Missing pilot may have faked death to escape law enforcement
Published: Tuesday, January 13, 2009 at 6:44 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 13, 2009 at 11:48 a.m.
HARPERSVILLLE, Ala. — Federal marshals on Tuesday pressed their search for an investment manager they believe faked a distress call before parachuting from his plane over Alabama and disappeared on a red motorcycle he had stashed in advance.
Authorities were trying to figure out if it was all an attempt by Marcus Schrenker, 38, to fake his own death after his wife filed for divorce, his companies were targeted by investigators and he lost a half-million dollars in a court case.
The only sign of life from Schrenker came in an ominous e-mail he apparently sent to a neighbor, Tom Britt, that said the situation was a misunderstanding and added: "By the time you get this, I'll be gone."
The investigation began Sunday night, when Schrenker's plane went down en route to Destin, Fla., from Anderson, Ind. Schrenker had reported that the windshield imploded and that he was bleeding profusely, officials said.
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. Authorities said he apparently put the single-engine Piper Malibu on autopilot for more than 200 miles, bailed out over Alabama and left the plane to crash in Florida.
Police in Childersburg, Ala., southeast of Birmingham, later said they picked up a man using Schenker's Indiana driver's license and took him to a hotel. The man was wet from the knees down and told the officers he'd been in a canoe accident.
By the time police learned of the crash investigation and came back to the hotel, the man was gone. They learned he paid for his room in cash before putting on a black cap and running into the woods next to the hotel.
Later, another clue surfaced: Schrenker had parked a red Yamaha motorcycle with packed saddlebags in a storage unit about 7 miles away from Childersburg. By Monday, the motorcycle was gone and Schrenker's still-damp jeans, wet gray socks, hiking boots and a T-shirt were in a trash bin nearby.
Schrenker rented the unit on Saturday under the name Jay, paying cash, and told the manager that he would be back for his belongings, said Wanda Brooks, whose family owns the storage business.
"He said, 'I'll definitely be back on Monday. I'm going to Florida. He said he was from Indiana," Brooks said.
Meanwhile, in Indiana, Schrenker's neighbor 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 is real, but its authenticity hasn't been verified.
The U.S. Marshals declined to say if they believed the e-mail was authentic. Britt said authorities asked him not to make it public.
Britt quoted Schrenker as saying, "I embarrassed my family for the last time." He turned the e-mail over to authorities, fearing it was a suicide note.
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.
U.S. Marshals spokesman Michael Richards in Birmingham declined to detail where agents are looking or how the search is being conducted. But investigators in Florida said Schrenker faces a host of possible charges if he deliberately abandoned the plane.
"You just can't let an unmanned aircraft just maliciously fly into a residential area without facing any consequences," Santa Rosa County Sheriff's Office spokesman Scott Haines said on the CBS "Early Show."
Schrenker lived a high-flying life as an investment manager and an experienced recreational pilot with the nerves to pull off aerial stunts. In a video posted on YouTube, he is shown boldly completing a daredevil maneuver in the Bahamas, flying underneath a bridge.
He bought luxury automobiles, two airplanes and built a 10,000-square-foot house in an upscale neighborhood full of million-dollar homes known as "Cocktail Cove," where affluent boaters often socialize with cocktails in hand.
But Schrenker's life appeared to be spiraling downward: He lost a half-million-dollar judgment against one of his companies, and his wife filed for divorce. Investigators probed his businesses for possible securities violations.
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, and officers who searched his home Dec. 31 were looking for computers, notes, photos and other documents related to those companies, he said.
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.
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