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.

10 of the Best True Crime Documentaries You Can Stream Right Now

HBO
HBO

Is the true crime genre going anywhere? Probably not. Since Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line premiered in 1988 and helped free an innocent man accused of murder, filmmakers and viewers have developed a bottomless appetite for movies based on true stories that shed light on some of the darker sides of the human condition. Check out 10 of the best true crime documentaries you can stream right now on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and other platforms.

1. The Seven Five (2014)

Crooked New York Police Department cops get a filmed perp walk in this examination of the city’s infamous 75th precinct, which was a hive of corruption in the 1980s. Ringleader Michael Dowd talks about how taking money from drug dealers to offset his salary woes led to an increasingly complex and dangerous web of deceit.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. Amanda Knox (2016)

College student Amanda Knox grabbed headlines in 2007 and beyond when her roommate, Meredith Kercher, was found dead in the apartment the two shared in Italy. What follows is a grueling path through an often-impenetrable Italian justice system.

Find It: Netflix

3. The Central Park Five (2013)

Director Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us limited series on Netflix has brought renewed attention to the Central Park Five case, which saw five minors wrongly convicted of attacking a jogger in New York’s Central Park in 1989. This feature documentary co-directed by Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns, and her husband David McMahon examines the case, from the coerced confessions of the boys to their attempts to clear their names.

Find It: Amazon Prime

4. Long Shot (2017)

Though it’s more of a short film than a feature, this examination of Juan Catalan’s fight to be recognized as innocent of committing murder is notable for his attorney’s methodology: Catalan couldn’t have done it because he was at a baseball game. How they go about proving that turns into one of the biggest left-field twists you’re ever likely to see.

Find It: Netflix

5. Killing for Love (2016)

When married couple Derek and Nancy Haysom are found dead in their Virginia home in 1985, suspicion falls on their daughter, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s boyfriend, Jens Söring. Was Jens a co-conspirator, or just a pawn in Elizabeth’s game? Watch and find out.

Find It: Hulu

6. Brother’s Keeper (1992)

Before garnering acclaim for their Paradise Lost documentaries, filmmakers Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger captured this portrait of four elderly brothers living in rural Munnsville, New York. When one of them turns up dead, police believe it could have been murder. As one brother goes on trial, the others close ranks and try to keep family secrets from leaking out.

Find It: Netflix

7. Without Charity (2013)

In 2000, police discover a trio of construction workers have been murdered at an expensive home in Indiana. As police dig deeper, they discover the puzzling presence of Charity Payne, a woman who might have helped a group of robbers to break in and commit the murders.

Find It: Amazon Prime

8. Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee (2016)

Antivirus pioneer John McAfee reinvents himself in Belize, becoming an armed leader of a makeshift militia before later being implicated in the death of his neighbor.

Find It: Netflix

9. I Love You, Now Die (2019)

Teenagers in love Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy nourished their long-distance relationship via text messaging. But as Conrad’s mood grew darker, Michelle believed the best way to help her boyfriend would be to encourage him to take his own life. That dynamic sets the stage for a dramatic trial in Massachusetts that ponders the question of whether it's possible to be responsible for taking someone’s life via text.

Find It: HBO

10. Out of Thin Air (2017)

In 1974, two men in Iceland disappeared. A police investigation led to six men, who were all eventually sent to prison after confessing to murder. Decades later, new evidence casts doubt on their version of events—and whether they killed anyone at all. 

Find It: Netflix

10 Facts About Alcatraz

Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images
Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images

At 9:40 a.m. on the morning of August 11, 1934, Alcatraz's first group of prisoners—137 in all—arrived at the soon-to-be-infamous prison. For decades, it was known as the site of one of the most unforgiving federal prisons in the country. “Break the rules and you go to prison,” went one anonymous quote. “Break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz.” But San Francisco Bay’s Alcatraz Island has a history that goes far beyond its infamy as a criminal commune. Check out some facts about its origins, its history-making protest, and signing up for a tour.

1. Alcatraz was a military outpost in the 1850s.

Described by Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775, Alcatraz Island is the Americanized name of Isla de los Alcatraces (Island of the Pelicans). Following the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, California became property of the United States. In the 1850s, the island was earmarked by U.S. forces for a military citadel. Outfitted with more than 100 cannons, it monitored activity in San Francisco Bay to thwart foreign invaders looking to cash in on California's gold rush. (Later, it was used to discourage Confederates from trying to seize control of San Francisco in the Civil War.) That presence led to some federal prisoners being housed on site—a foreshadowing of the general-population prison it would one day become.

2. Alcatraz inmates were forced to build their own prison.

An aerial view of Alcatraz circa the 1930s
OFF/AFP/Getty Images

When the need for armed monitoring of the bay ended, the U.S. Army deconstructed the fortress, leaving only the basement foundation intact. From 1909 to 1911, the military prisoners were put to work building a new structure that would house disciplinary barracks for the West Coast. (That building is the one standing today.) The military transferred ownership of the island to the Department of Justice in 1933, which is when Alcatraz became synonymous with the worst of the worst, housing notorious criminals like Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly.

3. Life at Alcatraz wasn't always so bad.

Known as the “Rock,” Alcatraz developed a reputation for segregating America’s incorrigibles from the rest of the population. Sometimes, rules dictated that prisoners couldn’t even speak to one another. But conditions inside the prison weren’t as harsh as movies and television would later portray. Inmates often got their own cell, and some even asked to be transferred there because the potential for violent trouble was low. The reason some of the more notorious criminals of the era were sent there was usually due to the facility’s strict routine. Prisoners had little leeway or privileges outside of the four basics: food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. One perk? Hot showers. Inmates got warm water to use for bathing, although it wasn’t for altruistic reasons. A theory has it that if prisoners got used to warm water, they’d freeze up if they ever made an escape attempt in the bay’s frigid conditions.

4. Odds of escaping Alcatraz were slim.

Swimmers run across the water near Alcatraz Island
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Many know the story of Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin, who famously attempted to escape the prison island in 1962 using a raft made out of raincoats. No one knows whether the men made it, but the odds were stacked against them. Of the 36 men who fled from the site in the 29 years it was open (1934 to 1963), 23 were recaptured, six were killed by guards, and two drowned. The remaining five—including Morris and the Anglin brothers—made it to the water and disappeared.

5. Softball was a popular pastime.

Though Alcatraz would never be confused for a country club, inmates still had outlets to pursue physical activities. Softball was the most popular pastime, with prisoners using a diamond in the recreation area. Organized teams played using shorter innings; balls going over the barricades were outs, not home runs. But not every game went smoothly. The teams were integrated, and that occasionally to racial tensions. During one May 20, 1956 game, tempers flared and makeshift knives were pulled before guards could restore order.

6. Alcatraz's prison guards lived on the island with their families.

A camera peers through a chain-link fence inside Alcatraz
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Life at Alcatraz wasn’t isolated just for the prisoners. Guards and other prison employees lived on the island in separate housing that was once Civil War barracks. Their kids fished in the bay and passed time in social halls that had pool and bowling. Families often took weekend boat trips to nearby Marin to stock up on groceries and other essentials. While they were forbidden to make contact with inmates, a few made a spectator sport of watching new arrivals come in wearing shackles.

7. Alcatraz was closed in 1963 because it was too expensive to maintain.

Alcatraz didn’t get shuttered over human rights issues or because the prison was too hardcore even for society’s worst. It closed in 1963 for the same reason it was so distinctive: the location. Saltwater continued to erode structures, making the cost of maintaining the buildings excessive. On a day-to-day basis, Alcatraz cost $10.10 per person to maintain in 1950s dollars, three times as much as most other federal prisons. It also needed freshwater brought in by boat at the rate of a million gallons a week.

8. In 1969, a group of college students occupied Alcatraz in protest.

A man stands on Alcatraz Island during a Native American occupation
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1969, a group of college students stormed the abandoned prison. Their cause: to draw attention to the United States government's policy of terminating tribal sovereignty and relocating Native American residents to cities. Richard Oakes, a student at San Francisco State College, led the occupation, which lasted a total of 19 months. Authorities moved in 1971 when the group—which was 400 strong at its height—had dwindled to just 15 people. During their protest, Richard Nixon reversed the policy in 1970, effectively ending government seizure of Indian lands.

9. Alcatraz is now one of San Francisco's most popular tourist attractions.

Alcatraz Island was converted into a park and made part of the U.S. national park system in 1972. If you want a tour, you can make advance reservations and book a ferry. Once there, an audio tour will take you through the grounds, including the cells of luminaries like Al Capone. More than 1.5 million people visit annually.

10. Alcatraz has literally gone to the birds.

Alcatraz sits in the background of two birds flocking nearby
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Without a permanent human infrastructure, Alcatraz Island has slowly been engulfed by nature’s squatters. One of the first sights visitors see is a surplus of Western gulls taking up residence on almost every surface. The park service even offers a tour of the avian life, which includes 5000 birds across nine different species. The population is fitting, since the prison’s most famous inmate is widely considered to the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” Robert Stroud. After being sentenced for murder, Stroud took up ornithology and was considered to be an expert by the time he arrived on the island in 1942.

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