How Conman Jerry Balisok Pulled the Ultimate Disappearing Act

Graveaddiction via Find A Grave 
Graveaddiction via Find A Grave 

In early 1979, Marjorie Balisok had her hands full. For several months, she’d been handling the legal aftermath of her adult son Jerry’s sudden disappearance from Alabama. He was facing 13 counts of forgery for writing bad checks in connection with his motorcycle business, and in addition to juggling Jerry’s leftover red tape, Marjorie was also dealing with the police and the FBI as they searched for her 23-year-old son.

But in January of ’79, Marjorie saw a photo in LIFE magazine that shocked her. In the image, which depicted hundreds of the deceased victims of the Jonestown Massacre in Guyana from the previous November, she spotted Jerry and his wife, Debbie, along with Debbie’s 5-year-old son.

Marjorie contacted the U.S. State Department’s Jonestown Task Force and told them she wanted to claim the body of her son. But the State Department informed her that none of the bodies examined were “anywhere close” to being that of Jerry Balisok, nor were any those of his wife and stepson. Dental X-rays had been taken of all the deceased, and there were zero matches with Jerry’s dental records. This was before DNA testing was available, and the government was extremely reluctant to release a body to anyone unless its identity had been 100 percent confirmed. They couldn’t just take a grieving mother’s word, especially when it was based off of a grainy photo in a magazine.

Marjorie tried sending the task force an X-ray of Jerry’s pelvis, showing a steel pin that was inserted after a motorcycle accident, and demanded that they examine all of the unclaimed bodies to find out if anyone had a pin in their hip. Task force officials informed her that with the very rapid damage the corpses had already suffered from lying for days in the hot Guyanese sun, and the months that had elapsed since the incident, the bodies were way too decomposed to allow that kind of manhandling. Again, she was denied.

But Marjorie became obsessed with the photograph in LIFE. She told the press, “[t]here is no doubt in my mind about that figure being the body of my son. He is lying with his dark brownish-auburn curly head pointing toward the bottom of the picture and the page.” However, a member of the Jonestown Task Force, Reid Clark, said that they enlarged the photograph in question 40 times, and told the press: “I defy anyone to say that’s him ... You’d think she’d be thanking us instead of damning us.”

Google News/Spartanburg Herald

 
Marjorie also revealed another source of frustration to the Associated Press: “I have tried in every way to have my son’s body returned to me for burial,” she told a reporter. “I have insurance policies of all kinds that I cannot cash in until I have a death certificate or certificate of presumed death.”

Naturally, the FBI was also investigating the Jonestown lead, but they ultimately determined that there was no evidence Jerry Balisok had even left the United States. It was known that Jerry and his wife had been on the lam in the Caribbean about a year before the massacre—which his mother learned when she was sent a bill for about $10,000 her son had charged on her American Express card from the Bahamas—and prior to that there had been a flurry of charges in Miami. Investigators seemed to think that was a better place to look for Balisok than anywhere overseas.

In May 1979, 248 unclaimed bodies from Jonestown were sent to Oakland, California, for burial. According to an acquaintance of hers, Marjorie Balisok was waiting for the plane when the coffins were unloaded, ready to intercept and locate her son’s, but she was evidently unsuccessful. The bodies went into the ground, with Marjorie convinced that Jerry and his wife Debbie were definitely among the 20 adults who were buried in the mass grave.

With no options left other than to get the very last word, Marjorie had a tombstone made for her son and installed above an empty grave in the family plot at Maple Hill Cemetery in Huntsville, Alabama. The inscription reads, in part, “DAMN THE STATE DEPT.” along the bottom.

Marjorie herself died in 1983, maintaining to the end of her days that her son was a victim of the Peoples Temple cult. Her own tombstone, which she shares with her husband Coleman, can be found next to that of her youngest son. The FBI placed surveillance on Marjorie’s funeral, camping out on the chance that Jerry would turn up, but no dice.

A few years later, with still no sign of Jerry Balisok, the authorities were at last satisfied that he was dead, and dropped all charges against him.

The view from Tiger Mountain. Image credit: Joel via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 
That's where the story stayed until 1989, when a 34-year-old man named Ricky Wetta was arrested and tried in Seattle for attempted murder. After shooting his former business partner in the head following an afternoon of target practice on Tiger Mountain near Issaquah, Washington, Wetta was booked into the King County Jail, but his fingerprints soon revealed that he wasn’t who he said he was. There was, it seemed, a real Ricky Wetta living in Florida (who had fingerprints on record from a misdemeanor 15 years earlier), but the man in custody in Seattle wasn’t him, and he refused to cop to his true identity. Leaning on Fifth Amendment guarantees that protect a suspect against self-incrimination, the man went through the entire trial as John Doe.

A month after the trial, though, a persistent King County Police detective named Randy Mullinax finally sussed out the suspect’s birth name: Jerry Bibb Balisok. Instead of defecting to Guyana and meeting death in Jonestown, Jerry and Debbie had, in fact, hung out in Florida for a while (just as the cops had suspected), then moved to the mundane Seattle suburb of Renton at some point. After obtaining Ricky A. Wetta’s birth certificate, Jerry helped himself to the man’s identity, and the family lived as Wettas for over a decade, having three more kids. Jerry worked various jobs over the years, including a gig as a professional wrestler named Mr. X and a stint at Boeing—until he was fired when HR figured out he didn’t actually go to the University of Cambridge in the UK as he’d purported. Later, it seems, he decided he preferred investment schemes to jobs.

While wandering from scam to scam, Jerry drifted into the acquaintance of Emmett Thompson, 12 years his junior, with whom he “did business” for a time. Although they were friendly for a while, Thompson had begun the process of extracting himself from Balisok/Wetta’s life by the time his business partner invited him to go target practicing on Tiger Mountain, about an hour outside of Seattle. In an ensuing trial, Thompson testified that he was shot four times on the mountain, allegedly over a 1988 arson plot targeting the Columbian Hotel in Wenatchee, Washington. (Balisok had purchased the hotel for $135,000, then taken out a $4.6 million insurance policy on it a month before it burned down.)

Throughout the trial, Balisok steadfastly declined to answer almost all queries about his identity; he was addressed variously as John Doe and Ricky Wetta. Based on the transcript from the 1989 cross-examination, questioning Ricky/John/Jerry went something like this:

DEPUTY PROSECUTOR MICHAEL HOGAN: You've talked about your health history, Mr. Wetta. You've testified that your weight, as you went through school – where did you go to school, Mr. Wetta?

DEFENSE ATTORNEY ANNE ENGELHARD: Objection. This isn't relevant.

THE COURT: You may answer.

HOGAN: Where did you go to grade school, Mr. Wetta?

JOHN DOE: I refuse to answer your question.

HOGAN: Where did you go to high school where you told us those weights?

DOE: I believe I got a G.E.D. in the State of Washington in 1979.

HOGAN: But when you were a teenager, did you attend high school?

DOE: I refuse to answer that question also.

HOGAN: And you used to be a professional wrestler, didn't you, Mr. Wetta?

DOE: And I also refuse to answer that question.

Balisok claimed to have shot Thompson in self-defense, but the jury didn’t buy it, and in February of 1990 he was found guilty. Two months later, Balisok was sentenced to 20 years in prison for attempted murder in the first degree. He was ultimately acquitted of the arson charges. A few years later, in 1992, Balisok’s wife, Debbie, divorced him, changing her surname and those of their three children from Wetta to Taylor, her maiden name. (One of their sons, John, is now a fitness coach who was featured on the weight-loss series Too Fat for 15.)

Balisok’s long stay at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla was characterized by multiple lawsuits against prison staff, alleging violations of his First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights for not being allowed to wear his yarmulke in solitary confinement, or arguing that his due process rights were violated when he was expelled from a prison math class as a sanction for withholding information about a classmate who’d cheated on a test. (He lost both of these cases.) One of these lawsuits, against Balisok’s hearing officer, went all the way to the Supreme Court, and although Balisok lost yet again—he’d alleged that his hearing officer had concealed witness statements that could have helped him during a disciplinary proceeding—the case was important because it affirmed the ability of prisoners to challenge such disciplinary proceedings in the first place.

 
Balisok’s life got no less bizarre after he was released from prison in 2003. He changed his name from Jerry Bibb Balisok to Harrison Rains Hanover the following year, then married two different women in short succession, both of whom filed for protection orders against him, citing domestic abuse. In 2008, before they were divorced, the second of these women registered a nonprofit with the state of Washington called the First Hanoverian Church, listing herself as the director and Balisok/Hanover as chairman. He also occasionally used the variant Harrison Hansover, with an s.

A year after the church was registered, he fled to Costa Rica after getting busted on a failed scheme to embezzle approximately $4.6 million. The idea was to intercept funds to be paid by telecommunications companies Cox and Comcast to a mutual vendor they both used, but the money was instead diverted into a bank account opened by Balisok and an accomplice. The bank quickly froze the funds, however, and Balisok ended up with only about half a million in his pocket before he skipped town.

He then popped up next door in Nicaragua in October of 2012, where he was arrested and charged with a handful of crimes related to the sexual exploitation of minors. Balisok/Hanover was sentenced to 24 years in a Nicaraguan prison; his lawyer, found guilty as his accomplice, received six years herself.

In April 2013, a flurry of articles in Spanish-language newspapers throughout Latin America reported that Balisok had suffered a heart attack while in prison in Granada, Nicaragua, and died after being transferred to the hospital. The newspapers tied the event to his former accomplishments as Jerry Balisok and attributed the cause to extreme heat in his cell, which triggered other inmates’ families to file complaints about the high temperatures the prisoners were suffering, along with other health hazards within the prison.

Normally, a report of a person’s death in multiple newspapers would probably be enough to affirm their death, but an exception might be made in the case of Jerry Balisok. As of this writing, no death certificate for Balisok has been made publicly available, nor is the location of his burial known. Without those pieces of data, and knowing Balisok’s predilection for deceit, it might be wise to stay skeptical about whether he’s actually gone from this earth.

One thing’s for sure: whether or not Jerry Bibb Balisok a.k.a. Ricky Wetta a.k.a. Harrison Rains Hanover a.k.a. Harrison Rains Hansover is, in fact, dead, his body isn’t under that headstone in Alabama with his name on it. At least, not yet.

When Pablo Picasso Was Suspected of Stealing the Mona Lisa

On August 21, 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from Paris’s Louvre Museum. It was a Monday—the museum was closed and security was minimal—and the thief had reportedly spent the weekend plotting the heist while hiding in one of the museum’s closets.

At the time, security at the Louvre was abysmal. There were less than 150 security personnel in charge of guarding 250,000 artifacts, and none of the paintings were bolted to the walls. (The Mona Lisa, for example, hung from four measly hooks.) According to Ian Shank at Artsy, “Months before the heist, one French reporter had spent the night in a Louvre sarcophagus to expose the museum’s paltry surveillance.”

After the painting's disappearance, France’s borders were effectively closed, with officials examining every vehicle crossing the country's eastern border. Media coverage of the heist spread across the globe, turning the little-known painting into a household name. The Paris-Journal offered 50,000 francs for the painting’s return. Soon, a tip from an art thief would cause police to turn their attention toward one of the country’s most promising young artists: Pablo Picasso.

Picasso, who had moved to Paris a decade earlier, lived with a gaggle of Bohemians dubbed la bande de Picasso. Among this crew was the poet and writer Guillaume Apollinaire, whose former secretary was Honore-Joseph Géry Pieret, a Belgian man of questionable morals. Shortly after the Mona Lisa was stolen, Pieret—lured by the possibility of a cash reward—stepped into the Paris-Journal's office and claimed that he had lifted art from the Louvre before and had given the works to "friends."

Pieret was telling the truth. In 1907, he had stolen at least two Iberian sculptures made in the 3rd or 4th century BCE and sold them to Picasso, who paid him 50 francs per piece. (Picasso used these artifacts to inspire his work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. [PDF]) That wasn't all. According to Nick Mafi at The Daily Beast, Pieret also stole a similar piece from the Louvre in 1911 and placed it on Apollinaire’s mantel.

The police read about Pieret's exploits with great interest. They believed that the people who were in possession of these sculptures might also have the Mona Lisa. And they didn’t have much trouble piecing together who, exactly, the thief's friends were.

Realizing that they were in deep trouble, Picasso and Apollinaire packed the Iberian sculptures into a suitcase and ran off in the middle of the night with plans of throwing the artworks into the river Seine. But when the two artists reached the water, they could not will themselves to dump the statues. Instead, Apollinaire visited the Paris-Journal the next morning, deposited the statues, and demanded that the newspaper give him anonymity. The newspaper agreed ... until the authorities stepped in.

Within days of Apollinaire's visit to the newspaper, the police had detained him. In early September, Picasso was ordered to appear before a magistrate. When asked if he knew Apollinaire, the terrified painter lied. “I have never seen this man,” he replied.

Recalling the events, Picasso said, “I saw Guillaume’s expression changed. The blood ebbed from his face. I am still ashamed.” As the proceedings continued, Picasso wept.

Although both men were indeed in possession of stolen art, the judge determined that the situation had nothing to do with the Mona Lisa’s disappearance and decided to throw the case out. Two years later, both men would be cleared of any possible connection to the crime when police discovered the painting had been stolen by Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian artist who had been working at the Louvre.

10 Exceptionally Clever Female Con Artists

Ann O'Delia Diss Debar (a.k.a. Swami Laura Horos)
Ann O'Delia Diss Debar (a.k.a. Swami Laura Horos)
Bain News Service, Library of Congress // No known restrictions

You've heard of "con men"—short for confidence men—but what about the con women of the world? Some deceitful dames used their wits and well-laced lies to achieve great wealth, fame, and even the advantages of the aristocracy.

1. Aurora Florentina Magnusson (a.k.a. Helga de la Brache)

Back before blood tests were readily available, it was pretty easy to con your way into a wealthy family line. One Swedish orphan proved all you need is a grandiose backstory. In the mid-19th century, Aurora Florentina Magnusson declared herself Helga de la Brache, the secret daughter of King Gustav IV of Sweden and Queen Frederica of Baden.

She concocted an elaborate tale of the divorced royals reuniting in a German convent and leaving her to live with her "aunt" Princess Sophia Albertine of Sweden. Following Sophia's death—Magnusson's story goes—she was forced into an asylum, where her claims of noble parentage were sure to be ignored. After her "escape," Magnusson petitioned Sweden for a royal pension deserving of her claimed lineage. However, a trial in 1876 proved all of the above to be pure fiction. Magnusson faced fines, but no jail time. From there, she lived quietly with her female co-conspirator, Henrika Aspegren, for the rest of her days.

2. Mary Carleton (a.k.a. Princess van Wolway)

The old orphaned princess line was also employed by this 17th century Englishwoman. After two failed and simultaneous marriages, a resulting bigamy trial, and a fling with a wealthy nobleman, Mary Carleton fled England for the Netherlands. It was upon her return that she used her posh presents and romantic fantasies to remake herself as Princess van Wolway from Cologne.

With this ruse, she seduced and sometimes wed a string of men, playing each only to rob them. It's believed many of her victims were too embarrassed to reveal her deceit. But enough spurned lovers spoke up that her crimes did catch up with her, earning Carleton a death sentence by hanging at age 30.

3. Ann O'Delia Diss Debar (a.k.a. Swami Laura Horos)

Having taken on a slew of aliases in the course of her criminal career, little can be nailed down about this American con woman, including her real name. As enterprising as she was infamous, Ann O'Delia Diss Debar conned countless people through various scams that capitalized on 19th-century spiritualism. This earned her an enemy in dedicated debunker Harry Houdini, who denounced her in his book A Magician Among The Spirits, along with the whole Spiritualism movement, for “mothering this immoral woman.”

The New York Times described her as a “wonderful crook who without personal charm or attraction has set nations agog with her crimes since her girlhood.” After repeated convictions for fraud in the U.S.—and one for rape and fraud in London—Debar vanished from the spotlight and the police blotter. She was last spotted in Cincinnati in 1909.

4. Big Bertha Heyman (a.k.a. The Confidence Queen)

Cigarette card depicting notorious 19th century American criminal Bertha Heyman
Cigarette card depicting notorious 19th-century American criminal Bertha Heyman
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

After coming to America in 1878, this Prussian con artist followed in the criminal footsteps of her forger father, regularly ending up in jail. Arrest record aside, Bertha Heyman was considered one of the sharpest con artists of her day. She often played on people's hubris, greed, and ambition to her own ends, offering them the promise of wealth later in exchange for a fat load of cash now.

Even behind bars, she managed to bend people to her will. Not only did she swindle more victims while in jail, but she also convinced prison officials to allow her breaks from confinement to take carriage rides around Manhattan and visits to the theater. It's little wonder she earned the title "The Confidence Queen."

5. Barbara Erni (a.k.a. The Golden Boos)

Born to a homeless couple in 18th century Liechtenstein, Erni concocted an unusual way to make a living, and it earned her the nickname "The Golden Boos." She'd travel the countryside with a trunk she claimed was full of treasure. Wherever she'd stop, she'd ask her hosts to lock it up somewhere safe—like where they kept their valuables. The next day, both the trunk and her host's valuables would be gone.

But how did it work? Erni had a person with dwarfism as an accomplice who'd lie in wait within the trunk. Left alone, he'd emerge to rob the place before both would make their getaway. While her accomplice's fate is lost to history, Erni was eventually caught. After confessing to 17 robberies, she was beheaded in 1785. Erni has the dubious distinction of being the last person executed in Liechtenstein before its death penalty was abolished.

6. Mary Baker (a.k.a. Princess Caraboo)

An image of Princess Caraboo from "Devonshire characters and strange events" by S. Baring-Gould
An image of Princess Caraboo from Devonshire Characters and Strange Events by S. Baring-Gould (1908)
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

One of the most famous princess cons ever perpetrated was the brainchild of an English servant with a big imagination. In 1817, a striking woman in exotic garb appeared in a small English village, speaking in an indecipherable tongue. A Portuguese sailor conveniently popped up, claiming he could translate. She claimed to be Princess Caraboo of the island Javasu. Hers was a story of tragedy and danger that had her escaping pirate captors by jumping overboard and swimming through a storm to the safe shores of the English Channel.

This tall tale launched her to near-instant fame, and earned her fans in the wealthy Worrall family who feted and cared for her with lavish attention. Even when a former employer revealed Baker's true identity, the Worrall family stood by the charming impostor. They paid for her passage to Philadelphia, where her fame—despite its fraudulent claims—only grew. She later returned to her true homeland (England, not Javasu), occasionally donning her Caraboo costume for public performances.

7. Cassie Chadwick (a.k.a. The Lost Carnegie)

Born Elizabeth Bigley, this Canadian con artist took the princess routine in a distinctly American direction by claiming to be the heiress of a massively wealthy industrialist. Her cons started small in Cleveland, with Chadwick dabbling in fortune-telling and forgery. After some jail time served for the latter, the forty-something grifter began her biggest con, claiming to be the illegitimate daughter of steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie.

She said he sent her substantial payments to keep her silent, and this was enough for many to give Chadwick hefty loans. One bank lent her a quarter of a million dollars based on her claims, and later went out of business because of it. Carnegie himself attended her eventual trial, which earned Chadwick 10 years in prison. She died in jail in 1907 at the age of 50.

8. Linda Taylor (a.k.a.. The Welfare Queen)

She wasn't just a con artist, but a galvanizing element of Ronald Reagan's 1976 campaign, where the future president declared, "She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.”

Reagan's depiction of "The Welfare Queen" has since been decried as hyperbolic and worse. But Taylor did exploit the welfare system to great lengths through setting up aliases, and spinning her ill-gotten gains into jewelry, furs, and a Cadillac that she'd proudly drive to the public aid office. Taylor eventually did serve time for these offenses. She has also been accused of kidnapping and murder, although never convicted.

9. Jeanne of Valois-Saint-Rémy (a.k.a. Comtesse De La Motte)

A portrait of Jeanne de Saint-Rémy, 1786
A portrait of Jeanne de Saint-Rémy, 1786
Bibliothèque nationale de France, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A Frenchwoman of the 18th century with dubious noble ties, Valois-Saint-Rémy spawned a con so big that it's said to have helped incite the French Revolution by irreparably damaging the reputation of Queen Marie Antoinette. The Affair of The Diamond Necklace involved the conning comtesse convincing the out-of-favor Cardinal de Rohan to procure a fabulous necklace for the queen. Desperate to get in the queen's good graces once more, Cardinal de Rohan wrote the royal letters, for which Valois-Saint-Rémy forged responses. She even employed a Marie Antoinette lookalike for this scam, which ended with de Rohan handing over the hefty piece of jewelry valued at 1,600,000 livres.

When its makers demanded payment from the queen, Valois-Saint-Rémy was arrested and her deception revealed. But in the subsequent trial, the forged letters convinced many that the queen was actually carrying on an affair with the cardinal, further damaging her public persona. The necklace vanished, presumably disassembled for the sale of its many diamonds. Valois-Saint-Rémy served time, but managed to escape and fled to London. In 1789, she published her memoir, wherein she boldly blamed the late Marie Antoinette for the whole ordeal.

10. Sarah Rachel Russell (a.k.a. The Beautician From Hell)

This Victorian-era hustler exploited vanity for profit, promising clients at her upscale London salon everlasting youth courtesy of her special products, such as Rejuvenating Jordan Water, Circassian Golden Hair Wash, Magnetic Rock Dew for Removing Wrinkles, Royal Arabian Face Cream, and Honey of Mount Hymettus wash—all of which were essentially snake oil.

She also dealt in blackmail, and lured women into an Arabian bath that was rumored to have a secret spy hole where men could pay for the privilege to peep. Her trial in 1868 caused a massive stir, not just for her crimes, but also because it revealed that the women of London were paying far more (in money and attention) on make-up and beauty treatments than social mores suggested. Yet her three years in prison did little to change Russell, who, a decade after her original conviction, faced fraud charges once more. This time, the Beautician from Hell died in prison.

A version of this story first ran in 2015.

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