I met Justin and his girlfriend, Debra1
, at a sports bar on the outskirts of Portland on a chilly spring evening. The Grille is their regular Thursday night haunt, where Justin sings karaoke and Debra looks on wistfully, sipping Fireball on the rocks. I took a cab through divided highways dotted with RV dealerships, no-tell motels, car washes, and 7-Elevens. I arrived at the bar ludicrously early, and instead of going inside and minding my own business over a pint of one of the million cleverly named microbrews on tap, I sat outside on a bench, smoking cigarettes and trying to look mean. I wasn’t sure how they treated unescorted ladies at the Grille, and I wasn’t in any mood to find out.
What brought me to Portland was the opportunity to interview Justin about the time he faked his death and got caught, and his most recent plan to disappear again. I first encountered Justin and his pseudocide-gone-awry when I happened upon his mugshot in a tawdry slideshow of Ten People Who Faked Their Deaths. The photo of Justin Sharp staring back at me revealed a brawny mid-30s former athlete and serviceman, with thick eyebrows and close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair. His nose bears the indentations of more than a few fistfights. He’s kind of smirking at the camera. He looks as if he can’t believe he’s had to suffer the indignity of having his picture taken, kind of like a cool kid at prom enduring the cheesy photographer and under-the-sea backdrop to indulge his date, and hopefully get laid afterward.
I stuffed my form letter into an envelope and tried to forget. Like coins tossed into a mall fountain, so often my wishes to the universe go unanswered, especially when reaching out to people to be interviewed for a book. I’d guesstimate that 96% of the time people don’t want to talk to me, so I’ve learned to steel myself against disappointment via willful amnesia.
But about a week later an unfamiliar number popped up on my cell phone. It was Justin, and he’d be glad to talk.
By the time I got off the phone three hours later, one thing was certain: I had finally found my faking death hero! There was more to the story than the newspapers reported, he told me. Sure, he’d been a banker and got charged with the thousands of counts of identity fraud when he forwarded his client list to his personal email and filed a fake death certificate and obituary while he hid out in his girlfriend’s apartment for a few short weeks before the feds busted him. But what people didn’t know was that his ex-wife had framed him for arson to his own house with him in it. She was the real mastermind behind what at best would have killed him while preventing him from taking the house in the divorce and at worst would have sent him to prison for up to three decades. The story he told me had every titillating element you could imagine: bid rigging, an evil ex-wife, a teenage home-wrecker, a murder attempt, an Orlando strip club mogul, money laundering, planted crack cocaine, a good Samaritan stripper named Trina, an assisted suicide doctor, an underground black market website, a chance encounter with an old friend in a parking lot — but, most of all, it had an epic hero: a man who was fighting the system and society by rejecting them both entirely. As far as what happened with the arson charge, he didn’t tell me in our initial conversation. And, overwhelmed with the flood of unfortunate circumstances he laid out, I didn’t ask.
Here was a guy who faked his death for a legitimate reason! He wasn’t motivated financially or by a crime — he was after his freedom!
Unfortunately, the most ginger touch of pushback into Justin’s story revealed that instead of the noble hero I hoped to find, I had instead stumbled upon a big bag of bullshit. So much for a death-faking hero. But my protracted conversations with Justin revealed a great deal of disenchantment with his post-prison life.
His probation officer was constantly breathing down his neck. “When will this ever end?” he wondered aloud on the phone. He was done — again.
He told me he had a plan I might be interested in. He was going to disappear, but this time he was going to do it right. He would take all of the knowledge he had accumulated from faking his death the first time, but this round would be flawless. The first attempt had been too hasty, too poorly planned. He’d found that pseudocide contained too many variables, and figured he’d be better off simply evaporating this time. Now he had gang connections from prison to help him set everything up. Life under the draconian rule of the state’s surveillance was too much. The only way to get his life back would be to disappear right this time.
This I had to see.
÷ ÷ ÷
So I hopped a plane to Portland and learned quite a bit in my week in the Pacific Northwest. Justin is a six-foot-tall former jock, whose oxen strength is evident in his determination to live, despite the universe’s habit of conspiring otherwise. When he was a junior in high school, he was hit in the head with a baseball bat, which set off a chain reaction of seizures, from which he still suffers today. He survived a car accident in his 20s, which resulted in a broken sternum, collar bone, and leg; a busted knee cap; two shattered front ribs; and three shattered back ribs. Recently, he was the victim of a brutal prison attack. He was sitting at the computer, when an inmate marched up behind him, bashed him over the head with a five-pound hand weight, fracturing his skull, and then stabbed him in the stomach with a four-inch piece of sharpened steel crutch. Justin faked his own death, but even then, he was resurrected.
His vital resilience isn’t exactly because he is a health nut either. Rather than eating meals, he instead consumes a jumbo box of Hot Tamales or Good & Plenty and an energy drink around 6 p.m., which will sustain him throughout the evening and into the next day. His lower lip bulges with a pinch of Skoal. To him, the happiest place on earth is the University of Oregon football stadium.
When he finds something unsatisfactory, he will deem it “retarded.” For instance, the fact that the porta potty at the Saturday Market is called The Honey Bucket is retarded. His probation officer is retarded. He collects novelty T-shirts with foul phrases emblazoned across the chest, like “Fuck You, You Fucking Fuck,” but knows better than to wear them in public. He often ends sentences with a sidelong glare and “knowwhatimean?,” especially when providing a rationale for his criminal mischief. He loves music, especially country, and thinks Carrie Underwood is the most beautiful woman in the world. He could’ve been a lawyer, or a politician, but he had a special gift for sales. He knows how corrupt our political and judicial system is. He often quotes Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, and wishes there was a “hate” button to push on Facebook, to balance out the “like” option. And he believes in an Old Testament brand of justice, “an eye for an eye,” a corrections officer who was ward to Justin explained. “You do him wrong, he’ll do you back worse. If you piss him off, that dark side, it’s going to come back and get you.”
He told me he had a plan I might be interested in. He was going to disappear, but this time he was going to do it right.
Justin and Debra showed up eventually, pre-gamed and toasty. He was far friendlier than his menacing mug shots. (Although, unprovoked, he had texted me a few selfies in the preceding days. “My mug shot never does me any justice!” he wrote.) He gave me a hug and asked, with good-time-Charlie gusto, “You ready to sing?!”
Debra had a blonde wedge haircut and a warm smile, though she regarded me with an understandable wariness, as I was going to be spending most of the weekend with her boyfriend while she would be out of town visiting her daughter at college. It felt like a serious violation of girl code knowing that her man was planning on disappearing, and knowing I wasn’t going to tell her.
Inside the fluorescent lit and wood paneled bar, the patrons were mostly men listlessly playing Keno, or watching one of the half dozen games being projected onto big-screen TVs. We took a seat front-and-center before the karaoke DJ, and within moments, Justin had grabbed the mic and was belting out, appropriately, “Put Yourself in My Shoes” by Clint Black. He sat on the stool at a jaunty angle and spit Skoal into a cup between verses.
He repeated this performance several times throughout the night, singing schmaltzy country songs and torch ballads. He crooned like a steroid-injected Michael Bublé. After devoting the requisite amount of piety to Justin’s performance, I took the opportunity to get to know Debra better.
“So what’s it been like, dating Justin?”
“No one has ever treated me so well,” she told me. She herself was divorced with two kids. What impressed her most about Justin was his honesty. He had told her the whole story of faking his death and his violent attack in prison. “We all have baggage,” she said. “Justin just has special baggage.”
The three of us shared nachos and had another few rounds. Justin sang some more, and we applauded. After his last tune, he wandered outside. Then, as Debra and I were talking about her kids, he came over, quietly, and leaned in to say it was time to go. I was confused. It seemed like something had happened. Suddenly they were gone, and I waited outside on the bench again for a cab…
Names have been changed
÷ ÷ ÷
grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts. Playing Dead
is her first book.