Faking your own kidnapping or death might seem like the stuff of a Hollywood blockbuster, but over the years there have been several real-life cases of staged crimes orchestrated by cunning fraudsters.
Just last week, Chilean woman Maria Olivares Veloso made headlines after she apparently faked her own kidnapping in a desperate bid to extort $70,000 from her wealthy father to pay off her debts.
She hired a man by the name of Richard Ponce to demand the money from her father by sending graphic images of her bound and gagged. But police became suspicious and ended up arresting the pair when they went to collect the cash.
There have been numerous stories over the years of people faking crimes for various reasons, including escaping unwanted relationships and evading investigation for criminal conduct – but debt and financial troubles are said to be the most common reason.
But those who attempt to run away and start over risk paying a heavy price if they’re caught, with their actions potentially giving rise to criminal charges.
Famous Cases of ‘Faked’ Crimes
Some might remember David Fincher’s psychological thriller Gone Girl, which centres on the mysterious disappearance of Amy Dunne.
In a case that draws striking parallels with that film, Californian woman Denise Huskins was reported missing by her boyfriend earlier this year. A voice recording emerged soon after, purportedly from Ms Huskins, declaring that she had been kidnapped. Her partner claimed that kidnappers demanded an $8,500 ransom.
This sparked an extensive search involving more than 40 detectives and 100 volunteers – but upon further investigation, it transpired that no abduction had occurred. Rather, the entire event had been orchestrated by the pair. Ms Huskins was located a short time afterwards in Huntington Beach, where both of her parents reside.
Other examples of staged crimes are even more sophisticated. Perhaps the most famous is the case of John and Anne Darwin, a UK couple who found themselves in tens of thousands of pounds debt. In a bid to start over, John embarked on a canoeing trip and supposedly ran into trouble, with his wrecked canoe being discovered a short time later. He was presumed dead, allowing his wife to cash in on life insurance.
In reality, Darwin was alive and well, and he spent several years living in secrecy next door to the family home. He later fled with his wife to Panama, where they lived a seemingly comfortable life for some years. It was only when John returned to the United Kingdom, feigning amnesia and claiming no recollection of the past five years, that the plot unravelled. The pair were convicted of fraud charges and sentenced to 6 years’ imprisonment, with all remaining profits being confiscated.
Closer to home, Queensland girl Natasha Ryan disappeared without a trace at the age of 14. Her boyfriend, Scott Black, was later charged and stood trial for her murder.
But in a dramatic twist of fate, Ryan suddenly emerged halfway through the murder trial. It was discovered that Ryan had spent the previous six years hiding-out in her partner’s cupboard, leading to her being dubbed the ‘cupboard girl.’
Both Ryan and Black were found guilty of causing a false police investigation. Ryan was fined $1000 but escaped having a conviction on her criminal record, while Black was sent to prison for 12 months. He was also ordered to pay $16,740 towards the cost of the police investigation.
Despite their ordeal, the couple ultimately married in 2008.
The Legal Consequences if You’re Caught
As these stories suggest, those who try to cash in on insurance by faking their own kidnapping or death could face heavy penalties for dishonesty and fraud under the law.
In New South Wales, those who engage in this kind of conduct may face charges of ‘fraud’ under section 192E of the Crimes Act 1900, which says that:
‘A person who, by deception, dishonestly obtains property belonging to another, or obtains any financial advantage or causes any financial disadvantage, is guilty of the offence of fraud.’
The maximum penalty is 10 years’ imprisonment.
Heavy penalties also apply for those who make fake identity documents, such as passports or driver licences, in a bid to reinvent themselves and start afresh.
Under section 192K of the Crimes Act, a person who possesses identification information with the intention of committing, or of facilitating the commission of, an indictable offence is guilty of an offence.
The maximum penalty is 7 years imprisonment.
Attempting to frame someone else for a crime falls under the offence of ‘false accusations’, which attracts a maximum penalty of 7 years imprisonment. The same maximum penalty applies for hindering an investigation of a serious indictable offence.
Partners of those who conceal an orchestrated kidnapping or murder may also find themselves in hot water under the law. A maximum penalty of 2 years imprisonment applies under section 316 of the Crimes Act to those who know or believe that a serious indictable offence has been committed, and who have information which may be of ‘material assistance in securing the apprehension of the offender or the prosecution or conviction of the offender’ but fail to bring this information to the attention of police.
A higher maximum penalty of 5 years imprisonment applies to those who solicit, accept or agree to accept any benefit for concealing a serious indictable offence.
There is also an offence of ‘public mischief’ under section 547B of the Crimes Act, which comes with a maximum penalty of 12 months’ imprisonment and/or a $5,500 fine for those who knowingly make a false representation to a police officer about an act which calls for an investigation.
In addition, a maximum penalty of 14 years’ imprisonment applies for the offence of ‘perverting the course of justice, which refers to any attempt to obstruct justice – for instance, destroying evidence, making false statements and so on.
These onerous penalties suggest that it may be better to face the music rather than run away from your past by making things up.