A millionaire CEO living large is suddenly dead. But did wealthy and mysterious Jose Lantigua die a natural death, or was this something more ominous?
Everyone in Jacksonville, Florida knew Jose Lantigua's face, the owner of a chain of discount furniture stores. His commercials made him something of a local celebrity.
Selling dining room tables and bedroom sets made Lantigua very rich. He boasted a life insurance policy worth almost $6 million.
Crime Watch Daily sits down with Jose Lantigua's wife Daphne Simpson in an exclusive interview about the man she thought was her knight in shining armor.
Daphne Simpson is a deeply religious woman. Her first husband was a pastor. And like many singles, Daphne logged on for love, hoping to meet a nice guy through a Christian dating site. It wasn't long before a match was made in heaven with the successful Cuban immigrant turned furniture king.
"When I told the girls at work that I had gone out with this particular gentleman, and they were like 'Oh my gosh, he's so awsome!" said Daphne. "He's a great person here in the community, he's contributed in so many ways charities and everything."
Daphne, originally from Texas, moved to Jacksonville. When she went back to the Lone Star State to visit her kids, they could tell she was smitten with her new Romeo. After four months of dating, Daphne's Cuban Casanova popped the question. It was in his usual grand style, at a fancy restaurant, with long-stemmed red roses and champagne on ice waiting tableside.
Jose was divorced, his children grown adults. Daphne says he rolled out the red carpet for her own adult children, even inviting them to move into his mini-mansion on exclusive Fleming Island, an upscale coastal community about 15 miles from Jacksonville.
"He brought all of us into his fold. Immediately my sisters, me, he was like 'I want all you guys to move here, to Florida,'" said Daphne's son Andre Holliday.
Jose even dazzled Daphne and her kids with intriguing stories about his past as a high-ranking military officer. But he embelished those tales, saying he worked with the CIA carrying out top-secret missions in South America.
Everyone's future looked bright, especially when Lantigua made Circle K Furniture a family business, giving the kids jobs. And the wedding was amazing too, with Daphne and Jose surrounded by their eight kids in an intimate beachside affair.
The pair honeymooned in North Carolina, where they quickly snapped up a rustic mountain retreat. They renovated, and Jose built a "panic room" inside the property, a secret lair, completely concealed to the naked eye.
Daphne was living a dream come true: The newly blended family, enjoyed vacations, celebrated holidays together and welcomed new grandchildren into the world.
But the dream of a marriage was about to become a nightmare. Daphne says just a few months later Jose drops a shocker, telling her he's dying from a rare condition called Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), better known as "Mad Cow Disease."
"We were in bed and he has me in his arms and he says 'I have something i have to tell you, I have CJD,' and I didn't even know what CJD was, and he explained that it was a brain disease and that there was no cure for it, nothing could be done, and that he had maybe six months to live, and I remember I started bawling because we had only been married for a short time now, I think he's dying and I'm only going to have six more months with him."
Daphne says Jose told her he contracted the disease while he was in the military and had to eat monkey brains while on assignment in the jungle.
"He said that one of the missions that they had gone on he had to interact with the locals, and he had been the guest of honor and therefore you had to eat what's given to you, and he he had eaten raw monkey brain at that time," said Daphne.
"[The doctor said] he had CDJ and he would answer any questions that I had," said Daphne. "We went to an MRI clinic and he had an MRI done on his brain. "I did look at it, but I don't know, it had a bunch of white spots everywhere, so I assumed that's just part of the disease."
Daphne and Jose went to Miami to break the devastating news to their extended family members. But not long after they get home, Jose made a completely different and even more shocking admission to Daphne.
"He sat me down and said 'I have something to tell you. I need to let you know that all stuff I told you about the CJD was a lie, and I did it to protect the family, and I didn't want anybody to know what the truth was to protect you,'" said Daphne.
Jose Lantigua told Daphne Simpson his past as a CIA Special Ops agent south of the border was dangerously haunting him. He claimed a Mexican drug cartel ordered a revenge hit, and he needed to protect the family.
"I was terrified, but I didn't want my children's lives to be in danger, and I believed him because, why would you lie about something like that to your wife?" said Daphne.
Daphne says she had no idea her husband was in debt up to his lying eyeballs. His seemingly successful Circle K furniture chain had been in the red for years. It seems Jose owed the banks millions of dollars after taking out loans he couldn't repay Instead of filing for bankrupcy, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Devereaux says, Jose concocted an elaborate plan to rake in more than $8 million in life insurance payouts. In order to get the insurance companies to cough up the cash.. Jose had to fake his own death. So he closed up shop and told his family he was going to Venezuela for treatment.
But he needed Daphne's help to pull off the plan.
"He needed a co-conspirator and it ended up being his wife, but he knew his wife and he knew that if he told her the truth she wouldn't have jumped on board, so he tricked her," said Devereaux.
To convince Daphne to help him, Jose whipped up a tale of death so outlandish it could be ripped from the pages of a spy novel.
"Lantigua tells his wife Daphne 'My background is catching up on me -- as I told you I was a Special Forces operation officer that actually took out and assassinated a cartel leader in South America,I was the team leader. And I need to fake my death now, otherwise my life is at risk and your life and your family as well,'" said Devereaux.
"He had left a letter in his personal effects for me to share with the family, stating that he didn't want to pass away in front of his family he wanted to be alone so they would remember him as he was, you know, before when he was still healthy," said Daphne.
Months after disappearing deep in the jungles of South America, Jose Lantigua drops dead -- or so he said. But Lantigua moved pretty well for a dead guy.
"While in Venezuela he ends up purchasing death certificates, has a doctor sign, he ends up also purchasing a certificate of cremation," said Devereaux.
Daphne is instructed to tell her kids that she's flying to Venezuela to collect his ashes. She boards the plane loaded with about $20,000 in cash.
"He had told me it was to to get the records that they needed to show that he was dead," said Daphne.
The couple goes to the U.S Embassy in Venezuela to get a certificate of death, a document Daphne will need to get the $8 million in insurance.
At this point, Daphne claims, she's just protecting the family and has no idea about her husband's plan to rip off the insurance companies.
"Lantigua tells Daphne: 'Daphne, you have to do this. If you don't go through everything it's gonna be clear to the cartel that I'm not dead,'" Devereaux said.
Back in Jacksonville, Florida, as the children are processing their stepdad's death, Daphne had become a pawn in her husband's wicked game.
"He ends up having his wife do all the things that a grieving widow would do, and it's all a sham," said Devereaux.
Shortly after the memorial service, Jose Launtiga miraculously rose from the dead, telling Daphne to hire a lawyer to start the insurance claims on seven policies.
"We then learn that Daphne travels to the Bahamas on a Carnival cruise line that leaves out of Jacksonville, it leaves here twice a week," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Devereaux. "She carries money, she met up with Lantigua, and Daphne then returns back on the cruise ship."
"He had been telling me that he wanted me to come and see him in the Bahamas. He said he missed me he wanted to see me," said Daphne. "He said 'Just come for a week so we can be together,' and at this time I'm madly in love with him still not realizing what he had been doing."
Even though Daphne insisted she wasn't in on any scam, she immediately filed the claims on Jose's policy after returning to the United States.
That's when insurance adjusters smelled a rat.
"The beneficiaries are saying 'pay up,' and the insurance companies saying 'You haven't proved that your dad is dead,'" said Mark Devereaux.
The only proof Jose died is an official-looking Venezuelan death certificate. But suspicious insurance fraud investigators dove into the thick of the jungle in search of the truth.
"The first red flag we had was the fact that Mr. Lantigua was apparently an affluent individual, had actually traveled to Venezuela, a country that was basically in a civil war, to obtain medical treatment," said Richard Marquez, managing director, Diligence International Group.
The clues Richard Marquez and his investigators found laid out like bread crumbs in a fractured fairy tale.
"Another red flag we noticed immediately was he had allegedly passed away in a very small town, in a remote location aproximately two hours from Caracas, and we thought that was very suspicious," said Marquez. "Once we arrived into town we found out he was allegedly staying at a lodge that had not been in operation for several years."
Of course Jose had no clue they were hot on the trail of his cold body.
"He dies in location 'A' and it's five days later is when he's cremated," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Devereaux. "A body in five days in the heat in Venezuela would not be a good sight. It would bloat and it would smell."
Investigators are told that Jose Lantigua's body was driven 250 miles from where he supposedly died to a crematorium in another town -- another red flag given there were dozens of crematoriums closer.
"The cremation manager initially told told us that he had in fact cremated the body," said Marquez. "After a couple days of interviewing him and pulling out some discrepancies, he had no recourse but to tell the truth, that he had in fact never received the body, he had never in fact cremated the body, that he had swept the floor of some ashes and debris, put it in an urn and shipped it to the family, to the wife."
And then the first tangible clue that Jose Lantigua is in fact alive: Investigators discover the death certificate also was fradulent.
"It's identified some what easily by somebody that knows what they're looking for, and that's because they have a notary process," said Marquez. "There's a number on the documents and it has to correspond to a notary's book. They go to try to find where the notary's book is, there isn't one. They start doing more interviews and what they're able to establish is he isn't dead."
Jose Lantigua's elaborate plan was about to topple like a house of cards.
"We can only hit people with one thing: The facts," said Marquez. "And the facts never lie."
The agents tracked down the doctor who signed the bogus death certificate.
"He threw us out of his office several times, but we kept going back and ultimately told us 'Listen, OK, the truth is I never saw this person, never met him before, I never examined him and the funeral home people as a favor asked me to sign the death certificate, but I never met this person,'" said Marquez.
Back in the U.S., Daphne says she was still haunted by the specter of the drug cartel.
"I was always so paranoid because he told me, you know, 'You gotta watch out,'" said Daphne. "Every time I'm driving I'm looking in the mirrors thinking somebody is following me."
Meanwhile, attorneys from both sides were battling it out over the $8 million payout.
"They file a motion in federal court here in Jacksonville for a declaratory judgement finding that the insurance companies don't have to pay the insurance because he's not dead, they haven't provided proficient proof of death, and so at that point in time we know or have firm evidence really that he's not dead," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Devereaux. "Now the question is, where is he?"
But no one really knows where the fully alive slippery scam artist is hiding. Jose thinks he's pulled off the white-collar crime of the century.
"He went through quite a bit of trouble and paying quite a few people to corroborate his story to show he actually passed away," said Richard Marquez.
But now Jose Lantigua is about to do something even more dramatic than rising from his own ashes. He sneaks back into to the United States.
"Lantigua then pays $5,000 to get a boat ride, because it's just about 60 miles off the coast of Nassau, and takes a boat across to Fort Lauderdale, he takes a Greyhound up I-95, comes to Jacksonville, comes to stay at a airport hotel, the next morning Daphne picks him up," said Devereaux.
Jose holes up in the couple's mountain retreat nestled at the end of a long driveway hidden by tall pine trees. His children have no idea daddy's home.
"His wife Daphne did have family visit in that house in North Carolina at Christmas time and Thanksgiving, and he would stay at a hotel 'cause he'd move out so they didn't know he's alive," said Devereaux.
But Jose apparently did see trouble coming. The panic room in the basement of the North Carolina house is equipped with 20-inch-thick steel doors. The bunker in his basement was designed to withstand a nuclear attack. And something like that can come in handy when you are hiding.
Jose Lantigua gets busy creating a new identity. He applies for a North Carolina driver license using stolen identification. But his next move to create a new life will be his last.
"He makes a dreadful mistake. He applies for a U.S. passport," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Devereaux.
On his passport application Jose uses the name of "Ernest Wills," an African-American postal worker. But that was just the beginning of Jose's missteps. Jose actually listed the address of that mountain house in North Carolina, and Daphne as the emergency contact.
That turns out to be another dumb move.
"He had the Department of State on him, and they knew he had a passport and passport was supposed to be delivered to a post office box in North Carolina," said Devereaux.
Though he changed his look for his passport picture, going from gray hair to a brown toupee and a fake goatee. It seems three mistakes was the charm.
"What had happened is Lantigua had previously had a passport he submits a passport again, both of them were handwritten, same handwriting pictures come back, and they match the faces because of the measurements between the nose and the eyes and the ears, and it matches, and so the hunt was on," said Devereaux.
The feds run secret surveillance on Jose Lantigua, and after a year and a half, they finally get their man.
"He had been having work done on his Jeep, and when we got to the place to pick up his Jeep, these agents were already there and they got him and they handcuffed him and arrested him," said Daphne.
"Jose Lantigua immediately confesses in his identity and confirms that he is Jose Lantigua, he was wearing a toupee, and he had dyed his facial hair," said Devereaux.
The couple is immediately separated for questioning.
"And then one of the agents came over to me and this whole time that this has been going on, he's always been telling me, 'I have to be this person that he had, identity was supposedly the CIA had given him,' so when the agent came and said 'Who is that?' I did what he had told me to do," said Daphne.
"And I said 'That's my friend,' and I gave his name and the agent looked at me again and said 'I'm going to ask you again and if you lie -- I'm a federal agent, you can't lie.' But I was so terrified and so thinking of protecting him of my family that I lied again," said Daphne. "And that's when they arrested me."
The evidence is overwhelming. Jose Lantigua's life insurance policy, supposedly worth $6 million, was forged by Lantigua. He really had only about $38,000.
Jose Lantigua and Daphne Simpson eventually both pleaded guilty. He's convicted of conspiracy and bank fraud. The judge sentenced him to 14 years in prison.
"I think it was well-deserved, he will be in his 70s when he gets out of prison," said Devereaux. "He's basically made a decision, he's made a bed, he's going to have to sleep in it."
And Daphne faced up to five years in jail for conspiracy. She wound up serving 17 months. But even while sitting in the slammer, Jose still had her under his spell.
"My family hired a lawyer to defend me and I sat with him for three hours and I told him everything, and he kept telling me, he said, 'Daphne, that was all a lie, you were duped,'" said Daphne. "And I was like, 'No! It's the truth and you'll see because the government's going to expose it and tell the truth because it's all the truth!'"
"She was in there for months and believed wholeheartedly that her husband was telling the truth, and she was waiting every day for the CIA to come and fix it all," said Devereaux.
Even though she served her time, Daphne remains under house arrest and must wear an ankle bracelet for the next three months. She can leave only to go to church. She hopes to find a job."
So she can somehow pay back the $871,000 Jose Lantigua collected in insurance money.
"Before she met Jose, my mom had a house, she had a home, she had vehicles, she had a career, she had her life together, so now she has nothing," said Daphne's daughter Desiree.
Daphne is filing for divorce and refuses to answer the dozens of letters Jose Lantigua has written her from jail.
"To lie to his wife as he did, that's nothing but cruel and barbaric what he did, because he turned her from being a person of good character to a person that's going to die as a felon," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Devereaux.