Robert Berger is destined to spend the next few years in prison pondering one of life's truisms: If you try to fake your death, remember to run a spell-check program on the bogus death certificate.
Berger, 25, of Huntington, N.Y., was facing sentencing on two felony charges, possessing a stolen car and attempting to steal a pickup truck. He had pleaded guilty to both charges and was scheduled for sentencing. That is when his lawyer at the time notified court officials that Berger had died by suicide.
The lawyer, Meir Moza, who said Berger's fiancée had sent him the death certificate, forwarded it to the district attorney's office, which is when, prosecutors say, the man's scheme began to unravel.
The death certificate supposedly came from the New Jersey Department of Health, Vital Statistics and Registry — except the office was listed as "Regsitry."
At first glance, the certificate looked authentic, said Madeline Singas, the Nassau County district attorney. The state registrar's signature of verification appeared normal. A blue border on official forms that mentions "multiple security features to deter fraud" was intact. And the unique bar code and filing number across the top were even there.
But then someone noticed the typographical error.
Moza said he was fooled by the counterfeit certificate.
"Our heart went out to the family upon learning of the deceased," he said. "It was a tragedy. And then to learn it was a hoax, we were shocked."
Singas said that while she had seen other people try to fake their deaths, the circumstances of this scam were new to her.
"We've seen it where people fake their deaths so that they can receive life insurance benefits," she said. People also have done it as a way to end an affair, escape debt and avoid arrest.
But to stay out of jail after pleading guilty? Even Moza was surprised.
As part of his plea bargain, Berger had been set to spend one year in prison, Moza said, which seemed like a "really good deal." Now the judge can ignore that deal and sentence him to four to six years — plus any additional time he might get after being prosecuted for his death scam.