JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A man who faked his death to collect millions of dollars in insurance money was sentenced Wednesday afternoon to 14 years in prison, with five additional years of supervised release.
Jose Lantigua, 63, the former owner of the Circle K furniture stores in Jacksonville, faked his death in South America in 2013 so that his wife could collect over $5 million, according to investigators. He pleaded guilty last year to bank fraud and commit to wire and mail fraud.
According to court documents, Lantigua's business was $11 million in debt when he started lying to creditors and his wife, telling her a drug cartel was out to get him and their lives were in danger. He then traveled to Venezuela and faked his death. His wife held a funeral for him, then filed to collect on his life insurance policies.
"For some reason, I felt my wife, children and friends expected me to be something special. I was doing what I thought met that expectation," Lantigua said at the sentencing hearing "I failed in my faith and I failed to trust God. I can't go back and change the past."
Lantigua could have been sentenced to 50 years in prison. His wife, Daphne Simpson, pleaded guilty last August to conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud. The government was also seeking $2.6 million in restitution from the couple. The judge said she'll figure out the amount over the next 90 days.
U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan said the sentencing guidelines are insufficient because the details of this case are so unique.
“In terms of pure evil or willingness to involve and dupe your wife and others close to you, it really ranks as among the more serious fraud cases I’ve seen," Corrigan said.
Simpson, who helped Lantigua live under a new identity, spoke briefly Wednesday at his federal sentencing hearing, but Lantigua told the court it was all his fault.
"it's because of me that (my wife) is here today," he told Corrigan.
Corrigan said he considered Simpson a victim as well, even though she spent a lot of the money. The judge called her the face of the fraud because she had to take care of things after Lantigua faked his death.
Simpson was sentenced to five years of supervised release. She must also pay $100 per month in restitution.
One of people who loaned Lantigua money spoke during the sentencing hearing.
"The money that was stolen from me by Jose and Daphne sucked the life out of me," the person told the court.
Lantigua's lawyer, Donna Elm, last week filed a memorandum with the judge in which Lantigua thew himself on the mercy of the court and asked for leniency. The document began with a Bible quote about the importance of a good name, followed by, “Mr. Lantigua did not have his good name filched from him: He threw it away.”
The lawyer went on to say, “His decisions caused him to lose the respect of his family, friends and faith community … his financial security … and caused a painful estrangement from his wife and children. He has lost nearly everything in his life, except his faith in God and his hope for a future where he can atone for hurt he has caused," Elm wrote.
Lantigua's life before his faked death
The lawyer recounted Lantigua’s life, starting with his childhood in Cuba, his stint in the U.S. Army and his first marriage, which produced two children, now both adults.
Lantigua’s mother died in 2004. His wife died suddenly in 2006. He suffered a heart attack in 2010. He met Simpson in 2011, and they soon married. He bought the Circle K Furniture store, but the money problems started soon after he opened a second store near the Avenues Mall.
"Despite his best efforts, though, the Circle K business was not successful," Elm wrote. "Lantigua then made a series of bad decisions that put him deeper in debt ($11 million, according to court documents) to the point where he faked his own death to cash in on millions of dollars in life insurance policies. He felt trapped with no way out …. and embarked on a path of self-destructive behavior.”
Elm said he maintained the “façade” of a successful businessman so he could give his family the life he felt they deserved.
The letter with the judge includes photos of Lantigua in happier times, including one as a boy, and several character reference letters.
Elm concluded by asking the judge for leniency.
“There is considerable evidence that even relatively short sentences can have a strong deterrent effect on 'white collar' offenders," Elm wrote. "The lawyer points out Lantigua’s age (63) and the fact that he had no prior arrests as mitigating circumstances."