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How Conman Jerry Balisok Pulled the Ultimate Disappearing Act

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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.

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History
How a London Tragedy Led to the Creation of 911
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Fox Photos/Getty Images

In trouble? Pick up the phone and call 911. According to the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), 240 million 911 calls are made each year. But if it weren’t for a house fire and a group of angry Brits, the system might not exist today.

Though 911 is an American staple, its origins are in England. In 1935, there was no such thing as an emergency phone number, and phone calls were dependent on operators who connected people to exchanges or emergency services when necessary. England did have emergency fire call points, but they didn’t use telephone technology—instead, they relied on the telegraph, which was used to send a signal to fire departments from special boxes [PDF]. There were police call points, too, but they were generally unstandardized and inefficient, since police didn’t have a way to receive emergency calls while on their beats. Instead, officers would check in during their rounds at special police boxes, like the one you probably recognize from Doctor Who.

But all that changed after November 10, 1935, when a fire broke out at the home of a prominent London surgeon, Philip Franklin, at 27 Wimpole Street. As the blaze tore through the building, five women sleeping on the upper floors—Franklin’s wife and niece, as well as three servants—became trapped. A neighbor, Norman MacDonald, heard their screams and promptly picked up the phone to dial the operator. Nobody answered.

“It seemed entirely futile to continue holding on and listening to ringing tone, which awakened no response,” he later wrote. A neighbor went to a fire call point and firefighters soon arrived, but they were unable to save the five women.

27 Wimpole Street, London, as it looks today
27 Wimpole Street, London, as it looks today
Eden, Janine and Jim, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The tragedy sparked a national inquiry—and outrage. Two years later, London unveiled a new service: the emergency number 999. Officials thought it would be best to choose a number that was easy to find by touch on a rotary dial, and rejected a number of other options, like 111, that might be triggered by equipment malfunctions. (It wasn’t unusual for lines rubbing together and other technical glitches to trigger a 111 call; 222 was already in use by a local exchange, while 000 would have just contacted the operator after the first zero.)

The new number wasn’t immediately embraced. Of over 1000 calls made the first week, nearly 7 percent were pranks. And some members of Parliament objected, saying it would be easier to just install an emergency button on phones instead.

A New York City police officer takes an emergency call from his car in the 1960s
A New York City police officer takes an emergency call from his car in the 1960s
John Pratt/Keystone Features/Getty Images

The United States had a similar system of police telephones and signal boxes, but like the UK it lacked the technology to quickly and effectively call authorities during emergencies. In the 1950s, the National Association of Fire Chiefs, inspired by the UK’s system, requested a national emergency number, and by 1967 the FTC was meeting with AT&T, the nation’s largest telephone company, to hash out a plan.

The first 911 call in the United States—a test call made from a mayor’s office—was made in Haleyville, Alabama in 1968 [PDF]. The numbers 911 reportedly made the grade because they weren’t in use for any existing phone exchange, and were catchy and easily remembered.

As the service rolled out nationwide, police and fire departments struggled to keep up with call volume. Despite the success of the program, New York police, in particular, reported being strained and having to hire more officers.

It took a long time to implement the system. Only 50 percent of the United States had 911 service as of 1987, according to NENA. Today, coverage is still not universal, although it’s close: 96 percent of the country is currently covered.

The evolution of telephone technology has brought new challenges, however: The FCC estimates that a full 70 percent of calls now come from cell phones—and given the mobility of mobile phones, that’s a challenge for dispatchers and phone companies. The 911 system was built for landlines, and cell phone GPS systems don’t always transmit data quickly or accurately. Plus, the proliferation of cell phones has led to a spike in accidental butt dials, which tie up the line and can prevent real emergencies from getting the attention they need. Still, we've come a long way from the days of sending telegraph messages inside boxes.

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The Barnes Mystery: A Twisted Tale of Maids, Murder, and Mistaken Identity
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The Barnes Railway Bridge
Garry Knight, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In the late 1800s, Park Road was a quiet part of Richmond on the outskirts of London. Julia Martha Thomas, a retired schoolteacher, made her home there in the left portion of a semi-detached villa known as 2 Mayfield Cottages. It was a typical English house, two stories high and surrounded by a garden. For the most part, Thomas lived there alone; occasionally, she took on servants like the Irish-born Kate Webster, whom she hired in January 1879.

Three months later, Thomas was nowhere to be found. But her servant had seemingly come into a great deal of wealth.

AN UNSAVORY MAID

The Daily Telegraph would later describe Webster as a “tall, strongly-made woman ... with sallow and much freckled complexion and large and prominent teeth.” Unbeknownst to Thomas, her new maid's resume was far from ideal: She'd first been imprisoned for larceny in her native Ireland at 15 years old, and had lived a life of petty crime ever since. By the time she was 30, in 1879, she’d served multiple sentences for theft.

During one of these sentences, an 18-month stretch at Wandsworth prison in West London, Webster had put her young son in the care of Sarah Crease, an acquaintance and charwoman who worked for a Miss Loder. When Webster filled in for Crease one day, Loder recommended her to Thomas, who she knew was looking to hire a servant.

Webster got the job on the spot, but the relationship between Thomas and the young woman quickly became strained. “At first I thought her a nice old lady,” Webster would later say. But Thomas’s cleaning standards were strict—too strict—and she would “point out places where she said I did not clean, showing evidence of a nasty spirit towards me.” Webster’s love of drink, which she nourished regularly at a nearby pub, The Hole in the Wall, also failed to impress Thomas.

On February 28, after around a month of work, Thomas wrote in her diary that she “gave Katherine warning to leave.” When Webster asked Thomas to extend her employment through Sunday, March 2, Thomas begrudgingly agreed. It was a fatal mistake.

BLOODY SUNDAY

Sundays were half-days for Webster, who was expected at 2 Mayfield Cottages in the late afternoon. Dawdling too long at the ale house, Webster arrived late and Thomas went to church agitated. It was the last time she was seen in public.

That evening, Thomas's landlady's mother Jane Ives, who lived in the other half of the villa, heard a sound “like the fall of a heavy chair.” Ives and her daughter also noticed housework being done quite early the next morning.

The next two Sundays, Mrs. Thomas—a devout Christian—failed to show up for church. Webster, however, seemed to have a new lease on life. She soon met with Henry Porter, a former neighbor from when she had lived in Hammersmith, to share some news. Saying she had married a man named Thomas and spinning a tale of a wealthy dead relative who had left the contents of 2 Mayfield Cottages to her, Webster said she was looking for a broker for the items.

She wined and dined Porter and his son Robert at a local pub, leaving briefly to visit a friend who lived nearby. When she returned, both Porters noticed the heavy bag she had carried into the pub was nowhere to be seen. Robert Porter later helped her carry a heavy box from 2 Mayfield Cottages to a nearby bridge, where Webster said that a friend was coming to come pick it up. As Robert walked away he heard a faint splash, but as Webster caught up with him she assured him that her friend had picked up the container, and he continued on his way.

Several days later, Henry Porter introduced Webster to John Church. In the market for new furniture for his pub, Church offered Webster 68 pounds for an assortment of furnishings. They scheduled delivery vans for March 18.

A HORRIBLE DISCOVERY

The splash the younger Porter had heard was indeed the heavy box he'd helped Webster carry as it hit the river. But it didn't spend long in its watery grave. A coal porter who discovered it near the Barnes Railway Bridge on March 5, a few miles downstream along the Thames from where Webster had let it slip, was horrified to discover the mangled contents: a woman's torso and legs, minus one foot.

The relatively primitive forensic techniques of the day couldn't identify a body without a head, and an inquest failed to establish a cause of death. That a woman's foot shortly turned up in the nearby suburb of Twickenham was little help; police readily concluded that it belonged to the same body, but whose? The unidentified remains were buried in a local cemetery, and the press began buzzing about the "Barnes mystery."

Meanwhile, by the time Church's delivery vans arrived on March 18, Thomas had not been seen for two weeks—and her neighbors had grown suspicious. The younger Miss Ives went to investigate the vans, and was told that a “Mrs. Thomas” was selling her furniture. When “Mrs. Thomas” was summoned, it was none other than Webster, who Ives knew was Thomas’s servant. Webster told Ives that Thomas was away somewhere—she couldn't say where, exactly—but the game was up. Webster panicked and fled with her son, traveling by train to her family home in County Wexford, Ireland. Meanwhile, the police were summoned.

When authorities searched 2 Mayfield Cottages, they discovered a grisly scene: There were blood stains everywhere (some showing signs of cleaning), charred bones in the kitchen grate, and a fatty substance behind the laundry boiler. They also found Webster’s address in County Wexford. The criminal was hauled back to Richmond, and a trial began on July 2, 1879.

The trial turned into a major spectacle, and crowds gathered both inside and outside the courtroom. Webster’s social position made her crime especially salacious—not only had she committed a gruesome murder, but she had attacked her betters. And she was a woman. According to Shani D'Cruze, Sandra L. Walklate, and Samantha Pegg in Murder, “Victorian ideals of femininity envisaged women as moral, passive, and not physically strong enough to kill and dismember a body." Webster's crime had put the lie to those ideals.

Initially, Webster accused Church and Porter of the crime. Though police did find Thomas’s belongings at Church’s pub and home, both men had solid alibis and were cleared. Webster then said an ex-boyfriend, a “Mr. Strong”—whom she occasionally claimed was the father of her child—had driven her to crime. But despite her attempts to shift blame onto others, Webster was eventually convicted of killing her employer.

The night before her execution, she finally confessed to the priest: “I alone committed the murder of Mrs. Thomas.”

According to Webster, she and Thomas had argued when the latter returned home from church. The argument “ripened into a quarrel,” and Webster “threw [Thomas] from the top of the stairs to the ground floor.” Then, Webster “lost control” and grabbed her victim by the throat in an attempt to silence any screams that could alert the neighbors and send her back to prison. After choking Thomas, Webster “determined to do away with the body” by chopping up the limbs and boiling them in the laundry tub.

Legend says Webster attempted to sell the fat drippings from Thomas to the proprietress of a local pub, and even fed them to two local boys, but neither rumor has ever been substantiated. But Webster did burn some of Thomas’s remains in the hearth, and divided much of the rest between the heavy bag she had carried into the pub and the box. Running out of room, she also disposed of one of Thomas’s feet in the nearby suburb of Twickenham. She never revealed where she hid Thomas’s head.

Webster was executed on July 29, 1879. “The executioner having drawn the cap over her face, retired from the scaffold,” read a broadside detailing Webster’s sentencing and execution. “The unhappy criminal was launched into eternity.”

A SURPRISE IN THE GARDEN

The Execution of Catherine Webster at Wandsworth Gaol
The Execution of Catherine Webster at Wandsworth Gaol, The Illustrated Police News
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Thomas's story has a strange modern twist. In 2009, English broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough bought the vacant pub next door to his house. The building was the former home of the Hole in the Wall, Webster's favorite watering hole, which had closed three years previously.

As contractors were excavating the site to build an extension on Attenborough's property, "they saw a ‘dark circular object,’” according to The Telegraph. That object turned out to be a human skull—one missing its teeth and with “fracture marks consistent with the fall down the stairs and low collagen levels consistent with it being boiled,” an investigating officer told West London Coroners Court. According to a local coroner, there was “clear, convincing and compelling evidence” that the skull belonged to Julia Martha Thomas.

The discovery came too late for the murdered woman, however: Since records of her body’s precise location in Barnes Cemetery were lost, her head wasn’t laid to rest alongside her (its exact whereabouts are somewhat unclear). Though a disappointing ending for a woman who liked things neat and tidy, the Barnes Mystery, at last, was entirely solved.

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