NEW YORK (AP) — A Long Island criminal defendant tried faking his death to avoid a jail sentence, but the phony death certificate his lawyer submitted had a glaring spelling error that made it a dead giveaway for a fraud, prosecutors said Tuesday.
Robert Berger, 25, of Huntington, New York, now faces up to four years in prison if convicted in the alleged scheme. That’s in addition to pending sentences for earlier guilty pleas to charges of possession of a stolen Lexus and attempted grand larceny of a truck — punishment prosecutors say he was looking to avoid.
“It will never cease to amaze me the lengths some people will go to to avoid being held accountable on criminal charges,” Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas said in a telephone interview.
Arraigned by video Tuesday because of the coronavirus pandemic, Berger pleaded not guilty to a single count of offering a false instrument for filing. A judge set bail at $1 but ordered Berger back to jail because of his underlying cases. His next court date is scheduled for July 29.
A message seeking comment was left with a public defender who took over Berger’s case after the lawyer who submitted the suspicious death certificate claimed he’d been used as a pawn and had nothing to do with the alleged shenanigans.
Scheduled to be sentenced to a year in jail last October on the theft-related charges, Berger fled the state, while taking steps to convince his then-lawyer, prosecutors and the judge that he had killed himself — including allegedly using his fiance to pass along a bogus death certificate, prosecutors said.
At first glance, Berger’s purported death certificate looked like an official document issued by the New Jersey Department of Health, Vital Statistics and Registry, but there was one big problem: Registry was spelled “Regsitry,” prosecutors said. There were also inconsistencies in the font type and size that raised suspicions, they said.
The real New Jersey Department of Health, Vital Statistics and Registry confirmed that Berger’s death certificate was a fake, prosecutors said.
Berger was alive, but not entirely well. While supposedly dead, he’d been arrested in suburban Philadelphia on charges including allegations he provided a false identity to law enforcement and stole from a Catholic college. He was sentenced in January to up to a year in jail, according to Pennsylvania court records.
Berger’s case was reminiscent of one six years ago in which a former Coast Guard petty officer-turned-shoe salesman posed as a former military lawyer, soliciting clients and appearing in court. That man, Kenneth Goldstein, was outed as a fraud when he started rambling in an un-lawyerlike fashion in a Long Island courtroom.
“You’re gonna get caught,” Singas said. “We say it all the time. Crime doesn’t pay. We’ll catch up with you eventually. In this case, it’s never a good idea to submit phony documents to the district attorney. We were able to make sure that he wasn’t able to get away with it.”
Follow Michael Sisak on Twitter at twitter.com/mikesisak