Back from the (presumed) grave.

In the movie Cast Away when Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks character) returns to civilization, he learns that he has been presumed dead; with his family and acquaintances having held a funeral, and his long time partner married with a daughter. Some people believe that this series of events is too far fetched however there have been people that have disappeared and been found to be presumed dead only to later return.

John Burney was a president of Helena Rice Drier, Inc., a storage facility for grain and beans, located in Helena, Arkansas. John was married to Bonnie Bumpers and they had two children.

In June 1976, John had an accident where he struck a bridge railing and disappeared after falling from the bridge into the river below. In the State of Arkansas a person can be declared presumed dead following a period of five years.

In 1981 Bonnie sought a declaration that John be presumed dead the evidence that she provided was:

  • The Helena Rice Drier truck that John Burney was driving was found wrecked on the Arkansas-Mississippi River Bridge;
  • Handprints were found on the bridge railing near the truck;
  • The river was dragged and searched and no body was found. However, a body was sighted downriver by two fishermen about two weeks later but was not recovered;
  • Arkansas State Police advised Bonnie Burney that in the opinion of the Officer investigating the disappearance John was dead.
  • Bonnie hired a private investigator, who reported to Bonnie that it was his opinion John was dead.
  • John and Bonnie had a good relationship. Bonnie did not believe her husband would leave her and their children.
  • John Burney had not been in contact with his wife, children or his parents.

After the court declared John to be presumed dead Bonnie and the Helena Rice Drier company made a claim on several life insurance policies that they held on John’s life.

On December 1, 1982, John returned to Arkansas to visit with his father. He returned as he had been injured in an industrial accident, and wanted to commence a court action in order to claim compensation. However in order to do this he would have to make a complete disclosure about his past.

Bonnie, immediately, notified the Insurance Company that John was not dead. The insurance company sued him, Bonnie, and the Helena Rice Drier Company.

Why did John disappear?

Helena Rice Drier had been poorly managed for a considerable period of time. Due to serious financial difficulties, it could not meet its obligations. At a meeting in May 1976, John told the farmers who had stored crops at the Helena Rice Drier that the company had no money to pay them and no soybeans in the drier. The farmers were furious, John received death threats and lawsuits were commenced against the company placing him in financial stress.

The accident occurred a few weeks later. John testified that after the truck struck the bridge railing, he could see people approaching the vehicle shouting. Alarmed about the situation, and fearing violence, he slipped over the railing of the bridge, dropped into the river and swam downstream. When he came ashore he caught a southbound bus, and working a series of jobs drifted for the next few months until he settled in Key Largo, Florida; bigamously married his second wife, and started a family.

The court found that the beneficiaries didn’t have to return the money, but ruled John’s actions to be fraudulent and fined him $470,000.

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