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Financial Crime: First person charged with trying to steal pandemic aid sentenced to prison — after faking his suicide and going on the lam

The first person in the country to be charged with trying to steal COVID-19 relief funds and who then faked his own suicide and went on the run for months to avoid justice, has been sentenced to nearly five years in federal prison.

Prosecutors say David Adler Staveley, 54, of Andover, Massachusetts, filed four fraudulent applications in his brother’s name for COVID-19 relief loans, claiming he operated three large restaurants and a cell-phone business with dozens of employees. 

Staveley, who had two previous convictions for fraud in New Hampshire, used his brother’s name without his knowledge, prosecutors said.

In total, Staveley applied for nearly $550,000 in government aid, using phony tax returns created by his co-conspirator, David Butzinger, 52, of Warwick, R.I., according to prosecutors.

But prosecutors say Staveley not only didn’t own the restaurants, but none of the eateries had been in business for some time when the loan applications were submitted. The cell-phone business also had no employees, according to court records.

The loans were ultimately rejected after a person described in court papers as a “concerned citizen,” alerted law enforcement to the fraud.

The men were arrested and charged in Rhode Island in May 2020, in the first such case for the theft of pandemic aid brought anywhere in the country. Three weeks after his arrest, however, prosecutors say Staveley removed his home-monitoring device and fled after attempting to fake his own death.

Investigators say Staveley left bogus suicide notes with family members, including his 80-year-old mother, associates and in his unlocked car along with his wallet. He then abandoned the vehicle alongside the ocean in Massachusetts. Search and rescue boats searched the water for his body, but to no avail.  

“Many of his family members and associates were left with the belief that Staveley had indeed killed himself, though the ones who knew him best informed law enforcement that they suspected this to be yet another scheme orchestrated by the defendant,” prosecutors wrote in their sentencing memo.

For several weeks, prosecutors say Staveley travelled through several states using fake identities and changing his cell phone number five times. He was eventually caught by the Marshals in Alpharetta, Ga. on July 23, 2020, who found numerous fake IDs among his belongings.

In May of this year, Staveley pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit bank fraud and failing to appear in court. Butzinger also pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit bank fraud and is scheduled to be sentenced on Nov. 1.

In court papers, prosecutors say Staveley blamed his decision to try to steal the pandemic-relief money on the fact that he was in a bad relationship that triggered trauma he had suffered earlier in life. They also say he argued that he fled only after Butzinger told him to cut off his monitoring device and “head south.”

“The defendant simply seems incapable of taking full responsibility for his own choices in life. No one forced him to defraud the government in the midst of a national crisis. No one forced him to stage his own suicide and abscond. He committed these acts voluntarily and willfully,” prosecutors wrote in arguing for a stiffer sentence.

A message left with Staveley’s lawyer wasn’t immediately returned.

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