For more than two decades, Terry Jude Symansky appeared to lead an ordinary life in Pasco County, Fla.
He had a wife and a teenage son, owned property and “worked odd jobs,” according to the Tampa Bay Times.
The only problem, police say, was that Terry Jude Symansky wasn’t really Terry Jude Symansky. He was actually an Indiana man named Richard Hoagland who vanished 25 years ago and has been considered dead since 2003, the paper reported.
The lie lasted more than two decades. In the end, a single online search was all it took for the ruse to unravel.
The truth began to surface when a nephew of the real Terry Symansky – who drowned in 1991 at age 33 – started an Ancestry.com family search, according to ABC affiliate WFLA. Knowing that his uncle was dead, the nephew was surprised to find someone with the same name living in central Florida.
“He looks up his real uncle Terry Symansky and realizes that he died in 1991, which the family knew,” Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco told the station. “He then starts scrolling down the page and sees more details that Terry Symanksy was remarried in 1995. He owns property in Pasco County, Florida.”
Fearing that their fake relative might try to harm them, family members waited three years before eventually contacting authorities in April, police told the Tampa Bay Times.
Hoagland, 63, was arrested Wednesday and charged with fraudulent use of personal identification, the paper reported.
How exactly Hoagland came to assume the identity of Terry Symansky – who moved to Florida from Cleveland to work as a commercial fisherman – remains a complicated mystery.
The Tampa Bay Times reported that investigators suspect it occurred as follows:
“Deputies think Hoagland stole Terry Symansky’s identity like this: Hoagland once lived with Terry Symansky’s father in Palm Beach. Hoagland found a copy of Terry Symansky’s 1991 death certificate and used it to obtain a birth certificate from Ohio. With the birth certificate in hand, he then applied by mail for an Alabama driver’s license and used that to obtain a Florida driver’s license. That’s how deputies think Hoagland came to spend more than two decades living in Florida as Terry Symansky.
“As Terry Symansky, he married Mary Hossler Hickman in 1995. The couple lived in Zephyrhills. He also fashioned a medical card to obtain a private pilot’s license as Terry Symansky from the Federal Aviation Administration.”
Before he began the process of assuming a new identity, Hoagland left his old life – which included a wife and four children – behind in Indiana, according to Bay News 9. His former wife in Indiana told police that Hoagland had three businesses related to insurance.
She told investigators that Hoagland told her in the early 1990s that he was wanted by the FBI for embezzling millions of dollars and had no choice but to leave town, according to the Tampa Bay Times. In reality, police told the paper, Hoagland told investigators that he left Indiana to get away from his wife.
Eventually, the paper reported, Hoagland’s wife assumed her husband was dead.
“This is a selfish coward,” Nocco said. “This is a person who has lived his life destroying others.”
Gerry Beyer, a law professor at Texas Tech University who studies identity theft, told the Tampa Bay Times that Hoagland’s alleged actions are unusual because most identity thieves steal people’s names to commit crimes.
He told the paper that the fact that the real Symansky never married or had children made him a “perfect” candidate for identity theft.
And yet, he noted, Hoagland’s ability to maintain the lie for more than two decades was shocking. It was a lie that was probably made easier, Beyer said, because it began before digital records were commonplace.
“You just never know,” Beyer told the paper. “It will all catch up with you.”
Hoagland’s Florida tenants told Bay News 9 that they were shocked that their landlord wasn’t who he said he was.
“We’ve been personal with him quite a bit, and Terry’s the nicest guy anyone could ever meet,” Gregory Yates told the station.
“He’s a really nice guy, and he’s a really good landlord,” Dean Lockwood, another tenant, said. “Never would have known this, couldn’t imagine this was happening.”
Perhaps most damaged by Hoagland’s hoax, police said, was his wife in Florida, who learned about her husband’s alleged crimes only when detectives showed up at her door last week.
“For 20 years, she’s been lied to, so now she doesn’t know what she has to do as far as whether her marriage is even legal – what’s going to happen to all the properties they own, their bank accounts,” Detective Anthony Cardillo told Bay News 9. “The son has the last name Symansky.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Peter Holley