Famous Failed Faked Deaths

by M-Gillies
Painting of Juliet in bed surrounded by grieving people

In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet fakes her own death to avoid marrying Paris.

In William Shakespeare’s classic play Romeo and Juliet, the titular character Juliet fakes her own death to avoid marrying Paris so she could instead be with her lover Romeo. While this act leads to the ultimate demise of both Romeo and herself, there have, throughout the years, been a number of cases in which an individual leaves evidence to suggest they had died, in order to mislead others.

Often this act of faking one’s death is done for fraudulent reasons, such as to collect insurance money or to avoid capture by law enforcement for a crime committed. For those who have faked their own deaths, the most common form is to pretend to drown, which leaves a plausible reason for the absence of a body. Below is a list of some notable and recent faked deaths:

KEN KESEY the American author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was arrested for marijuana possession in 1965. To avoid any prison time and to further mislead police, Kesey faked his death by having friends leave his truck on a Cliffside road, along with an elaborate suicide note. During that time, Kesey fled to Mexico, hiding in the back of a friend’s car.

However, when Kesey returned to the United States eight months later, he was promptly arrested and sent to the San Mateo County Jail in Redwood City, California for five months.

JOHN DARWIN was a former British teacher and prison officer, who on the side used to rent apartments. Owning 12 houses, he and his wife ran into debts amounting to tens of thousands of dollars, which prompted Darwin to toy with the idea of faking his own death to claim the insurance money in early 2002.

On March 21, 2002, Darwin was last seen paddling out to sea in his canoe, but after failing to report to work, he was declared missing which led to a large-scale sea search. While the search found no body, Darwin’s double-ended paddle was retrieved from the sea the following day, along with the wreckage of his canoe.

For the remainder of the year that Darwin was presumed dead, he resided for some time in an apartment next to the family home, before moving back in with his wife Anne in early 2003. With a death certificate issued, Anne was given a large amount of money, allowing her to pay off the mortgage.

For the next five years, Darwin assumed an alias and with his wife, flew to Panama, where they formed a new business and purchased properties. However, it was only after Panama’s visa laws changed, which required UK police verification, that Darwin decided to return to the UK, claiming to have lost his memory.

While Anne was still residing in Panama at the time that Darwin returned to the UK, the police had already grown suspicious of the man’s wife. It wasn’t long before an investigation was able to trace Darwin’s falsified passports, piecing together his movements for the last five years, thus implicating Anne as well as him in fraud.

TIMOTHY DEXTER was known as an eccentric American businessman, who married a rich widow in 1770. It was during this era that many social contemporaries looked down upon him and his business sense and attempted to discredit him by offering bad advice. However, despite the attempts to sabotage his fortune, Dexter only grew wealthier.

During the end of the American Revolutionary War, he bought large amounts of depreciated Continental currency, which while considered worthless, was able to capitalize on his accumulated wealth when the US government resumed trade connections. This prompted Dexter to build two ships so he could export to West Indies and Europe.

In one instance, he was given tongue-in-cheek advice to ship coal to Newcastle – an idiom meaning a foolhardy or pointless action, as Newcastle was heavily dependent on the distribution and sale of coal. However, he shipped coal during a miner’s strike, allowing his shipment to be sold at a premium.

Another such export came when he shipped Bibles to the East Indies and stray cats to Caribbean islands. Because eastern missionaries were in need of Bibles and the Caribbean were seeking a resolution to their rat infestation, Dexter’s exports soon saw him amass more profit.

But his more eccentric behavior came when he wrote an 8,847 word memoir entitled A Pickle for the Knowing Ones or Plain Truth in a Homespun Dress, in which no punctuation was used and words were randomly capitalized. Though he had given the book out for free, its popularity soon saw it reprinted in eight editions with the second edition containing an extra page consisting of 13 lines of punctuation marks, which Dexter instructed readers to distribute as they pleased.

Then Dexter decided to announce his own death, urging people to prepare for his burial. With 3,000 people attending his mock wake, the crowd soon grew disappointed when they heard a still living Dexter screaming at his wife for what he claimed was her lack of grieving properly.

JOHN STONEHOUSE was a British Labour Party politician and junior minister who had set up a number of companies in an attempt to secure a regular income, but when his businesses fell into financial trouble, he began cooking his books. It was only when the Department of Trade and Industry began looking into his affairs in 1974 that Stonehouse faked his own death.

Leaving a pile of clothes on a Miami beach, Stonehouse flew to Australia hoping to start a new life with his mistress. However, after being recognized taking falsely deposited money from banks, the police began to suspect his identity (wrongly believing him to be the fugitive Lord Ducan, who had faked his own death two weeks before Stonehouse).

It was six months after his discovery that he was deported back to the UK and was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison for fraud.

GRAHAM CARDWELL was an assistant dockmaster in North East Lincolnshire, who one day in 1998 suddenly disappeared . After an extensive air and sea search found a lifejacket and helmet belonging to Cardwell, it was presumed he had been carried out to sea while preforming his routine checks at the dockyards.

Eight months later, police received information from an anonymous informant telling them of the location of Cardwell. It was in the West Midlands, where Cardwell had assumed a new identity, and when the police apprehended him, he informed them he had been suffering from depression due to a belief he was dying from cancer. His reason for staging his death was to prevent his family from learning of his condition. No charges were laid.

AIMEE MCPHERSON otherwise known as Sister Aimee was a Canadian-American, Los Angeles-based evangelist from the 1920s and 1030s. Recognized as a pioneer in the use of modern media, particularly radio, she was the second woman granted a broadcast license and further formed the Foursquare Church. 

However, it was in 1926 when McPherson went to Ocean Park Beach north of Venice Beach to go swimming. Shortly after arriving, she was reported missing, with many believing she had drowned. With the announcement of her death there were days of media coverage, along with county and parishioners holding seaside vigils day and night. Throughout this ordeal, one parishioner drowned searching for McPherson’s body while another diver died of exposure.

Shortly after her announced death, ransom notes were sent to her Church demanding $500,000, however police dismissed these as fraudulent hoaxes. A month after her disappearance, McPherson was found stumbling out of a desert near a Mexican town, claiming to have been kidnapped, drugged and tortured.

While she was returned safely, the media sensationalized her story, reporting contradictory tales, leading the D.A. to charge her with perjury. However, all charges were eventually dropped.

SAMUEL ISRAEL III an American hedge fund manager was facing 20 years in prison for fraud when his GMC Envoy was found abandoned with the words Suicide is Painless written in dust on the hood, on June 10, 2008. Though this seemed like a way of faking his own death, police suspected the ploy for what it was, an attempt to avoid a prison sentence. Shortly after, the police arrested Israel’s girlfriend, who confessed to the ruse, prompting Israel to surrender to federal authorities a month later. Because he failed to report to prison on June 9, his prison sentence was extended an additional two years for faking his death.

BILL GROTHE’S wife reported her husband missing late in the evening of November 19, 2009. For the prominent 62-year-old Nashville music attorney, his disappearance was muddled in mystery. His car was found in a park, a grocery bag containing some of his personal belongings were found discarded in front of an East Nashville home, and his wallet and leather jacket, soon found along a riverbank.

However, if planting evidence with identification declaring it belonged to Grothe wasn’t enough, the police soon received a phone call from a man claiming to have murdered Grothe. Police then matched the voice to the one on Grothe’s outgoing voicemail message and determined that the person was non other than Grothe himself.

He was later found in Missoula, Montana and ordered to pay $13,000 – the amount it cost to search for him.

PHILIP SESSAREGO had a dream of becoming a member of the Special Air Services (SAS) of the British Army, and after serving in the Royal Artillery for a few years underwent the SAS Selection in 1973, a process which takes five weeks and starts with roughly 200 potential candidates. But despite his ambition, Sessarego failed the SAS’s stringent entrance test… twice. Then, in the early 90s, news came that Sessarego had died.

Years later, Tom Carew emerged and quickly catapulted into infamy with his book Jihad!, written as an account of his role training Afghan insurgents against Soviet invaders during the eighties. The book was on its way to becoming a New York Times Bestseller after its publication on September 17, 2001. The book’s timing couldn’t have been more perfect. With the 9/11 attacks dominating airways, Carew saw his exposure increasing as news outlets such as CNN and BBC requested interviews with an expert claiming to have had 20 years experience with the SAS.

However for Carew, things took a vicious turn for the worse when, after two years had passed, he was exposed as a fraud. The man everyone had known as Carew was soon revealed to be none other than Sessarego.

It was back in 1975, when Sessarego was discharged from the army. At the age of 23, he had failed to live up to his dream. Instead, with the connections he had made, he soon found work as a mercenary, working high-paying operations in Africa, Malaysia and Afghanistan. But his journey soon changed when a retired, long-serving ex SAS officer known as Harold Darkie Davidson, took the young man under his wing.

It was through Davidson that Sessarego was introduced to the world of mercenaries and private military companies, where he worked in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, the Balkans, Latin America and southern Africa. During this period of his life, Sessarego fought alongside ex-members of the SAS and soon saw himself as one of an elite group, citing his life as a mercenary had been as difficult and dangerous as that of an SAS soldier.

By 1991, Sessarego had faked his death, with local newspapers claiming he had been killed in a bomb explosion in Croatia. It was during this time that Sessarego assumed the new identity Philip Stevenson, and soon sent his manuscript to a London literary agent, describing his adventures in Afghanistan.

After being confronted by a news crew over his faked identity, Sessarego soon fled, moving to Antwerp, where he became involved with the Belgian underworld while living in a rented garage. On November 2008, his body had been found in the garage with a cause of death being attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning.

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