JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The wife of a former Jacksonville businessman convicted of faking his own death to collect millions in life insurance money said she was caught up in her husband's web of lies and only helped him to protect their family.
Jose Lantigua, the former owner of “Circle K” Furniture, faked his death in Venezuela in 2013 so that his wife, Daphne Simpson, could collect millions.
Lantigua, 64, pleaded guilty last year to bank fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Simpson, 59, was also arrested and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud.
Both are currently serving time.
Simpson sat down with News4Jax to share her side of the story, which had so far only been told in court.
She said her relationship with Lantigua began like a fairy tale, when they met on a Christian dating site in February 2011. Simpson said she remembers her first date with Lantigua at the St. Johns Town Center.
"The conversation was fascinating," Simpson said. "It was like a great connection, and I thought, 'What an interesting, fascinating man.'"
Simpson, who has three adult children, wasn't the only one quickly smitten with Lantigua. After a few months, everyone loved him.
"It was like a dream,” she said. “I mean, everyone I worked with said, 'He is an amazing man, and you're so lucky to be dating him.'"
She said she felt lucky, even blessed. She said they prayed together daily and talked about their future, and one night Lantigua brought her to the Wine Cellar restaurant for an elaborate marriage proposal.
"When I walked in, there were two dozen long-stemmed, red roses on the table,” Simpson recalled. “And as he was proposing, the lady from Underwood’s jewelers came in with a silver tray. On the tray, she had the engagement ring that he had already picked out."
She said it was a dream come true for almost a year. It wasn't until after they were married, Simpson said, that those dreams were shattered.
Lantigua told her one night that he had an incurable brain disease.
“He said he had six months, thereabouts, to live,” Simpson said. “I remember that I sobbed for hours in his arms, thinking he was dying.”
But it was all a lie, she said.
“How does somebody do that?" she asked.
For weeks, Simpson believed that her husband was dying, she said, and she even talked to a doctor who was treating him and went with him for an MRI.
But then she learned he was never sick, and he admitted it had all been an elaborate lie.
“I was shocked," Simpson said.
Then Lantigua told her he'd made up the story to protect her and their family.
She said he went back to a story he had told her from the beginning of their relationship: that he was formerly with the CIA in special ops and had killed a cartel leader. Lantigua claimed another CIA agent was now blackmailing him and threatening to reveal his identity to the cartel, putting him and his family in danger.
"So he said he had to die -- that was the only way that he could protect us, and I had to help him, because it was for the safety of our children," Simpson said. "And I would do anything to help my children, especially if I think their lives are in danger. And why would I think that he would lie about something like that? Why would you make up something like that?”
Lantigua got a fake death certificate in Venezuela and, according to prosecutors, Simpson submitted it at the U.S. Embassy there while he waited in the car.
Calles Rivas, the Venezuelan doctor who signed Lantigua's falsified death certificate, admitted to an investigator that he was "paid a monetary sum to sign the document without observing a body or confirming the death."
The investigator also met with a Orlando Reina, a crematorium owner who said he was paid 3,000 Bolivars -- about $450 -- to sign cremation documents, but said he never completed a cremation. Reina said that when the cremation certificate was completed, he would receive 10,000 Bolivars -- about $1,500 -- from Simpson.
Thonny Bayeh, who was listed as an accomplice of Lantigua in a warrant, admitted to the scheme and told investigators he paid for the documents as directed by Lantigua. The investigator said Bayeh offered him a bribe and said that once Lantigua received the life insurance benefits, he would pay as well.
According to court records, Lantiqua had insured his life for $9 million and Simpson collected $856,000 from those policies with the fraudulent life insurance claims.
But Simpson swears that she only did what she did to protect her family and she continued to believe Lantigua for quite a while even after they were arrested last year in North Carolina, where the two had been living together.
"It wasn't until my lawyer came and told me that Jose had admitted that it was all a lie -- that was when I found out that I was just manipulated and lied to by my own husband,” Simpson said. “I would have never dreamed that he would do that."
Simpson said her faith and family are what keep her going. She said she prays daily that she can regain her life and forgive the man she says took it away.
Simpson said she wanted to share her story so that she could reach out to other women and warn them about the mistakes she made.
She said if she could talk to Lantigua, she would want to know how he could maintain his lie for so long.
“How do you destroy people's lives? How do you live with yourself doing something like that to anybody?” Simpson said. “I don't want to know why, because there is no answer to a why, but I want to know how? How could you hurt and deceive so many people? That's what I would ask."
Lantigua was sentenced to 14 years in prison. Simpson is serving six months of house arrest and five years of probation.
Simpson filed for divorce from Lantigua. It is expected to be final within the next couple of months.
As for "Circle K" Furniture stores, they are still open in Jacksonville and are now owned and operated by the original founder.
Current owner Jim Kittrell told News4Jax Monday afternoon that the business no longer has any connection to Lantigua.
"I just want everybody to be clear -- there is no relationship between me and the previous owners," Kittrell said.