The fall and rise of Milton Windsor Harris

Last updated 05:00 19/01/2014

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An American who faked his own death in New Zealand so he could collect an insurance payout is about to finally finish his jail term - but the money is still missing.

Milton Windsor Harris of Louisiana supposedly made his fatal fall from interisland ferry Arahura in 1985 but four years later he was caught by police in Auckland - with a false name, a wife and a son who will be around 26 now.

And there are enormous gaps in his story that the United States Marshal Service hasn't been able to fill.

Prudential Insurance had paid his "widow" Sheila US$500,000 but Lloyd's, smelling a rat, refused to pay another US$1.8 million. Sheila sued in the US District Court in Baton Rouge and lost, and in the process won entertaining publicity in New Zealand.

This month in the US, a former South Georgia banker, Aubrey Lee Price, has been found alive after reputedly taking a suicide jump off a Florida ferry. Allegedly he did it as part of his embezzling US$21 million from his bank.

Harris was a small-timer by comparison.

The saga of his "death" began in Australia where he took a motorbike on to a car ferry to Kangaroo Island. He fell off and disappeared into the waters. Someone dived in to save him, only to find him sitting on the seabed wearing an aqualung.

He flew to New Zealand and offered fisherman Nicholas Dibble $10,000 aboard the Arahura to report that he had seen Harris fall overboard. It had to be a "fall"; insurance would not pay on suicide.

Harris went to Auckland and, calling himself Bill Travis, met Englishwoman Ann Carter via a lonely hearts advertisement.

He never worked, but had a stash of money under the house.

Police found later he regularly called Sheila in Baton Rouge.

In 1989 he was caught shoplifting. He tried to fake an escape, telling police he had eaten a lightbulb. They took him to hospital, where he escaped - only to be caught later.

His true identity was discovered and Ann Carter later faced the media to say she had no idea of what had happened.

Harris was extradited back to Louisiana and jailed for five years after he pleaded guilty to mail fraud and obstruction of justice. He was ordered to refund his payout to Prudential.

At the time, US Attorney Raymond Lamonica said Harris had only received US$6000.

Two years into his sentence he was freed on probation. He divorced Sheila and told Ann Carter he wanted to come back to New Zealand.

She told the Sunday Times he should be able to: "He didn't harm anybody, he didn't rape and kill anybody."

Sheila alerted authorities in 1995 that Harris had disappeared; so had Ann Carter.

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He was found again in 2011 in Northern Ireland with no explanation.

According to documents from the US Attorney's Office in Louisiana, Harris was jailed for another three years but is due for release shortly.

Chief Judge Brian Jackson ruled that "having accessed the defendant's ability to pay", he ordered him to pay Prudential $516,596.56 immediately.

Prudential would not discuss the case, but a law source in Baton Rouge says the money has never been paid.

In reality there is no money, Sheila allegedly spent it on jewellery, a jacuzzi and travel.

New Zealand Police Inspector Gerry Hugglestone, who caught him here in 1992, described Harris as a likeable guy with an overwhelming desire to make money without working for it.

"He honestly believed that if you repeated something often enough, it became the truth."

- Sunday Star Times

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