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Feds: Facial recognition helped catch man who faked death

Former Circle K owner found alive in North Carolina; wife also arrested

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A once-successful Jacksonville businessman whose death had been disputed for years used a stolen identity to apply for a fraudulent passport last November, according to court documents obtained by News4Jax.

Jose Lantigua, 62, was the former owner of Circle K Furniture in Jacksonville. Investigators said Lantigua faked his death two years ago in Venezuela and shortly after, his business went under.

Federal agents said they used facial recognition software to uncover Lantigua's deception.

Lantigua's wife, Daphne Simpson (pictured below), was with him when he was arrested after a traffic stop outside Asheville, North Carolina, on Saturday. She was released after questioning and went home to Ponte Vedra, where she was arrested later that night on eight counts of insurance fraud.

St. Johns County Sheriff's Office booking photo of Daphne Simpson
St. Johns County Sheriff's Office booking photo of Daphne Simpson

She was transferred from the St. Johns County Jail to the Duval County Jail on Monday on $200,000 bond. She's expected to make her first appearance in court Tuesday, and if she wants to post bond, she will have to prove that the money used didn't come from criminal proceeds.

"The fact that she could hire a civil attorney to represent her and look her own attorneys in the eye and come to court on all these occasions and boohoo and cry as if the man is dead -- and then that's not the case because when he was arrested she was in his presence, so just the fact that she would act that way, is just really shameful is really the only way to put it," prosecutor Joe Licandro said.

Lantigua, who bought the Circle K Furniture store in Jacksonville in 2008, had been reported dead by his family. Lantigua opened a second Circle K store on the Southside in 2011, but the company mysteriously went under in 2013, around the time he reportedly died on vacation in Venezuela of a heart attack from complications of mad cow disease. His family had said he was cremated, and his wife attempted to cash in a $2 million life insurance policy later that year.

But Hartford Insurance was skeptical and refused to pay.

According to an arrest warrant for Lantigua, he stole the identify of Ernest Wills and used that information to apply for a passport last November. On the application, the fake "Wills" said he'd never applied for a passport before, but the feds determined the real Ernest Wills had been issued a passport in 1999.

That red flag sent investigators digging, and after realizing the real Ernest Wills is black, they used facial recognition software to run a database search for a possible match to the man calling himself Ernest Wills.

They got a hit on Lantigua from the passport he applied for under his own name in 1996. Lantigua had also listed Simpson as the emergency contact on the passport application.

Simpson had a home in Asheville, North Carolina, and agents with the State Department's Diplomat Security Service set up surveillance there. When a Jeep they knew Lantigua had been driving showed up at the house, they swooped in and arrested him. He was wearing a wig with a dyed beard and looked much different than his driver's license picture.

Investigators said Lantigua waived his Miranda rights, admitted to filling out the fraudulent passport application and said the reason he'd used the name Ernest Wills was because he thought he was dead. He told the agents upon signing the waiver, "It's been a long time since I signed my true name."

Lantigua now faces insurance fraud charges totaling $9 million from several companies.

"They're certainly not the first people ever to get away with something like this for a while, but for them to keep it up for two years, and they did a pretty good job of it and neither of them had a criminal history or anything of a real serious nature," Licandro said.

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The founder of Circle K, Jim Kittrell (pictured), spoke to News4Jax on Monday about Lantigua and his scheme.

"I am surprised that he did something like this because he was a very gentle man, very gentle. Very nice person to talk to, considerate," Kittrell said. "I can't believe that it happened. I really can't believe that he did this. Big surprise to me."

Kittrell now runs Furniture and More, on Jones Road in the Marietta area. He and his wife founded the Circle K stores in the early 1980s.

"I saw a man selling furniture on the side of the road, and I stopped and looked at him and he seemed to be doing very well with it," Kittrell said.

So Kittrell opened his own in a spare room of his wife's feed store, and it grew from there.

"We would be traveling down the highway with a truck and trailer and they'd call you on the radio and say, ‘What kind of store is a feed store and a furniture store together?' And I'd always just tell them it was an accident," Kittrell said.

When his wife died about 15 years ago, Kittrell sold Circle K to his children, who ran it for about five years before selling it to Lantigua.