Faking your death isn’t the easiest feat. Besides just the emotional aspects of picking up and leaving your friends and family, there’s also the logistics of getting a new identity and staying off the radar. As a result, not many attempts to fake one’s own death are successful. However, there are a few mysteries that prompt investigators to speculate whether they’re looking into a real death, or a clever deception?
Also, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. Are these people really alive and in hiding somewhere? Or have they been dead the entire time?
10. Matthew Hammill
60-year-old Matthew Hammill of Northern Ireland, who resided in Australia, was last seen in Queensland on October 29, 2008. The next day, his abandoned car was found at a lookout point not far from there. In the car, they found a suicide note. On the banks of the Kawarau River, close to his car, they found some of his personal items.
The area was searched, but there was no sign of Hammill. His disappearance was ruled a suicide, but just over a year after he disappeared, the police re-opened his case. Since his body was never found, they believe it is possible he may have staged his own death.
By 2016, there had been no activity on Hammill’s bank or internet accounts. The police are keeping an open mind, but they think there is a good chance Hammill is dead and his body has just never been found.
9. Donald Siska
In 1981, 41-year-old Donald Siska of Crystal Lake, Wisconsin, was in debt. Familiar story. He was behind in child support payments for his five children, so he was giving up half of his weekly salary. He also owed about $10,000 in credit card debt and bills.
Donald had just gotten a divorce decree that would allow him to make his new wife, Deborah, the beneficiary on any life insurance policy. Before the decree, he would have had to make his children the beneficiaries. Then in spring 1981, Donald took out a life insurance policy with Traveler’s Insurance through his work. It would pay $100,000 for an accidental death and made Deborah the beneficiary.
In August, four months after he took out the insurance policy, Donald, Deborah, and another couple went sailing on Lake Geneva. It started off as a miserable day and they had to wear layers of clothing. As the day progressed, Donald removed some clothes and his hat blew into the lake. Supposedly, Donald dove in and swam to the hat. Once he did, he gave a salute and the other sailors stopped paying attention to him. No one saw or heard him go under the water, but when they looked out in Donald’s direction again, he was gone.
The lake was dragged and sonar was used, but no body was ever found. In 1986, Deborah filed to get Traveler’s Insurance to payout on the policy. They conducted a five-year investigation before finally denying her claim. Deborah appealed the decision in court in 1991, 10 years after Donald disappeared. Traveler’s showed that Donald had good reasons to stage his death and there wasn’t enough evidence to show that he died in an accident. Finally, there were also rumors that Donald had an uncle who had faked his own death years before.
In the end, the court ruled in the insurance company’s favor that it is likely that Donald faked his death.
8. Ron Jorgensen
After World War I, New Zealand had placed a 6:00 p.m. ban on liquor sales. In 1963, the law was still being enforced. That meant if a New Zealander wanted a drink after dinner, they had to go to illegal shops and houses called sly-grogs. On the night of December 7, 1963, in Auckland, a murder that shocked New Zealand happened in one of these sly-grog houses. Two men who trafficked in drugs and alcohol, Kevin Speight, 26, and George Walker, 38, were found shot to death. Their bodies were riddled with bullets.
An autopsy showed the men had been dead for two or three days, killed with a .45 caliber machine gun. The double homicide was shocking because, at the time, machine guns were just weapons people saw in the movies. There hadn’t been a murder committed using one in New Zealand before.
Through informants, the police connected two men to the gun, Ron Jorgenson and John Gillies. A few days before the murders, a 17-year-old girl asked Jorgenson to “sort out” her boyfriend, Barry Shaw, a man involved with the illegal alcohol trade. Jorgenson gave Gillies’ the machine gun and told him to talk to Shaw. On the night of the murders, Gillies went to confront Shaw at the sly-grog house, but in an amazing twist of fate, Shaw had gone out for the night. Instead, Gillies showed off the gun to some people who were hanging out in the sly-grog house and someone told him to go confront Speight and Walker, which led to their murders.
Jorgenson and Gillies were both arrested. At their trial, Gillies admitted he purchased the gun from Jorgenson and as a result, both men were given life sentences, but were later paroled.
In 1984, Jorgenson made headlines again when his empty car was found at the bottom of a cliff near the town of Kaikoura. Since there was no body, police first speculated that he staged his own death. This led to rumors that he was a police informant in Australia. However, there is no evidence to substantiate the rumors. Ultimately, Jorgenson’s body was never found and he was declared legally dead in 1998.
7. Sascha Schornstein
On July 21, 2013, 26-year-old Royal Bank of Scotland banker Sascha Schornstein was piloting a light aircraft that took off from Hampshire, England. It was supposed to land in Le Touquet, France. However, 10 minutes after taking off the plane started moving erratically, changing speed and altitude, before disappearing off the radar completely. The wreckage of the plane was found in the English Channel, 15 miles away from Dungeness in Kent. Inside the plane, they found Schornstein’s flight bag, rucksack, logbook, and a life raft that had been torn from its cover bag. However, there was no sign of Schornstein.
Police say they have an “open mind” regarding what happened to Schornstein and aren’t convinced he is dead. When his wife was asked if he would have faked his own death, she said they weren’t having any marital or money problems and didn’t see any reason for him to try to fake his death. She has also tried to raise money to find his body.
6. Guma Aguiar
On June 19, 2012, Brazilian-born millionaire Guma Aguiar was seen steering his 31-foot fishing boat out of a marina in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. On that night, the weather was poor and the waters were rough. The next morning, his boat that was still running and had the lights on, washed up on the shore not far from where he departed. On board, there was no blood or signs of a struggle. What they did find was Aguiar’s wallet, cell phone, and some clothes. The police scoured the area, but there was no sign of the millionaire.
Aguiar made his $100 million fortune through an energy company he co-founded called Leor Energy. However, before he disappeared, he was having some personal and possibly mental health problems. In 2009, Aguiar got into a nasty legal battle with his ultra-wealthy uncle, Thomas Kaplan, who was the other co-founder of Leor. Problems arose from a disagreement about the division of $2.5 billion, which were the proceeds from the company’s sale. In the legal proceedings, it came to light that Aguiar had “severe bipolar disorder and psychosis” and he was convinced that Kaplan was trying to kill him.
When the GPS on Aguiar’s boat was examined, it showed that Aguiar travelled four miles from shore, then went in a triangle. After that, the boat started to drift back to shore, where it was found the next morning. A boating expert said that Aguiar’s direction and speed seems to indicate that he slowed the boat down and possibly transferred to another boat.
After Aguiar disappeared, one of the first people to question if he faked his death was his uncle. Police also believed it was possible that Aguiar was alive, because unlike many people who fake their death, Aguiar had considerable means that would make disappearing much more feasible.
Since his disappearance, there have been no sightings of Aguiar and he was declared dead in January 2015. Police are still unsure if Aguiar committed suicide, was killed in an accident, or if he staged his disappearance and is alive somewhere.
5. Simon Carroll
In 2005, Simon Carroll from Shoeburyness, Essex, England, started working as a finance controller at a prominent financial services company. While in the position, Carroll developed a taste for the high life and indulged in some unusual and risqué behavior. This included cross-dressing, cocaine, and prostitutes.
In March 2007, a sister company of Carroll’s company noticed that there was £600,000 missing from one of their accounts. Around the same time that the discovery was made, Carroll’s blue BMW was found by the suicide hotspot Beachy Head. Inside the car, they found pills, alcohol, and a hosepipe. Initially, the police believed that Carroll committed suicide.
However, once they looked into Carroll’s life, they found out about his alternative lifestyle, the stolen money, and £50,000 he’d amassed in credit card debt before his “suicide.” Finally, Carroll supposedly had two passports and his Irish passport was never recovered. This has led police to believe that Carroll faked his death and could be living anywhere. However, they believe he moved to either Ireland or Greece.
4. Woody Kelly
In 1982, Woody Kelly, who lived on the shore of Lake Michigan in Antioch, Illinois, started taking money from his friends and neighbors to invest in his brokerage firm, Woodlannd Investments. In total, 250 people invested with Kelly and a number of banks in Illinois also granted him loans for investment purposes.
Everyone seemed to thoroughly trust Kelly. He was well known in his community for being generous with both his time and his money. They also thought that Woodlannd Investments was a successful brokerage firm getting 16-20% returns on Californian second-trust mortgages. However, it was all just a charade.
Things started to fall apart for Kelly in April 1985, when a veteran in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who had invested $483,000 with Kelly, named Norman Osgood, went to the authorities because he was suspicious that Kelly was up to something shady. Since Kelly lived in a different state, it took two months for authorities in Illinois to look into his business practices. When they did, Osgood had some evidence against Kelly and filed a lawsuit against him on June 8, 1985.
On the same day that he was being sued, Kelly, who was 41, set off on his boat from Kenosha Harbor, Wisconsin. The boat was found hours later with no one on it and there weren’t many clues as to what happened to Kelly.
After his disappearance, police began looking into Woodlannd Investments and found out that, as Osgood suspected, Kelly was actually running a Ponzi scheme. Kelly had taken out $90,000 in banknotes in the time leading up to his disappearance, including $70,000 just two days before he disappeared. Then, when combing through his financial records, authorities found out that there was about $6 million unaccounted for. None of it was ever recovered. There were also two people who apparently saw Kelly after he disappeared, but neither sighting was confirmed.
In February 1994, Kelly’s former wife tried to have him declared dead so she could collect his life insurance money. Her attorney said that the idea that Kelly is hiding in some Caribbean paradise with all the money he stole is simply a :John Grisham-like fantasy tale.” The judge denied her request because there was no clear evidence that Kelly was dead.
3. Adam Emery
On August 31, 1990, Adam and Elena Emery were eating at a seafood stand at the Rocky Point amusement park in Warwick, Rhode Island. As they ate, the couple, who were in their mid-20s, watched as a car sideswiped Adam’s T-Bird, breaking the taillight. Elena mistakenly picked out a car driven by 20-year-old amusement park worker, Jason Bass, as the culprit.
The Emerys got in their car and tailed Bass and his passenger, trying to get him to pull over. Since Bass didn’t hit their car, he and his friend had no idea why the car was chasing them. After about two miles, Adam pulled in front of Bass and cut him off. Adam then got out of the car armed with a survival knife, and he menacingly advanced towards Bass’ car while screaming.
Bass put the car in reverse and Adam reached in to try to turn off the ignition. This led to Adam hanging on to the car while Bass drove the car in reverse. Adam told him to stop because he had the knife. When “they didn’t heed [his] warning,” Adam stabbed Bass in the arm and the chest. The car crashed and Bass was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.
At Adam’s trial two-and-a-half years later, he claimed that it was self-defense. However, the prosecutors were able to show that Adam was the aggressor. They had the paint chips tested, proving Bass didn’t hit their car. The real culprit never came forward. After hours of deliberation, Adam was convicted of second degree murder on November 10, 1993.
After he was convicted, Adam was released on bail to await sentencing. A few hours later, Adam’s car was found near the top of the Newport Bridge. Inside the car, police found a receipt for Burger King from earlier in the afternoon. They also found a receipt for black clothing and strap on body weights used for diving. Also inside the car were the clothes that Adam and Elena were wearing hours earlier at the courthouse. Finally, there was a handbag and a wallet with about $50 in it.
The immediate conclusion was that instead of facing prison, Adam and Elena decided to commit suicide together by jumping off the bridge into the Narragansett Bay. The bay was searched and when neither body turned up, the police became suspicious that the suicide was staged. That was until less than a year later when Elena’s skull was found by a fisherman. However, Adam’s body has never been found, and there have been no confirmed sightings since his disappearance. Adam was declared dead in 2004, but authorities aren’t convinced. He’s still wanted by the FBI.
2. Daniel Tondevold
In 1977, Ellen McClung Berry and her husband Thomas moved into their mountain top home called Berrymount, situated near Knoxville, Tennessee. The Berrys’ life wasn’t without its rough spots, of course. In 1951, the couple’s only son, Hugh, 18, grabbed a shotgun and shot his grandmother, his father, and a police officer in an argument over his inheritance. His grandmother did not survive the shooting. Hugh was ruled unfit to stand trial. It’s believed that the violent outburst was the result of a change in personality brought on by a head injury that he suffered three years prior. Hugh was eventually released and died from pneumonia on December 31, 1963, in Guadalajara, Mexico.
In March 1978, shortly after moving into Berrymont, Thomas died, leaving 85-year-old Ellen alone in the mountain top house. It didn’t take long before a young man, supposedly from Denmark, named Daniel Tondevold moved in. Ellen and Thomas had met Tondevold in San Francisco. They befriended him after noticing a striking resemblance between Tondevold and their son Hugh. Before he moved in, Tondevold had supposedly been corresponding with Ellen for 15 years.
After he moved in, Ellen would tell people that Tondevold was her godson. Other times she said he was a friend of her son. Originally, Tondevold moved into Berrymount because he was writing a book. Soon after he moved in, Tondevold was managing the estate. In April 1982, Ellen gave Tondevold power of attorney.
In the winter of 1985, Tondevold and Ellen took a vacation to Charleston, South Carolina. In March, Tondevold told Ellen that she should fly back home and he would bring her Mercedes, her jewelry, and her furs back in a few days.
When Ellen got home, she made a disturbing discovery. Antiques were missing. Her bank accounts were drained. And there was an $85,000 mortgage taken out on the house. As Ellen was learning that she wasn’t just broke, but also in debt. Tondevold stayed at a resort in South Carolina and maxed out Ellen’s credit cards.
The next day, Tondevold went missing. There was a suicide note in his suite. Two weeks later, a badly decomposing body was found on Fripp Island, South Carolina, not far from the resort. The cause of death was a single shot to the head. Near the body, they found an antique pistol that belonged to Ellen. A security guard at the resort identified the body as Tondevold. The death was ruled a suicide, and the body was cremated as per the wishes expressed in Tondevold’s suicide note.
If the convenient timing of Tondevold’s suicide wasn’t enough to raise suspicions that he may not be dead, a month after he disappeared, Ellen’s friend discovered that Tondevold had secretly taken out a classified ad that said, “Wanted houseman-chauffeur for East Tennessee country estate (valid non-accident license). Non-smoker, single, non-fat and must like privacy in the country. Write with personal details and include picture if possible.” This has led to speculation that through the ad, Tondevold found someone who looked like him and murdered him as a body double.
Another possible theory was that Tondevold was actually Hugh, who returned to America after faking his death in 1963. However, Unsolved Mysteries did a story on the case and among Ellen’s papers, they found a resume belonging to Tondevold. It said he went to Las Vegas High School. They were able to get a copy of his yearbook and there was a picture of a young Tondevold, who was president of the school’s thespian club.
Ellen was forced to move into a small apartment and lived modestly until her death in 1992 at the age of 98. It is believed that Tondevold stole millions of dollars from her and possibly escaped to the Caribbean, South America, or Europe.
1. John Beckenridge and Mike Zhao-Beckenridge
Around lunchtime on March 13, 2015, 11-year-old Mike Zhao-Beckenridge was signed out of his Invercargill, New Zealand school by his stepfather, John Beckenridge. They were last seen on March 17, by a farmer working in the Caitlins area of New Zealand. He said that he saw the pair in a remote, sloped area of the coast. Their last communication was a text message that was sent on March 20. After that, no one saw or heard from the stepfather and stepson again.
Two days after their last text, some car parts and a backpack washed up on the shore close to where Mike and Beckenridge were last seen. Finally, on March 22, the police found Beckenridge’s car submerged in the bay. It appeared that the car had been driven off a 288 foot tall cliff. However, there was no physical trace of Beckenridge and Mike.
Since the car was found, there has been no confirmed sighting of the pair. Also, Beckenridge’s bank accounts have not been touched. It doesn’t appear that anyone has helped them, if they are alive. However, Beckenridge had multiple passports and used four aliases: John Locke, John Lundh, Knut Goran Roland Lundh, and John Bradford. Beckenridge was also a helicopter pilot who has worked all over the world, so he has contacts across the globe.
Currently, the police are treating the disappearance as a missing person case. They believe that it is possible that Beckenridge fled the country and is living overseas. They also think it’s possible that he never left the Caitlins, and he and his stepson are in hiding. Of course, Mike’s mother is also hoping that it was a staged accident and that her son is still alive.