Con man’s faked death buries daugh­ters in debt

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY VA­LERIE RICHARD­SON

In 1968, a 39-year-old fu­neral direc­tor named Richard Gren­sted dis­ap­peared while on a hunt­ing trip, leav­ing be­hind a wife and two young daugh­ters. A decade later, he was de­clared legally dead, and So­cial Se­cu­rity paid his fam­ily about $100,000 in sur­vivors’ ben­e­fits.

So imag­ine their shock when they dis­cov­ered in 2016 that he had been alive all that time — and not only that, the So­cial Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion wanted its money back.

Now the daugh­ters, both in their 60s, worry that they may lose their fam­ily home to pay for the fraud per­pe­trated by their fa­ther, who ad­mit­ted to fed­eral au­thor­i­ties that he ran off to Ari­zona with his mis­tress af­ter fak­ing his own death. He died in De­cem­ber 2015.

“It was his crime, not ours,” said Lynne Gren­sted Thurston, 61, a gar­dener who lives in McMin­nville, Ore­gon. “We were the vic­tims of his crime.”

The case of the van­ish­ing mor­ti­cian might make for a great crime novel, but there is noth­ing thrilling about it for Mrs. Thurston, who was 11 when her dad dis­ap­peared, or her sis­ter, Beth Gren­sted, who was 13.

The daugh­ters have asked the So­cial Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion to waive the debt. They were re­lieved when Ad­min­is­tra­tive Law Judge T. Patrick Han­non ruled that her mother, Bar­bara Gren­sted, could re­pay the $87,000 she owed in in­cre­ments of $10 per month un­til her death, at which point the bal­ance would be erased.

When Mrs. Gren­sted died two months later at the age of 89, how­ever, the judge re­versed his rul­ing. In an Oct. 24 de­ci­sion, he or­dered the bal­ance to be paid by her es­tate, which is tied up in a trust but in­cludes the house she had long shared with her daugh­ter Beth, 63, in Mount Her­mon, Cal­i­for­nia.

Glen Olives, the Santa Cruz lawyer who rep­re­sents Mrs. Gren­sted and her es­tate, said he has ap­pealed the “un­con­scionable” de­ci­sion.

“This was an egre­gious over­reach by the So­cial Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion,” Mr. Olives said. “This ad­min­is­tra­tive law judge ba­si­cally said this lady was with­out fault but she has to pay it back any­way.”

Un­less they sell the house — and Beth Gren­sted, who never mar­ried, still lives there — the sis­ters don’t know how they will come up with that kind of cash. In ad­di­tion to the $87,000, Mrs. Thurston owes about $12,000 and Miss Gren­sted owes $10,000, but they have heard noth­ing about their 2016 ap­pli­ca­tion for a waiver.

“We don’t have the money. I sup­pose some peo­ple out there could re­pay it, but we’re def­i­nitely not in that cat­e­gory,” said Mrs. Thurston. “We’d like to have them for­give the debt and take it away. I know that’s a lot of money for them to for­give, but they’re billing the wrong peo­ple. We weren’t even aware that he was alive, much less re­spon­si­ble for his crime.”

The bill is hang­ing over their heads as the sis­ters grap­ple with the death of their mother, whom they buried in Septem­ber, and with the shock of dis­cov­er­ing that the beloved fa­ther they had long mourned was in fact a con man who lived un­der an alias for 47 years af­ter his dis­ap­pear­ance.

The mas­sive search for Mr. Gren­sted in­volved dogs and he­li­copters as well as the FBI and the Na­tional Guard. Af­ter au­thor­i­ties gave up, his wife hired a trac­ing com­pany to look for him.

For years, the girls would rush to an­swer the door to see if their fa­ther had come home. Mrs. Gren­sted never re­mar­ried, think­ing her hus­band might one day re­turn.

“She never wanted to re­marry in case he was found,” Mrs. Thurston said. “We thought he might have had am­ne­sia. We just had no idea.”

Her mother sold the mor­tu­ary busi­ness in Grover Beach, Cal­i­for­nia, and they moved to the Santa Cruz moun­tains to be near fam­ily. Mrs. Gren­sted went back to work as a book­keeper and bought the house in Mount Her­mon.

“She bought an old cabin and fixed it up,” Mrs. Thurston said. “It’s a very com­fort­able home. Not fancy, but just per­fect for our fam­ily.”

Mean­while, Mr. Gren­sted stole the iden­tity of Richard Mor­ley, a dead man whose fu­neral he had over­seen. He re­ceived a new So­cial Se­cu­rity num­ber in 1969 un­der the as­sumed name af­ter re­port­ing that he had lost his card.

The mar­ried woman with whom he had been hav­ing an af­fair joined him af­ter fil­ing for a divorce. Not only did the daugh­ters know her — she was a neigh­bor — but she also par­tic­i­pated in the search for their fa­ther.

“She was there sup­pos­edly sup­port­ing my mom and try­ing to find my dad, but it was all planned,” Mrs. Thurston said. “And three weeks later she left her hus­band, leav­ing him a let­ter say­ing, ‘I want a divorce.’”

Mrs. Gren­sted and her daugh­ters might have never learned the truth if not for the widow of Mr. Mor­ley, who con­tacted the SSA a few years ago about her ben­e­fits. A fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tor was as­signed to the case when au­thor­i­ties re­al­ized that the dead Mr. Mor­ley was still earn­ing in­come and pay­ing taxes.

“When they checked, it turned out, ‘Wow, we is­sued [Richard Mor­ley] a new num­ber in 1969 with­out check­ing to see if he was dead.’ So that was how he got caught,” said Mrs. Thurston, who pro­duced a stack of doc­u­ments re­lated to the case.

A fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tor con­fronted Mr. Gren­sted, now Mr. Mor­ley, who con­fessed to the fraud in May 2015. He died — for real this time — seven months later at age 87, with­out ever con­tact­ing his wife or daugh­ters.

Six months later, in June 2016, the in­ves­ti­ga­tor reached the fam­ily and told them the story. They were floored, par­tic­u­larly Mrs. Gren­sted, who had no idea that her mar­riage of 15 years was in such trou­ble.

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