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Man Who Staged Death Admits Passport Fraud : Courts: He left wife and seven children, then took new identity. He remains in federal custody.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Lake Forest man who admitted faking his death more than a decade ago and leaving behind a wife and seven children in Illinois pleaded guilty Friday to a federal charge of falsifying a passport.

Gary Elliott, 49, faces up to six months in federal prison when he is sentenced April 29. U.S. Magistrate Gary L. Taylor refused to let Elliott post bail, saying he poses a flight risk.

“He’s done it before, he’s skilled at doing it and he’s done it in a very deceptive way,” Taylor said of Elliott, who is being held in federal custody in lieu of bail.

Elliott staged his disappearance in 1979, sparking a massive manhunt and leaving his family to assume the worst. Authorities say that in 1981 he took on the identity of Clifford Wraymond Leighton, a child who had died years earlier.

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Assistant U.S. Atty. David Hoffer said Friday there may be new evidence that Elliott first applied for a Social Security card using Leighton’s name around the time of the 1979 disappearance. But Elliott’s defense attorney said that in an unusual coincidence, that application was taken out by another man, who has since been imprisoned.

Elliott lived quietly for several years in Orange County until he was reported missing by his fiancee here in late January. Police later found Elliott unconscious in a ditch on Feb. 14. He said he had amnesia and could not remember what had happened to him.

After an investigation, police discovered the double identity, and Elliott was charged with falsifying a passport, a federal offense. He was also charged with giving false information to police and forging a birth certificate. Defense attorney Fred W. Anderson says Elliott plans to plead guilty to the misdemeanor charges.

Since the case has gained nationwide attention, Elliott has renewed contact with his family and friends, who have offered their support, Anderson said.

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He said Elliott immediately regretted staging his disappearance, but got caught up in the scheme and did not know how to end it.

“Immediately upon departing he was ashamed of what he did . . . but he didn’t know how to turn back,” Anderson said. “He underestimated the love he has from his family.”


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