where he’d been living with his new family, for not having a $1.50 lightbulb over the license plate of his car, he couldn’t produce a driver’s license and was booked in jail as John Doe. But Bennie Wint left behind a grieving fiancée and a four-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. Wint took the precaution of avoiding identity fraud but got caught on the most mundane infraction instead. He was charged with driving without a license and giving a false name to the police. After coming clean, he told reporters, “The person I was died, in my opinion. I will never be that person again. I will always be Bill Sweet.” Wint’s case illustrates the problem of determining any reliable statistics for how many people successfully fake their deaths and disappear: we learn only about the failures. On average, ninety thousand people are missing in the United States at any time. But how many of those people disappear intentionally? In my highly unscientific data collection via Google alerts, I noticed a would-be death fraudster making headlines every few weeks. Since the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, a national alliance of consumer groups, public interest organizations, government agencies, and insurers, began keeping records in 1990, 564 cases of life insurance fraud were reported. That averages out to roughly 23 cases per year that get flagged. Not exactly endemic, but two dozen industrious people faking their deaths and getting caught still speaks to a lot of folks with equal parts chutzpah, greed, and shoddy planning skills. But what of death fakers who don’t attempt to collect on a policy, or remember to replace their license plate lightbulb? For every Israel and Wint, perhaps there is an undead doppelganger kicking back in Margaritaville, or maybe even walking among us. I couldn’t help but wonder if the people who’d gotten caught faking their deaths simply hadn’t been proactive enough. Are they really “morons and idiots”? Or is it possible that they just aren’t doing it right? Or are their foiled attempts perhaps inevitable in our digital age? IN HIS AUTHOR PHOTO on How to Disappear, Frank Ahearn is lit from the side like a late-career Marlon Brando. Despite the book’s large print and his liberal deployment of the word fuck as noun, adjective, and verb, he has written an exhaustive guide to disappearing in the twenty-first century, and it sells more than 150 copies per week. It hit the New York Times Nonfiction Best Sellers list in 2014, four years after it was published. Disappearing is clearly on the minds of many. In his book, Frank discourages readers from faking their deaths, claiming that it’s “highly illegal.” But, in fact, there is no law on the books called “faking your death.” Sam Israel got two years heaped onto his prison sentence for obstruction of justice. 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 case of Adam Emery. Adam and his wife, Elena, appeared to have plunged from the Claiborne Pell Bridge in Newport in 1993. The young couple abandoned their Toyota Camry on the bridge, also leaving behind packaging for eighty pounds of strap-on weights. This occurred just three hours after he was convicted of stabbing a twenty-year-old man to death but somehow was allowed out on bail. In September 1994, pieces of Elena’s skull were positively identified. Adam’s remains have never been found. After eleven years with no sign of him, Judge Procaccini pronounced Emery dead so that his family could collect life insurance money. If you even try to rent a bike or apply for a library card with another identity, and especially if you try to cash in a life insurance policy, 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. But some do. Petra Pazsitka, a German woman, seems to have pulled off a fully legal faked death for over three decades. Paztiska was a twenty-four-year-old computer science student in 1984 when she was last seen boarding a bus in Braunschweig. One year earlier, a fourteen-year-old girl had been murdered in the vicinity. Her parents reached out to a crime stoppers television show to solve the cold case, and in 1985 a carpenter’s apprentice, a nineteen-year-old known as Gunter K., was arrested and confessed to murdering the fourteen-year-old, and later to murdering Pazsitka as well. Petra was declared dead. At fifty-five years old, she was resurrected when she alerted police to a burglary taking place at her Dusseldorf home. When police asked her for identification, she introduced herself as “Mrs. Schneider,” but couldn’t produce any official documents. She had spent the past thirty-one years bouncing between different German cities, without any government ID or bank accounts, and paying for everything in cash. She told police she “wanted nothing to do with her family” and no contact with the public. She refused to give any motive for her disappearance. Since she committed no life insurance or identity fraud, she was not charged with any criminal offense. She did, however, have to register herself with German authorities as alive. I find this refreshing. As morally questionable as faking death might be, at least you can pull it off while still being a good citizen. As Frank explains, “Picking up your suitcase and going to the bus stop is not a crime. Is it against the law to walk out on your wife or husband? I don’t think so.” Not that being on the right side of the law much interested Frank Ahearn. He didn’t start out in the disappearing business. He actually got his start finding people in the course of a fifteen-year stint as a skip tracer. A skip tracer, in Frank’s words, is a “liar for hire.” Skip tracers locate people and uncover their most intimate information. The difference between a private investigator and a skip tracer is that a PI must be licensed. Kurt Duesterdick, a PI himself and a friend of Frank’s, explains: “The state police perform a crazy background check to license PIs. Let’s just say there are a lot of skip tracers who couldn’t get licenses.” Skip tracers can extract hard-to-get information for police, PIs, lawyers, and anyone else with enough cash, because they don’t get bogged down in pesky details such as warrants or privacy laws. Frank has tracked down deadbeat dads and missing witnesses, and accessed the checking accounts of financiers suspected of embezzling money. He has worked with tabloids targeting celebrities. One of his main c

Editorial Reviews

“If your life totally sucks then simply end it and start a new one. Elizabeth Greenwood’s creepy and hilarious foray into death fakery shows you how.”
— Simon Doonan, author of The Asylum and Beautiful People