JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A 63-year-old Florida man will be spending the next 14 years in prison after pleading guilty to orchestrating a massive, convoluted scheme to fake his own death.
The case involving Jose Salvador Lantigua, the former owner of a failing Jacksonville furniture store, stretches back to 2012, when he used fraudulent documents to secure $2 million in loans, court documents said.
In an attempt to hide his financial problems from his family and wife, Daphne Simpson, Lantigua concocted a scheme that would span two years and countless countries, officials said.
In January 2013, Lantigua approached his wife with terrible news: He had been diagnosed with Creutzfeld-Jakob disease, also known as mad cow disease.
Telling Simpson he only had six months to a year to live, Lantigua said his doctor told him there was a surgical procedure that could save his life, but not in the U.S.
He would fly to Colombia for the procedure, he told his wife, according to court documents.
None of it was true, Lantigua wrote in a court memorandum before his sentencing.
Shortly before he was scheduled to leave for Colombia, Lantigua changed his story, telling Simpson he did not have mad cow disease, officials said.
“(He told Simpson) his past was catching up to him from his time with an Army military special operations ‘team,’” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a media release. “He explained that the ‘team’ had killed a drug cartel leader and he was currently being blackmailed by a rogue CIA agent who would expose Lantigua’s identity to the alleged cartel member’s son if he did not satisfy the blackmail demands.”
The solution was to fake his own death, he said.
“This new explanation was also entirely false,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office release said.
In April 2013, Lantigua flew to Margarita Island off the coast of Venezuela, where he purchased a fake death certificate and fake certificate of cremation, investigators said.
Later that month, Simpson flew to Venezuela to meet Lantigua, officials said.
While there, the pair took a taxi to the U.S. Embassy, where Simpson took the fraudulent documents to obtain a “certificate of death abroad,” court documents said.
Lantigua waited in the taxi outside the embassy while Simpson filed the documents, his plea agreement said.
After returning to Jacksonville, Simpson started to file seven life insurance claims totaling $6.6 million, claiming Lantigua had died of complications from mad cow disease while in Venezuela, investigators said.
Only three of the policies made payments, netting Simpson nearly $900,000.
According to court records, in the fall of 2013, Simpson took a cruise to the Bahamas where she met up with Lantigua.
While there, they paid someone $5,000 to smuggle them back into the U.S. on a fishing boat, officials said.
Back on U.S. soil, Lantigua traveled under the name of Harry Fields, arriving in Jacksonville in December 2013 to meet with Simpson before the pair drove to a property in North Carolina they had bought on their honeymoon.
Nearly a year later, in September 2014, Lantigua went to a North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles office with a fake New York driver’s license and fake birth certificate to get a real driver’s license, investigators said.
The scheme worked and he was able to obtain a valid driver’s license under a fake name, court documents said.
By the end of 2014, though, Lantigua’s plan unraveled completely.
Less than two months after getting a North Carolina driver’s license, Lantigua again pushed his luck and attempted to get a U.S. passport using his newly obtained identification, court documents said.
As officials put the application through routine checks, they realized the information Lantigua provided was fake.
They took the photograph the man submitted with his passport application and using facial recognition software, were able to match it to the photo on the passport with Lantigua’s real name.
In March 2015, agents with the U.S. State Department and North Carolina State Bureau of Investigations conducted surveillance near the address Lantigua gave on his passport application, court documents said.
When he was spotted, one of the agents called out his real name. When Lantigua responded, he was arrested, investigators said.
Lantigua and Simpson were both charged in connection with the sprawling scheme, and pleaded guilty in September, officials said.
Simpson was sentenced to five years of probation.