ID theft victim wants 'dead' man prosecuted

Ex-businessman accused of faking death; wife also arrested for insurance fraud

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A man who investigators said had his identity stolen by a former Jacksonville businessman who faked his own death told News4Jax that he feels robbed.

Ernest Wills said he realized his personal information had been compromised a year ago when insurance collectors and even the mail carrier noticed some fraudulent activity.

Jose Lantigua, 62, was the former owner of Circle K Furniture in Jacksonville. Investigators said Lantigua's family reported two years ago that he died of a heart attack in Venezuela and was cremated. Shortly afterward, his business went under.

A private investigative team, hired by five insurance companies, traveled to Venezuela on what it thought was a routine investigation, but the investigators quickly learned Lantigua's death certificate was fraudulent and said the funeral home and crematorium were in on the scheme.

"In any death there's registry, documentations, and when we started asking for the documentation, he couldn't produce it, and to make a long story short, he ultimately confessed to us that he hadn't cremated the body," said Richard Marquez of Diligence International Group.

Federal agents said they were able to track down Lantigua -- who was very much alive -- because he applied for a passport using Wills' name.

"You kind of feel vulnerable. Being a citizen, I was doing the right thing and things aren't supposed to happen like this," Wills told News4Jax in a phone interview from New York. "You feel a little helpless. I called the authorities, and they said, 'This is what you're supposed to do,' and I was still left without any answers. That's not a good feeling."

Wills said to this day he has no idea why Lantigua stole his identity, but he realized something was wrong more than a year ago, when he received a series of unusual phone calls.

"I had a couple of creditors call me to say, 'Did you purchase this? Apply for this?' and there were a lot of red flags that people would contact me (about)," Wills said.

According to an arrest warrant for Lantigua, he stole Wills' identity 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 who was 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 his wife, Daphne Simpson, as the emergency contact on the passport application.

"You're messing with people's lives," said Wills, who asked that his picture not be used. "This doesn't go away, and you have to watch things for years. If someone robs you it's a one-time thing. This thing goes on and on and on." 

Duval County Corrections photo of Daphne Simpson
Duval County Corrections photo of Daphne Simpson

Lantigua was arrested outside Asheville, North Carolina, on Saturday and now faces insurance fraud charges totaling $9 million from several companies. Simpson (pictured) was with him when he was arrested. She was released after questioning and went home to Ponte Vedra Beach, where she was arrested later that night on eight counts of insurance fraud.

"Granted this is the technological age, I understand that, but I got robbed," Wills said. "When someone robs you at gunpoint, (they) normally serve time or if they pickpocket you, whatever, they are prosecuted. If they rob me through the airwaves, they should be prosecuted to the full extent."

Private investigators said Lantigua's family did not cooperate with the investigation, and they suspect additional charges could be filed.

"I can't imagine the FBI not taking the case over, because what he's charged with by the (Diplomatic Security Service) agents, passport fraud and identity theft,. These are like traffic tickets compared to federal bank fraud violations," attorney Allen Stidger said.

Simpson appeared in court Tuesday. A Duval County judge set her arraignment date for April 15.

Lantigua is scheduled to appear Friday morning before a federal magistrate for a detention hearing.

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