They were all lies.
The fatal disease. The cartel’s revenge. The messages from spies.
They were all fiction in a Grisham-like true crime story whose real-world parts included a faked death and fake identities, a fortified safe room in a mountain cabin and a fishing boat smuggling a fugitive into the country from the Bahamas.
The web of deception that reached across years and at least three countries will be buried this week when a federal judge hands down sentences for a Jacksonville-area couple who tried to collect $6.6 million on life insurance policies by faking a death in South America.
Not all the lies around Jose Lantigua’s fictional demise were spread by him or his now-estranged wife, Daphne Simpson. Not all of them were crimes, or done for the same reasons.
So the decisions U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan faces Wednesday include how to weigh the severity of the pair’s actions and the factors that drove their deceit.
Once a prosperous business owner, Lantigua connived to get money from work contacts before he vanished in 2013, hoping at nearly 60 to start fresh with a new name.
“I also hope you know that getting the personal loan … is a true matter of life and death for me,” Lantigua emailed Michael Wienckowski, a Jacksonville investor he convinced to advance him $500,000 for a supposedly lifesaving medical treatment.
The email, included in an old lawsuit, said Lantigua needed the money within two days.
“Otherwise, we will lose our priority for this round of treatments … and the next opportunity may be too late for me,” his note added.
Two days later, in February 2013, a mortgage Simpson gave Wienckowski (and later satisfied) on her Atlantic Beach condo was filed in the Duval County Courthouse.
Interestingly, Lantigua landed that help after failing to make the first payment on a $1.7 million loan from Wienckowski’s company, MrWink2 LLC.
That money was borrowed for improvements at Circle K Furniture, the business Lantigua had owned since 2008.
But when the due date came and went in December 2012, Lantigua explained he had health problems and needed time to make things right, according to an affidavit Wienckowski signed in 2015. Wienckowski declined to talk with a reporter.
Lies on top of lies
At home, Lantigua told his wife he had been diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, a brain affliction that leads inevitably to death.
He’d be dead within a year, he told Simpson, who last month told the judge she went with her husband to his brain scan and talked on the phone to a doctor who explained his disease. Lantigua then said his doctor told him he might live if he had a risky treatment he could only get in Colombia.
Lantigua wasn’t working alone. He had a helper making his lies seem credible, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Devereaux told the judge. He said the helper — never named or charged in the case — had plans for the patient to seemingly die on the operating table overseas, but lost nerve and backed out of the scam.
So Lantigua told his wife he lied. He then lied some more.
He wasn’t dying, he said, but he had to disappear to protect his life, hers, and both of their families.
“His past was catching up with him from his time in the Army,” according to the explanation recounted in Simpson’s plea agreement.
Simpson hadn’t met Lantigua until 2011, five years after his first wife died. But she heard throughout their relationship that her businessman husband had once been a rough-and-tumble Army Special Operations officer who led a shadowy military team.
“His ‘team’ had taken out a drug cartel leader, and he was currently being blackmailed by a rogue CIA agent,” the plea agreement summarized, because the cartel was stalking him for revenge.
There wasn’t any truth to the story, the plea agreement said.
But prosecutors said Simpson believed him, and became his indispensable accomplice.
Faking his death
Around March 2013, Lantigua flew to Venezuela — Colombia was dropped when the frightened helper bailed out — and began shopping for evidence of his death. He bought a death record from a doctor who later admitted never examining Lantigua and paperwork saying the businessman’s corpse had been cremated.
But the time to fake his death had probably passed.
Lantigua had borrowed more money than he could pay back, and creditors in Jacksonville were out of patience.
Paperwork reporting his death said he expired on April 17, 2013. The day before that, lawyers for Florida Capital Bank addressed a demand letter to Lantigua and three of his companies, saying it was accelerating payments on a years-old $1.6 million loan and that they had 10 days to make good. Other letters like that followed.
While Lantigua looked prosperous, paying for real estate while his company sponsored charity golf events, one creditor later claimed Lantigua was more than $11 million in the hole when he vanished.
Lenders’ demands eventually created a new set of problems.
Lantigua secured some loans using life insurance policies as collateral, since some policies can be sold back for “cash value” while the owner is still alive. He used one policy like that as collateral on a $2 million debt to American Enterprise Bank in 2012, showing paperwork that said the policy’s cash value was $2.4 million. But when the loan payments stopped and the bank tried to use its collateral, it learned the policy had no cash value and the paperwork was fake.
Lantigua had swindled the bank, leading to the bank fraud charge he’ll be sentenced for Wednesday.
None of that would matter to a dead man, though, and Simpson helped her husband play dead while bad news accumulated in Jacksonville.
The same month he supposedly died, Simpson flew to Caracas, Venezuela’s capital.
She brought cash for her husband to live on — $15,000, maybe $20,000 — and he waited outside the American embassy while she went in to get paperwork certifying he died abroad as a U.S. citizen in a foreign country.
That paperwork was important once she came home, because it was the proof she needed to start collecting from the insurance companies her husband had paid for years.
Except the companies’ answer was usually no.
Three companies did pay on comparatively small policies, handing over a total of $871,000.
Insurers with millions on the line said Lantigua was alive and that they wouldn’t be scammed.
‘For reasons of national security’
That started a messy round of federal and state-court lawsuits, including one where a Jacksonville judge ruled insurers had submitted forged evidence.
The court fights led in some weird directions.
Months after she secretly left Lantigua alive in Venezuela, Simpson gave her family’s lawyer, Joshua Woolsey, a phone number and email address for a man she said might help prove he was dead.
She said Lantigua gave her Johnstone Smithhouse’s contact information before he left Jacksonville, and sent Woolsey an email where Smithhouse said he was a U.S. government employee who couldn’t be publicly involved “for reasons of national security.”
Woolsey tried the phone number his client gave him, and learned it belonged to the Central Intelligence Agency, according to an affidavit Woolsey signed in 2014.
Since no one would say whether Smithhouse worked there, Woolsey tried the email address, typing: “It sounds like you can lead us to information that will help confirm Jose’s death.”
Woolsey eventually was directed to another tipster he never named publicly, who sent him emails with links to a program that opened long written statements that were covered by a completely darkened screen except for a quarter-sized patch of screen the user could drag along to read the messages. After two minutes, the program would shut down.
Woolsey’s affidavit said he had sworn not to disclose the message, except that it confirmed Lantigua’s death and “relates to matters of national security.”
Contacted this month, Woolsey answered with an emailed statement that: “throughout our representation there was no credible evidence that Mr. Lantigua was, in fact, alive until we were made aware of his arrest.”
While Woolsey was just starting down the rabbit hole, Simpson took a vacation, hopping a Carnival cruise ship from Jacksonville to the Bahamas around Thanksgiving 2013.
She met Lantigua in the Bahamas, and by that December Lantigua sneaked back into Florida, paying someone on a fishing boat $5,000 to carry him to Fort Lauderdale. He took a new name, Harry Fields, and caught a Greyhound to Jacksonville.
After a night at a hotel near the airport, he met Simpson and she drove him to North Carolina.
In a way, they were back home.
After the couple’s June 2012 wedding, they honeymooned in the mountains near Asheville, N.C.
House with a fortified safe room
Outside a remote, well-heeled vacation spot called Sapphire Valley, they had fallen in love with the view from Hogback Mountain, a 4,200-foot-high mountainside where Simpson bought 10 acres and a small, plain house. Her new husband wasn’t mentioned on the deed, but two months later the county government issued a building permit for the “Lantigua job,” a $350,000 makeover to add four bedrooms, several baths and a garage.
There was one unusual feature.
“It reminded me of something they would do out West,” said Tim Petit, a heating and air conditioning contractor who remembered walls 18 to 24 inches thick being built for a 12-by-12-foot basement room he compared to a bomb shelter.
Others called it a safe room.
“I guess he was one of those doomsday people,” said Petit, who said he’d heard Lantigua had a daring Army history. But he said Lantigua seemed relaxed and friendly around the job site, and, importantly, his checks all cleared. Work on the house apparently stopped when Lantigua disappeared.
While Simpson returned to Florida after driving her husband to Carolina, he apparently stayed put and tried to build a new identity.
And that led to trouble.
In September 2014, Lantigua got a driver’s license naming him Ernest Wills. A couple of months later, he applied for a passport using that license as an ID.
He apparently didn’t know Wills is an actual person, a black man with an 8-inch height difference from Lantigua and a passport picture that was already in a federal photo database. The U.S. State Department flagged the application, and an investigator noticed that it listed Simpson as the emergency contact.
By March 2015, investigators ended up parking on a road leading to the North Carolina house and following the Jeep Lantigua drove down the mountain.
When it stopped and agents approached, Simpson was inside, too.
That ended the lawsuits about life insurance, and Lantigua’s freedom, since the agents arrested him for passport fraud and identity theft, two other crimes Lantigua will be sentenced for Wednesday.
Lantigua has been moved from jail to jail since 2015, and Simpson was locked up in Jacksonville until July, when her attorney, L.E. Hutton, worked out a plea with federal prosecutors.
A big hurdle to that had apparently been convincing Simpson that she would be prosecuted, and that Lantigua really hadn’t been covertly working for the government.
“Ms. Simpson advised counsel that she did not even believe she needed an attorney to represent her, since the United States government would very soon come forward … and secure her release from jail,” Hutton wrote in a sentencing memo to Corrigan before he withdrew from the case last month to take a top post in the State Attorney’s Office.
“It became clear that as incredible as her story was, Ms. Simpson clearly and unequivocally believed everything she told me,” Hutton wrote. That apparently only changed after she sat behind bars about 16 months.
Simpson, 58, told Corrigan she was ashamed and wanted to someday rebuild her life.
Hutton argued Simpson should be sentenced to time already served, saying she had cooperated with investigators and had lived a clean life until she swallowed Lantigua’s story. The conspiracy charge she pleaded guilty to carries a sentence up to five years. She’s also being sentenced for making a false statement because she told an agent that Lantigua’s name was Wills during his arrest, but that’s likely to have little impact.
Lantigua, 63, faces a longer time in prison, potentially decades.
In a memo filed to Corrigan on Friday, Lantigua’s attorney wrote that “his lies and deceptions spiraled out of control into a situation he never imagined,” starting after one loan backed with phony paperwork went bad.
“Since there was fraud at the inception of the loan … he did not feel like he could just file bankruptcy,” Assistant Federal Defender Lisa Call wrote. “The bank and creditors would then look more closely … and discover the first fraud.”
Lantigua, who Call said “felt trapped with no way out,” hasn’t addressed Corrigan about his sentence, but could Wednesday.
Steve Patterson: (904) 359-4263