Murder for Life Insurance on Forensic Files

“Why Are You Greasing the Stairs, Honey?”
Insurance expert Steven Weisbart provides some answers

At the moment toward the middle of a Forensic Files episode when Peter Thomas mentions the life insurance policy the suspected spouse took out on the deceased, I wonder…

Can your husband or wife just a) take out a policy on you without your knowledge or permission and then b) collect a six- or seven-figure jackpot after “accidentally” dropping a powered-on hair dryer into your bathwater?

The answers, according to Steven Weisbart, chief economist at the Insurance Information Institute in New York, are a) yes and b) yes, but it’s highly improbable.

Steven Weisbart, Ph.D
Steven Weisbart, Ph.D

Family affair. Your spouse doesn’t have to inform you about the policy, but “the law in every U.S. state says that the person taking out the life insurance policy must demonstrate an ‘insurable interest’ in the other person,” says Weisbart. “It means the person would suffer either a financial or personal loss if the other person dies.”

The insurable-interest conduit applies only to your spouse or other members of your immediate nuclear family, says Weisbart. So, that should prevent a greedy second cousin or double-crossing best friend from stealthily taking out a policy on you, injecting you with horse tranquilizer, and heading to Cabo San Lucas.

If your spouse — or parent or child — dreams up a similar plan, a policy’s high death-benefit may serve as something of a safeguard in the system. “If someone is applying for a $10 million policy on your life, the insurance company will want to know how healthy you are first,” Weisbart says. “So you’ll be aware of a policy because the insurance company will want to arrange a physical exam.”

Frankie Pullian
Frankie Pullian

Not so fast. Of course, a really elaborate murder-for-insurance-money scheme could mean finding an imposter to take the exam, as crooked undertaker E. Lee White  (Forensic Files “Undertaken”) did in his killing of handyman Frankie Pullian for a $980,000 payout back in 1980.

Even if your ill-intentioned spouse successfully takes that tack, however, your manner of death could trigger a police investigation and subsequent denial of an insurance payout.

Craig Rabinowitz (Forensic Files “Summer Obsession”), for example, tried to collect $1.5 million in insurance money after drowning his wife, Stefanie Rabinowitz, in a bathtub in 1997, but the coroner denied his request to have her buried by the next sundown — and uncovered enough evidence to compel Rabinowitz to confess to the crime.

Likewise, E. Lee White was caught because of suspicious circumstances surrounding Frankie Pullian’s death.

Stefanie Rabinowitz
Stefanie Rabinowitz

Killing for a pittance. So, what happens to all that insurance money once law enforcement has uncovered the wrongdoing? I always assumed companies alerted authorities to suspicious deaths in the hopes of avoiding payouts.

That’s not necessarily true, according to Weisbart. “The company could give the money to a court and let it decide who gets it,” he says. “It could end up going to your estate or to a different relative.”

Now, as at least one Forensic Files episode has pointed out, and Weisbart confirmed, if your spouse takes out a small enough policy, the insurance company will most likely pay off without any investigation. But that plan doesn’t always work. Vicki Gillette (Forensic Files “Strong Impressions”) was murdered by her husband for just $27,000 in 1984, but he remarried 11 days later — raising suspicions and ultimately landing him in jail.

Vici Gillette
Vicki Gillette

The takeaway? Marry and befriend people who enjoy watching Forensic Files as much as you do — they will know better than to chase riches via an insurance policy and a homicide. — RR

Next: Former federal prosecutor Steve Parker discusses the Bruce brothers’ murder of Danny Vine and Della Thornton.

9 thoughts on “Murder for Life Insurance on Forensic Files”

  1. The Bible, God’s holy word, states that, “one who loves money their thirst for the same will not be satisfied. E. Lee White knows God CANNOT lie. Thus, he should have known he would be caught.

  2. I love how you delve “behind the story” to bring us extra tidbits of (highly valuable) information. Btw, I just have to mention, you made me almost lol on the train when I read “… injecting you with horse tranquilizer, and heading to Cabo San Lucas.” Black humour — my favourite.

  3. I wonder how many got away with it: not too large a sum, a plausible death, and played the long game, taking the policy out some years in advance…(a chilling thought). FF has featured quite a few murders-for-insurance by the desperate/greedy, but I suspect we can’t infer that it’s somewhat common. What proportion of convicted murderers, I wonder, were found to have been motivated by insurance…?

    1. That makes me curious, too, Marcus. Do a lot of people try this — or is it just that it tends to big publicity when they (seldom) do.

      1. RR: Coincidentally, this episode’s just be shown tonight in UK so I re-watched. One of the detectives on the case, featured in the show, says that it was after only five days of taking out the last of nine (yes, nine!) insurance policies (totalling $980,000) on the victim’s life, he died (was murdered), and it was this ‘greed’ that raised a flag, among others. He observes that if they’d waited longer to submit the claim they may have got away with it. Endorsement, perhaps, of our shared musing that not-too-much, not-too-soon and the crime may go undetected.

        In this case, although there were nine policies of smaller sums, once the law looked at matter synoptically and established a sum of nearly $1m, when the victim earned $10,000/year, and the premiums were nearly half his annual pay, the game was up.

        I interneted his boss’s name, one of the three convicted, and see that he was given an extra five years in prison for soliciting another to claim responsibility for the death (why would anyone agree to that???):

        He’s due to be paroled in ’18-’19, which I find unacceptable. The murder for profit was found to be premeditated (the victim being employed to be groomed for murderous intention over a long period), and he was duly beaten about the head with something like a hammer. His boss, White, has never confessed who committed the murder — him, one of the two co-conspirators, or a third party — and he must know. He will have served 30 years — a long time, to be sure; but is that the price of someone’s life he chose and planned to murder for money? For me this was a heinous murder that sits at the top of the scale of egregiousness — one that unfits for parole.

        1. Wow, I guess greed feeds on greed and then impatience sets in, too. It never occurred to me White might get out some day. Who knows what evil he’s been cogitating on during all his idle years.

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