Jose Salvador Lantigua was dead.
In April 2013, the debt-ridden furniture store owner traveled to Venezuela — during a time his health had been deteriorating, Florida news reports said. His family claimed he passed away on the trip. The U.S. embassy in Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, confirmed he died in Rio Chico, a tourist town by the Caribbean Sea. The Cuban native was reportedly cremated, his ashes scattered in South America.
It turns out, Lantigua was very much alive. Any lingering doubt about it vanished on Monday when he appeared in a federal courtroom in Asheville, N.C.
It was all a ruse — an alleged plan to escape mountains of debt and collect more than $9 million in bogus life insurance claims, according to prosecutors.
Over the weekend, Lantigua, a 62-year-old from Jacksonville, Fla., was arrested near his wife’s affluent mountain home in North Carolina. He has been charged with a one count of making a false statement on a passport application. He has also been charged in state court in Florida with seven counts of filing fraudulent insurance claims and another count of scheming to fraud, according to the Associated Press.
His wife, Daphne Simpson, was also arrested and faces the same state charges.
Indeed, the two-year mystery and its messy conclusion came as a shock to some back in Jacksonville, where Lantigua seemed to be a business success. He was a former executive for Fidelity National Information Services who bought a furniture store in 2008 and turned it into a “local favorite,” the Jacksonville Business Journal reported in 2013. A few years later, he opened another store on the other side of town. He even announced plans for a third. But during his alleged death scam, the newspaper revealed his estate was more than $8 million in the red.
His story started to fall apart amid lawsuits between life insurance companies and Lantigua’s son. The family claimed Lantigua died overseas, but insurance companies didn’t believe them and refused to pay the claims.
Hartford Life and Annuity Insurance Company, which was supposed to shell out $2.5 million on a life insurance policy to settle Lantigua’s debt at a local bank, started investigating the death, according to the Jacksonville Business Journal. It sent a letter to his family’s attorney saying it knew the truth, and it filed a lawsuit stating it shouldn’t have to make payments.
“Our investigation has revealed that Mr. Lantigua is alive and living in Venezuela,” a claim examiner wrote, according to the Florida Times‑Union. Without a death, the letter added, “there is no benefit payable on this claim.”
The family’s attorney at the time, Ray Driver, objected. “I have a certified death certificate and a certificate of the death of a U.S. citizen abroad from our U.S. State Department,” he said. “And I have not seen any evidence to refute those two pieces of paper.”
In the lawsuit, however, an investigator hired by the life insurance company claimed a Venezuelan attorney admitted he “participated in a scheme to fabricate documentation” for the death and that a funeral home director was “complicit in the scheme.” The funeral home allegedly got a doctor — who never saw the body — to sign the death certificate, the Jacksonville Business Journal reported.
Lantigua’s son fought back, accusing the insurance company of running a dirty investigation. But in the end, Lantigua seemed to seal his own fate.
In September of last year, the supposedly deceased Lantigua got a North Carolina driver’s license and birth certificate using the name of a former New York postal worker. Two months later, he used that identification to apply for a U.S. passport, according to a federal criminal complaint cited by the AP.
The passport application caught the attention of the State Department because the postal worker had applied for his own passport in 1999 and it didn’t quite match Lantigua’s passport application. They were different heights. Their eye color, hair color — and skin color — were also different. The photo from 1999 showed a black man. The one from 2014 showed a white man.
On the passport application, Lantigua also put down his wife’s real name as his emergency contact and listed his address as the one that matched her North Carolina home.
After weeks watching the house, federal investigators pulled over Lantigua in a Jeep Wrangler. He was wearing a “poorly dyed beard” and brown toupee, investigators said.
When he was arrested, he reportedly signed a document waiving his Miranda rights. “It’s been a long time since I signed my true name,” he said, according to court papers.