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The walking dead

Edited version published in Men's Style #24 (Summer 2007-2008)

Many a lost and lonely soul has departed this mortal coil by committing suicide, figuring, as Kurt Cobain did when he quoted Neil Young in the world’s most over-analyzed suicide note that it’s better to burn out than fade away. But self-annihilation at its most literal is not the only way to put an end to it all - there is also fake death, an increasingly popular coping mechanism for those that have not so much made a go of life as turned it into a festering pile of self destructive shite. Both are tinged with an unhealthy dose of desperation, but if suicide is for the pained and cowardly pessimist, fake death is for the brave and cunning daredevil optimist. Provided you really mean it, it’s not that hard to kill yourself. But getting away with faking your own death? Now that takes smarts.

Dalliances of the fake death kind cover the whole spectrum, from purely paper-based exercises to fully fledged necromania. Avoidance and escapism are the common denominators – avoiding debts, avoiding jail, avoid real live death at the hands of unsavory underworld types…or simply avoiding paying fees at the local video store. Corey Taylor of Chicago, unimpressed at the prospect of having to pay $175 to get out of his mobile phone contract, fashioned a death certificate and had a friend fax it to his provider. Texan youth pastor Kevin Othell Laferney left his blood-stained pickup truck at a park, just days before he was due in court on charges of aggravated child sexual assault and jumping bail. "He tried to make it look like foul play," said Lt. David Dickerson, head of investigation at the Upshur County Sheriff's Office. "Of course, we didn't buy that."

There must be something in the water in Texas. After months of meticulous research, 22 year old Molly Daniels dug up an 81 year old woman's corpse and staged a fiery car accident to fake her husband's death. Three days before her beloved was due to report to jail, police found a burned-out Chevrolet at the bottom of a roadside cliff. The corpse behind the wheel was unrecognizable, its head and limbs burned away.  Just days later Daniels made a claim on a $110,000 life insurance policy, and a few weeks later she introduced her new boyfriend to friends and family - oddly like her deceased husband, but with dyed black hair. In 2005 Daniels pleaded guilty to felony charges of insurance fraud and hindering apprehension, and is now serving the maximum 20 years in prison.

The website 43 things, where bloggers share their deepest desires with the world, puts things into perspective. 489 want to be a millionaire. 192 people want to break a bone. 62 people want to dominate the world. 54 people want to do naughty things, and 47 want to fake their own deaths.  One blogger muses;

“You could just leave and act like you got kidnapped. It would be nice, but you might get lonely. When people are around I want to be alone, when I’m alone I want people around. I think I’ve felt this way since my cat of 15 years died.” (He also wants to move out of his parent’s house, live underground, pray more often, and find a girlfriend.) Another blogger claims to have faked his own death five times over the past 15 years, shedding his identity like a snake sheds its skin. He brags about it in the blasé, devil may care way of many a chat room conversation, but for forensic psychologist Jeremy Parker, warning bells ring.
“Staging your own death or assuming a new personality is a very conscious and deliberate act. It would indicate to me that the person is quite insecure about themselves and most likely to have a personality disorder or a serious mental health disorder. There are probably elements of schizophrenia or schizoid personality disorder where someone has problems integrating, or histrionic or narcissistic personality traits. These types of people might be more likely to want to assume a new identity and stage their own death.”
Like British Labour MP John Stonehouse, who spent months rehearsing his new identity as Joseph Markham, the dead husband of a constituent. He left a pile of clothes on Miami Beach in 1974 to make it seem as if he had drowned while swimming. Stonehouse was later found in Australia with a false passport, attempting to start a new life with his secretary cum mistress. Stonehouse claimed to have suffered a ‘brainstorm’. A psychiatric report reveals "…he spent short periods posing as Mr Markham, a ‘private and honest’ individual, which apparently led to reduced tension. He began to dislike the personality of Stonehouse and came to believe that his wife, colleagues and friends would be better off without him. He therefore devised his escape to get away from the identity of Stonehouse. He thought of suicide but, deciding that this was not the answer, devised a 'suicide equivalent'." Stonehouse was returned to the UK and sentenced to seven years' imprisonment after being found guilty of 18 counts of fraud, deception and theft.

Lack of planning and complacency are two common traps for people trying to pull something like this off, according to private investigator Jonathan Creighton. “Faking your own death is a pretty full on thing to do,” says Creighton. “To remain hidden you need to keep your guard up 24/7. To do that for any extended period of time is impossible. It may take several days or several years to come through, but I think if you disappear, one way or the other, eventually you’re going to be recognised by someone.”

Stupidity seems to be another factor.  Cue Alison Matera, who blew her cover earlier this year by turning up at her own memorial service. 27 year old Matera had faked cancer and death to escape the clutches of her church choir, but couldn’t resist turning up to see who really cared. Or Kimberley Du of Iowa, who forged an obituary and a letter from her mother to get out of paying $500 worth of traffic fines, then got busted when she was stopped for a driving offence just one month after her alleged death. Matera was deemed psychologically unstable, and no charges were laid, whilst Du is currently serving five years for a class D felony.

English aristocrat Lord Lucan is a widely touted winner in the fake death hall of fame. In 1974 Lucan bludgeoned his children's nanny to death with a lead pipe in a bungled attempt to kill his wife then vanished, abandoning a bloodstained car near the English coastline. Lady Lucan believes he took his own life during a Channel crossing by stepping off a ferry “like the nobleman he was.” Others believe he fled abroad to live under an assumed identity. Despite his privileged birth, Lucan had motivation – he was a heavy drinker with a failed marriage, was estranged from his children, and had considerable gambling debts.

Lucan was declared officially dead by the UK’s High Court in 1999, but British detectives aren’t so sure. There are at least 70 Lucan sightings on record, and in 2004 London's Metropolitan Police reopened the investigation into his disappearance. In an ironic twist of fake death fate, when the Australian police apprehended John Stonehouse on Christmas Eve in 1974, they thought he was Lord Lucan. The most recent spotting was earlier this year in the small New Zealand farming community of Marton, where an ageing oddball with an English accent lives in a Land Rover with a pet possum for company. Detective Superintendent Alec Edwards (now retired) led the Lucan investigation in the early 1990s, and firmly believes Lucan is still alive; “He was not the sort of man to take his own life. His actions after the incident were not consistent with someone planning to kill himself.”

Technological advances mean that wiping yourself off the face of the earth whilst still roaming it freely is more of a challenge today than it was twenty or thirty years ago. Back then, record keeping was a largely paper based affair. The facsimile was in its infancy and everything was done by hand. Today, the paper trail has given way to electronic pathways where digital information on pretty much anything – from your last banking transaction and international border crossing to your shopping habits and shoe size - can be transferred from one side of the world to the other in an instant. CCTV technology and computer imaging processing can match digital images taken from cameras with images stored in a database, and international watchdogs like Interpol can send Wanted notices worldwide at the press of a button.
Biometrics is the new buzzword in human surveillance systems. Code for measuring and analysing physical and behavioral characteristics, biometric technology is still largely in the research and development phase. Physiological profiling has long been employed as a means of proving or disproving identity, but until recently, fingerprinting and other basic forms of bodily assessment like recording facial patterns and hand measurements was its only manifestation. Now DNA technology, retina and iris scanning are taking the notion of foolproof to a whole new level. Mr Unknown becomes Mr Identifiable - if someone’s biometric information is already known and stored on an electronic card or database their identity can be quickly checked and screened.

Forensic age-progression software gives long-term investigators another clue as to how somebody might look a decade or two down the track. But in Asia, Eastern Europe and Central and South America, where money talks and officials are willing to turn a blind eye to trifles like identification and paperwork, plastic surgery is on the rise, giving extremists like Molly Daniels, who had a list of surgeons in Mexico bookmarked on her computer, another option.
“To permanently alter your appearance, that’s thinking a long way down the track,” says Creighton. “Rather than just escaping to get away from the past, they’re looking forward to the future.  Perhaps they’re looking at coming back to their own community, to where they know. It takes a lot of forethought to take such measures. It can be done, that’s for sure.”

Sydney’s Harry Gordon is another not-so-lucky death faker. Gordon staged his own death in a boating accident in June 2000. Just five days after his ‘death’, his wife claimed $25,000 from his life insurance policy, and made a further unsuccessful claim for $3.5 million. It was various types of trouble that motivated Gordon to take such an extreme measure: a fraying marriage; a love child from a teenage affair; a mishandled 20 tonnes of asbestos; a nasty workers' compensation case, and a get-rich-quick scheme with Ukrainian gangster businessmen who turned violent.

“Primarily I got myself in this bother because of ego and greed. I wanted the big business deal.” But Gordon was in over his head, and when he tried to extract himself from the dealings, the beatings and death threats began.

“I’d been thinking about it for a week,” says Gordon of his decision to fake his own death, “but I really didn’t make the decision until the day.” Gordon spent four years on the run, moving from Australia, to Europe, to the UK and New Zealand on borrowed identities. “It was utter stupidity and I’ve regretted it from the moment I did it,” says Gordon. “What I should’ve done is just left a note, run off with a floozy, gone fishing, anything.”

Like many of his death faking counterparts, Gordon broke several key rules to fake death success. Rather than moving interstate or leaving the country, Gordon spent the first year of his fake death holiday living in a rented inner city apartment in Sydney and quickly established a daily routine of swimming in the local pool, visiting the public library and art gallery, and lunching in Hyde Park. “As had been my habit for many years I continued to go to the cinema in George Street each Tuesday night,” writes Gordon in the tell-all book he wrote in prison, The Harry Gordon Story: How I Faked My Own Death. It was on one of these nights out that Gordon was recognized by a former acquaintance, and invented some piffle about being in a witness protection program to cover his tracks.

Says Creighton; “We’re creatures of habit. To break all your social and community roots and move to another country cold, without knowing anyone, that’s a very difficult thing to do. And it’s not something a typical person would do, without a very good motivation or reason. You’d have to be very calculating…it comes down to motive. For example, if you commit a crime against somebody, like murder or attempted murder, there’s your motivation to disappear right there.”

Parker agrees. “All the stressors and past negative coping styles will come with them, and they’ll rely on those old behaviours, and the same problems will reoccur. So it doesn’t really solve anything. I imagine that the people that are thinking about staging their own death might feel that it wipes out their past. But unless they change their thinking and behaviour, they’ll tend to do the same things they’ve done in the past. It probably wouldn’t be too difficult to track a person down again.”

Gordon left himself open to recognition by making only token changes to his appearance at key times – during the coronial inquest into his death, and when leaving the country on a false passport. “We dyed my hair and fiddled with my beard and moustache, managed to tone down my rather ruddy skin tone with foundation make up, and I had my passport photos taken at a local chemist.”

We? Gordon made the big mistake of all - trusting others. His partner in passport crime was Rob Motzel, a man he met whilst living in a ‘third-rate hotel’, whose identity he brought for $25,000. Gordon renewed Motzel’s expired passport with his own photo, and used this when he left Australia for Europe. Gordon also involved his family in his scam. He approached both his wife (now ex-wife) and daughter in the year following his death, who aided him in his escape from Australia.

And then sometimes your new and old lives collide, and it’s carnage. Five years after his death, strolling along a walking track New Zealand hand in hand with his new wife – a bigamous marriage, as it turns out - he bumped into his older brother Michael.  The two men passed each other and then Michael doubled back to confront his brother's ghost. "Hello," he said. "Is that really you?"

Whilst his daughter remained loyal, his brother and ex-wife tipped the Australian police off, and Motzel later made statements against him. Gordon promptly became the object of a special Australian police investigation, Strike Force Rebellion, and was arrested flying into Sydney in November 2005. His ex-wife and daughter were both charged with conspiracy.  Gordon recently served 15 months in jail after pleading guilty to charges of conspiracy to defraud AMP Insurance by faking his own death and holding a false passport.

 “The newspaper coverage seemed relentless,” writes Gordon. “Goodness knows why, I was not a public figure - I was just a Sydney businessman. I felt certain I would be discovered.” The world loves a fake death scandal. These days, it’s not so much a case of missing presumed drowned as missing presumed disappeared, a la Harold Holt. Patrick McDermott, long time boyfriend of Olivia Newton-John, vanished during an overnight fishing trip off the coast of California in 2005. Suspicion arose after the boat Freedom’s (yes, really) 22 passengers and 3 crew members gave contradicting reports of McDermott’s movements. His bankruptcy, overdue child support payments and the possibility of a jail spell on the horizon, coupled with reported sightings in Mexico not long after the incident, whipped the international press into a media feeding frenzy.

The rumors brought up a range of emotions, Newton-John told People magazine in 2006, including “hope that maybe ... I don't know. It just stirs it up again. It creates that 'what if' again."  Deep down, however, the singer is convinced that McDermott didn't fake his death, if only because he would never subject his now 14-year-old son to such anguish. "He just wouldn't do that," she says. "His son was everything to him." To this day, man overboard McDermott remains at large.

The world is still just big enough to lose yourself in – for a time, anyway. But if you want to disappear, do it properly. Select a hideaway far from the prying eyes of police, private investigators and acquaintances. Leave the city. Leave the state. Leave the country.  Dead men don’t use credit cards, so accumulate a secret supply of cash to dip into once you drop off the face of the earth. Organize quality fake documents that will stand up under the scrutiny of officious border police.  Change your appearance. And this doesn’t mean becoming a mish-mash of your favourite star…ask the surgeon to make you uglier. Get those breast implants you’ve always secretly wanted. Don’t boast. To anyone. And leave it all behind. Yes, all of it. Selling all your worldly goods a month before the big day is going to seem a little…suspicious. Sounds expensive, doesn’t it? Well naturally…no-one ever said that freedom was actually free. Or be like Elvis and take the easy way out - get an impersonator to do it for you.