Indiana Pilot Accused of Faking Death E-Mails Friend

Marcus Schrenker presented himself as a high-flying pilot with the nerves to pull off aerial stunts and as an investment manager with the brains to make portfolios soar.

He bought luxury automobiles, two airplanes and a $4 million house in an upscale neighborhood known as "Cocktail Cove," where affluent boaters often socialize with cocktails in hand.

But beyond that image, Schrenker's life appeared to be spiraling downward: He lost a half-million-dollar judgment against one of his companies when he skipped a court hearing, and his wife filed for divorce. Investigators probing his businesses for possible securities violations searched his home and office.

By Monday, the descent was complete after he apparently faked a distress call, bailed out of his small plane and then let it crash in a Florida panhandle swamp. He would later e-mail a friend describing the situation as a misunderstanding but also ominously warn, "I embarrassed my family for the last time."

Neighbor Tom Britt said he received an e-mail Monday night from Schrenker claiming the crash was an accident and saying he wanted the companies under investigation to succeed. Britt believes the e-mail that alludes to suicide is real, but its authenticity hasn't been verified.

Britt quoted Schrenker as saying, "By the time you read this I'll be gone."

A call to the U.S. Marshals seeking comment about the e-mail's authenticity wasn't immediately returned.

The crash investigation began Sunday night, when Schrenker's single-engine Piper Malibu went down in a swampy area en route to Destin, Fla., from Anderson, Ind. Schrenker had reported that the windshield imploded and that he was bleeding profusely, according to the Santa Rosa County sheriff's office.

After he stopped responding to air traffic controllers, military jets tried to intercept the plane. They noticed the door was open and the cockpit was dark, following it until it crashed in a bayou surrounded by homes.

But when investigators found the plane, its door was ajar and the wreckage showed no signs of blood or the blown windshield. The sheriff's office said Schrenker appeared to have intentionally abandoned his plane.

In the e-mail, Britt is asked to set the record straight and Schrenker says he's stunned after reading coverage of the case on the Internet. According to the e-mail, the accident was caused when the window on the pilot side imploded, spraying him with glass and reducing cabin pressure.

"Hypoxia can cause people to make terrible decisions and I simply put on my parachute and survival gear and bailed out," the e-mail reads.

Schrenker said he "just made a 2 million dollar mistake" but that he wanted his companies to succeed and the problems weren't his fault. Britt said he wasn't sure what was meant by the dollar amount.

Britt said that he believes the e-mail is real, and that its phrasing was consistent with other past messages he's received from Schrenker. However, the e-mail came from an account in Schrenker's name that he hadn't seen before.

Fearing the pilot intended to commit suicide, Britt turned the message over to authorities.

The e-mail was the latest in a series of strange twists in the case. Earlier Monday morning, the man with Schrenker's license told police in Childersburg, Ala. — about 225 miles from where the plane crashed — that he'd been in a canoe accident with friends. He was wet from the knees down.

The officers, unaware of the plane crash, took him to a hotel. He was gone by the time they returned. They learned he paid for his room in cash before putting on a black cap and running into the woods next to the hotel.

The e-mail also refers to the incident, saying he made up a name to check into the hotel.

"I did not tell them about what happened as I was embarrassed and scared," it reads.

Authorities in Indiana have said little about the investigation into Schrenker's businesses — Heritage Wealth Management Inc., Heritage Insurance Services Inc. and Icon Wealth Management — wealth management companies that provide financial advice.

Jim Gavin, a spokesman for Indiana's secretary of state, said investigators are looking at possible securities violations. Officers who searched Schrenker's home Dec. 31 were looking for computers, notes, photos and other documents related to those companies.

Court records show his wife, Michelle, filed for divorce a day before the searches.

Gavin said the Indiana Securities Division obtained a temporary restraining order Monday freezing Marcus and Michelle Schrenker's personal assets, and the assets of the three companies.

On Friday, two days before the crash, a federal judge in Maryland issued a $533,500 judgment against Heritage Wealth Management Inc., and in favor of OM Financial Life Insurance Co. The OM lawsuit contended Heritage Wealth Management should return more than $230,000 in commissions because of problems with insurance or annuity plans it sold.

Schrenker is an accomplished pilot with a background in aerobatics, said Ron Smith, an interim manager at Anderson Municipal Airport. He usually flies out of the airport about once a week, making regular trips to Florida, he said.

"He's an outstanding pilot, from what I understand," Smith said. "If he can fly aerobatics and a Meridian, you've got to be pretty decent."

Britt said Schrenker has two sides — one very cordial and generous, the other threatening and litigious — and that many in the neighborhood had run-ins with him and "didn't care too much for him."