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South Jersey boat racer who faked death is alive in Florida jail

A trial for Andrew Biddle, 47, was supposed to get started in Atlantic County last week, but he's sitting in a jail in Florida on racketeering charges. Biddle faked his own death, in a boat crash, in 2014.

Andrew Biddle.
Andrew Biddle.Read moreFile Photographs

Many tides have passed since Judy Francisco last split a catfish head in half to gaze upon Jesus, and thanks to a Jersey Shore con man who faked his death and rose again in Florida, she won't be setting sail any time soon.

Francisco, 74, used to fish for the lowly sail cats and their divinely shaped skulls along the Gulf Coast of Florida, where she lives with her sister, Pat Turanski, 73. Sometimes, the sisters just cruised the Pithlachascotee and Anclote Rivers, happy to soak in the scenery, and as both neared retirement, Francisco and her sister wanted a little boat to call their own.

Francisco, a retired hospital worker living on $1,000 a month, met Andrew Biddle, formerly of Egg Harbor Township, Atlantic County, at a boat show near Tampa in September 2016. Biddle, a former professional powerboat racer, was building boats with partner Justin Belz, also of Atlantic County. Francisco says the two men were "cute, younger fellas" who convinced her to drop a $4,000 down payment on a 16-foot skiff they would build.

Slowly, Francisco watched her dreams and down payment fade.

"I hope to the devil he gets put in jail for a long time," Francisco said from her mobile home in Spring Hill, Fla., on Tuesday morning. "I bought into the story they gave me, and I'm so frustrated. It's pretty low for people to prey on the elderly."

Biddle, 47, has been sitting in the Pinellas County jail since April, along with Belz, 25, on racketeering charges related to that Florida boat business, Calypso Skiff LLC. Authorities in Florida say Biddle and Belz are facing more than 40 charges with an alleged $500,000 in thefts. That's why Biddle wasn't in Atlantic County Superior Court last week for the start of his trial on theft and conspiracy charges, also related to a boating business, in New Jersey.

Biddle's life is so tied to boating that on July 20, 2014, he used a customer's pontoon boat to fake his death in Longport, Atlantic County. Initially, authorities said Biddle and Belz were riding in the boat by the jetty along 11th Avenue around 11:30 that night, when the boat struck a buoy and sent both men overboard.

Belz reportedly swam to shore, and residents said they heard him screaming for help. Biddle was nowhere to be found. The Coast Guard and New Jersey State Police searched for Biddle for 18 hours and came up empty. Biddle's family from his native Huntingdon, Pa., also helped.

Investigators, knowing Biddle was facing possible charges in Atlantic County, were skeptical of the story and began sending out fliers for other agencies to be on the lookout. Biddle, a father of two, surrendered in February 2015. He was released on bail and went to Florida.

The Atlantic County Prosecutor's Office charged Biddle with a minor crime for the staged boating accident: failure to report an accident. Belz wasn't charged at all.

Those involved in the search-and-rescue operation believe Biddle should face harsher consequences.

"All of these people out there that night were trying to save a life," Longport Mayor Nick Russo said. "There were at least 40 people out there in the dark, a helicopter, boats, too."

Oddly, the laws are murky about faking one's own death, said Elizabeth Greenwood, author of Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud.

"It's kind of crazy, but it's not illegal in the sense that there's no crime called 'faking your own death,' " Greenwood said.

Authorities may file charges of obstruction of justice, fleeing, or, in Biddle's case, failure to report an accident, Greenwood said, but more often than not, the living dead just wind up facing the original charges they were fleeing.

Most of the time, Greenwood said, people who've faked their own deaths to escape something wind up in the same predicaments.

"We like to think we can leave ourselves behind and find some superior version of ourselves, or go hide out for a while," she said.

The Atlantic County Prosecutor's Office declined to comment on whether Biddle would face additional charges or whether Belz would be charged. Family members for Belz and Biddle in New Jersey did not return requests for comment.

Biddle's attorney in Florida declined to comment, and his attorney in New Jersey, Mark Roddy, said there's no telling when his client could be back in Atlantic County.

"The judge just put everything off until July," Roddy said.

Francisco said she's gotten only $500 of her down payment back, and authorities told her it's doubtful she'll get the rest. She's given up on boating, focusing on woodworking and getting along with her sister, a "total opposite" who happens to love the water as much as she does.

"I don't know, we might be able to afford a canoe, maybe," Francisco said. "We each have our own room, but we don't have a lot of money."