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10 People Who Faked Their Own Deaths

by Ward Hazell
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Many people dream of getting away from it all and starting again. For most, this is just a pipe dream. Some might leave their home, their jobs, and even their families and make drastic life changes, but for a few people, even this is not enough. They decide that in order to start again, they have to kill off the person they once were.

Mostly, these “pseudosuicides” are done due to debt, the threat of arrest, or to collect on life insurance policies, but people have “died” for stranger reasons, too. One man even faked his death in order to prove to his grieving girlfriend how much she loved him. He staged a car crash, and while she wept at the scene, he leaped out with balloons and an engagement ring to propose to the “lucky” girl.[1] (Amazingly, she accepted his proposal.)

Here are ten people who faked their own deaths for less ridiculous reasons.

10 The Spy Who Caught Malaria

Photo Credit: MI5 / Wikimedia Commons

Juan Pujol Garcia had fought in the Spanish Civil War. After the outbreak of World War II, he was determined to continue his fight against totalitarianism and become a spy for the British government.

The Brits turned down his application because of his lack of qualifications, but despite this, he posed as a Spanish official in Madrid, where he met Nazi officials and offered to spy for them against the British. He then began to send them false information that was supposed to have come from London, thereby undermining the Nazi war effort.

By 1942, he felt he had built up enough of a reputation and approached MI5 again. This time, he was officially accepted to do the job he was already doing. The Germans never discovered that he was a double agent. They believed that Pujol had recruited a whole network of spies, all of whom were, in fact, imaginary.[2]

Famously, Pujol told the Nazis that the rumor they’d heard about a planned invasion of Normandy was fake, and this information was instrumental in the Germans’ lack of preparation for D-Day. The success of the plan was put at risk, however, by Juan’s wife, who was not happy.

She threatened to expose her husband as a double agent so that the Nazis would have no more use for him, and she would be allowed to return home to Spain. In order to protect their “asset,” the British government tricked her into believing that Pujol had been arrested and imprisoned as a result of her threats, and she eventually backed down.

After the war, Pujol decided not to go home straight away but rather to fake his own death in case of “Nazi reprisals” and head to Venezuela. He laid a trail of information suggesting that he had died of malaria in Angola, and a year later, he was officially declared dead. His secret went undiscovered for almost 40 years, until he was tracked down by a British writer.

Could he really have been afraid of Nazi retribution all that time, or was there perhaps someone else he was trying to avoid?

9 The Politician Who Drowned

Photo Credit: Open Media Ltd. / Wikimedia Commons

John Stonehouse was a British MP and, as such, a pillar of society. When he was reported missing, presumed drowned, off the coast of Miami in 1974, however, all sorts of evidence started to turn up which showed Stonehouse in a completely different light.

Stonehouse had simply left a pile of clothes on the beach to suggest that he had gone swimming, in the hopes that it would be assumed that he had drowned or been eaten by a shark. Initially, he was indeed presumed dead.

The subsequent investigation, however, led to all sorts of allegations, and there were claims that Stonehouse had even been a spy for Czechoslovakia during the 1960s. Questions were asked about it in the Houses of Parliament. Then it was revealed that there were discrepencies in the accounts of a charity that he was involved in, and his finances were found to be in complete disarray. Suddenly, Stonehouse’s disappearance and presumed death seemed entirely too convenient.[3]

John Stonehouse was discovered on Christmas Eve 1974 in Australia, where he had fled with his secretary. He was living under the name of a deceased constituent whose identity he had stolen. He was eventually brought back to the UK to face charges of fraud.

During the time of his disappearance, and his remand in prison, Stonehouse was still a serving MP, and while on bail, he even went to Parliament to make a statement about his “bizarre conduct and psychiatric suicide.” At his trial, he chose to defend himself and was subsequently convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison. Only then did he resign as an MP.

It was later revealed that Stonehouse had, in fact, been a Czech spy.

8 The Author Who Jumped Off A Cliff

Photo credit: Oregon History Project / Wikipedia / Fair Use

Ken Kesey, the celebrated Beat Generation writer and author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, may not have been, er, thinking clearly when he faked his own death. Noted for his wild parties, a heady mix of LSD, Hell’s Angels, and a fair amount of Peace and Love, Kesey may have had one too many psychedelic experiences with the band of friends he called the Merry Pranksters.

In 1965, Kesey was arrested for possession of marijuana and came up with a great idea to beat the rap. He parked his car near a cliff and left a poetic suicide note on the seat, hoping the authorities would conclude that he had jumped. Then he climbed into the back of a friend’s car and headed for Mexico.

As plans go, it wasn’t the greatest. Kesey, after all, was a well-known writer and would, presumably, need to go on writing and being well-known in the future.[4]

While the media ran with the story, the authorities didn’t buy it. They spent eight months hunting for him. Eventually, Kesey, realizing that his plan was a bit stupid, returned to California, where he was sentenced to six months in jail.

7 The Shopkeeper With Mad Cow Disease

Jose Lantigua pleads guilty to fraud


In 2013, Jose Salvador Lantigua told his wife the terrible news that he had been diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease or, as it is more commonly known, mad cow disease.

It seemed that Lantigua just couldn’t catch a break. He was once the owner of a large furniture store, but his business had failed. He also tried to secure $2 million in loans using fraudulent documents. With charges hanging over him, he had supposedly been given only six months to live. But, he said, there was a ray of hope.

Doctors had told him about a surgical procedure that could save his life. It would mean flying to Colombia, that well-known center of medical innovation. Lantigua kept the story going until just before he was scheduled to leave, when he confessed to his wife that he did not, actually, have mad cow disease at all. Being completely straight with her, he explained that he was being hunted by a rogue CIA agent because of his past exploits as a special operative in a covert military unit. Furthermore, he had killed the leader of a drug cartel in the course of his duty and was now being blackmailed.[5]


He convinced his wife that the solution to their problems was for him to fake his own death, and so, in April 2013, he flew to Venezuela and purchased a fake death certificate and an equally bogus certificate of cremation. Then he convinced his wife to apply for a “certificate of death abroad” and begin to collect on the seven life insurance policies that he had thoughtfully purchased before his disappearance.

Meanwhile, Lantigua paid $5,000 to be smuggled back into the US on a fishing boat, and he assumed a new identity. He was caught when he tried to use his forged documents to apply for a legitimate passport. Though they were both arrested, the court accepted that Lantigua’s wife was acting under the belief that their lives were in danger and that she was more a victim than a perpetrator. She was sentenced to five years’ probation, while Lantigua was jailed for 14 years for fraud.

6 The Crook Who Jumped Off A Bridge

Photo Credit: Jonas Bengtsson / Flickr

Samuel Israel looked every inch the successful businessman during the 1990s. He had spent 20 years building a career on Wall Street, and at first glance, he was living life large. At one point, he was even renting a luxurious house from Donald Trump. However, his hedge funds were built on lies and fraudulent deals, and it is alleged that he stole more than $400 million from investors.

Israel was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment, but on the day that he was due to begin his sentence, he faked his death by suicide. He wrote “Suicide is Painless” on the dust on the hood of his SUV, which he parked, suggestively, on a bridge, hoping that it would be assumed that he had jumped to his death.

It is likely that Israel had underestimated just how cross his investors were, because they would never have given up chasing him without a body. Wanted posters were issued, and investigations began. The authorities monitored border crossings and airports and staked out the offices of his acquaintances.

Samuel Israel must have realized that it was never going to work, and he surrendered to the police to begin his sentence a few weeks later.[6]

5 The Psychologist Who Just Dropped Dead

Photo Credit: / Wikimedia Commons

Stephen Kellaway was a psychologist who earned a good living from his counseling business and his property empire. But he was obviously of the view that you can never have enough money, so he supplemented his income by falsely claiming welfare benefits.

He used the extra money to take his third wife to Moscow for a breast enlargement operation. However, while he was in Russia, he feared the authorities were about to uncover his fraud, so he took the opportunity to fake his own death.

He gallantly left his wife to return home alone and report his death. She brought with her a fake death certificate and an urn which apparently contained his ashes. Kellaway had bribed a mortuary official with a bottle of vodka to match a deceased tramp with his passport details and to issue a death certificate with vague details as to the cause. The plan to collect on the £1.7 million life insurance policy was abandoned after investigators began to look further into the case.

Kellaway was eventually discovered living rough near an airport in Bangkok, after his stepmother had come forward to say he was still alive. He carried a false passport, but since it was that of a deceased seven-year-old boy, it wasn’t a foolproof disguise. He was deported back to Britain, where he was sentenced to 32 months in jail. His wife was given a suspended sentence after the judge accepted that she had been coerced.[7]

4 The Mayor In A Diabetic Coma

Photo Credit: WFIU / Flickr

Sometimes when you’re dead, its better to stay dead. In 2010, Lenin Caraballido was accused of having participated in a gang rape six years earlier. His relatives, however, produced a death certificate showing that he had died of a diabetic coma, and the matter was dropped.

And this would have been the end of the story if he hadn’t decided to run for mayor of San Agustin Amatengo, Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2013. He had publicity pictures taken, and posters went up all over town. Caraballido won the election, narrowly, and then his world fell apart.

Any interested citizen, or rival candidate, could have looked up Lenin Caraballido and found nothing untoward. Nothing at all, in fact. There was, however a Leninguer Caraballido . . .

It soon became clear that the death certificate was faked. Suddenly, the mayor-elect became camera-shy and stopped taking calls from the press. Caraballido was arrested and charged with providing false testimony, and the rape case was reopened.[8]

3 The Businessman In A Canoe

Photo credit: Günter Hentschel / Flickr

John Darwin went missing on a canoe trip in the North Sea in 2002, leaving behind a wife and two sons.

In actual fact, he was hiding in a property that he and his wife owned, not far from the family home. He had persuaded his wife, Anne, that the way out of the mounting debt, caused by his failed businesses, was to claim on the life insurance. He assured her that he would only need to hide for a few weeks until the insurance paid out, but he ultimately remained hidden for four years. All the while, his wife was pretending to friends, neighbors, and their two sons that her husband was dead.[9]

In 2006, Darwin came up with a new plan. He applied for a passport in the name of a dead child and planned a new life for them both in Panama. And again, Anne went along with it. The two were even photographed in Panama (shown above). But in 2007, Darwin decided that he wanted to go home. He returned to England, where he suddenly reappeared, pretending to have been suffering from amnesia.

This left his wife in a bit of a hole. Their deception soon unraveled, and they were both charged with fraud. Despite Anne pleading marital coercion, both John Darwin and his wife were convicted of fraud and jailed. Anne was given a longer sentence because of her not guilty plea.

2 The Commodities Trader Who Washed Up On The Shore

Photo Credit: MTHV / Flickr

Some people go to extraordinary lengths to fake their own deaths. And some people are just lazy.

When a body was dredged up from Manila Bay in 1994, Takashi Mori simply paid officials in the Philippine Homicide Division to provide a death certificate and autopsy report confirming that the body was his. The remains were immediately cremated, and the ashes were returned to Japan, where Mori’s son made a claim on the $6.5 million life insurance. Easy peasy.

The speed of the cremation, however, roused the suspicion of the Japanese Embassy, particularly as it was carried out by the family before they had informed the embassy and gained permission. After conducting a fairly brief investigation, police found Mori hiding in the home of his daughter-in-law in the Philippines.[10] He was charged with insurance fraud, and his wife and son were deported to the Philippines.

1 The Preacher Who Was Kidnapped For Ransom

Photo Credit: Pictures of Money / Flickr

Aimee Semple McPherson was an American Evangelist in the 1920s and a celebrity. Her sermons drew huge crowds and were said to be more like Broadway theater productions than church services, involving, as they did, elaborate costumes and a full orchestra.

So when she vanished while out swimming off the Santa Monica beach in 1926, her disappearance made headline news. Weeks passed. Her congregation held vigils, praying for her safe return, and the Coast Guard searched the sea and shore looking for her remains.

Just when people began to wonder whether it had all been a publicity stunt, McPherson was found, crawling through the Mexican desert. She claimed that after her swim, she had met a couple who asked her to come and pray for their baby, who, they said, was desperately ill. As she climbed into their car, she was chloroformed, and she came to tied to a chair in a shack in Mexico. She was told she was being held for ransom, to the tune of $500,000, and that if the church didn’t pay up, she would be sold into slavery.

The church had, in fact, received dozens of ransom notes, and they were all dismissed as hoaxes.[11]

Oh dear.

McPherson then claimed she’d managed to free herself from the ropes and escape. Some 50,000 people welcomed her home, but the authorities smelled a rat. Several people claimed to have seen her alive and well while she was supposedly being held captive, and it was suspected that her disappearance may have been linked to that of a married man, an employee of McPherson’s church, who had gone missing at the same time and who returned shortly after. He later admitted to having had an extramarital affair but declined to name the lady.

Aimee McPherson was charged with conspiracy and obstruction of justice, though the charges were later dropped. It was suggested that the “abduction” was, in fact, an attempt to fake her own death so that the pair could be together and that one of them had later gotten cold feet. Whether that was before or after the church had refused to pay up, who can say?

fact checked by Jamie Frater