JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) – A Jacksonville businessman reported dead two years ago in Venezuela was arrested in North Carolina on alleged fraud charges Saturday after his life insurance companies filed a lawsuit alleging he was alive and they shouldn't be making payments.
Details of the charges against 62-year-old Jose Lantigua are unclear. But Saturday's arrest ends two years of speculation about whether the former furniture store owner had faked an illness in 2013 while vacationing in Venezuela, leaving his business millions of dollars in debt.
His life insurance companies thought they were being swindled and launched an investigation saying the businessman was not dead after two lenders filed claims. The lawsuits by Hartford Life and Annuity Life Insurance Co. also alleged a worker was bribed to falsify documents stating the businessman's body was cremated. They also claim Lantigua fraudulently assigned benefits claims to a local creditor before he disappeared.
The Jacksonville Business Journal reports Lantigua's son accused the insurance company of falsifying its investigation into his father's death, accusing the company of lying about the Venezuelan government revoking his father's death certificate.
The newspaper reported that the insurance company admitted a Venezuelan lawyer did alter documents to make it seem like the Venezuelan government nullified the death certificate. A judge ruled the papers were faked, but could not determine who faked them.
Fast forward to Saturday when officials stopped a car Lantigua was driving in with his wife in Buncombe County, North Carolina.
A Jacksonville prosecutor told The Florida Times-Union that Lantigua faces insurance fraud charges in Florida involving policies worth $9 million from seven companies.
Assistant State Attorney Joe Licandro said an arrest warrant for Lantigua had been issued more than a year ago, but prosecutors dropped it after problems emerged with some of the underlying information in the case. He said a new warrant charging Lantigua with insurance fraud and schemes to defraud was issued within the past week.
Licandro said no warrant had previously been issued for Lantigua's wife because prosecutors weren't sure until now whether she knew he was alive. Federal agents released her in North Carolina, but she was arrested Saturday evening in Florida.
Attorney Joshua Woolsey, who has represented the family in several civil suits, said Saturday that he and his law firm were withdrawing from the case
"I and the law firm were shocked to learn this morning that we have been defrauded by acting and relying on the information that indicated he was dead," Woolsey said.
It's unclear whether Lantigua has retained new representation.