Admit it: At some point, you’ve thought about how nice it would be to simply disappear and start over. You could instantly get rid of all of your problems and shed your responsibilities. Sure, you’d lose contact with all of your friends and family—but hey, depending on your situation, that might not be such a bad thing.
Of course, most people don’t actually go through with it. Faking your demise has serious consequences if you’re caught, and besides, there are (usually) easier ways to deal with your problems.
We looked into a few stories where people actually figured out how to disappear. Eventually, their stories came apart, and that’s when the real craziness happened.
1. A man tries to cheat an insurance company (and almost gets away with it).
The fakeout: On Oct. 1, 2011, Irina Vorotinov picked up her phone to call her two sons with horrifying news; their father, Igor, had passed away. Police had found his body on the side of a road in Moldova, a small European country. While Irina wasn’t there—she lived Maple Grove, Minnesota—authorities didn’t have much trouble identifying the man, since he’d been carrying Igor’s passport.
— MapsofWorld (@mapsofworld) August 27, 2019
Within days, Irina traveled to the village where her husband’s body lay. She identified him, then had his remains cremated before returning home with his ashes. She held his funeral about a month later.
What happened next: In June 2012, Igor’s eldest son, Alkon, traveled to Moldova to spend time with a friend of the family. At a party there, Alkon met a surprising guest: his father, who was most certainly not in an urn. Igor had assumed a fake name, and Irina had been sending him money from his $2 million life insurance payout.
So…who was in the urn? Nobody really knows.
“The manner of this crime’s execution was quite sophisticated,” federal prosecutors wrote in court documents, per The Washington Post. “We now know that there really was a body found in a field in Moldova.”
“The government executed a search warrant on the urn at Lakewood Cemetery, and it really contained human remains.”
Igor had apparently bribed Moldovan officials to write false reports, and Irina—fully aware that her husband was still alive—had filed a fraudulent life insurance claim within days of the fake funeral.
After discovering that his father was still alive, Alkon allegedly participated in the scheme, helping his parents wire money all over the world. They got away with the fraud for several years until an anonymous source in Moldova sent a tip to the FBI.
— Law & Crime (@lawcrimenews) May 6, 2019
U.S. Customs and Border Protection quickly detained Alkon and his fiancée, and after a large-scale manhunt spanning several years, federal authorities located Igor and arranged for his extradition. Irina pleaded guilty to a litany of charges and began serving 37 months in prison, while Igor will likely face more prison time.
Oh, and the family will have to pay back his $2 million payout.
“He will likely be paying off Mutual of Omaha his entire life,” Alkon’s attorney wrote of his client in court documents.
2. A politician escapes authorities but chooses the worst possible profession for his new identity.
The fakeout: In 1985, New Jersey state senator David J. Friedland disappeared during a scuba expedition in the Bahamas. Authorities didn’t buy it—he had been convicted of extortion, and he’d been cooperating with investigators in a political corruption investigation. He was also in the witness protection program, so his sudden disappearance was awfully convenient.
Still, federal agents didn’t have much to go on. After all, scuba diving is dangerous, and Friedland apparently didn’t attempt to contact friends or family members. He might have gotten away with it…if he’d stayed away from his scuba gear.
What happened next: Friedland spent a bunch of money while escaping his past, and authorities were able to follow him without too much difficulty. He’d used fake passports to travel to Europe, Asia, and Africa, eventually setting up shop in the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean.
When we say “setting up shop,” we mean that literally. When he was finally arrested, the former politician was running a successful chain of diving stores. He reportedly lived a fairly glamorous lifestyle, which attracted the attention of local authorities.
Thanks to the daily show for bringing David friedland into my life. Anyone who fakes own death and then opens up scuba shops is all good.
— The Grrrr Unit (@missygpnyc) January 14, 2014
Yes, the guy who faked his own death with scuba gear ended up selling scuba gear. It’d be ironic if it wasn’t so stupid.
Friedland claimed he ran from authorities because he feared for his life, and in court, he insisted that he took perfectly reasonable steps to protect himself.
“I, too, love this country,” he told the judge. “Indeed, the last two weeks I spent in a Maldivean jail, deprived of any human rights, kept awake by policemen’s clubs, eating the most vile food, made me appreciate this country more.”
But assistant U.S. Attorney J. Fortnoy Imbert told the court there was “absolutely no evidence” that the accused was in any danger whatsoever. Friedland served eight years in federal prison before being released in 1997 and settling down in (where else?) Florida.
3. An incredibly lucky 18th-century entrepreneur decides to see if his family loves him.
The fakeout: Timothy Dexter might be the greatest businessman who ever lived—and if not, he was at least one of the luckiest.
Born to a poor family in 1747, Dexter was mostly uneducated, but he had a keen eye for business. After apprenticing as a leatherworker, he received a fairly nice suit from his employer; he sold it for $8.20 and invested that money. Within a year, he owned land and ran a successful leather business.
The American eccentric Lord Timothy Dexter’s 1802 book ‘A Pickle for the Knowing Ones’ contained almost no punctuation. When readers complained, he published a second edition containing a page of punctuation marks, explaining that readers should “peper and solt it as they plese”. pic.twitter.com/YokZh9ZGKw
— Haggard Hawks 🦅 (@HaggardHawks) June 21, 2019
His career is filled with strange investments. During the American Revolution, he bought Continental currency, which was largely worthless. When the Americans won, they honored the currency, and Dexter was rich. With that money, he bought two ships, which he used to send bed warmers to the West Indies.
Of course, bed warmers weren’t useful in the hot climate of the West Indies, but they sold quickly anyway (people used them as molasses ladles). Next, Dexter started rounding up stray cats, which he sold in the Caribbean for a nice profit (factories needed to get rid of rodents, unbeknownst to Dexter). When someone jokingly told him to “send coals to Newcastle”—a town with a huge coal industry—he did it, and his shipment arrived just when Newport coal workers went on strike.
But at the turn of the century, Dexter (who now went by the name Lord Dexter) realized that his legacy was somewhat questionable. He decided to fake his own death, so he paid his family members to announce his passing.
What happened next: Lord Dexter’s “funeral” was held at his mansion, and more than 3,000 people attended. He gave his family instructions on how to act during the spectacle, and he hid onsite so he could watch his guests grieve.
Given that Dexter had a reputation as a distasteful, illiterate oaf, many of the attendees were only there out of curiosity. That seemed to enrage the entrepreneur, who was discovered in the home’s kitchen shortly after the funeral (he was attacking his wife for not crying hard enough).
— The Vintage News (@TvnVintage) October 11, 2017
Lord Dexter passed away shortly afterward. No word on whether his second funeral had better attendance than his first.
4. An acclaimed novelist overreacts to a minor arrest (but doesn’t cover his tracks).
The fakeout: When novelist Ken Kesey published One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1962, he was hailed as the next great American writer. He lived up to his potential, becoming a central figure in the counterculture movement (so, in other words, he was a hippie).
Alas, as a result of his, er, new interests, Kesey found himself facing minor charges for possession of illicit substances in 1965. He was facing time in prison, so he did the logical thing: He wrote a fairly oblique note explaining that he was taking his own life, then he enlisted the help of a few friends to fake his death.
Happy Birthday, Ken Kesey!
"He who marches out of step hears another drum." -Kesey pic.twitter.com/Bw6I37rgGP
— Mickey Hart (@mickeyhart) September 17, 2018
Police found his truck on the side of the road, along with the note, and immediately suspected that something was up—after all, there was no body, and dead people usually don’t disappear into thin air.
What happened next: Kesey had fled to Mexico, but he wasn’t great at hiding. He returned to the United States within a year and admitted to tricking authorities. Even after faking his death, Kesey only got six months in county jail. He probably felt a bit silly for upending his entire life to avoid a relatively minor sentence, but hey, hindsight’s 20/20.
I share a birthday with Ken Kesey. In honour of this fact, I will fake my own death to avoid doing finals.
— Dominic Cottrell (@DWSCottrell) September 17, 2013
“Mr. Kesey, you have the ability to lead people,” the judge said while sentencing the author. “Unfortunately, you use this ability to lead them in areas that cause them to be in trouble.”
He served his sentence while his fellow writer Tom Wolfe wrote The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which documented Kesey’s bizarre life in the ‘60s.
Kesey settled down with his family on a farm in Oregon and continued to write, publishing a number of essays and books over the ensuing decades. He lived a mostly quiet life, pushing back against his wild public image. He passed away in 2001 (for real this time—we think).
5. A hero of World War II helps defeat the Germans (then disappears).
The fakeout: Here’s a case where the faker actually had a decent reason to disappear.
Juan Pujol Garcia was a Barcelona-born double agent who detested violence. He served on both sides of the Spanish Civil War and claimed that he never fired his weapon; after the war, he expressed a strong hatred of totalitarianism.
— SPIES&VESPERS (@SpiesVespers) July 15, 2019
When World War II broke out in 1939, Pujol offered his services “for the good of humanity.” He tried to contact British authorities, but they refused him—so he contacted the German government on his own, offering to spy on the British. They accepted his offer and trained him in espionage, giving him orders to travel to England and build a network of spies.
Instead, Pujol went to Lisbon, Portugal, where he created fake reports to convince the Germans that he was fulfilling his assignment. He created a number of fictitious agents and sent lengthy essays to German intelligence about what they’d “uncovered.” The Germans trusted Pujol’s network; after all, who could make that stuff up?
— The National Archives (@UkNatArchives) September 30, 2016
Well, Pujol could. With guidance from the British—who, by this point, realized Pujol was an incredibly talented spy—he convinced the Nazis that the Allies were preparing an invasion of Europe. That was true; Operation Overlord, which would start at Normandy Beach, was real.
But Pujol convinced the Germans that the invasion would actually start further north at Pas de Calais. That piece of misinformation gave the Allies plenty of time to complete their real attack. Pujol’s subterfuge was an incredibly important piece of the war—but the Germans still didn’t notice for some time. Hitler even awarded Pujol an Iron Cross, a high military honor, for his “service” to the Nazi Party.
After the war, Pujol feared being exposed as a double agent. He called his British contact and told him to tell everyone he’d died of malaria (including his wife and children, who were left behind). Pujol moved to Venezuela, grew a beard, and started wearing glasses.
Seriously, in 1949, that’s pretty much all you had to do to disappear.
What happened next: Nothing bad happened; he ran a successful bookstore for 36 years. He was eventually identified by British writer Nigel West, at which point he stopped hiding. Pujol returned to Europe, where he reconnected with his ex-wife (she’d suspected that he wasn’t really dead—his children, on the other hand, believed he’d passed).
After receiving medals of honor from both the Nazis and the Allies, Spanish spy Juan Pujol Garcia faked his death in 1949 and moved to Venezuela to run a bookshop: https://t.co/kUsRMUS3Rv pic.twitter.com/kF7mb23wvW
— Big Think (@bigthink) November 4, 2018
Some historians question whether Pujol really needed to hide his identity for so long, but this wasn’t a guy who did things halfway. The ex-spy passed away in 1988 after writing a book about his incredible life.
“He was an idealistic double agent, which is very rare,” biographer Stephan Talty told History. “He did it strictly out of idealism, and I think also to realize himself as the great improvisational actor that he knew he was. It gave him a role that he wanted to play.”