SAPPHIRE, N.C. (AP) — A Florida businessman who authorities say faked his own death to dodge debts while reaping millions in life insurance benefits is sitting in a North Carolina jail after applying for a passport under another man's name.
Jose Salvador Lantigua of Jacksonville, Florida, appeared Monday in federal court in Asheville, North Carolina. He was arrested Saturday by diplomatic security agents from the U.S. State Department and charged with a single count of making a false statement on a passport application.
Lantigua, 62, is also charged in Florida with seven counts of filing fraudulent insurance claims and one count of scheming to fraud. Prosecutors say he used a false Venezuelan death certificate to file more than $9 million in life insurance claims in 2013.
His wife, Daphne Simpson of Atlantic Beach, Florida, was also arrested on Saturday and later released after posting a $200,000 bond. She faces the same state charges as her husband.
Lantigua was nabbed near his wife's luxury mountain home in North Carolina after allegedly filing a passport application in November using the name of an ex-postal worker from New York now living in South Carolina.
According to the federal criminal complaint against him, Lantigua applied for a passport at an Asheville post office using a North Carolina driver's license issued to him in September under the other man's name, along with a New York birth certificate.
However, when the application was processed by the State Department, it raised numerous red flags. The man whose identity Lantigua is accused of stealing had previously gotten a passport in 1999 and several pieces of biographical information didn't match. The height of the two men was different, along with the eye color, hair color and other identifying features.
Further, the photo from that 1999 passport was of a black man, whereas the photo submitted with the new 2014 application was that of a white man.
Investigators at the State Department then used facial recognition software to match the new photo with an earlier photo from Lantigua's real passport. Once they had his name, a Google search turned up news articles from Florida about the allegations he had faked his own death.
Federal court records show a series of lawsuits filed in the past two years between several life insurance companies and Lantigua's son. The companies had refused to pay millions in claims, while Lantigua's family said he had died in Venezuela after an illness and that his body had been cremated. There were also filings from a Georgia bank saying Lantigua owed them more than $2 million.
Federal investigators quickly determined the address listed on the 2014 passport application was for the North Carolina house owned by Lantigua's purported widow. He had also listed his real wife as the emergency contact on the application filed under the other man's name.
After keeping the house under surveillance for weeks, the federal agents closed in Saturday with the help of agents from the State Bureau of Investigation.
Lantigua, wearing a "poorly dyed beard" and a brown toupee, was arrested near the house while driving the same black four-door 2012 Jeep Wrangler he had owned in Florida. The vehicle had been transferred into his son's name following his faked death.
On Monday, sheriff's deputies and federal agents were in the tiny community of Sapphire searching the former fugitive's luxury mountain hideout — 4,500 feet up a winding road with panoramic views of the Blue Ridge mountains and a listed tax value of more than $1.5 million.
Records show Lantigua was being held without bond in the Buncombe County Detention Center. He did not yet have a lawyer listed as representing him in the court records.
Once in custody, the former dead man is reported to have signed a form waiving his Miranda Rights using his real signature.
"It's been a long time since I signed my true name," he told the agents, according to court filings.
Associated Press writers Jason Dearen in Gainsville, Florida, and Randall Chase in Dover, Delaware, contributed to this report.
Biesecker reported from Raleigh. Follow him at http://Twitter.com/mbieseck