This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
There are many reasons why one would want to disappear—debt, being in a shitty relationship, hating your life, your dead-end job, the constant disapproval of your friends and parents, and really anyone that has ever met you—that sort of thing—and if you’re going to disappear, well, there isn’t anything better than faking your own death.
Tricking people into thinking you’re a goner is a fantasy that has existed since the beginning of time, but it’s one that we were all recently reminded of when it came out, yet again, that Olivia Newton-John’s ex-boyfriend probably faked his own death. The dude, Patrick McDermott, who is less a dead dad than a deadbeat dad, disappeared in 2005 while on an overnight fishing trip on his boat unironically named “Freedom.”
For years now, it’s been reported that McDermott was living in Mexico—a 2009 Dateline investigation pretty much confirmed this, while finding—totally unrelated—that he owed a shitload in child support payments. The most recent reminder of McDermott’s possible trickery came to us from New Idea, a weekly Australian magazine, which claimed it had photo proof of McDermott living in Mexico earlier this week.
All this got me wondering what is the proper way to disappear, so that Australian weeklies can’t track me down. So, with the case of Patrick McDermott in mind, I decided to talk to an expert on how to actually pull off faking your own death. I reached out to Elizabeth Greenwood, the author of Playing Dead, a fascinating book that examines death fakery of all kinds.
At the immediate start of our conversation, Greenwood put a caveat on all her advice: “I honestly don’t recommend any of this.”
"Most of us just have the option of disappearing, just kind of walking out on your life,” Greenwood said. “There is nothing really illegal in that. Obviously what you leave behind will come back to haunt you, like if you're jumping bail, but, if you're just a regular Joe, walking out of your life is better."
That said, if blowing up of your life isn’t an option, like perhaps you pissed off a cartel, maybe you need to actually fake your own death. But Greenwood says McDermott's method is a bad move. As it turns out, going missing in the ocean is actually a red flag for investigators, especially when a body (which will usually turn up in a few days) is never found. What you really should do is far, far simpler.
Go for a long walk in the woods.
"I spoke to the investigators about what kind of accident you should avoid and they told me not water and that the kind of accidents that seem believable are the open-ended scenarios,” said Greenwood. “For example, people go hiking and disappear off trails all the time, and their bodies are never found, and what happened to them is left very open-ended.
“So it's something that's a little less clear-cut than toppling overboard and drowning where there is only singular answer to what could happen to you. You want something a little more nuanced... a situation where there is a more than one answer."
So, you’ve disappeared up in a mountain or up the Appalachian Trail, now what?
Well, faking one's own death isn’t illegal in its own sense, but there are numerous ancillary crimes that are associated like it—such as fraud and identity theft if you try to pass yourself off as someone else. So, unless you are willing to break the law and get your hands on some passable documents, driving is out of the equation. So, again, in a counterintuitive move, you’re not going to head to some faraway country or secluded farm but a big-ass city. Think about it: People move to cities all the time, and it's far easier to get work under the table and procure housing with no documents.
Greenwood mentioned a woman named Petra Pazsitka who, in the 80s, went missing at age 24. In a rather beneficial turn for someone who faked her own death, Pazstika was declared dead after a serial killer took responsibility for her murder. However, in 2015, after going to the police because of a break-in, Pazstika was found to be living in Germany under another name. She was able to work for cash under the table and get by for more than 30 years with no proper documentation. When she was finally found out, investigators declared she wasn’t criminally liable because she didn’t falsify any documents.
This is the best way to go says, Greenwood.
"You don't need to travel and you don't need to get a passport unless you're willing to spend lots of money to get a fake but real passport essentially and to do that you need to know the right people. I think from what I've seen, it's just better to be able to fly under the radar doing least amount possible."
A disguise is also important. One man named John Darwin, better known as the Canoe Man, was profiled in Greenwood’s book. Darwin, in the early 2000s, ran up some debt after buying some homes, so he took a canoe out to sea and promptly went missing. His body was never found, but the wreckage of his canoe was found, he was declared dead and his family got a $32,000 insurance payoff that they then used against their debt.
Darwin was even able to live next door to his wife for years before they were caught in 2007 after being photographed together on vacation. Darwin and his wife were charged with fraud and sentenced to eight years—they are now out on probation. Darwin was interviewed by Greenwood for her book and told her that he had completely changed his appearance for his time as a dead man. He became gaunt, grew out a beard, changed his hair, and started wearing glasses and walking with a limp. His disguise was so good that he once even passed his father on the street, and his pops had no idea.
It’s important to know that faking your own death is not a short con and you have to be prepared to play the long game. If you’re leaving like this, you’re leaving for good. You can’t have contact with your friends, your family, or your 4,290 Twitter followers who live and die by your tweets. You can’t have anything at all to do with your former life, or you run the risk of getting caught.
"The main reason why people usually get caught isn't because they get their image caught on security camera or they're just spotted somewhere,” said Greenwood. “People get caught because they can't cut ties with their previous lives, that means they still try to reach out to family members or stay in touch some sort of way… You have to alter everything about yourself, so you have to go somewhere completely different than most people would expect."
Faking your death isn’t a one-size-fits-all sort of thing. There are many other things that you can do, like get in touch with some fixers who will help you or paying off doctors in third-world countries for a death certificate, and what not. But kiddos, for a quick and dirty best practices for faking your own death, this [probably] works.
Best of luck! See you on the Appalachian Trail.
Follow Mack Lamoureux on Twitter.