By Arielle Kass and J. Scott Trubey
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (MCT)
---- — ATLANTA — Eighty-one days after Aubrey Lee Price allegedly jumped from a ferry into the Gulf of Mexico, his wife asked a Florida court to declare him dead.
Price was being sought by the FBI, which issued an arrest warrant after he disappeared.
But authorities, who wanted him in connection with an alleged fraud that led to the failure of a small Georgia bank and cost investors millions, had no evidence that Price was still alive.
He had not used his cellphone or credit cards since he vanished June 16, 2012. And he left behind a series of detailed suicide notes, including one that told his family what to do once his body was found.
So on Dec. 31, 2012, the Florida court agreed with Price’s wife: He was presumed to have drowned at sea.
There was only one problem. Price wasn’t dead.
A year to the day after a judge OK’d his death certificate, the disgraced banker was pulled over in Brunswick in a dented Dodge pickup for having windows that were too dark. His death certificate was vacated a week later, at his wife’s request.
Price, a former Baptist preacher, pleaded not guilty to a federal charge that he misappropriated more than $21 million from Ailey-based Montgomery Bank & Trust after he became a bank director in December 2010. He’s also accused of defrauding about 150 clients in his investment businesses.
Few people are declared dead, only to be found alive. The Social Security Administration does not track numbers, a spokeswoman said, but “this type of situation is rare.” In Georgia, a spokeswoman with Vital Records estimated there have been five instances or fewer since 2007.
Though Price was dead in the eyes of the state, there were many who never thought he killed himself.
His disappearance was “a little too perfectly choreographed,” FBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Doug Leff said in an interview in 2012. The evidence collected at the time gave the FBI “a pretty high indication and a likelihood that the suicide was a ruse and he is out there somewhere,” he said.
So if there was no body, and the FBI believed that Price was alive, how was it that he came to be dead?
Normally in Florida, a person must be missing for five years before he or she is presumed dead. In some cases, though, the timeline can be sped up. If someone “was exposed to a specific peril of death” — such as a plane crash — the court can declare the person dead earlier.
“Six months is really fast,” said Steven Weisbart, senior vice president and chief economist at the Insurance Information Institute. “Most of these take a lot longer.”
There was evidence, though, that suggested Price was dead.
In a letter that was part of Price’s death file in the Hamilton County court — and presumably sent to his wife, Rebekah — he apologized for not telling her he planned to kill himself and said he did not want a funeral. Price wrote he had “no other option” and had been suffering from depression.
He could not figure out “the best way to exit,” he wrote, but said it made sense to spend his last day in one of his favorite places. So, he wrote, he rode the Key West Express in the Gulf of Mexico.
“It is a peaceful and beautiful place and near where I have some very fond memories. This seemed like the most peaceful way to go,” he wrote.
“When you hear that train whistle blow, remember that I love you with all my heart.”
Authorities said Price purchased weights and a dive belt. There was video of him getting on the Key West Express ferry, but no evidence that he got off.
His last location was on the ferry’s path, according to cellphone records. He said in a letter that he would leave his phone on, in a plastic bag, so he could be found via GPS. But an “aggressive” search that cost the Coast Guard $173,000 did not turn up his body.
The court, though, found that a “preponderance” of evidence indicated that Price “took his own life at sea.” The circuit judge who signed the order, Greg S. Parker, said in a letter that “in an abundance of caution” he could not speak about the evidence because his comments might interfere with any future court proceedings.
On the day he disappeared, surveillance video showed Price in the Key West airport and at a ferry terminal there. Photos released at the time by the FBI show Price with luggage. He changed hats between the airport and ferry terminal.
There were other holes. Linda Miller, a spokesperson for Key West Express, said jumping off one of the company’s high-speed, jet-powered catamarans “is not something that’s feasible without being detected.”
Price asked that his ashes be scattered “in the ocean off Anna Maria Island,” near Tampa Bay. He had already spoken with someone at a Florida crematorium about his plan, he wrote. He left her name and phone number in his suicide note.
Karin Tompkins, who owns the Good Earth Crematory in Bradenton, Fla., said she has no recollection of that conversation.
“I’ve never met the man,” she said. “I can’t say that he ever came through my door.”
After her husband was declared dead, Rebekah Price collected survivor’s benefits from the Social Security Administration. Those benefits have since stopped, her lawyer said.
Social Security spokeswoman Patti Patterson said in the case of overpayment — when Social Security pays more benefits than someone should have received or when no benefits were actually due — the recipient is expected to pay that money back.
Patterson said she could not comment on Price’s case, but said a person can request a waiver if the overpayment was not that person’s fault and repaying the money would cause a financial hardship, or be otherwise unfair.
On Jan. 2, two days after Price was found, Rebekah Price again petitioned the court — this time, to acknowledge that her husband was alive.
When she made the original petition, she “had reasonable belief that Aubrey Lee Price was deceased and all evidence supported the fact that Aubrey Lee Price was deceased,” the request said.
A Jan. 6 order undid Price’s death. It noted that Price had been “located and arrested in Glynn County, Georgia.”
©2014 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)
Visit The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.) at www.ajc.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services