When divorced contractor Jim Davis died of a heart attack at his home in Los Angeles on April 2, 2006, he was laid to rest in a quiet ceremony, surrounded by two close family members and mortuary staff. After a funeral service at the Steward-Pearce Mortuary, his casket was buried at a cemetery in Los Angeles.
At least, that’s what it looked like. But in reality, Jim Davis may never have died. In fact, Davis may never have existed at all except as a fictional character created by two old ladies as part of an elaborate scam.
In April 2009, federal prosecutors charged two Los Angeles women with bilking insurance and lending companies by buying policies for made-up people, killing them off on paper and then staging their funerals.
“They buried a casket without a body,” says Assistant United States Attorney Steve Goorvitch, who was prosecuting the case with Stephanie Yonekura McCaffrey. “They would submit false life-insurance claims, and in one case they staged a fake burial. The evidence is unclear whether Jim Davis died somewhere else or if he was a fictitious person.”
Authorities say the masterminds behind the life-insurance con jobs were 67-year-old Jean Crump, who prepared death certificates for a now-defunct Lynwood mortuary, and Faye Shilling, a 61-year-old grandmother and nurse phlebotomist. Shilling’s lawyer declined to comment. Crump’s lawyer could not be reached.
In August, Crump was convicted of mail and wire fraud by a federal jury in Los Angeles. Shilling, a native of Arkansas, pleaded guilty to a pair of wire-fraud counts last July.
But authorities say Crump and Shilling’s deceit goes much deeper than that. They say the two women faked the death certificates of others as well, including a woman who died of cardio-respiratory arrest in Arkansas in 2004. Shilling and Crump also defrauded several lending companies that gave them over $40,000 to cover Davis’ funeral expenses, say authorities. In one case, a bill was submitted for a funeral coach, a limo, a casket, a funeral program, dressing and casketing, and a charge for refrigeration.
Also in on the Davis con were Lydia Eileen Pearce, one of the owners of the Steward-Pearce Mortuary, and notary Barbara Ann Lynn. Both women pleaded guilty to the elaborate scheme that prosecutors say began on April 4, 2006, when a woman claiming to be Davis’ niece notified the insurance companies of Davis’ death and her plan to collect on four life-insurance policies totaling $1.25 million. The niece—who prosecutors say was an impostor working with Shilling and Crump in the scheme and later testified against them—became Davis’ primary beneficiary in January 2006.
“They buried a casket without a body,” says an assistant United States attorney.
One of the insurance companies hired a private investigator to look into the hefty claims. The private investigator contacted the doctor who was listed on the death certificate, which is required by law in California. According to prosecutors, Crump listed the name of a real physician to avoid any suspicion in the event a life-insurance company would check the name.
After learning about the investigation, Crump and Shilling exhumed Davis’ body to destroy evidence of their crime, according to federal documents. Crump and Shilling prepared an addendum to the death certificate indicating that the “body” was cremated, and the ashes were scattered at sea. Before the body was sent to the crematorium, Shilling and Crump filled the casket with animal bones, meat, and a mannequin. They wanted “to make it weigh enough that the crematory employees would not become suspicious,” says Goorvitch. The casket was cremated on June 16, 2006.
Goorvitch says the FBI only learned about the scam after the doctor, Merlin G. Williams, contacted them and agreed to wear a hidden camera and tape his meetings with Crump and Shilling. At the time, Williams, a general practitioner and radiologist, was cooperating with the FBI because he had gotten into trouble for unlawfully prescribing 16.6 grams of Oxycodone. (Williams pleaded guilty on May 7, 2010, and is no longer allowed to practice medicine in California. The Medical Board of California lists his license status as delinquent.)
According to court papers, Williams met Shilling at an Inglewood restaurant on July 10, 2006. She admitted to the scheme and offered to pay $50,000 per life-insurance policy in exchange for Williams preparing false death certificates and medical records. Williams met Shilling with Crump again on other occasions where they talked about another scam involving durable medical equipment.
Crump and Shilling were arrested on April 8, 2009. In a sentencing letter filed to the court, Shilling, who was working as a nurse phlebotomist, pleaded with a judge not to send her to prison. Since the scam, she said, she helped a career criminal get a job and go straight. “Knowing that affording him that opportunity was the making of a better society,” she wrote, “I only can wish others would allow opportunities to help people and not destroy people. I hope to continue helping people and shining a different light on our community.”
Unmoved, the judge sentenced Shilling on January 12 to a two-year federal prison term and ordered her to pay about $330,500 in restitution. Crump will be sentenced on February 7.
Christine Pelisek is staff reporter for The Daily Beast, covering crime. She previously was a reporter at the LA Weekly, where she covered crime for the last five years. In 2008, she won three Los Angeles Press Club awards, one for her investigative story on the Grim Sleeper.