How to fake your own death
WHEN a man named Eduardo served a margarita to an "Asian-looking" man on a remote beach in the small surfer town of Sayulita, he had no idea the man he was serving was dead.
At least, officially.
For years, Patrick McDermott, the man most famous as Olivia Newton-John's on-again, off-again boyfriend, is said to have been hiding out in the rural beach village on Mexico's Pacific coast, 12 years after he is purported to have drowned after disappearing at sea in 2005.
McDermott's story is full of twists and turns, of mystery and intrigue.
Newton-John had been dating McDermott for nine years when he disappeared during a fishing trip in San Pedro, California on 30 June, 2005. He was last seen on the fishing boat, Freedom, but not one of the 22 passengers saw him go overboard. His wallet and personal effects were found on board, but there was no body.
Red flags waved when McDermott's outstanding financial problems were investigated - including owing child support fees and a bankruptcy in 2000 where he owed $31,000 to creditors - and rumours began to circulate McDermott had staged his death to cash in on a $100,000 lifetime insurance policy.
But then reports began to surface citing a bigger mystery than previously pondered. For over a decade, speculation has been rife as to the real story of McDermott's "death" - and to this day, authorities have not yet ruled, or investigated the case thoroughly.
And here lies our point; faking your own death isn't as easy as it seems.
DROWNING IS SO PASSE
"You can't practice faking your own death," Elizabeth Greenwood, who faked her own death in 2013, told the Criminalpodcast.
"There's no dry run you can do, which is part of the difficulty, so the how-tos are gleaned from people's missteps and misfortunes."
Drowning is a leading fake cause of death but authorities are also well aware. The problem with drownings is that usually, a body will wash up eventually after a few days. When this doesn't happen, police become suspicious.
"Everyone who considers it figures they'll fake a drowning, not realising that's a red flag and that most bodies do eventually wash up," Greenwood told Slate.
HOW TO GET AWAY WITH YOUR OWN DEATH
"What I heard time and again, people suggest going for a hike and never coming back," Ms Greenwood said.
"Lots of people unfortunately disappear hiking, it is something that happens and it's open-ended. No one knows quite what happened. Did you get kidnapped? Did you tumble down a ravine? Were you eaten by a mountain lion?"
Steven Rambam spends his time hunting down missing persons, or people who have "inappropriately disappeared" as he calls it. Hired by families or insurance companies, he tells loved ones only to believe their beloved is dead when they see the body.
He says the first thing you have to do is "pick up and go". He says Canada is a good choice to flee.
"You have to already have your new identity in your hand and it has to be an identity that's been alive a while. You can't suddenly just become Lauren Bacall tomorrow."
"A common name is a really good defence against a lot of investigator tools. If you are Jose Rodriguez, you're a nightmare to investigators."
IS IT LEGAL?
Faking one's death is not illegal in and of itself, but the mechanics involved are.
"You'd have to lie to the police, and file a false police report and death certificate," Rambam told Greenwood.
The problem is that without a death certificate, insurance companies can wait seven years to release any money to loved ones, and in order to produce a death certificate, a body is usually required. The more you travel down the bureaucratic process, the bigger the need to lie.
"It takes a lot of thought, and you just have to be able to live very modestly. The second you even try to get a library card in someone else's name you're committing fraud," Greenwood said.
WHERE IS THE BEST PLACE TO FAKE YOUR OWN DEATH?
Private investigator Keith Schafferius told news.com.au in 2013 he knew of Australians who had successfully faked their deaths in Brisbane, off Stradbroke Island and in the Philippines.
In fact when Ms Greenwood began researching her own death, she bought a plane ticket and began her research in the Philippines.
"Not to single out the Philippines, but it's one that I heard mentioned again and again. I'd read newspaper articles dating back to the '80s mentioning these black market morgues in Manila where people would go in and purchase an unclaimed body to then cremate."
FINDING A BODY
"You can just go into any city morgue in almost any developing country, ask to see the unclaimed bodies, and cry,
'Oh, it's poor Uncle Marco!' They'll be happy to get a body off their hands," Rambam tells Greenwood.
According to Greenwood, the Philippines is "a place with a very robust infrastructure for supporting these frauds in the form of black-market morgues. You can find a body to cremate and pass off as your own. They sell full on "death kits."
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?
"The price I heard quoted to me if you wanted to fake your death somewhere like the Philippines, including getting your cadaver, getting your documents, the whole thing, is about $5000, which doesn't seem like a tremendous amount of money if you think about it," said Ms Greenwood.
Ms Greenwood told Vice it was in Manila that she purchased a "death kit", which is "basically anything you'd need to fake your death. Your death certificate, your statements from witnesses who saw your 'accident', to the fake autopsy report."
"I found two incredible local guys there who helped me obtain my own death certificate from a mole they have working inside one of the government agencies. It was based on a false police report with fake witness names making fake witness statements detailing my [traffic] accident. That's how I did it.
"But I never filed a report with the US Embassy to make it official. It would have cost $500; probably cheaper [if I'd given them more advance notice]. It was much easier than I thought it would be."
THE CONSEQUENCES OF FAKING YOUR DEATH
"If you want to be a successful missing person, you've got to be on the job every minute of every day for the rest of your life. It's a real job."
Ms Greenwood says insurance companies are well resourced to make sure they aren't taken for granted, and Rambam's job is to find you; so don't expect to disappear overnight and that be that.
"Their burden of proof is not to show that you're alive; it's to show that you're not dead. They don't have to find you, but they have to prove that the documents you submitted were false, that this witness's testimony was bullsh*t."
The number one thing people can't prepare for, Rambam says, is not moving on from their former lives and the people they love.
Buying a fake police report, or a death certificate, even finding a body, that's what they call the easy part. The real challenge, according to the Criminal podcast, is life after death.
"It's awfully hard to leave yourself behind, even when you want to," Rambam says.
"That's big mistake number one. They don't change their life, they keep in touch with old friends, they move to an old town, it's not necessarily a mistake, it's being human. You love your parents, you love your kids. You can't conceive giving up your entire life and everything you care about.
"That's what you have to do to successfully disappear. You have to give up everything that makes you, you.
"I can make a thousand mistakes if I'm hunting for you and still find you. If you make one mistake, you're finished. I'll spot it. I'll catch you."
ADVANCES IN TECHNOLOGY
With the dawn of the modern age fast upon us, there are less technical ways of declaring yourself dead, along with the added bonus of wiping any online history.
One Australian claims all it takes is a few HTML skills to clear the skeletons out of your closet.
According to lifehacker.com, security researcher Chris Rock found that "declaring someone legally dead is quite a straight forward process in Australia".
Mr Rock says all it takes is a few simple clicks and a little bit of research. You can find the how-to here.
IN A NUTSHELL, HOW TO FAKE YOUR OWN DEATH
- Decide how you're going to go (the simpler the exit, the better)
- Don't drown. A drowned body always shows up eventually
- Disappearing while hiking is a good way to die
- Make a plan for your afterlife
- Cut all ties to family and friends, and never come back
- Never Google yourself.
- Crosscheck phony documents with standard ones
- Avoid staged funerals
- Developing countries are fertile ground for corruption and people willing to assist your death fraud