The first time Elizabeth Greenwood thought about faking her own death was while having dinner with her friend Matt in the Bronx in New York. Sitting in the cheap Vietnamese restaurant, Elizabeth says she was feeling sorry for herself due to a number of missteps which had left her over one hundred thousand dollars in debt, most of it student debt.
Faking my own death. An untimely end would make a far superior story for the bill collectors than simply vanishing one day. Sloughing off the past, shucking the carcass of my impoverished self, to be reborn, unblemished as a sunrise. My “death” would not be a conclusion but a renaissance – a shot at an alternate ending.
Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud by Elizabeth Greenwood.
Clearly she was romanticising the process in her mind. If only we could all have a do-over, right? And while faking your own death isn’t an illegal act, the series of frauds you have to execute in order to achieve it are. It’s more complicated than simply walking out on your life with no explanation.
You’d never be able to contact your family again.
Mamamia Confessions: I chucked a sickie so I could…
One Google search later and she was knee-deep in what she describes as “a diverse and vibrant ecosystem: amateur forums where anonymous avatars traded tips on how to score fake IDS and stash money undetected”. It’s called “pseudo-cide” and it’s more common than most people realise.
Greenwood didn’t end up going through with it but did become fascinated with pseudocide and has since written a book called Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud, Elizabeth Greenwood.
She went as far as to buy a fake death certificate from the Philippine’s black market, stating that she’d died in a car accident on 2 July, 2013. Just holding it in her hand made her feel better, freer. “Suddenly, the high rents, commuting in New York and the mundane details of life didn’t seem so oppressive any more,” she writes.
Turning her attention to those who had tried, then failed, to fake their own deaths, Greenwood became fascinated by the process. There’s the planning of the accident, usually involving water so the absence of a body can be explained. There’s the setting up of a fake identity using details of those who have died. Then the decision to cut off all ties with family and friends.
Most people who fail to successfully disappear normally get tripped up by small mistakes. Like the Wall Street trader who faked his own death and was found living in a car. And the man with the real estate debt who pretended to drown and ended up being photographed working in real estate in Panama.
Then there's the man who staged his own plane crash so he could live in the outdoors. Except he'd dumped a street directory from which he'd ripped out a few pages of his destination. Police purchased the same street directory and tracked him with the missing pages.
Debt is a common reason people want to escape their lives, and quite a few are on their way to prison for white-collar crimes. Then there are those who are trying to commit insurance fraud. They are usually the ones hunted down. Faking your own death for financial gain is a sure-fire way to put a target on your back.
So-called "skip tracers" Frank Ahearn and Eileen Horan who wrote the book How to Disappear say people who choose to fake their own deaths are often trying to either "escape the daily grind" or leave "all their troubles behind". Australia's most famous alleged case of pseudocide, that of Olivia Newton John's long-time friend Patrick McDermott, is discussed.
A group of private investigators declared in 2009 that they had located McDermott in Mexico, but a person claiming to represent him has requested his privacy be respected and his whereabouts not revealed, which sounds fishy to me.
How to Disappear by Frank Ahearn and Eileen Horan.
Ahearn and Horan mention English explorer George Bass who many believed faked his own death and later lived in Spain. Then there's the mysterious drowning of former Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt who disappeared in 1967 who many say faked his own death in order to run off with his mistress.
Ahearn and Horan spoke to Greenwood for her book and said most people come undone by a lack of planning and silly mistakes. "Think about any crime," he told Greenwood. "Usually police don't catch them in the act, they catch them for the broken headlight on their car."
And it's small, silly things like that which leads to most people being found.
Which is exactly what happened to Bennie Wint, who had been presumed dead since staging his drowning off the coast of Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1989. He'd been involved in a narcotics ring, and, swept up in paranoia, he believed the cops were onto him.
So twenty years later, when he was pulled over in North Carolina, where he'd been living with his new family, for not having a $1.50 lightbulb over the license plate of his car, he couldn't produce a driver's license...
Greenwood, for one, is happy she didn't go through with it. "What happens to the people you leave behind," she asks. "If you kill yourself in order to live anew, what dies with you?"
"Is it ever worth it?"