the opposite of habeas corpus
June 22, 2011 9:12 AM   Subscribe

fiction-filter: say you were going to fake your own death, but you weren't going to leave a stand-in body around. does that mean water has to be involved? swept out to sea? am i missing anything?

i've read these fantastic asks on faking your own death & disposing of a body, but they're not quite what i'm thinking about.

say you wanted everyone to think with certainty that you were dead. and there's no stand-in corpse to put in an explosion or something like that. and you don't have the financial means to go missing on vacation in libya. and above all, you DON'T want anyone searching for you. so no kidnappings.

i'm thinking you have to make it look like you drowned, and your body was swept out to sea (à la sleeping with the enemy) or carried away in a river. but am i missing something?

i'm not asking about establishing a new identity--merely the faking of the death itself.

disclaimer: i am not going to do this.
posted by apostrophe to Science & Nature (35 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Leave some kind of personal item (shoes?) and a note on a bridge.
posted by mazola at 9:15 AM on June 22, 2011

posted by prunes at 9:15 AM on June 22, 2011

1. Frame a pig farmer or gator chaser.
2. Small plane crash with some kind of implication that the pilot bailed over wilderness and was never found.
3. Explosion of whatever kind of chemical might evaporate a body.
posted by motsque at 9:16 AM on June 22, 2011


Go missing in a large section of wilderness (especially during winter) and leave clothes scattered(will involve people looking for you for while but that will dissipate pretty quickly.
posted by edgeways at 9:18 AM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Lost in the (big) woods. Camping site, pack still in tent, pot on stove, etc.
posted by rtimmel at 9:20 AM on June 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

It involves water, but the Canoe Man case was an interesting real-life example. Just don't upload pictures of yourself to the internet a couple of years later.
posted by afx237vi at 9:20 AM on June 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

if you had time, you could slowly stockpile several liters of your own blood (make sure to keep it cold!) and then stage a bloody murder scene enclosed like a car or something...
posted by bahama mama at 9:32 AM on June 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

*somewhere enclosed
posted by bahama mama at 9:33 AM on June 22, 2011


Lost in a cave or desert!

Stage a fake abduction.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:37 AM on June 22, 2011

Funny you should ask. Last year a cave diver was reported missing at Vortex Springs after an employee of a local dive shop noticed that his truck had been parked in the same place for several days. Some of his decompression tanks were found at the entrance to the cave as well. Despite a massive search, his body has never been found. While there has been some speculation on message boards, the consensus is that he either wandered into a section of the (underwater) cave that is too small to safely enter, or that he has been buried under a small cave-in somewhere, and that he will never be found.

A generalization of this is: stage your death in such a way that trying to find or recover your body would be prohibitively dangerous.
posted by googly at 9:40 AM on June 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

After 9/11, there were cases of people who were claimed to be dead in order to collect their life insurance, even though they really did not die.

For purposes of a novel, the problem with taking advantage of fortuitous disasters is that you can't plan them -- unless you're an evil genius and actually make them happen.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:43 AM on June 22, 2011

This has some intriguing possibilities. Could the character be a coroner, who can simply forge a death certificate for himself? Could he capitalize on some natural disaster by leaving false indications that he was among its victims?
posted by foursentences at 9:47 AM on June 22, 2011

say you wanted everyone to think with certainty that you were dead.

There needs to an accident where the only identifiable part of the body are teeth. An explosion perhaps?'ll need one dead body, that is your size and shape. Stage accident with that fresh body. Make sure some of your teeth are at the scene.

Yes, this would mean that you'd have to lose some of your teeth. How that happens is up to you.

posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:51 AM on June 22, 2011

Getting lost in the backcountry sometimes means corpses are never recovered. If animals could be involved (coyotes, bears, etc...) this would be credible after a few months missing.

Some small plane crashes have never been found, even famous ones.

Fires can damage corpses beyond even modern forensics' ability to identify them.
posted by bonehead at 9:53 AM on June 22, 2011

2nd rtimmel. I think a backpacking trip to a big wilderness, perhaps somewhere in Maine or Alaska. Maybe somewhere where there's a big steam or lake that you could have drowned in. Leave your camp used, etc.

The trouble with that is they might be able to track you back to wherever you left your car to escape, and there's also the possibility that someone will notice you as you drive off.

Water is probably the best bet. Leave some towels and beach gear on some beach known for its riptide, or an overturned canoe in a big river. You'd have the same problems though, of potentially being noticed as you walk away.
posted by bondcliff at 10:18 AM on June 22, 2011

First, be smart from the very beginning.

Different causes of death have different implications, so you have to take into account the reasons why you're planning to "die." If you want your loved ones to collect on your life insurance, then an apparent suicide is probably out, as most insurance plans won't pay out in that event. And exactly how much time can you spare, both before the "death" and between the "death" and the authorities pronouncing you dead? Another consideration is any innocent parties who might be dragged in, whether as investigators/attempted rescuers or as suspects (in the event of a faked murder). There have been a number of good suggestions in this thread so far, but let's examine them in light of these concerns.

Fake suicide/shoes on a bridge: Simple, plausible and very effective. There will be an investigation and a search for the body, but assuming the water is sufficiently deep and dangerous, it won't last too long. If insurance isn't a concern, this is the one I'd pick.

Lost in the wilderness: Under the assumption that you're not dead and want to be found, a lot of people are going to spend a lot of time looking for you. You said you wanted to avoid this, so you need to make it seem less likely that you've survived. You can do this by timing your disappearance with dangerous weather conditions, such as a blizzard or a desert sandstorm. Even so, it'll be a while before you're declared dead, and a sufficiently fiendish insurance company could still deem this a suicide.

Fake murder: As exciting as this is, it probably won't work. I love the idea of stockpiling blood--that very scheme was used as a plot point in a comic--but there will be a major investigation, and any decent forensic investigator will be able to figure out that the sprays and splatters aren't real. Unless you're Dexter Morgan, you can't fake this. Here we also have the concern of an accused innocent, and if that's a problem for you, then that's another reason not to try this. (It didn't work in the comic, either.)

Cave diving accident: Consider this a slightly more advanced version of getting lost in a blizzard. It works because you've made it very dangerous to go searching for you, and there won't be much time elapsed before you're thought dead. But again, it might be suicide.

Explosion/mass disaster: If you can't afford a plane ticket to Libya or Somalia, you probably can't afford to demolish a building, even if you're not concerned about collateral damage, and it's just not practical to wait for some convenient terrorists. With luck, though, it could work, especially with a survivor who could vouch for your whereabouts on that day.

Fire: No good, since you'd need a corpse.

In conclusion, an apparent suicide is probably your best bet. You want to eliminate as much doubt as to your actual demise as possible. If you want something more dramatic than jumping into water, you could use practical special effects techniques to fake a more gruesome death (such as a gunshot) in a remote and unidentifiable location (somewhere in the woods, perhaps) and have video automatically sent from a cell phone afterwards.

Good luck.
posted by Faint of Butt at 10:20 AM on June 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Leave a few shreds of your clothes and your wallet behind at a Corned Beef factory.
Northern variants:
Go berry picking in Northern Sweden and just don't come back.
Act very drunk during a ferry trip, go conspicuously outdoors, stay hidden, and have some type of mask and different clothes ready at checkout.
Let your snowmobile be found past the ice edge of some larger lake.

Sadly I see no way this question can be used for re-introducing Lamb Amirstan, other than that you fake the entire setup serving real lamb and get out of the back door of the kitchen.
posted by Namlit at 10:21 AM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Addendum to bahama mama's suggestion: Someone did just that on Sherlock (BBC series). Their mistake? They used the exact amount of blood stored with the blood bank. Don't use ALL of the blood!

Also, instead of or in addition to fabricating physical evidence, you can always set up an elaborate scenario that has (ideally, numerous and reliable) eyewitnesses to corroborate the 'death'.
posted by methroach at 10:26 AM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

The thing with wandering off into the wilderness and just not coming back is that unless there's some reason to believe that you've died, i.e. they found the wreckage of your car or something like googly's situation, you may be presumed dead, but that won't have any legal effect for quite a while. Each state has their own statute on that, but the basic rule is that unless there's some specific reason to think you've died which explains the lack of a body, you will not be declared dead in the absence of a body until a number of years pass with no one hearing from you. So fires? Explosions? There's going to need to be forensic evidence, because there would be if you'd actually died. Water is really the best way to go about this, because that's really the only way of really losing something which creates an immediate presumption that something bad has happened.

So push your car off a bridge with the windows rolled down and the seatbelt not fastened. You could even wedge the gas pedal with a block of ice if you want a more dramatic entry. The car will be recovered, but the fact that your body won't will be chalked up to being lost in the water. Of course, it would have to be a fairly big river for that to be plausible, but that's not terribly difficult.

Alternatively, rent a kayak or something on a large body of water and abandon it some distance from shore. You'll have to swim, so do that out of sight, but it's doable.

Either of these can be enhanced by collecting some of your own blood and dumping it on the scene. Heightens the sense that you're in a bad way. And because there's water involved, there wouldn't be any spatter patterns to analyze, just the presence of blood.
posted by valkyryn at 10:33 AM on June 22, 2011

A guy who volunteered for years with the same organization I do parked his truck in the lot at the north end of the Golden Gate bridge; this was two or three years ago. His body has never been recovered.
posted by rtha at 10:38 AM on June 22, 2011

If you want your loved ones to collect on your life insurance, then an apparent suicide is probably out, as most insurance plans won't pay out in that event.

Actually, most of them will, just not if the suicide was within a few months, sometimes up to a year, of taking out the policy. The thought is that if you're trying to commit insurance fraud by taking out a policy and then offing yourself, you aren't likely to plan that far ahead. There are plenty of cases where someone buys a whole-life policy in their early thirties and then kills themselves decades later, and it hardly seems fair to exclude that sort of loss.

But that is still something to think about. If you're planning on having your family collect on your life insurance policies, they should probably be in place for quite some time before you put your plan into action. The closer the policy initiation date and the date of your disappearance, the more likely the insurance company is to investigate. And believe you me, they're totally willing to authorize their attorneys to hire private investigators if the loss is big enough and the circumstances fishy enough.
posted by valkyryn at 10:38 AM on June 22, 2011

+1 to disappearance in the wilderness. Don't bother with storing blood because you'd need anticoagulant (sodium citrate, etc.) and preservative, such as sodium fluoride, acid citrate dextroseor other things to facilitate cold-storage which would probably be found when they test the blood.

Your missing person might want to try solo glacier travel where unpredictable hidden crevasses have gobbled up climbers. Or a climbing expedition in which your presumptive decedent. There's also a downed plane over water or "ghost ship" scenario. If you want to be more exotic, I'm pretty sure there are places with predictable levels of volcanic activity sufficient to lead law enforcement to conclude the corpse was destroyed.
posted by Hylas at 10:41 AM on June 22, 2011

My father likes to recount a story from his time at the steelworks when just this kind of death happened to a man. The guy sorted scrap for the furnace, his job being to pick out non metallic items from a conveyor belt that led into a loading bell where it was mixed with the other constituents. The man disappeared from his station (the dead man's switch having been disconnected as normal working practice) and was quickly presumed to have become caught in the conveyor. He was likely crushed by the ore in the loading bell, or at least burned alive in the furnace. Either way, stopping the works would not only cost millions but was probably too late. No body, but no doubt that he had died.

The steelworks regularly took on new or temporary staff for basic work such as scrap picking, so anybody could get a job and fake their death in this way. The only tricky part would be getting out without being seen.

This was some years ago though, and might not be the same as it was. But hey, there are plenty of other heavy industries where something similar could happen, so it's a line of thought perhaps worth pursuing.
posted by Jehan at 10:48 AM on June 22, 2011

Fall off a cruise ship while out at sea. You'd have to have some knowledge of ships in order to hide and then get off without being seen. Or maybe you can bribe a cruise ship employee to smuggle you out.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 10:53 AM on June 22, 2011

Evan Sheppard did it by jumping in the water after his dog and pretending to go under. He had a friend waiting to drive him away after he got far enough down stream.
posted by anaelith at 11:06 AM on June 22, 2011

(Sorry, Matthew Sheppard. The guy who wrote the article is Evan--he also wrote a bunch of other stuff about disappearing, but most of it is about living off of the grid after you've faked your death, not the actual moment.)
posted by anaelith at 11:07 AM on June 22, 2011

Assuming you are American here. You will need the following. One person whom you wish to see dead. This person must trust you enough to go on a trip with you. One motorbike. One car that can hold this motorbike in the trunk. A few caplets of Benadryl. A pistol preferably not registered under your name. A reputation for mild naivete helps. A life sized rag doll filled with sand, straw, or dirt. One change of clothes that can be stored in a waterproof bag to be carried while riding a motorbike. Said bag, preferably one that doesn't look too valuable. One strong pocket knife. Two pairs of gloves. A few bottles of pure grain alcohol or lighter fluid. A lighter and some matches to be redundant. A handkerchief and a few bottles of water.

It helps immensely if you know a smuggler who can get you back into the US, unless you have the means and interest to live in Mexico. If not, you had better be familiar with the border region near El Paso and how to get across.

Take this person with you to the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez. On the way there, slip the contents of the Benadryl caplets into their drink so they are nice and drowsy. Once you are far enough outside of town that you will not be seen, pull over. At this point, you want gloves on. Take the motorbike out of the trunk first. Stand it up so you can drive off as soon as possible. Ensure this other person is not leaning against the door and preferably not wearing a seat belt. Roll down the car window from their side. Do the same for your side. Turn off the engine, as if you had pulled over, rolled your windows down for what you thought were police, and got caught in an ambush. Place the straw man where you sit and close the door.

At this point, you're going to do a lot more than fake your own death. Both doors of the car are shut, the motorbike is removed, and windows are down. Hopefully, your companion is a heavy sleeper. Fire a round into this person's skull. Quickly go to the other side of the car, open the door, and drag the rag doll out as if you are kidnapping it. Sling it over your shoulder, get on the motorbike, and haul ass. Several miles down the road, take a turn off. Once you're out in the brush, cut open the rag doll and let the sand or straw scatter. Strip butt naked and put your clothes in a pile with the rags. While butt naked, you cut these clothes and rags into smaller strips and soak them in flammable liquid. Get dressed in your new clothes and with new gloves, also take the handkerchief and water from the bag. Soak the bag in liquid as well, placed away from the rags and clothes so it doesn't weigh on them. Set all of this on fire. The rags and clothes should be in small enough pieces that they will burn up nicely.
You have a motorbike with some bloody spots on it though. This is where you just use some water and wipe it down.

Why go to all that trouble of getting rid of the rags and the clothes when you're still potentially tainted with the motorbike and your new clothes? You're getting rid of anything that looks bloody, not hiding DNA evidence. You're trying not to be seen again. An American with a different haircut (Bald, preferably) and no distinctive traits is not going to be easily remembered. One with bloodstains on his clothes will be. Meanwhile, you want the stuff that looks bloody to be gone. If you return to the US, the bike stays in Mexico.

At this point, it's either heading much further in where you won't be recognized and living south of the border or sneaking across back into the USA. You will be "missing" in an area that is very difficult to search, known for violence, and one dead person will leave grim prospects for anyone hoping to find you alive ever again.

No (fake) body, manageable on a budget that most people can borrow (Live on credit cards, save cash to use on everything involved other than the car and motorbike which are traceable anyway) and it's about the most certain way to prevent a search without leaving a fake body. The downside is that it does cost enough that someone in crippling debt might not be able to pull it off, it's relatively dangerous, and there's the whole willingness to murder someone who trusts you enough to go to Mexico with you aspect.

I'm sure there's a hole or two in this plan somewhere. If the character you are writing about is desperate enough to disappear though, this certainly isn't a bad place to start.
posted by Saydur at 11:56 AM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

It would depend on the character and need to fit with their profile of things they do. If they're a mountain climber, many possibilities there - from the lava thing to staging an avalanche to other like things (think lost on Mt Everest. McKinley or Hood).

If they are a boater - ocean, lake or river? Various things there.

It would have to fit in with their hobbies, job or normal routine if you don't want to use a stand-in body, or make it a criminal event like an abduction.
posted by rich at 12:10 PM on June 22, 2011

I'm with the "get lost in the woods during a blizzard" or the "get swept down stream in a kayak" crew. However, there is one thing I need to add about these plans, and many other plans outlined above.

You need to make sure that your "evidence" is found. Leaving your towel (and wallet...) on the beach and swimming off to some boat somewhere only will work if someone actually walks by and finds your stuff. Additionally it will only work if they tell the authorities.

If you're going to leave a campsite, make sure someone will find it. If you're going to pretend to be washed out of a kayak, make sure you rent the kayak so that someone goes looking for it/you. You cannot just count on someone finding your stuff, you have to ensure it. If nobody ever finds your stuff, you'll have just wasted all your planning. If it takes someone 6 months for someone to find your stuff, you'll be in limbo for that period of time...
posted by pwb503 at 12:24 PM on June 22, 2011

The real question that defines what you need to do is who do you have to fool and why? Do you need to hide from mobsters or did you really piss off the FBI or CIA? Different leves of types and levels of follow up are going to be involed. Would anyone suspect you wanted to fake your death? Do you have time to set things up? Accomplices you can trust?

In these days of DNA testing, I would say that "the body was never found" is the way to go.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 2:50 PM on June 22, 2011

I thought about this quite a bit on my trip home and have a hybrid of Saydur's answer to tie up some loose ends and get rid of some of the fragile points. Other people involved are always fragile points.

So, your person needs to adopt two new hobbies for at least a year. The first is running a blood drive at work. One where they come into a conference room and draw from coworkers. Your character will work with them and help them set up. In the process, he will steal one rig for drawing blood.

Meanwhile, he will start taking motorcycle courses and get into dirt biking and eventually dirt bike camping - especially in areas that are dry. He will buy a used, cheap, but reliable dirt bike and take it out on weekends and talk about the places he went on Monday and bitch about the bike (need to straighten the damn fork).

He will start doing overnight camping trips solo. During this time, he will be setting up a pattern and scouting out locations that are isolated and rarely visited which is about a day's walk from the nearest road. When one is found, he will bring with him his regular camping gear plus a shovel and a bag big enough to cover the bike. He will bike up to the place and go down with his bike into a slide (good thing he took the courses). He will dig a hole for the bike while it cools off, seal it in the bag, and bury it. Then walk back to the road and pick up a ride to get home. He will lie about where he dropped the bike and complain that the damn fork nearly killed him.

He will then spend a good chunk of money on a new bike and continue going out.

On the final day, he will load up his new bike and head to his regular take off spot with two sets of camping gear and gas, stopping a little early to draw some blood. He will park his truck, unload the bike, put on the hazards, open the door and spill some blood on the road making it look like he was dragged behind is truck. Smear some blood on the handle bars and take off with the blood bag dripping off the bike into the wilderness to the spot with the buried bike. He will dig up the old bike, bury the new one (badly), toss out his wallet, burn his clothes, gas up the new bike and go, taking the needle and blood bag for later disposal.

What you've done is established patterns for him that everyone around him are used to. You've established a reason for him to get taken (brand new expensive bike) and left enough evidence to suggest foul play and made it reasonable that it's going to be hard to find his body.
posted by plinth at 3:11 PM on June 22, 2011

I had a friend in high-school who, after graduating college, took off for the back country alone and was never seen again. The thing is, faking his own death was totally imaginable for this guy. I've always wondered....
posted by zachawry at 5:40 PM on June 22, 2011

If you have the time to plan very far in advance, you could move to an area that gets a lot of the kind of natural disasters that don't leave bodies and then wait for one to happen (build a cabin in a wood that gets a lot of wildfires, move to an area that's very vulnerable to hurricanes, etc.)

If you go the alternate route of making it look like a murder, you'd do well to take up a dangerous habit, or profession, particularly if there are known serial killers in your area that prey on that particular habit/profession (IE, becoming a prostitute in an area where it is known that there is an active serial killer murdering prostitutes, or becoming a drug dealer so that your disappearance is likely to be chalked up to being murdered by the mob or something.)
posted by NoraReed at 5:56 PM on June 22, 2011

I wonder if you could splatter your own blood around your car, tear up your clothes and leave them loose and bloody in the car, and set it up to drive off a high cliff in an area with large predators. Hylas's comment makes me suppose maybe the blood part wouldn't work as smoothly as I initially thought.
posted by galadriel at 6:31 PM on June 22, 2011

thank you, everyone! i was originally planning the fake-suicide-on-a-bridge scenario, and it does appear that will work best. the problem with disappearing in the wilderness or an abduction is that there would be a massive search effort, and the character wants to avoid publicity at all costs.

i do like the cave-diving thing too. and the block of ice on the gas pedal car-hurtling-into-the-ocean is fantastic.

plinth & Saydur--i think you need to write a book w/the scenes you've described!
posted by apostrophe at 9:10 AM on June 23, 2011

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