JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Jose Lantigua's family appeared to be living the American Dream. The Cuban immigrant claimed he had a heroic military career and earned numerous degrees before running a successful furniture business. He owned a Florida beachfront condo and a new home atop a verdant North Carolina mountain.
But in 2012, as his Circle K Furniture slid deeper into debt, those who knew Lantigua said he'd made some odd decisions: he ordered tons of new furniture on the company dime for his family's many homes. He replaced the bookkeeper he'd used for years with a relative. He built a panic room with steel doors inside his North Carolina hideaway.
And, prosecutors say, he and his wife began planning his fake death to scam almost $8 million from insurance companies.
Lantigua, 62, and his 57-year-old wife, Daphne Simpson, are jailed on seven Florida insurance fraud charges each after he was arrested by federal agents Saturday in North Carolina wearing a brown toupee and a dyed beard. Each count carries a possible 30-year sentence.
No matter how the criminal case turns out, his arrest gives a resolute end to a long-running court battle between Lantigua's family and insurance companies that refused to pay off on his life policies because, for many reasons proven right, they didn't think he was dead.
"I've never seen anything quite like (this case)," said Joe Licandro, a Jacksonville prosecutor working the case. "There was always a suspicion, but they were able to evade authorities as long as he did, and she didn't have any missteps either — until recently."
Lantigua, who had emigrated to the U.S. as a youth, purchased Circle K Furniture in 2008 after claiming to have served more than 20 years as a senior officer and in Airborne Ranger special operations in the U.S. Army, where he claimed to have earned the Silver Star, the nation's third-highest military honor for bravery. Records released by the Army contained no record of Lantigua seeing combat and no record of his serving in special forces or of his being awarded the Silver Star. He was enlisted for two years in the 1970s, then served in the Army Reserve from 1980-2002, records show.
He also graduated from Florida International University in 1989 with a degree in computer science, the school said, and claimed degrees in management, mathematics and physics and aerospace engineering from Pepperdine University, Northwestern University and the University of Florida, respectively. UF said he attended the school but did not earn a degree and Northwestern had no record of him. Pepperdine did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation.
By the time Lantigua bought Circle K Furniture, it had grown from a few items sold from the corner of an old feed store to two large Jacksonville showrooms offering everything from contemporary to country-style pieces made from logs.
Problems surfaced in 2012, when Lantigua told friends and colleagues he'd fallen ill and needed to go to Venezuela to get an experimental treatment not available in the United States. Simpson stood by his side with an expression of worry, people who know the couple said. Records showed they sold their Jacksonville-area condo for $600,000.
About this time, Circle K was also developing financial problems. No one suspected anything suspicious at first, said Kathleen Leis, who was Circle K's bookkeeper. But as the company's debt grew into hundreds of thousands of dollars, she said Lantigua kept buying furniture for his family with company funds. Still, she trusted the man, whose kindness she said she leaned on previously when she had problems. Then Lantigua replaced her as bookkeeper with his sister-in-law.
"I wasn't given a reason except I was needed more on the floor and his sister-in-law couldn't sell furniture," she said.
Before long, Lantigua headed to Venezuela to deal with his alleged illness.
It was there, in April 2013, that his family said he died of a heart attack, his body cremated there instead of returned home. Circle K's stores closed a month later and the company soon filed for bankruptcy. Lantigua's family began filing life insurance claims for the nearly $8 million in policies he'd obtained.
At his June 2013 memorial service at High Point Community Church in suburban Jacksonville, Lantigua's daughter, Christina, sang "Amazing Grace" and the pastor read words of hope as his widow looked on.
Meanwhile, American General Life Companies had suspicions about the $2 million claim Lantigua's son, Joseph, had filed, particularly the Venezuelan death and cremation certificates accompanying it. First, the physician who signed Lantigua's death certificate never received or examined the body. The investigators also said there had been no autopsy.
Finally, the crematorium that had supposedly been used was 250 miles from where Lantigua supposedly died. Investigators found that suspicious.
"The insured's body was purportedly not prepared in any way prior to the cremation and likely would have rapidly decomposed during the lengthy travel in high temperatures," American General said in court documents. The crematorium representative who signed the certificate was paid to generate false documents, the company said.
Last November, American General denied the claim and lawsuits were filed. Joseph Lantigua has not responded to several phone messages from AP seeking comment. No contact information for Christina Lantigua could be found. Neither has been charged with a crime.
American General's findings piqued the interest of local and federal prosecutors, who opened an investigation that included surveillance.
At the time of his supposed death, Lantigua and his wife had been building a home at the top of a steep, narrow road on Hogback Mountain in North Carolina, a remote vacation destination near Asheville.
"It's possible that he's been hiding out there these past couple of years," said Licandro, the Jacksonville prosecutor.
Residents of the nearby village of Sapphire said the area is perfect for hiding out: only a couple hundred people live there and they keep to themselves.
But Lantigua apparently thought trouble was coming. He built a bunker in his basement complete with 20-inch thick steel doors, said a contractor who worked on the house.
"It made me wonder why would you need a panic (room) here? There's not that many people around here you got to worry about," said Forrest Boutte, 28. Boutte said Lantigua was a nice, straightforward man.
On Saturday, U.S. State Department security agents arrested Lantigua near the Hogback Mountain home. The passport he had used to get back into the U.S. had proved his downfall. The man whose name Lantigua was trying to steal was black — the photo Lantigua submitted showed he is white.
Suspicious, State Department agents used facial recognition software to discover his true identity. Finding him wasn't hard — while the other information on his passport application was allegedly forged, he listed his supposed widow as his emergency contact and gave the correct North Carolina address.
For those who knew him, the news that he was still alive was startling.
"I'm just shocked. He didn't seem that type at all. He seemed to me an upstanding, Christian family man. He was nice to everybody and wanted help people," Leis said.
Sanz reported from Sapphire, North Carolina. Associated Press researcher Jennifer Farrar contributed to this story.
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