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Friday, November 30, 2007

On having someone declared dead

Tribune columnist and blogger, Eric Zorn, kicked off an interesting discussion with an article about various people being declared dead in the absence of a body. The most recent case is that of Steve Fossett's wife having him declared dead just 12 weeks after he went missing. (Declaring death doesn't always take 7 years.) Hearing about a missing person being declared dead always raises lots of questions, not the least of which is, what if afterwards the person shows up alive?

Well, I have two stories. Both, true. One with a somewhat "happy" ending where the dead person showed up dead. The other with a horribly, horribly tragic ending where the dead person showed up alive.

The first story comes from personal knowledge and so I have no link for it. Anyway, a middle-aged man leaves home for his evening job. Gets to the job, does the work, gets in his car to go home, but never makes it back. A manhunt is undertaken by his wife and family, law enforcement, the media, the public, and at least one psychic. Years pass without finding him and his wife has him declared dead by the court.

About 12 years after he left work that night, his car was discovered just a few miles from his home submerged in a lake. He was still behind the wheel. Some swimmers found him just a few feet from shore. It was believed that he had a heart attack, drove off the road, and down the embankment. Interestingly, a psychic had once said that he was in or near water. This would seem remarkable except for the fact that this particular county was located along the shore of Lake Michigan and had about 200 inland lakes, rivers and streams.

In the end, his widow was able to have the declaration of death voided and a new death certificate issued as of the date he went missing. The happy part of this story is that the new death certificate allowed her to make a claim on his life insurance which she had previously let lapse because she couldn't afford it. The insurance company paid the claim plus 12 years of interest.

So he showed up not dead yet*

The second story is that of Carl Johnson, Chicago banker and embezzler. Johnson cleverly eluded the FBI for more than seven years. In December of 1982, just a few weeks after his wife had him declared legally dead, he turned himself in to the FBI. He confessed that he had buried the embezzled money in various locations. One location from which $55,000 was recovered was not far from Chicago. Another $55,000 was buried in the countryside of Ohio. Only Johnson knew the exact location.

So, four FBI agents, a retired Chicago cop, and Johnson took off in a Cessna 411 aircraft for the Cincinnati airport to get the money. On the way, in nearby Montgomery, the plane crashed, killing all aboard. Fortunately, no one on the ground was killed. That part of the story is best told by the "Montgomery Ohio FBI Plane Crash Memorial," which ends with, "The cause of the crash was never revealed." It looks like the City of Montgomery will commemorate the 25th anniversary of the crash in just a few weeks.

I worked on both of these cases as a legal secretary in two different law offices in two different states. No confidentialities are revealed here as both cases are in the public record.

* Quoting Deputy Marshal Sam Gerard.

Posted by Marie at November 30, 2007 11:55 PM


Amazing stories, Marie.

Posted by: Rob Author Profile Page at December 3, 2007 5:57 AM