Dead woman's husband charged with insurance fraud

Posted: Thursday, September 26, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Five years after a woman fell to her death from a bluff near Homer, the FBI has arrested her husband and charged him with insurance fraud.

Jay Darling, 39, was arrested in Oregon Wednesday on charges he schemed to fraudulently collect life insurance on his wife, Wanda Wood, who fell to her death under suspicious circumstances.

Alaska State Troopers said Darling has been a suspect in the death of Wood since shortly after she died in 1997 in a fall off a Kachemak Bay bluff. At the time, Darling said his wife was taking photographs when she apparently slipped and fell.

He has not been charged in her death. However, the troopers never closed the case. Three retired investigators recently hired on contract to rework some of the agency's cold cases made Wood's death a priority project, troopers spokesman Greg Wilkinson said.

In the course of their investigation, they concluded that some of their evidence suggested violations of federal law. They passed the information on to the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office, said Mike Marrs, a former lieutenant in Alaska's Criminal Investigation Bureau.

Last week, a federal grand jury returned a four-count indictment against Darling. It remains sealed pending Darling's arraignment in Portland and his return to Alaska for trial, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah Smith.

Smith refused to give details of the charges except to say they allege a plan by Darling to obtain large amounts of insurance associated with the death of his wife, involving mail and wire fraud. Insurers refused to pay off Darling's claims after his wife's death.

Smith said the indictment does not charge Darling with killing his wife.

Marrs said the fraud case does not close the investigation into Wood's death. The troopers continue to pursue evidence they expect will support an arrest, he said. Marrs would not say if Darling is the person they expect to arrest.

Wood, a 23-year-old obstetrics nurse from Haleyville, Ala., had been here about a week when she died. She and Darling, a physical therapist from Mississippi, met when they worked at the same Haleyville hospital.

After Wanda died, Marrs and another trooper went to Alabama and Mississippi to talk to people who knew the couple.

Wood and Darling married in April 1997. By most accounts, Wood and Darling had an odd marriage. Each had separate food, a separate phone, a designated chair and separate bedrooms, Marrs said. When they left for Alaska, he drove his Chevy Suburban, she drove her Nissan, Ward said.

During their visit to Alaska, they went kayaking in the waters off Homer in conditions the locals said was too dangerous for pleasure boating.

Their kayak capsized. Darling had on a wet suit but Wood wore only sweats. It took about 45 minutes, but Darling managed to get back in the kayak and towed his wife to shore. Wood fired off a flare, attracting a passing boat, which picked them up.

The next day, Wood and Darling headed back toward Anchorage. Wood wanted to take photographs, Darling told troopers. So he turned down a closed road along the bluff, passing a scenic pull-off that offered essentially the same view, according to published accounts from 1997.

She got too close to the edge and fell, Darling told troopers then.

Wood was deathly afraid of heights, Ward said, so terrified she wouldn't even ride an elevator.

''There's no way she would have gone to the edge of that cliff,'' Ward said.

After Wood died, Ward and another sister came to Anchorage to collect Wood's belongings and tell investigators of their suspicions. They found the troopers already on the case.

Investigators eventually took the case to the Anchorage district attorney for prosecution but were told the evidence wasn't enough, Marrs said. So they keep pushing for a break.

''In your whole career you work a couple of cases that really get to you personally,'' Marrs said. ''And this is one of them.''

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