Some people come to the Florida Keys to dive the coral reefs or fish for tarpon. Others come to party in Key West. And then there are a desperate few who come to the subtropical island chain for a more sinister activity: faking their own deaths.
“We’ve had so many over the years,” Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay said. “The underlying reason usually is a bankruptcy, a divorce, an imminent arrest or the feds coming down on them.”
And the common lure seems to be all the water — the ocean, the channels, the bay — all plausible places for a body never to be found.
Two such cases surfaced this past week. On Monday, James Alan Dziadura, a Homestead family man under investigation for molesting a child under 12, texted his sister to alert her that he was about to jump off the Card Sound Bridge in the Upper Keys. And he would do it with a 40-pound weight tied to his leg.
Four Monroe County dive team members conducted a thorough search of the area under the bridge. A 40-pound weight was indeed found, directly under the location of the cell phone in eight feet of water. But no body was recovered. While the sheriff’s office is calling the incident a missing person case — for now, Ramsay says he thinks the whole thing was a “hoax.”
The next day, Aubrey Lee Price, a bank director who had left a rambling suicide note in June 2012 that he was going to jump off a ferry going from Key West to Fort Myers, was found quite alive and well in Georgia after being stopped for driving a pickup with gold tinted windows suspiciously slowly. He had had at least 21 million reasons for others to think he was dead — that’s how much he allegedly embezzled from his bank.
One of the most famous fake death cases in the Keys occurred in 1981, when a Tampa restaurateur named H.E. “Gene” Holloway concocted an elaborate scheme to make law enforcement officials think he had drowned after falling overboard from a yacht during a night cruise near Key West.
Three accomplices helped in the hoax, claiming they had thrown him life jackets. But an FBI agent in the Tampa office said “nobody believed it when he supposedly went overboard.” It was hard not to be skeptical, considering Holloway was deep in debt and had a $16 million insurance policy.
Sure enough, Holloway was found two months later in Toronto, in a hotel room with a new girlfriend, and arrested for possession of pot.
He had cosmetic facial surgery and a hair transplant to try to disguise his appearance, but his fake identity as James Laran Larue didn’t last because of his real fingerprints.
In 1998, Kerry Steven Scheele was just 29 when he came up with a way to collect on his own $1 million life insurance policy, and avoid paying child support. He staged his own drowning during a lobster diving trip near Big Pine Key.
He swam ashore, hid his rented diving gear in the dense mangroves and then booked it to his girlfriend’s house in Wisconsin by hitchhiking and taking a bus.
Insurance investigators tracked him down. He was sentenced to two-years probation and $55,000 in restitution to the Coast Guard and the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office for the cost of the search.
Then there was the case of Patrick the Escape Artist in 2006. Michael Patrick was a regular performer at the popular Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square in Key West, entertaining crowds by hanging upside-down from a 10-foot tripod and freeing himself from chains and straitjackets.
But on Halloween, the 80th anniversary of Harry Houdini’s death, Patrick drastically altered his routine and did a backflip off the ledge. He quickly plunged into the fast-moving Key West Harbor Waters, 35 feet deep.
When he didn’t surface, two fellow performers and three police officers dove into the water to try to save him. Nobody knew at the time whether it was a tragic accident or a suicide.
Patrick was found the next day, upset police had ruined his big “ta-da.” He was taken to jail.
In the case of Price, he left his home on June 16, 2012, telling his family he was going to Guatemala on business. Two days later they started receiving letters in which he confessed to his misdeeds, which included defrauding more than 100 of his clients of millions. He also wrote of his plans to kill himself by jumping off the ferry.
“My depression and discouragement have driven me to deep anxiety, fear and shame,” he wrote in one letter.
Credit card records show he purchased dive weights. He also was seen on video arriving at Key West International Airport and getting on the ferry. But a Coast Guard report shows that none of the 160 passengers on board saw anybody jump or fall overboard during the daytime trip.
Although a Florida judge declared him dead, the FBI believed he was still alive and continued to search for him.
Price, 47, was on the lam for 18 months, doing odd jobs. When he was found with dark scraggly hair, he looked nothing like the clean-cut banker in the wanted picture issued by the FBI.
Miami-Dade Police Department spokesman Roy Rutland said there is a “very active” investigation involving Dziadura, 38, who is suspected of sexual crimes against a child under 12.
There is no arrest warrant at this time. Investigators are still awaiting the results of forensic tests and gathering other evidence in the case.
Key in ignition
Dziadura knew he was under investigation, according to the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office’s incident report. He fled before detectives could talk to him. At about 1 a.m. Monday, after Dziadura sent the text, Monroe County deputies arrived at Card Sound Bridge and found Dziadura’s gray mini van.
The keys were in the ignition and it was unlocked. Inside were his wallet, a 40-pound dumbbell, two baseball bats, a crowbar, some clothes, a shoe, a suitcase and a child’s car seat.
On Dziadura’s Facebook page, he is seen with his pretty wife and four young children in a family photo taken in 2009. There are also more than 100 pictures of two of his sons when they were babies.
His cellphone was found about halfway up the bridge. Immediately below, the 40-pound weight was found, without a rope or anything else attached to it.
“People always jump from the high point. Why did he only go halfway up?” Ramsay said. “And if you are telling somebody you are killing yourself you don’t give details like the specific amount of the weight.”
And Ramsay said that the body wouldn’t have moved far from where it landed in that location, even with the current.
“Everything points to this guy knowing he could go to jail for a long time and trying to hide and duck from authorities,” Ramsay said. “It happens all the time.”