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  • That Was Genius Team

Episode 29 - Attention Passengers This Is Your Toilet Speaking (Plane Crash Week)

Updated: Apr 18, 2020

Sam's Episode Notes: Marcus Schrenker, the Indiana businessman and stunt pilot who faked his own death in a spectacularly stupid attempt to escape the law

I think it's fair to say that for most people, a plane crash is bad news, and is probably – if you survive – the start of your troubles. For the man I'm going to talk about today, though, the plan was to use a plane crash to escape from trouble.

Because I'm going to talk about someone who faked his own death by deliberately crashing his plane.

Now, I'm going to push the limits of what we're defining as historical here, because this all happened in 2009. But hey, 10 years is enough time to be considered historical, right?

So. This guy. His name is Marcus Schrenker. And he had it all. In 2009 he was 39 years old, living in a multi-million dollar seafront house in Indiana with his wife and three kids, and ran three investment and insurance companies, which fed his lifestyle of fast cars and flying planes. He was a very good pilot, and owned two planes including a specialist aerobatics plane which he used to do tricks.

Unfortunately, he was also suffering Bipolar disorder, which started to manifest itself in some very odd and sometimes very criminal ways.

What he would do is take his clients money to invest it, and then move it from one investment fund to another, sometimes by forging their signatures, usually just not telling them he was doing it, and charging thousands of dollars every time in what's called surrender fees.

And by December 2008 / January 2009, the net was closing in on his dream life. He was being investigated by the FBI for his business dealings, and had eight lawsuits against him for financial misconduct, as well as slander and failing to pay staff. His banking licence expired and was then revoked by the Indiana state Government, he was ordered to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars over a case relating to mischarging insurance commissions, and his wife filed for divorce after discovering he was having an affair with a woman at the airport where he kept his plane.

So all in all a pretty bad month in the life of a pretty bad guy. And so what did he do, Tom? He ran from his responsibilities like all good white collar criminals.

On January 10th, 2009, he loaded a pickup truck with cash, supplies and a motorbike, drove to Alabama, and parked it up in a garage there.

The next day, he took his plane, a little single-engined Piper, and took off from Anderson, Indiana, with a flight plan logged for the town of Destin in north Florida – a few miles from the border with Alabama.

Now this is where it gets a bit James Bond, Tom. As he flew over Alabama, he sent out a distress call, saying his windshield had exploded and showered him with glass, and he was bleeding badly and not able to control the plane. At this point, he popped open the door, popped on a parachute, and jumped out, leaving the plane on autopilot.

Now, the plane was still being tracked on radar, but there was no one answering the air traffic control calls, and so two military jets were launched to investigate and if necessary intervene. They arrived and pretty quickly noticed that the plane was empty, with the door open, quite happily flying itself the next 200 miles to Florida, where it eventually crashed in a swamp just 50 metres from a cluster of houses. Investigators leapt on the plane within minutes, and found nothing wrong at all to suggest anyone had been injured, and a series of suspicious evidence including a guide to American campsites with Florida and Alabama torn out.

Meanwhile, Schrenker had landed in the middle of Alabama, and started trying to find his way to safety. At around 2.30 in the morning he found a house and managed to wake up the owners and hitch a lift into the nearest town, Childersburg, claiming he'd been in a canoeing accident despite only being wet from the waist down and still wearing flying goggles.

In the town, he went to the police station to try and find somewhere to stay, and they drove him to another town with a hotel. In an act of monumental stupidity he actually gave the police his driving licence as they questioned him about the accident – believing they wouldn't yet be aware of the plane crash – which they weren't.

He checked into the hotel using a false name this time – a quick learner, and after a few hours rest ran off into the woods before the police realised what had happened and came looking for him, which they did the next morning.

At this point, he went and got his motorbike full of cash, and headed to Florida. Because like all good, stupid, slightly unhinged criminals, you always return to the scene of the crime.

Once he got over the Alabama border and into the town of Quincy he booked himself into a campsite under a false name.

By this time, a huge manhunt had been launched to track him down, with hundreds of officers on his trail in Florida and Alabama. What he should have done is run somewhere else. Instead, like an utter tool, he logged onto the campsite Wifi to do his emails.

One of the emails he sent was to a friend, Tom Britt, who he told that the crash was a misunderstanding and that he'd checked into a hotel out of embarrassment. He said he would likely be gone by the time Britt read the email, whether that meant suicide or fleeing wasn't quite clear. Either way, Britt took the email straight to the FBI.

By this time it was January 12th, and by the evening on January 13th, knowing he had a guide to campgrounds and with some information from the email, the FBI tracked him down. It hadn't helped that he'd been acting suspiciously around the campsite owners, who pretty quickly put two and two together when local police called round. When police found him, he had in fact tried to cut his wrists and was barely concious, but they managed to save him and he was arrested after three days on the run and a major manhunt throughout the southern US.

The next day, he was charged with 11 counts of unlicensed banking by the State of Indiana, which he pled guilty to in 2010. Meanwhile in June 2009, he was charged with destroying an airplane without permission, faking a distress call and wasting coastguard time. He was given seperate sentences of 51 months and 10 years in prison, fined 905 and 633 thousand dollars, and agreed or was forced to pay tens of millions of dollars in compensation to various people with claims against him – everyone from pissed off investors to the plane's insurers.

He was eventually released in 2015, having served just over five years in prison. And now lives in Florida, where he's become a pastor. Presumably not because if you really want to con people out of money, banking's for amateurs and religion is where it's at.

Tom's notes:

Plane Crashes

Buddy Holly; 1959

· Also Ritchie Valens and JP Richardson; the Big Bopper!

· The day the music died; American Pie

Pan Am Flight 121

· 1947

· 15 died

· Third officer Gene Roddenberry survived; famous for?

o He created the original Star Trek television series

· The flight boldly went where no plane has gone before and crashed in the Syrian desert

· 21 lived long and prospered

· It’s life Jim but not as we know it; Star Trekkin 1987 song by The Firm

1948 Miss Macao

· 23 passengers and 3 staff

· Hijacked mid-air and after a fight in the cockpit the plane crashes

· Earliest known example of plane jacking

Bertrand Russell; the British philosopher survived a plane crash in Norway; 19 are killed

1951 National Airlines Flight 83

· Crashes on landing at Philadelphia airport

· Frankie Housley, the lone flight attendant, saves 10 people but is later found dead in the burnt wreckage of the plane having gone back into the plane to save an infant.

· 5 women and 2 infants didn’t survive. Frankie had one of the infants in her arms.

· Standing ovation for Frankie Housley

1958 Munich Air Disaster

· 8 of the Manchester United football team died

o Bobby Charlton survived

o Matt Busby too; the manager

1971 LANSA Flight 508

· 17 year old sole survivor was Juliane Koepcke who trecked through the Amazonia rainforest for 11 days before encountering loggers

· Survived 3000m fall and woke up still in her chair

1972 JAT Flight 367

· Jesna Vulovic survives a fall of over 10,000 meters; a world record!

o Every cloud has a silver lining, as Jesna would know having fallen through many of them

1972 Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571

· Cannabalism in the Andes

Roald Dahl

· Born 1916 in Cardiff

· Sold more than 250 million copies of his books

· Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, Witches, James and the Giant Peach

· Before WWII Dahl was working in Tanzania for Shell Petroleum

· At the outbreak of the war, Dahl was made a lieutenant in the Kings African Rifles

· He fancied himself in the RAF and so travelled by car for 600 miles to Nairobi where he was accepted into the RAF and began flight training.

o This took place in Nairobi and Baghdad

· In August 1940 he was ready to go!

· He was assigned to No. 80 Squadron RAF flying Gloucester Gladiators; the last biplane used by the RAF

· In September 1940 he was ordered to fly a Gladiator, in stages, from two towns in Egypt

o On the final leg he encounters problems finding the air strip and decides to crash land when his fuel starts to run low

o The aircraft crashes on landing and he manages to climb out of the plane with a broken nose, fractured skull and no vision. He passes out once he reaches a safe distance

o He is rescued and taken to hospital

· In February 1941 he is back in action in flying Hawker Hurricanes from a base near Athens in Greece

o He was actually an ace (5 or more enemy planes)

· In April the same year he involved in a 30 minute long dogfight against Luftwaffe as part of the Battle of Greece (Italians and Germans trying to take Greece) alongside the highest scoring Commonwealth fighter of WWII

o The wonderfully named Marmaduke Thomas St John Pattle

o South African

o He shot down as many as 60 enemy planes, probably somewhere between 40 and 60, including 5 in a day (Ace in a day)

o Actually died in this battle

· Shortly after this, Dahl began suffering with severe headaches and blackouts so he was invalided home

· Dahl becomes a diplomat working the US. Part of his role was to schmoozy up to the Americans and encourage them to get involved in the war

o He actually became acquainted with C.S.Forester in this capacity (famous British author; probably most famous for his Hornblower novels)

§ Forester was working for the British Ministry of Information spreading pro-war propaganda particularly in the US.

o The Saturday Evening Post asked Forester to write a short story based on Dahl’s flight experience and this was made

§ Forester was so impressed with Dahl’s notes on his flying experience that he submitted it unchanged under the title ‘Shot Down Over Libya’.

§ This became Dahl’s first ever published work in 1942.

§ His first children’s book; The Gremlins, was published in 1943 and is about mischievous little creatures that are part of RAF folklore

· Apparently almost made into a Disney film

§ His 1986 book Going Solo is about his time in the RAF

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