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Saturday, February 24, 2024
Courthouse News Service
Saturday, February 24, 2024 | Back issues
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Conviction Upheld for Faking Death at Sea

(CN) - A man who faked his own death at sea to dodge a hearing over his likely probation violation was properly convicted of conspiracy, the 4th Circuit ruled.

In exchange for pleading to a felony theft charge in 2008, a Maryland court issued Larry Deffenbaugh a suspended 15-year prison sentence, conditioned on five years of probation. Several months in, the Maryland probation office reported that Deffenbaugh had failed to demonstrate that he sold, transferred or relinquished possession of his registered handgun.

On May 10, 2009, two days before a hearing that could end with the reinstatement of his 15-year sentence, Deffenbaugh took a boat out of Virginia and into the Chesapeake Bay with his blind and diabetic brother.

When Deffenbaugh disappeared, his brother called the police, who summoned the U.S. Coast Guard, which in turn spent more than $220,000 in a 15-hour search.

Police and U.S. marshals apprehended Deffenbaugh nine months later in Texas, where he was going by the alias Mike Meyers and living with a girlfriend, Julie Giannetta, who later admitted to having helped Deffenbaugh flee.

Federal prosecutors in Virginia indicted Deffenbaugh with communication of a false distress message, but that case ended in a mistrial. After Giannetta agreed to testify in exchange for immunity, they added conspiracy to the mix and a jury convicted Deffenbaugh on both counts.

On Thursday, the Richmond-based 4th Circuit affirmed the conspiracy conviction.

"There can be no question that in this case Deffenbaugh and Giannetta knowingly and willfully conspired to cause a false distress call to be made," Judge Paul Niemeyer wrote for a three-judge panel.

"The question that Deffenbaugh raises is whether the perpetrator must also have knowledge and intent that the recipient of the false distress call be the U.S. Coast Guard," the 15-page opinion states.

Citing the Supreme Court's 1984 decision in United States v. Yermian, Niemeyer noted that "the federal nature of a crime need not be in the mind of the perpetrator."

The panel also upheld the 84-month sentence, which took into consideration but did not adopt the fraud guideline recommended by the government.

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