A man who left his family in Illinois 14 years ago and lived a secret life in Orange County under an assumed name was released Thursday by a judge after serving time for falsifying a passport.
Speaking publicly for the first time since his arrest, Gary Elliott, 49, told U.S. Judge Magistrate Gary L. Taylor during his sentencing that he knew abandoning his family in 1979 was wrong.
“I believe the real victims in this situation are my family and my friends,” Elliott said. “My poor judgment caused a lot of people a lot of pain. I know I wouldn’t be able to make it up to them in this lifetime.”
Elliott’s story captured the fascination of the country when it was revealed in February that he had faked his own death in a small Illinois town 14 years ago, leaving behind his wife and seven children. Since 1981, Elliott had been living under an assumed name--Clifford Leighton--which had belonged to a Simi Valley toddler who died in 1953.
Elliott lived quietly for several years in Orange County, working as a field manager for an Irvine land development company.
But in late January, his fiancee reported him missing. Police found Elliott unconscious in a ditch near Hemet on Feb. 14. He said he had amnesia and could not remember what had happened to him.
He was indicted in March on a federal charge that he used a false name on a passport application. He has been in federal custody for more than two months.
Taylor sentenced him on Thursday to time already served, along with a two-year probation that will include psychiatric counseling.
“What’s happened before happened a long time ago,” the judge said.
On hearing Taylor’s sentencing, Elliott’s fiancee, Jennifer Bradford, smiled and cried.
Bradford said she has remained with him “because he’s basically just being the same good person, loving and caring. He just made a mistake.”
Still unclear is why Elliott abandoned his family to begin a new life. His disappearance in 1979 sparked a massive manhunt and left his family to assume the worst when detectives found his blood-spattered truck ransacked.
In interviews with Orange County investigators, he merely said he staged his disappearance because he wanted a “new start.”
Elliott’s attorney said Thursday that his client has been in constant touch with his family in Panama, Ill., since his double identity was revealed. One of Elliott’s sons plans to visit him next month, the attorney said.
Meanwhile, Elliott still has a pending misdemeanor charge of using a false name to apply for a driver’s license in state court. He is free on $10,000 bail on that charge and is scheduled to return on May 12 to Municipal Court, where he will enter a guilty plea, his attorney said.