The Undead Mother
A real-life ghost story
by Eliot Wiley
The Undead Mother
A real-life ghost story
by Eliot Wiley
My dad never used the word “suicide.” Police officers did, the counselors, the lawyers, even a well-meaning but indelicate fourth grade teacher, but throughout the months of searching for my mother’s body, despite the note she had left me and her well-documented history of mental illness, my father never spoke the word. “Mom is gone,” he would tell me. “She won’t be coming back.”
Whenever I missed her (a surprisingly infrequent occurrence), he would take me to places she’d loved—the High Museum, Mary Mac’s Tea Room, the park at Tanyard Creek—but the stories he told often included an odd amount of present tense verbs. “She hates the impressionists,” he’d say, when we passed a Monet. “She prefers Rothko and Calder.” At the time, if I noticed his grammar at all, I wrote it off as the vestiges of love lost. He still wore his wedding ring, after all, and checked “Married” on census forms. He can’t accept she’s gone, I thought. I’ve never remembered much about my mother, despite being nine years old when she left us, so my dad’s grief hurt more than her absence. That he kept her alive in his stories led me to do the same.
In a psychology class my sophomore year of college, we read Kübler-Ross and Kessler, and I started to worry my father’s idiosyncrasies were emblematic of stunted healing. I became convinced I could diagnosis him (I’d gotten a B+ that semester, which is basically the same thing as a PhD). I asked more questions, noting the lack of finality in his word choice, and tried to set him up on dates. (The few times he agreed—once with a neighbor, once with the nice lady at the bank—were disasters. Turns out just because two people were born in the same decade doesn’t make them compatible. Who knew?!).
But meanwhile, I started to find it odd (well, full confession, my roommate told me it was odd) that we had no grave to visit, no ashes we ever scattered. So young when she died, I’d accepted what my father told me: your mother hates memorials. I was 20 years old the first time I visited the library to search newspapers for her name. That was when and how I learned that the police never found her body. Her obituary—a short, factual account—didn’t even run until five years after she’d left us, and only then because the courts had finally declared her dead.
My belief that she might still be alive didn’t solidify overnight. I lived in other theories for years. Maybe she’d been kidnapped by a serial killer, her body strewn among southeastern rivers. Maybe a bear ate her. (I listened to a lot of death metal in college and read the requisite amount of Bret Easton Ellis, so to say I had a dark aesthetic would be an understatement.) But the vague doubts nagged in the background all along.
I never spoke of these doubts to my father or friends. They felt too dangerous. My mother had spent large swathes of my childhood in mental institutions, so I feared that giving voice to my theory would mark me as her daughter. I wasn’t crazy, I thought, but isn’t that exactly what a crazy person would think?
I spent my 20s holding my tongue, my early 30s too. I moved to Chicago—a city, according to my dad, that my mom just loves—and distracted myself in work and short-lived but intense romances with basically every emotionally-unavailable manic pixie dream girl I met. Then, last year, my dad was diagnosed with diabetes, which, in addition to his high blood pressure and a family history of heart trouble, called me home. I moved back to Atlanta in late June 2017, exactly three months before I faced my suspicions in the flesh.
Through some freelance work with Creative Loafing, I attended their annual “Best of Atlanta” party at Terminal West on September 28. I’d been there only twenty minutes, maybe half an hour, when I saw a woman across the room that I knew, without consciously considering it, was my mother. That’s how simply it hit me. I saw her, and the knowledge was as certain as if I’d seen her every day of my life. Her hair was different, and she was twenty-six years older, but she moved with the same grace I remembered, her smile just as broad. And on her cheek, softened by make-up but clear nonetheless, she had the same port-wine birthmark.
Thinking I must’ve reached the hallucination stage of a mental breakdown, I said and did nothing. She left the party soon after, and I spent the rest of the night loopy off high-gravity beer, texting my new girlfriend to suggest names for our future children. So, yeah, I played it cool.
The next day, I asked one of CL’s photographers for her test shots (I’d seen her setting up by the bar where my mother had hovered for a while), and sure enough, in the light (and high-pitched hangover) of morning, there was no denying it. My mother had come back from the dead.
I asked around, as subtly as possible (which, given my nerves, was probably as subtle as gangrene), and learned my mother, who now went by the name Ginger, worked as a make-up artist for a major movie studio. Presumably, she hadn’t been in Atlanta for the last twenty-six years, so I figured she’d come for work and might not be here long. If I wanted to confront her, sooner was probably better, but I wasn’t convinced I cared if we met again. Far more intriguing were her reasons for leaving, and where she had been all this time.
A conspiracy of resurrection
Like any investigative reporter, I jumped head first into research. I needed more background before venturing into the “field,” especially since there was still that 5% chance I had lost my mind. I logged hours at the Ivan Allen Reference Department at Central Library. I tracked defunct websites and called disconnected landlines. Through a series of emails (my old editor knew a guy who knew a guy), I located a retired National Intelligence Agency operative named Sterling Bourne.
Bourne happens to live in Marietta, where he operates a three-person private investigation firm, and he agreed to meet for coffee. Though retired, Bourne still looks the part of a secret agent. With a cleft chin, arm muscles you can see through his trench coat, and a fedora, he could have easily served as Ian Fleming’s muse. His specialty at the NIA was target analysis, which Bourne describes as “finding people, getting into places.” In other words, he was exactly who I needed.
With the help of his partners—the dispassionate-but-brilliant tactical analyst Kristina Wovenkraft and the organic-chemist-turned-collections-analyst Rileigh (no last name, like Cher)—Bourne had amassed a boatload of intel on an underground crime network employing scores of dead children.
How is that possible? To understand the network, you first need a basic lesson on the history of the Social Security Administration. (Bear with me; I promise this is going somewhere.)
Social security numbers were first issued in 1935, as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. The original goal was to track workers’ income for Social Security benefits, so not everyone had a SSN. The self-employed, for instance, were exempt, as were agricultural workers, domestic staff, the elderly, and children. Over the course of the next few decades, Social Security requirements expanded to include these various industries, but children remained unnumbered.
As the uses of SSNs expanded, so did the market for fraud. With a fake SSN, criminals could claim benefits they had not earned or start businesses as fronts for elaborate scams. They could also adopt a stolen identity and disappear.
Today, this form of identity theft, known as “ghosting,” would be nearly impossible, but in the mid-20th century, it was surprisingly easy. SSNs were not assigned until a person’s first paid employment, and states filed their birth and death certificates in separate departments, often in separate buildings, so the lack of a centralized database or computer system effectively eliminated any effort to cross-reference the information. Little proof was required to request a birth certificate, provided the applicant’s gender and age conceivably matched the form. Once a criminal had that documentation, getting an SSN required no effort at all, as long as the deceased never received their own number.
That’s where children came in handy. Because kids did not have SSNs, those who died before official employment were the perfect marks. “Ghosters,” as they’ve become known, specifically sought children who’d died before the age of 15, in big cities (where their names would be less-widely recognized), with close family that had either died or moved away (limiting the number of relatives who might question their resurrection).
As SSNs became standard, they also became more useful, such as in calculating dependents for tax purposes. So Congress passed an amendment in 1972 that allowed parents to request SSNs for their school-aged children. It was another fourteen years before SSNs became required for any dependents over the age of five, and roughly another five years before they became standard at birth, but the act of enumerating children started to catch on in the 1970s. For ghosters, this trend foretold the end of an era.
With an ever-decreasing pool of unclaimed identities, a team of enterprising ghosters saw this problem as a business opportunity. They scoured the country for recently-deceased children and applied for their SSNs. (Bourne estimates the team amassed a few hundred such identities; Wovencraft’s projections put the number closer to a thousand.) They then began the patient work of keeping these identities alive. They opened fake companies in their names, registered to vote, ran up credit card debt, got married (often to each other)—all with an eye toward product development. They tended a vast collection of ready-made lives they could sell at a moment’s notice. But the problem was, how could they find their customers?
That question, Bourne told me, had been his team’s initial focus. They slogged through thousands of birth and death certificates, cross-listing names and dates with voter registration and employment records. Through additional efforts that Bourne, in his trademark stoicism, explained as “classified,” they located the addresses and phone numbers for more than a dozen suspected ghosters. After months of shadowing these people, in person and online, they found disturbing evidence to suggest the ghosters’ involvement in a number of unsolved crimes across the country. For instance, a software engineer in Seattle took periodic fishing trips around the Northeast that coincided with a string of bank robberies. A housewife in Ohio had a habit of surreptitiously befriending federal employees in the months before they turned up dead, often through single-car accidents and once in an unsolved armed robbery at the agent’s home. Bourne and his team felt certain these ghosters were working on behalf of a secret network, one likely led by the same team that provided their identities in the first place.
Bourne focused on the four identities he saw as the most dangerous: the housewife, the software engineer, a fisherman in Alaska who appeared to be transporting weapons to Russian submarines, and a make-up artist in Los Angeles named Virginia “Ginger” Johnson, whom Bourne suspected had ties to drug trafficking.
“Let’s take ‘em down”
While I was developing a pretty intense caffeine habit in my daily meetings with Bourne, I continued to investigate my mother. Through a Wovenkraft contact in Hollywood, I learned Ginger was working on a movie that was filming at the Pullman Yards. Without telling Bourne (I wasn’t yet ready for the therapy bills that would inevitably come from ratting out the woman who birthed me), I asked a friend to help me sneak onto set. He got me on the extras’ list instead.
That day at the Pullman Yards, I snuck down to wardrobe where I found her in the middle of painting gray boils on the face of an actress you’d recognize but can’t name. (The movie follows a bunch of pizza delivery guys who become zombies but continue to compete for the prettiest girl at their high school. A shoo-in for best picture, no?) She looked up when I walked in, and her face gave me the confirmation I needed. I said the word out loud: “Mom.”
Had I known, at nine years old or since, that my mother had abandoned me, I might have fantasized about that moment. I might’ve had a speech prepared or dreams of her running to me, arms open. As it was, I had no such expectations, so her reaction didn’t come as a surprise or disappointment. She behaved exactly as she might to pictures she took in art school ending up on her LinkedIn page. “Go away,” she said. “You shouldn’t be here. It’s too dangerous. I wish you’d disappear.” Love you too, Mom.
It was that one sentence—“It’s too dangerous”—that seemed to confirm Bourne’s theories. Whether she wanted the help or not, I decided to prove once and for all how little I had in common with my mother. I chose not to walk away from her (even leaving a note confessing as much at a bar I’d heard she frequented). I was going to help Bourne and his team take this network down.
Through their years of research, Bourne’s team believed they knew who was running the network, but they needed more proof. To get it, they wanted to go undercover and enter the network themselves, but none of them made good candidates for the job. Bourne is well-known as a private investigator, with more than 15,000 followers on Twitter alone, so the odds that he’d be recognized were high. The same was true with Wovenkraft; an Indian beauty with legendary recall skills, she has an actual fan club online. The eternally-enigmatic Rileigh was already undercover for another job, masquerading as a college student somewhere up north (Bourne refused to be more specific), so she was off the table. It took me a few days to convince them that I was the mole they needed, but once I did, all systems were a-go.
In the week or so following my brush with movie stardom, I prepared to go undercover. The initial plan was that I would be gone three days, so I decided not to tell my girlfriend or best friend, figuring the whole story would be easier to explain once it was over. (Call me paranoid, but I also thought they’d object just a bit to my joining a retired NIA agent in his off-the-record operation to expose criminal masterminds who’d gone undetected for nearly forty years. Silly, I know.) If those three days went well, I’d go back for longer, maybe even months. Bourne provided the financial means for my life to continue as I was gone. I paid my bills months in advance and turned down freelance work, sometimes even ignoring the offers because I couldn’t think of a good reason to say no. Wovenkraft handled the details, which included wiping my apartment of as much DNA as possible in case the suspects decided to do some sniffing of their own.
I probably should have been, but I wasn’t nervous. At least, not until a few days before I left. I’d met my best friend for beers at one of our favorite bars. Nothing fancy, but I’d been intent on seeing him one more time before I left. There, as we were talking, I made a connection I’d somehow missed before.
Bourne had shown me only pictures of the men we were hunting. He deemed it too dangerous for me to know more than that. But one of the men looked familiar. I never placed him until that night, when my friend was talking about the investors in his newest project. Suddenly, the face from the picture matched that of one investor. It hit me then that what we were about to do would have real-life consequences. That everyone I loved would pay a price.
Ultimately, I decided to go forward with the operation. But for the record, I did hesitate. Even then, when I had no way of knowing what my loved ones would go through while I was gone, I hesitated. For some reason, I want them to know this.
I’m not, for now, at liberty to share the details of our operation. (My lawyer/best girl expects we’ll end up in court at some point, and Bourne isn’t psyched about giving away all his secrets.) But our suspects’ identities have become public record: Allen C. Roberts, nee Jimmy “Jimbo” Johnson from Springfield, Indiana, and Carlton B. Fuchs, otherwise known as Dr. Karl Bergmann-Fuchs but originally Anthony “Tony” Walsh from Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Roberts is currently awaiting trial for his involvement in what investigators have called “the largest case of social security fraud on record.” The district attorney’s office says additional charges are pending, though they won’t be more specific.
Fuchs died Friday at an undisclosed location in Northwest Atlanta. Cause of death is listed as two gunshots to the heart. A suspect has confessed, though authorities have not yet released her name. Sources tell us she’s a make-up artist from Los Angeles.
From here, I’ll leave it to the district attorney’s office to make the case against Roberts. We’ve handed over all our evidence, including a photograph of Roberts and Fuchs as teenagers on the boardwalk in Atlantic City.
You may ask yourself why I’ve decided to tell you any of this story since I cannot tell it all. At the risk of coming off as a sniveling softie, I have to tell someone how lucky I am. While I was undercover, and then later, when I was on the run, my family never stopped looking for me. I may not have a mother in any practical sense, and my father, whom I adore, might be just beginning a long recovery from his recent stroke, but I have no shortage of family. I consider you—my hometown, my chosen home—among them. Thanks for not letting me go without a fight.
Plus, Roberts’s trial will end someday. Until then, I’m going to spend time with the people I love in the greatest damn city I know. Once the trial is over, I plan to write it all down. Maybe it’ll be a book, or a series of columns, or maybe I’ll just start a blog no one will ever read. Either way, my story isn’t over. You may have to be patient, Atlanta, but I will be back.