How do I locate someone that wishes not to be located?
September 17, 2008 10:02 PM   Subscribe

My father disappeared completely from my life over 20 years ago. Supposedly he's dead, but there's no death certificate. He can't be found. Do you know of any FREE resources I could enlist to help me untangle the mystery?

I'm 29. My father left my mother and I over 20 years ago, and has never been heard from again. He has very likely changed his name and overall identity due to massive amounts of outstanding back taxes owed to the IRS and other monies owed for back child support.

Several years ago I visited the Social Security Death Index website and discovered that, based on his SSN and name, a death certificate was issued for him. It is unlikely that he died, however, and it is believed that his family covered up for him to permit his "escape" to a new life.

I contacted the state in which the Social Security Death Index reported the certificate of death had been issued and made a formal request for that certificate. They were unable to locate his death certificate. How odd!

As I grow older, I grow more curious about untangling this very strange and convoluted story. I believe that the Internet is a great tool for such a search, but my searching thus far has been marginally helpful. I don't have the resources to hire a professional investigator or to purchase possibly questionable information on those "people search" websites. So I'm turning to you, the Hive Mind PI!

Aside from the fact that I had to live through and deal with all of this, I think it is a great, intriguing, dramatic, and mysterious story that deserves a proper ending. I have tossed the idea around in my head of contacting local news stations and even Oprah or Dr. Phil but I'm not sure how serious the story would be taken.

Please note that I can provide far more detail and information than I am including in this question. I can provide names (including possible aliases), a Social Security Number, birth date, family names, children names, ex-wife names, known last residences, employment history, etc. I just need to find the right resource and/or person/people to help figure this out. The free'er, the better!

Thanks folks!
posted by karizma to Human Relations (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Might be helpful to give us:
What places are involved? (what country/state/city did he live in at various points? where's his other family who he might contact? etc)

Any institutional affiliations like the military or alumni associations or Rotary club or hobbyist things that he might be into?

Did he have a distinctive job?
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:09 PM on September 17, 2008


If he's so hidden the IRS can't find him, and he's careful, you probably won't be able to track him down via the usual sources (Google, Zaba, etc).

Your best bet, I think, is to talk to his relatives who are likely to be on good terms with him, and ask them what's up and whether you could leave a message for him with them.
posted by zippy at 10:21 PM on September 17, 2008


Might be helpful to give us:
What places are involved? (what country/state/city did he live in at various points? where's his other family who he might contact? etc)

Any institutional affiliations like the military or alumni associations or Rotary club or hobbyist things that he might be into?

Did he have a distinctive job?
The states and areas involved are Nebraska (Fremont area) and Washington State (Seattle area) primarily. Beyond that I am unaware of other states/countries/areas of residence. His mother and father (deceased now, alive when he "died") lived in Nebraska. His sister lives in Nebraska. His brother lives in Michigan I believe.

There are no military or alumni associations that I know of.

He worked primarily in the sales and marketing fields. When I last knew of him, he had his own business dealing in the world of "personal marketing" in the Seattle area of Washington State - basically he provided an image consulting service and some job seeking assistance.

I'm not sure how much detail is appropriate here so if anyone would like MeFiMail me, that works. Thanks!
posted by karizma at 10:24 PM on September 17, 2008


Your best bet, I think, is to talk to his relatives who are likely to be on good terms with him, and ask them what's up and whether you could leave a message for him with them.
Of those relatives that are alive, all either claim ignorance or do not speak to me or my mother. The family was fairly well-fractured to begin with, and the lines of communication did not improve after his apparent "death." These routes have been explored well, and nothing of any value has ever come from it. Unfortunately I'm on my own on this.
posted by karizma at 10:29 PM on September 17, 2008


So, you don't know where (city) the death cert was filed, or when?
If you knew the city, you could possibly try city-level records departments (or even maybe hospitals?) and see if they have the death certificate or if they have more info from it. Eg cause of death.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:43 PM on September 17, 2008


Not to be a jerk, but if there seems to be a document trail suggesting your father is dead I would put the burden of evidence on you to prove otherwise.. Do you have some kind of document, photograph, or sighting that might suggest he is alive? .

I am not asking you to post that information in this thread, but you know there is a pretty good chance he is actually dead. Assuming this man is quite old, faking his death would mean losing his social security benefits (not sure of the correct US terms here) so you should probably factor that into a cost/benefit analysis of whatever shady IRS deal he was involved with. That is generally a very high price to pay.

I have seen examples of columnists writing about "people finder" topics --- so you might what to appeal to newspaper columnists in places he lived (this will probably only work if you can make it a sweet, general human interest story). I've also seen classified ads - sometimes dedicated classified column space to "people finding". You might want to try that route and it won't cost much.
posted by Deep Dish at 10:44 PM on September 17, 2008


I hate to be brutally frank, but thinking a TV show or journalist will help is generally not worth putting energy into. You state he had massive debt and back child support. There is no "human interest" story there. Just mistakes that probably shouldn't be rehashed (which is likely why relatives you ask have nothing to say). You do deserve peace of mind to know what happened to your father, and pursuing this sensibly through public records should provide you with accurate details pertaining to his death.

Verify directly with Social Security, rather than searching the Death Index, as to what information is on file regarding his death. As his daughter, you may be legally entitled to ask Social Security via provisions in the Freedom of Information Act for a nominal fee. Since you have his SSN, you're already in a good place to make the request.

The guidelines caution that there may not be complete information, but at least you should have either a date of death, or if he was collecting benefits, the last month he collected them and where he was residing at that time. From that information, try to apply for the death certificate with either local or state authorities (county clerks or state health departments usually provide these services to those legally able to request copies, often for a fee).

Good luck with your search and keep us posted on how it goes. I hope the answers your search brings (and the new questions they will raise, as searches of this type often do!) help bring closure to you in a satisfactory way.
posted by kuppajava at 11:47 PM on September 17, 2008


If he is really alive and has covered this up so well, free sources will not do anything for you. Even a private investigator, at very high costs, would have to work very hard to come up with a trail after this much time has passed.
posted by yclipse at 4:43 AM on September 18, 2008


If he is alive and in touch with his family, then surely they will tell him that you are looking, whether or not they will talk to you. So I think you have to assume that if those are the circumstances then he is actively avoiding you. Maybe a new message might help, but fear of the IRS or of his ex-wife may mean he stays hidden. After all, he could presumably always have found you if he wanted to and felt it was safe to do so.

If they had known where he was but he is now dead, then I would have expected his (and your) relatives to say so, but that is complicated by the fact that that was their story anyway.

If neither his family nor the IRS know where he is, then the chance of your finding traces of him seems very low. An interesting idea from FastAs is to make a website about him, so that if he ever Googles his old name, he will find out that you are looking.
posted by Idcoytco at 5:20 AM on September 18, 2008


Just wanted to add that you should always ask politely before filing a Freedom of Information request of any sort. That kicks off a process that--with the federal government--could take many months to resolve.

Though if the SSI indicates a death certificate was issued, my guess is that it's probably true.

Oh, and for another free resource, you could always try the mormons.
posted by meta_eli at 5:43 AM on September 18, 2008


Basically, any piece of info you have becomes something you need to search for at every opportunity to search. Be mechanical in this and don't leave any stones unturned.

If you've a time and place of death a library should be able to help you find an obituary for him. That will get you a better idea of his support network at the time (survived by, etc.). They also tend to include the history of the person which will give you other places to look.

Counties sometimes keep vital records so you should try the counties you know he lived in for vital records like the death certificate. If you get that it should have a cause of death. Get the birth cert too. It'll help with the history aspect mentioned above.

Don't stop with Social Security without getting the actual documents. They often have more info than what is online. I just noticed you have possible aliases. This FOIA requests aren't free but you may try some based on the aliases and get lucky. It's worth trying.

You might find my discussion with a friend on identity interesting. The first bit at least. Applying the concept to faking a death, one would fake a death cert and have that reported to Social Security. Then he's got a real death on record with social security, who the IRS keys off of I think. Then it's a matter of setting up a fake identity like I describe in there.

Check for city directories (yellow pages, chambers of commerce, etc.). Libraries will know what is available. Start there.

Check at courts for any wills he had. If he had money that will probably specified a go between unless he worked out another way to move the money. The problem is the will method is the only way to do it without raising too many questions. $500,000 just disappears right before a person dies? Or a person dies, his friend inherits $500,000 and "spends" it a bit each month?

There isn't going to be one doc that answers the mystery, sadly. It's a long struggle to put something like this together. You have to do it piecemeal, bit by bit.
posted by jwells at 5:49 AM on September 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


You may want to check the possibility of him being in prison. Most states have a searchable database of the prisoners in their system. It could be that he killed someone or committed some serious crime and is still stuck in the pen.
posted by JJ86 at 6:14 AM on September 18, 2008


Here is the Nebraska search tool.

Here is the Washington State search.

Of course he could be in other states of which you need to search each individually.
posted by JJ86 at 6:18 AM on September 18, 2008


I would definitely run his real name through the criminal system, more and more states are putting court records online and some have good search interfaces that make digging up decades worth of information super easy. I recommend this because if he had a known alias at the time of arrest it will be listed on his court docket, which could provide a lead for you.
posted by The Straightener at 6:46 AM on September 18, 2008


If you hit a dead end with everything else, why not try tricking them? Send a letter to his last know address, or to a relative that says he has unclaimed money from a bank account, or an insurance claim. If they want the money they either have to produce a copy of the death certificate, or forward it onto him. A throw away cell phone, some official letter head, mail it from another city, the works.

Maybe they have a copy of the death certificate (from before the state lost it), or if they know where he is, they may forward it on to him.

Something like telling a felon he won a boat and has to come collect it, then the police arrest him at the pickup
posted by wrnealis at 7:13 AM on September 18, 2008


Here are some links about being your own private investigator. I think your best bet is his family. Research them, see if you can find 1 sympathetic family member who might tell you the truth; maybe an ex-wife?
posted by theora55 at 8:09 AM on September 18, 2008


Thank you all for your thoughts, ideas, and suggestions.

I'll close this with just some responses:

- I formally requested a death certificate from the State of Nebraska, paid the fee, all that. I received notice back stating that they had no record of a person with his name, SSN, date of birth, date of death, etc. This, after searching the the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) using his name and SSN and discovering that he "died" (or at least was issued a death certificate in Nebraska) in July 1988. According to the SSDI, his death report was verified with a family member or someone acting on behalf of a family member. He would have been 40 years old at the time of this "death."

- I don't have conclusive proof that he faked his death. That has been the common assumption (based on some anecdotal evidence) within my side of the family - his parents (alive at the time of his disappearance, dead now) were fiercely loyal to him and would protect him. There is some evidence he lived in other towns and states after 1988, under other aliases, but none of that has been proven. The remainder of his side of the family does not speak to me, and all past attempts at getting information from them have been met with ignorance of the entire subject. I feel that based on what I do know and have seen there is more reason to believe he lived past 1988 as opposed to dying then.

- Also according to the SSDI, the last residence is listed as (PE) which means nothing to me. There is no key or legend on the page that defines what that means, but it seems to be an internal SSA code from what I've read online about it. Under the "Last Benefit" section, SSDI states, "none specified."

- There is no information to suggest that the IRS ever went after him. His back tax debt burden was transferred to my mom (they were married at the time, she unfortunately knew nothing about the debt) and she had to work with the IRS to negotiate and settle the debt on her own. So I am guessing the IRS has been satisfied and that they are no longer seeking him out. Child support payments were ordered, but for whatever reason (this was the 80's, just at the start of the divorce and custody battle craze) they were not enforced. He evidentally could not be found anyway.

- At one time my mother went to the SSA to try and get my father pronounced dead so that I could collect survivor's benefits (this was before I turned 18). They refused because his death could not be proven, and I never received benefits as a result. My mom later met a SSA official at her workplace by chance and brought the story up with him and he did some informal poking around and basically said that his SSN had been used since 1988 and that there were some other known addresses in their file outside of Washington and Nebraska. He did not (could not) offer details. He said that based on what little he saw he would not recommend pursuing the issue further, which seemed like a very odd comment to make.

- My dad (and I'm male, by the way) was a very intelligent and ingenius man. I don't mean that as a compliment, but rather as an indication of what he would be capable of. I do think he would be capable of faking his own death.

I thank you all very much for your help. The mystery continues!
posted by karizma at 10:43 AM on September 18, 2008


karizma, you sound like a wonderfully intelligent man - and I'm sure I'd just as curious about what happened were I in your shoes... But there's been more than one time in the past when it's been best to let sleeping dogs lie (lay?). You've nothing to gain from this man - financially, emotionally, etc. - and while trying to solve a mystery is a wonderful goal, I would be concerned that at some point, something else you enjoy doing isn't being done... A girlfriend / wife? A job? Personal hobbies / enjoyments of life? As much as I hate to be the ball-buster / reality-checker, let it go. You've done enough research to know that it's a bigger mystery than you'll probably find out the whole truth about. Were it simple and straightforward I'd be the first to discover the truth... Since it's not, try your best to let it go and resume your regularly scheduled life :)
posted by chrisinseoul at 10:55 AM on September 18, 2008


karizma, you sound like a wonderfully intelligent man - and I'm sure I'd just as curious about what happened were I in your shoes... But there's been more than one time in the past when it's been best to let sleeping dogs lie (lay?). You've nothing to gain from this man - financially, emotionally, etc. - and while trying to solve a mystery is a wonderful goal, I would be concerned that at some point, something else you enjoy doing isn't being done... A girlfriend / wife? A job? Personal hobbies / enjoyments of life? As much as I hate to be the ball-buster / reality-checker, let it go. You've done enough research to know that it's a bigger mystery than you'll probably find out the whole truth about. Were it simple and straightforward I'd be the first to discover the truth... Since it's not, try your best to let it go and resume your regularly scheduled life :)
chrisinseoul, I appreciate your sentiments. What's funny is this really has never consumed my life at any time, nor does it now - I've lived over 20 years not knowing where he is or what happened to him, so I'm far beyond losing sleep over it. It is what it is, and my life has gone on and will go on. I was little when this happened, and so naturally I was shielded from many of the details. It's just been one of my life's mysteries and I guess some amount of closure would be nice. It's not necessary, but it would be healthy I think. You are correct - I truly have nothing to gain from it, besides maybe some closure, but I also feel that I really have nothing to lose either. I am new to AskMeFi and I find it to be a remarkable resource and so one day the thought popped in my head to give this a go here. That's the great thing about this site - you can ask a complex, convoluted question and the minds of the masses can have a go at it. The Internet has been a great tool for me to casually research this and other things. AskMeFi has become a great new tool that I can add to my toolbox.

Thanks again :)
posted by karizma at 11:06 AM on September 18, 2008


FYI, from here:

PE - assigned to an alert if there is a discrepancy among records; e.g., a deceased person is terminated via SSA"s postentitlement payment systems. After the termination occurs on one payment record (e.g., the MBR, SSR or BL record), that record is passed to DACUS which compares the death data to the other payment records to make certain that the termination is effective for the same month. This situation previously generated a "blank."
posted by peep at 11:08 AM on September 18, 2008


karizma, I had some luck with this on my own.

In my situation my mother read my fathers obituary in the local paper where she lived and let me know. I did not doubt that he was dead (and he is, I ended up finding out that he took his life in a violent way on my birthday). My quest was for information. I wanted to know about his family, why he died, about his life, I wanted to find my brothers and sisters. I started into the family tree history with what little facts I knew. Much I was able to fill in using a paid subscription to ancestry and family tree maker software.

To start filling the gaps, I decided that I needed to find people who knew something, however I was not comfortable contacting the family members I knew about. I set off to find and contact ones that I didn't know. I posted on all the lost family member boards I could think of, and finally something wonderful happened. I was contacted by a lady who called herself an "adoption angel". This wonderful woman was able to access databases that you or I could not access. I sent her my family tree files and within days she was able to fill in the blanks. She gave me current addresses and phone numbers of every single person that was still alive who was a branch of that tree. I decided to give my grandmothers sisters daughter a call (based off the fact that she had the friendliest sounding name!). She had been "keeping tabs" and was able to fill me in on so many things. She let me know how my father died, what kind of person he was, and background on the family. She gave me pictures of my great grandparents as young adults and pictures of my grandparents and even my father. She was able to answer so many of the questions that I have had my entire life. I had every single question that I had answered on that visit, except the ones about brothers and sisters. Nobody knows anything or will admit if they do. I know they are out there, my mom met at least one of them before I was born. But I do know MORE and have a sense of closure. It was a lucky shot and I traveled to California to meet her. This is what is amazing, when I was in California she asked if I knew how close I was to my grandfather at that very moment, and following my blank look she said that he lived about an hour away. She gave me his number and sat and watched me as I called, and on that same trip I got to meet my grandfather who I always thought had been dead.

The thing to do is get word out there. Post on boards, post on ancestry.com and all the family tree sites, all the family tree message boards. Perhaps not all the information, just what you know that will be pertinent. Somewhere out there, someone knows something or knows someone who can tell you something. You just have to find the person who he has either burned or someone who doesn't care what the rest of the family thinks. You might find an old friend or an old girlfriend or a scorned lover. All I started out with was my original birth certificate from before I was adopted and the knowledge of my grandparents first names.

I hope you find what you are looking for and that it will bring closure to you.
posted by Jenny is Crafty at 7:14 PM on September 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


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