Hunt for banker who faked death to escape justice

Police believe disgraced investment manager bailed out of plane to convince the world he was dead
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The Independent US

It reads like the opening pages of a John Grisham thriller: a troubled businessman, under investigation for fraud and recently separated from his wife, tries to fake his own death in a plane crash, but really parachutes from the aircraft and rides off on a motorbike into the sunset.

Marcus Schrenker, a wealthy investment manager whose businesses had run into trouble, is being sought by police after apparently issuing a fake mayday call and leaping to freedom from a light aircraft over Alabama on Sunday.

He had hidden a red motorcycle inside a nearby storage unit a day earlier. The bike is gone. "He could be anywhere at all. Within 10 hours he could be in New Orleans, halfway to Houston," said police. "He jumped out of an airplane and left it to crash who knows where. He's shown a total disregard for human life. I think he'd do anything to get away."

News of Mr Schrenker's fate emerged when he called air-traffic controllers to say the windshield of his single-engined Piper Malibu had shattered during extreme turbulence and he was "bleeding profusely". After the radio went dead, military jets were scrambled to intercept the plane. When they arrived, they noticed the cockpit door was ajar and could see no bloodstains. The aircraft appeared to be on auto-pilot. It later crashed into a swamp in northern Florida.

On Monday, police in Childersberg, Alabama, were approached by a man wet from the knees down "with goggles that looked like they were made for flying". He said he had been in a canoeing accident. The man, who showed Mr Schrenker's Indiana driving licence, was driven to a local hotel, where he checked in under an assumed name. By the time police had learnt of the crash and returned to interview him, he had disappeared.

Yesterday, it emerged that Mr Schrenker, 38, had emailed a neighbour, Tom Britt, on Monday saying that the situation was a "misunderstanding" and adding that "by the time you get this, I'll be gone".

Mr Schrenker had a motive to disappear. A wealthy inhabitant of a $4m lakeside home in an Indianapolis area called Cocktail Cove, he had expensive tastes and a fondness for extreme sports. He was a keen amateur stunt flyer who was fond of posting videos of himself performing feats of derring-do on-line. On one YouTube video, shot from a camera inside his cockpit, Mr Schrenker runs through a list of the complex manoeuvres that he and his team can execute. "You name it, we do it," he says.

But recently, his life had turned sour. His wife, Michelle, filed for divorce shortly after Christmas, and on 31 December authorities raided his home and the offices of his three investment companies. The firms, Heritage Wealth Management, Heritage Insurance Services and Icon Wealth Management, had just lost a $500,000 court case involving commission for selling insurance and annuity plans. Police are investigating possible securities violations, amid reports that Mr Schrenker's firms may be the centre of a similar scandal to that which engulfed the disgraced investor Bernard Madoff.

Mr Schrenker faces many possible charges if it turns out that he abandoned the plane in mid-air. Investigators say the marsh where it crashed, 200 miles from where the mayday call was issued, was surrounded by dozens of homes. "You just can't let an unmanned aircraft just maliciously fly into a residential area without facing any consequences," said Scott Haines, a spokesman for the local sheriff's office.

Mr Schrenker's email to Mr Britt, a neighbour and friend, was apparently sent on Monday, shortly after he had read reports of his disappearance on the internet. "I embarrassed my family for the last time," it read.

It maintains that the aircraft crashed by accident when the pilot's side window imploded, showering him with glass and reducing cabin pressure. It then continues: "Hypoxia can cause people to make terrible decisions and I simply put on my parachute and survival gear and bailed out."