‘I help people disappear – but faking your own death is a terrible idea’
When author Susan Meachen took her own life in 2020, her devastated fans in the fierce world of self-published novels helped fund her funeral expenses and promote the last book she wrote before her untimely death. Then, in January this year – three years after her supposed death – Meachen turned out to be alive and well.
At the time of her apparent suicide, Meachen logged onto Facebook, pretending to be her daughter and wrote a post declaring her death. Why did she do that? Nobody knows. The Tennessee-based author suggested she had mental health issues, but the writing community also suggested she may have thought her death would help sell more books.
In the same month, an American man who allegedly faked his own death was arrested at a hospital in Glasgow. Nicholas Rossi (34), also known as Nicholas Alahverdian, told American media in December 2019 that he has late-stage non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, cancer of the lymphatic system, and has only weeks to live. Various outlets reported that Rossi died in February 2020. A memorial posted online declared him a “warrior who fought on the front lines for two decades” because of his work for children’s rights. The post also said that her ashes were scattered at sea.
The start of 2023 also saw ITV release a new series, Stonehouse, which dramatized the real-life story of MP John Stonehouse who, knee-deep in debt, left a neat pile of his clothes on a beach in 1974. Miami left, a dip and could not return. His abandoned clothes were discovered and after a while he was presumed dead.
When he was later discovered to be living in Australia, Stonehouse was brought back to England by Scotland Yard detectives after being refused political asylum from several countries and facing charges including fraud and conspiracy to defraud. A biography, Stonehouse, by his great-nephew, lawyer Julian Hayes, was published last year.
The new ITV drama tells the story of MP John Stonehouse, who faked his own death in 1974 (Picture: ITV)
January was a big month for staged deaths in the public eye: Meachen, Stonehouse and Rossi all did what they did for seemingly very different reasons, but one thing they had in common is that they all eventually returned to the country of the living.
Of course, we only hear about the people who are discovered or turn themselves in, and there may very well be people out there who will never be found out because they are presumed dead. Still, private investigator Steve Rambam estimates he’s solved more than 750 suspected fake death cases during his 36-year career. He’s seen firsthand that life after faking your death is “a full-time job.” His message to death-makers – who are largely men – is: “I can make 1,000 mistakes, but if you make just one – I’ve got you.
“If you fake your own death, you have to maintain your identity and lifestyle perfectly. If your old identity reappears for a moment, for a nanosecond, I will find you.” Case in point: in 2020, a New York man who allegedly faked his own death in an attempt to avoid sentencing on felony charges was ultimately thwarted by a typo he made on his fake death certificate. “Registry” is spelled “Regsitry”.
Elizabeth Greenwood, author of Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud, has spent several years in the world of death fraud. “More people do it than you would think, a surprising number,” she says, estimating that there are several hundred cases a year. Greenwood, while researching her book, got herself a fake passport and ID to see how one could begin the process of faking one’s own death.
A still from ‘The Thief, his Wife and the Canoe’, the ITV dramatization of the case of John Darwin, who faked his death with the help of his wife Anne (Picture: ITV)
“The mechanics of faking your own death range from just a few hundred pounds for a fake death certificate,” she says, “to £30,000 to hire a professional restorer to help erase your physical and digital trail. It is as well as all the cash you need to live your new life.”
The desperation for that new life comes from all kinds of scenarios, but one of the most common reasons, Rambam says, is extensive debt. “They’re funding a certain lifestyle that they want to keep going, and they might try to claim their life insurance money to help.” Some people fake their own death as part of planned fraud, or because they may face arrest and will therefore opt for a staged death as part of a last ditch effort to escape prison.
In 2008, Samuel Israel III, a hedge fund manager sentenced to 20 years in prison for defrauding investors out of $300m (£242m), faked his own suicide on a bridge and set off an international manhunt, which ended four weeks later then his girlfriend let the cat out of the bag.
Then there are people who are stuck in a miserable relationship, or in general a life with which they want to cut all ties. “They must be in very difficult times,” says Greenwood. Many of the people she spent time with who faked their deaths faced some kind of legal consequences and “very serious” financial problems.
Olivia Newton John, who died last year, with her boyfriend Patrick McDermott, who disappeared for 12 years (Photo: SGranitz/WireImage)
In 2017, it was reported that Olivia Newton John’s ex-boyfriend Patrick McDermott was discovered after he went missing for 12 years while on a fishing trip in 2005. In 2009, investigators claimed McDermott disappeared to avoid debts – including $8,000 (£5,470) he allegedly owed his ex-wife in child support.
“For us, people’s plans to fake their own death [otherwise known as pseudocide] sounds really crazy,” says Greenwood, “but when I talked to people who had done it and explained to them what they were facing, and the consequences they felt they had, their plans almost started to make sense, if I my eyes squinted and suspended my disbelief a bit. I can see how these plans tend to take on a kind of internal logic, if you can try to imagine feeling like you have no other options.”
However, desperation is not all you need. “That said, I think there’s a very important role that narcissism plays,” Greenwood says, “in actually going through with it. It’s one thing to stand in line at the post office and say, ‘Oh my god, wouldn’t it be great to start my life over?’ Now, it’s another thing to think that you’re going to outwit law enforcement and deceive your grieving family members. Anything that requires a great deal of confidence borders on, or is firmly in the realm of, delusion.”
Greenwood spent time with John Darwin, the British former teacher and prison officer who, facing financial ruin, faked his death at sea in a kayak in 2002. He then spent years in a secret room in his house while his sons mourned. In 2008, Darwin was jailed for six years and three months after admitting eight counts of deception, and his wife Anne was jailed for six and a half years for fraud and money laundering.
“I think Darwin was quite proud of what he had done,” says Greenwood, “and also felt very ashamed about the falling out with his children. But the fact that he really managed it for five-and-a-half years, and when I met him, he was like, ‘well this is what I’m known for now, so I’m going to embrace it ‘.”
The thing is, faking your own death is an incredibly difficult – and by all accounts foolish – thing to do. Hayes says it’s always been difficult, but these days it’s “virtually impossible” with CCTV, digital tracks, credit cards and post-9/11 security checks. “The fewer assets and less money you have, the easier it is to disappear and stay gone for longer,” he says. “There is less of a trail to follow and the authorities are less suspicious. If you liquidate your portfolio and sell properties all in a very short period of time, and then all of a sudden go swimming and never come back, it looks very suspicious.
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“In the UK, almost everywhere is monitored, so although it can be done in theory, you have to throw away everything you normally use. You’ll have to live completely off the grid, use only cash, cut ties with your nearest and dearest, don’t Google at all, live like you don’t exist. You have to manage to stay alive without leaving a trace.”
Someone who knows about leaving a trail is Frank Ahearn, a privacy expert who made his name in 2010 with his book How To Disappear. “I am solving two issues,” he says. “If you’re in a situation and you’re scared, or you just want to disappear so no one can find you. Or if there is information online about you that is a disaster for your life, I can assist you using deception and digital manipulation.” Ahearn charges his clients up to £23,000 at a time, and deals with all sorts of people, including those who are blackmailing or being blackmailed.
However, he says that faking your death is always a terrible idea. “I get people contacting me,” he says, “and they talk to me about faking their death and I tell them it’s ridiculous. You fake your death, there is no body, so you have to do it with water. And then there’s what comes next. People think that the act of disappearing itself is the key, but it is only a small part of it. The real key is to live as a missing person.
“Sometimes people say to me, ‘look, I’m just going to disappear and not tell anybody and I say, ‘You have to tell somebody, because if you don’t, people will think something happened to you, they’ll go to the police, and next thing you know, your face is all over the internet. I get guys calling and saying, ‘I hate my wife, I hate my kids, I have $500,000, f*** them, I want to disappear and leave them.’ I’m like, well, I’m not going to help you let your kids down.”
Apart from anything else, pseudocide is not legal. There’s no real law about faking your death, but it’s all the crimes you’d probably have to commit to make death look real that land people in jail. “Sometimes when I catch these people faking their deaths, I can have a little fun with it,” says private investigator Rambam. “I’ll take a video confession, and I’ll say from behind the camera: ‘You’re not dead?’ To which they tend to reply: ‘No, no, I’m not dead’.”