By Kyle Swenson / The Washington Post
In 1993, Richard Hoagland seemed to be living the good life. He had a young wife and two sons, Matthew and Douglas. Business was good enough at his insurance company to pay for a five-bedroom house outside Indianapolis, a speedboat tied up at a nearby lake and a closet stuffed with designer suits.
Then he went AWOL.
On Fed. 10, Hoagland told his wife he was going to the hospital. When she called the emergency room, her husband wasn’t there. He wasn’t anywhere. His passport and toothbrush were still at home.
“He didn’t pack any clothes. It was cold, it was in February, he did not take a coat,” Linda Iseler, Hoagland’s wife, told ABC’s Nightline in 2016. “How do you walk away from your own children? How do you turn your back?”
Hoagland’s car was found at the Indianapolis airport. “There was no Richard Hoagland that took any flights out of Indianapolis that day,” Iseler told ABC. “Or after that.”
During the summer after his disappearance, Hoagland mailed birthday cards to his sons.
After that, it was radio silence. “He left us with nothing,” she said. “I was broken.”
For more than two decades, Hoagland’s family lived without knowing the circumstances behind his disappearance. His wife remarried. The state declared him legally dead in 2003.
Then in 2016 a phone call from police in Florida alerted the family Hoagland was alive and living under a dead man’s name. An Ancestry.com search had been the first step in uncovering a skein of lies that would eventually land Hoagland in prison.
Hoagland has not publicly commented on his case.
As police would later piece together, after fleeing in 1993 Hoagland made his way down to Florida, where he eventually rented an efficiency apartment from an older man named Edward Symansky.
Symansky was grieving. Just two years earlier, in 1991, his son Terry, an Ohio-born fisherman, had been killed in an accident at sea. The elder Symansky’s new tenant would often stay up listening to the heartsick father talk about his son.
“My dad was grieving and pouring his heart out,” Terry’s sister, Cynthia Bujnak, told People.
While living with the bereaved father Hoagland eventually found the death certificate of his son, Terry Symansky. The document would prove to be his master key to building a new life. He stole it.
“Using that death certificate, he applies for a birth certificate,” Anthony Cardillo a detective with the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, told ABC. “He submits that birth certificate to get a driver’s license. Once he has that driver’s license, he starts establishing himself as Terry Symansky.”
Hoagland, under the name Symansky, started over. He married a woman named Mary in 1995; the couple had a son, according to the Tampa Bay Times. He bought a house in Zephyrhills on Florida’s Gulf Coast. He bought property and acted as a landlord. He even got his pilot’s license.
That paper trail came as a surprise to the real Terry Symansky’s nephew when he began roaming around Ancestry.com years later.
In 2013, the nephew discovered the records. Knowing the real Symansky died in 1991, the nephew and family worried an impostor had taken over the dead man’s identity. But the family waited three years before contacting authorities.
Pasco County Sheriff Detective Cardillo knocked on Hoagland’s door in July 2016.
“He told me his name was Terry Symansky. He showed me his driver’s license and gave me the Social Security number for Terry Symansky,” the detective told the Indianapolis Star. “Then I showed him the death certificate.”
He admitted to the two-decade-long ruse. According to the Tampa Bay Times, his Florida wife and son knew nothing about his past life in Indiana or the wife and sons he abandoned. Hoagland told investigators in Florida he fled Indiana to get away from his wife.
“This is a selfish coward,” Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco told reporters at a news conference “This is a person who has lived his life destroying others.”
Hoagland’s son, Douglas, was inside an Indiana jail when he heard the news about his long-lost father. For years drug use had washed him in and out of state lockups like a tide.
“I started messing around with drugs in early high school,” he recently explained to the Indianapolis Star. “I broke my hand, was prescribed narcotics. It was off to the races after that.”
He was then serving an eight year stretch when the television began running a story about a Florida family man who had been living under a false identity for more than two decades.
The mug shot accompanying the piece showed a 63-year-old with close-cropped graying hair and glasses. Douglas recognized his father.
From jail, Douglas then sat down to pen a letter to the father, a man considered legally dead by the state. “For a long time I wondered what was wrong with me that would warrant someone being able to just walk away,” he wrote, according to People. “I’m sure the big underlying question for everyone is WHY? What was so bad that you had to disappear?”
Douglas began unpacking his life in the letter to his father. He linked his drug use to his father’s exit, though he did not blame his problem on the disappearance. “[A]t a very young age, I lost a person that I thought loved me,” Douglas wrote, according to People. “I had a very low self-esteem, and that affected my drug use even more. I used drugs to get my confidence, since at times I felt less than I really was.”
In February 2017, Hoagland pleaded guilty to a charge of aggravated identity theft. He served nearly two years in federal prison before returning to Indiana in April.
Meanwhile, his wife pursued him in court for child support. Earlier this month, a judge in Hamilton County Indiana decided Hoagland owes his wife and sons $1.86 million, the Star reported.
“I was glad that we finally had made it to that point where he would be held accountable for his behavior,” Linda Iseler told the Star.
Douglas Hoagland, also out of custody, was on hand for the recent court hearing. It was the first time he had seen his father since 1993.
“If you think you had two kids and you wanted to see them so bad, you think you’d be a little bit emotional,” Douglas recalled to the Star. “But this guy, nothing.”
It’s unclear if Iseler and her sons will get any money from the judgment. Hoagland’s assets are tied up in divorce proceedings with his Florida wife.