One of the most famous fake death cases in the Keys occurred in 1981, when a Tampa, Fla., 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 due to 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.