Story last updated at 2:41 p.m. Thursday, October 3, 2002

Oregon man indicted for insurance fraud in 1997 death of wife

New life breathed into old case

by Chris Bernard
Staff Writer

A federal grand jury in Anchorage has levied five charges of mail and wire fraud against an Oregon man for an insurance scheme to collect benefits in the five-year-old Homer death of his wife, Wanda Wood.

A Sept. 18 indictment charges that Jay Robert Darling plotted to obtain large amounts of life insurance on himself and Wood and then fraudulently collect the benefits. The charges center on Wood's death and a kayaking accident in which the couple was involved one day earlier.

Prior to Wood's death, Darling told a "girlfriend" that he "planned to obtain life insurance policies, then fake his own death in a kayaking accident so his wife could collect the benefit payments," the indictment said. Darling also told a friend that he married Wood in order to carry out his plan.

He was arraigned in a federal district court in Anchorage last week. The indictment was issued just a month before the federal statute of limitations would have run out.

On Aug. 24, 1997, Wood, 23, toppled to her death from a 1,000-foot bluff overlooking Kachemak Bay.

Darling, 34 at the time, told investigators from the Alaska State Troopers that she fell while taking pictures. He would later tell an insurance company that she fell while he photographed her picking flowers.

The couple had recently moved to Anchorage from Mississippi, where they had been married four months earlier.

The details of the indictment read like the script of a made-for-TV-movie, with Darling taking out more than $1 million in life insurance on himself and his wife as late as nine days prior to her death.

Less than a week after the wedding, Darling applied for a $3 million life insurance policy on himself and a $500,000 policy on Wood, lying about his income to qualify, according to the indictment. State Farm Insurance denied his application, but approved a $500,000 policy for him and one for Wood.

Three months later, he applied for additional $500,000 policies from Lincoln Benefit Life, again lying about the couple's income, the indictment said.

Wood also removed her father as the beneficiary on an existing policy and replaced him with Darling.

In all, Wood was insured for more than $1 million, with double benefits in case of accidental death.

The day after her death, Darling changed his address with Lincoln Benefit so the company could mail him the latest policies. He did not tell the company that Wood was dead. In fact, he did not report her death for another week.

The day before Wood's death, she and Darling were rescued by a Homer-based fishing boat after their kayak overturned near Jakolof Bay. Darling wore a wetsuit; Wood was wearing only a cotton sweatsuit. According to the indictment, Darling planned to fake his death in the kayak accident so his wife could collect the insurance money.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah Smith said the indictment does not take a stance on what role, if any, Wood played in any insurance scam.

Former Alaska State Trooper Lary Kuhns, who investigated the case at the time (See related story, this page.), has an idea about Wood's participation, but he admits it is speculation.

"I think she might have been involved, but couldn't go through with it," he said. "Love is blind. He was the kind of guy who could convince her to maybe go along with it, but at some point I believe she probably changed her mind."

Wire and mail fraud both carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines.

Chris Bernard can be reached at cbernard@homernews.com.

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