In 1968, a 39-year-old funeral director named Douglas Grensted disappeared while on a hunting trip, leaving behind a wife and two young daughters. A decade later, he was declared legally dead, and Social Security paid his family about $100,000 in survivors’ benefits.
So imagine their shock when they discovered in 2016 that he had been alive all that time — and not only that, the Social Security Administration wanted its money back.
Now the daughters, both in their 60s, worry that they may lose their family home to pay for the fraud perpetrated by their father, who admitted to federal authorities that he ran off to Arizona with his mistress after faking his own death. He died in December 2015.
“It was his crime, not ours,” said Lynne Grensted Thurston, 61, a gardener who lives in McMinnville, Oregon. “We were the victims of his crime.”
The case of the vanishing mortician might make for a great crime novel, but there’s nothing thrilling about it for Mrs. Thurston, who was 11 when her dad disappeared, or her sister Beth Grensted, who was 13.
The daughters have asked the Social Security Administration to waive the debt. They were relieved when Administrative Law Judge T. Patrick Hannon ruled that her mother, Barbara Grensted, could repay the $87,000 she owed in increments of $10 per month until her death, at which point the balance would be erased.
When Mrs. Grensted died two months later at the age of 89, however, the judge reversed his ruling. In an Oct. 24 decision, he ordered the balance to be paid by her estate, which is tied up in a trust but includes the house she had long shared with her daughter Beth Grensted, 63, in Mount Hermon, California.
Unless they sell the house — and Beth Grensted, who never married, still lives there — the sisters don’t know how they will come up with that kind of cash. In addition to the $87,000, Mrs. Thurston owes about $12,000 and Miss Grensted owes $10,000, but they have heard nothing about their 2016 application for a waiver.
“We don’t have the money. I suppose some people out there could repay it, but we’re definitely not in that category,” said Mrs. Thurston. “We’d like to have them forgive the debt and take it away. I know that’s a lot of money for them to forgive, but they’re billing the wrong people. We weren’t even aware that he was alive, much less responsible for his crime.”
The bill hanging over their heads comes as the sisters grapple not only with the death of their mother, whom they buried in September, but with the shock of discovering that the beloved father they had long mourned was in fact a con man who lived under an alias for 47 years after his disappearance.
The massive search for Mr. Grensted involved dogs and helicopters as well as the FBI and National Guard. After authorities gave up, his wife hired a tracing company to look for him.
For years, the girls would rush to answer the door to see if their father had come home. Mrs. Grensted never remarried, thinking her husband might one day return.
“She never wanted to remarry in case he was found,” Mrs. Thurston said. “We thought he might have had amnesia. We just had no idea.”
Her mother sold the mortuary business in Grover Beach, California, and they moved to the Santa Cruz mountains to be near family. Mrs. Grensted went back to work as a bookkeeper and bought the house in Mount Hermon.
“She bought an old cabin and fixed it up,” Mrs. Thurston said. “It’s a very comfortable home. Not fancy, but just perfect for our family.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Grensted had stolen the identity of Richard Morley, a dead man whose funeral he had overseen. He received a new Social Security number in 1969 under the assumed name after saying he had lost his card.
The married woman with whom he had been having an affair joined him after filing for a divorce herself. Not only did the daughters know her — she was a neighbor — but she had participated in the search for their father.
“She was there supposedly supporting my mom and trying to find my dad, but it was all planned,” Mrs. Thurston said. “And three weeks later she left her husband, leaving him a letter saying, ‘I want a divorce.’”
Mrs. Grensted and her daughters might have never learned the truth if not for the widow of the actual Mr. Morley, who contacted the SSA a few years ago about her benefits. A federal investigator was assigned to the case when authorities realized the dead Mr. Morley was still earning income and paying taxes.
“When they checked, it turned out, ‘Wow, we issued him [Richard Morley] a new number in 1969, without checking to see if he was dead.’ So that was how he got caught,” said Mrs. Thurston, who produced a stack of documents related to the case.
A federal investigator confronted Mr. Grensted, now Mr. Morley, who confessed to the fraud in May 2015. He died — for real this time — seven months later at age 87, without ever contacting his wife or daughters.
Six months later, in June 2016, the investigator reached the family and told them the story. They were floored, particularly Mrs. Grensted, who had no idea that her marriage of 15 years was in such trouble.
“She was just blown away and spent that whole summer pretty much in a fog,” Mrs. Thurston said. “She never could make sense of it. She felt that he had probably gotten into a relationship with this lady and couldn’t figure out how to get out of it. She thinks he got trapped and didn’t have the character to say, ‘I screwed up and I’ll make it right.’ Which is sad, because he sacrificed a lot.”
She also said she believes the revelation about her father combined with the legal fight over benefits hastened her mother’s death.
A Social Security spokeswoman in Seattle said she could not comment on the case, but the daughters have reason to hope for a happy ending.
After KGW-TV in Portland aired a story earlier this month on their plight, Mrs. Thurston said she received calls from two agency administrators in Salem.
“I felt like the two people I spoke with were very much interested in figuring out what was going on and helping us,” she said. “At least now we have a human being that’s actually involved. Up until then, we had pretty much gotten just form letters, except for the stuff from Judge Hannon.”
However it ends, Mr. Olives is confident there has never been a case like it.
“You talk to anybody involved with Social Security,” said Mr. Olives, “and they’re going to say this is a most unique case.”
Corrected from earlier version that misspelled Mount Hermon.
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