JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Former Jacksonville business owner Jose Lantigua, who is accused of faking his own death, pleaded guilty Tuesday morning to federal charges of bank fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
Lantigua, the former owner of Circle K furniture stores in Jacksonville, made his plea in federal court in Jacksonville rather than go forward with a trial.
When asked directly by the judge if the facts read by prosecutors -- that he faked his own death and fraudulently submitted life-insurance paperwork for financial gain -- were true, Lantigua answered, 'Yes." This comes just weeks after Lantigua's wife, Daphne Simpson, pleaded guilty to related charges.
“When you were a defense practitioner, you'd give it to your clients: the good, the bad and the ugly,” said attorney Randy Reep, who is not connected to the case. “(You say,) 'This is the evidence stacked up against us.' What is the likelihood of prevailing? If there ever was a case of zero, it was here.”
No sentencing date was set, but Lantigua could face up to 30 years on the bank fraud charge and 20 years on the conspiracy charge. Lantigua also awaits sentencing on two charges in North Carolina, which could make his maximum sentence greater than 50 years.
According to authorities, Lantigua used insurance policies as collateral to secure two $1 million bank loans.
The Justice Department is seeking forfeiture of $2.8 million from Lantigua.
“There is some theory that if he could come up with a serious portion of the restitution, that may go in place of some of the longer end of the prison sentence, but that's for a judge to decide way later,” Reep said.
Lantigua pleaded guilty in October to federal passport fraud and identity theft charges, which carry up to 10 years in prison. He has not been sentenced yet.
Prosecutors and Lantigua’s attorney are waiting for his case in North Carolina to be transferred to Duval County so he can be sentenced on all charges at once.
Unraveling a mystery
Investigators said Lantigua faked his death in South America in 2013 so his wife could collect over $5 million.
Prosecutors laid out some of the facts of the case, including that Lantigua initially told Simpson that he had mad cow disease and only had six months to a year left to live. He then changed his story and told her a drug cartel was after him, they said.
That’s when he got a fake death certificate in Venezuela and, according to prosecutors, she submitted it at the U.S. Embassy there while he waited in the car.
"I don't think you are going to see anybody offering a whole lot of leniency," Reep said. "This is a long-term, multi-family member enterprise to defraud people."
Lantigua was arrested near his wife's home in North Carolina last year after insurance investigators cracked the case by talking with a doctor in Venezuela who admitted signing the fake death certificate.
The wife's house was being built with funds from his insurance settlement.
Simpson pleaded guilty in Duval County last month to one federal count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud.
She faces a maximum of five years in prison and up to three years of supervised release. She could face fines up to $1,742,134.22.
U.S. Attorney Mark Devereaux recommended less than the maximum sentence of five years but also recommended restitution from Simpson of $871,067.11.
No sentencing date was set for her.